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The Yoga F-Word

Swearing isn’t usually associated with yoga, so you might be surprised to know that we have our own F-word. Often uttered as a whisper, if at all, its use in yoga circles has declined and many would argue it has no place at all in modern yoga. In fact you may have been a yoga practitioner for many years without even knowing of it, hearing it said in class or even thinking it has anything to do with yoga. 

But you don’t need to go back too far in yoga history to find a time when it was uttered without shame, secrecy or controversy. Its questionable status has only come about as society itself changes, and we react to a seemingly endless stream of dramas and tragedies caused by teachers whose students blindly follow them despite clear signs that they are psychological manipulators, sexual predators or financial fraudsters (and often all three). So what is this F-Word that gets people into so much trouble?

Faith.

YOGA, SPIRITUALITY AND RELIGION

Despite what you see and hear in most modern yoga classes, almost everybody knows that there’s more to yoga than the strange body shapes, movements and breathing we do. An occasional Om or Namaste at the end of class confirms this, and in some studios you’ll find overt religious symbols such as statues of gods and goddesses taking pride of place (even though the owners, teachers and students themselves have no confirmed connection to the corresponding religions). 

Looking back through yoga’s history, it indeed evolved around the same time as a number of leading religions such as Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism. In the melting pot of Indian philosophy, many different theories and approaches to yoga evolved. Some of yoga’s guiding principles and practices were taken from, or adopted by, these local religions, to such an extent that the followers of these religions may actually believe that yoga belongs to them. Yet when yoga met the twentieth century and the increasingly secular lives of its new adherents, old cultural patterns fell away and we saw clearly that yoga, as a process, can stand apart from any specific form of religious and spiritual belief.

Still, when we study the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali—the source text of yogic wisdom—we discover in no uncertain terms that faith (sraddha in the Sanskrit language) can have a massive positive impact on the yogic process. So how can we reconcile the wisdom of this fourth century work to our twenty-first century secular lifestyles? And does it still have a place in modern yoga practice?

YOUR KARMA RAN OVER MY DOGMA

When you bill it down, the main topic of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras was the workings of the human mind, and in particular our tendency to overthink and worry unnecessarily. The aim of all the various practices of yoga, he explains, is to reduce and relieve our mental-emotional suffering (known as duhkha in Sanskrit). It is in that context that he offers the suggestion that any spiritual or religious faith we hold can be used as part of the process of reducing our suffering in life.

It’s important to be clear that he offers this as one of many different options for progress, and not as an essential part of the yoga process for everyone. He invites us to explore a pragmatic set of practices for changing our mind’s habits and discover what works for ourselves. Yoga is never about following a dogmatic set of rules that must be obeyed at all times by everyone. 

While faith in some higher power can be useful if you have it, in terms of yoga practice it’s not a dealbreaker if you don’t. You simply find another way that works for you (and he has many suggestions for that).

WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE IN?

Even if you don’t feel inclined to any spiritual or religious belief, sraddha can still play an important role in your practice. It’s perhaps more useful these days to look at the role of faith in the yoga process itself, and its ability (through practice) to change our bodies and minds for the better. We all have favourite teachers and it’s great to think fondly of them. But no matter how great our teachers are, it’s only you as a practitioner that can create change in your life by our actions on the mat (and off). It’s you that makes the magic happen!

Exploring our faith in yoga can help us at the times when life makes it difficult to practice. When we are tired from work, when winter nights get longer, or when summer fun tries to lure us away from the mat, we can easily fall out of our good habits. At times like that, it might be enough to remind ourselves that our faith in yoga is grounded in the real changes we’ve made so far, and fire up our faith in the positive changes we can still achieve. 

So don’t be afraid of the F-word, and let your faith in yoga keep you going when the going gets tough. 

Words by Scott Rennie

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