Firsthand: A Look at Yoga and Religious Belief
Raised as a Presbyterian, Douglas, 60, began pulling away from her family religion at the age of 8. "I asked the minister 'Who wrote the Bible?' and I could tell it upset him," she recalls. "I began to wonder about the whole deal." She started doing yoga in 1973 in Berkeley, California, after moving from New York a few years before. A doctoral intern in psychology at the time, she was counseling high-risk clients who were pushing her own stress to risky levels. When a friend suggested yoga for some relief, she tried a class in her neighborhood, got what she came for, and has been doing it ever since. She got her toes wet in Buddhism after meeting a Tibetan Buddhist monk whose fathomless presence made her profoundly curious. After a rigorous tour through Zen, she attended a vipassana retreat led by American teachers Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Hearing the Dharma from people of her own culture and age group made all the difference. Mindfulness meditation became her spiritual practice. Now, it's her career.
So, Buddha-like, Douglas waves off supposed clashes like the Hindu chanting in yoga class. "I just allow the experience to be felt and don't worry about the rest," she smiles.
John Monastra, who converted to Islam in 1984, prays to Allah five times a day as commanded in the Koran. He also fasts for the 30 days of Ramadan and, with his family, has already made his Hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca, required of all Muslims once in their lifetime. Clearly Monastra does not do things halfway. So when he says that Islam and his yoga practice complement each other beautifully, you know he's considered the matter with great care.
"The essence of all religions is to devote your whole being to God, even in the midst of worldly life," notes Monastra, 41, a library science data analyst in Herndon, Virginia. "Islam gets us to do that by having us pray five times a day and otherwise remind ourselves of the presence of God. As Patanjali says, yoga is the stilling of fluctuations in consciousness to concentrate on the object of concentration. For a religious person, that's God."
A Sicilian-American, Monastra drifted away from his family's Catholicism when he started college and tried on a succession of spiritual traditions for size, including yoga. While in graduate school in international studies, he befriended a number of Muslim students from other countries. Impressed by their "refined courtesy," he suspected that their gracious demeanor was based in their religion. Recently divorced and ready for a new life, he began reading the Koran and it called out to his heart. Before long, he found himself formally converting at a mosque.
In 1998 Monastra also resumed serious yoga practice. To his mind, yoga is not an outside interest; it serves his faith completely. "You become a better person by having your body in good shape, your breathing and your mind all integrated together," Monastra observes. And he applies the mantra meditation techniques he learned in yoga after every daily prayer. In the Sufi tradition that Monastra follows, one sits for a while after praying, feeling oneself in the sacred presence and invoking the name of God. Monastra does this semi-yogically by substituting "Allah" for a Sanskrit mantra and doing yogic breathing. "I don't think of yoga as a religion," he says. "I think of it as a technique that helps anybody do their own religion better."