Delivered at the South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation

July 9, 2006

 “Hot Religion: What I’ve Learned About Faith from Hot Yoga”

Rev. Catherine Torpey

I enjoy yoga. I cannot claim to have mastered any yoga techniques, or even to be especially good at yoga or disciplined in it, but I found a new kind of yoga when I moved here to Long Island, and each time I go to one of these yoga classes, I think to myself how much I want to share what I am learning with you, my friends here at SNUUC.

I had been practicing yoga with some regularity at my local YMCA in Westchester County before moving to Long Island last year, and I hoped to find a yoga class here that would suit my needs. I mentioned this to my niece when she visited last summer, and she said that she’d seen a neon sign declaring “Yoga” on Merrick Road in Rockville Center, where I live. I drove up and down Merrick Road day after day looking for this sign, certain that my niece had been imagining things. Finally, my eyes drifted up to the second floor of a building at Merrick Road and Park Avenue, and sure enough, a huge neon sign declared “Yoga.” It had a website address on the window, and I ran home to look up the schedule and learned a little bit about the type of yoga offered at that particular studio.

In the West, the word “yoga” is used much more narrowly than it has been used traditionally in India. Here, we use the word exclusively to refer to practicing physical postures, and most of us in the West who practice yoga do so primarily in order to improve our physical health. If you attend a yoga class, you will sometimes hear the instructor speak about the spiritual aspects of the practice, but many times you won’t. Yoga postures, however, were not originally just another kind of Pilates or calisthenics. Yoga postures were developed, rather, as a means of disciplining the body so that one was freer to meditate with enough focus to achieve enlightenment. In Sanskrit (the ancient language of India) the word “yoga” means “union.” The idea of yoga is union with the divine by the integration of body, mind, and spirit. The postures that we call “yoga” form a particular branch of yoga called “hatha yoga.” Besides Hatha Yoga, there is “karma yoga,” which is a path to God based on doing one’s duty for its own sake. There is also a branch of Yoga called “bhakti yoga.” On this path, it is love for God (expressed through singing, chanting and worshiping) that leads to divine union. “Jnana (pr. gyaana) yoga” is the path of knowledge. On this path to the divine, one cultivates intense awareness of the unity of all of existence, and one seeks a direct experience of the individual soul being a part of that unity. “Raja Yoga” is the path of meditation which incorporates hatha yoga.

Even within the narrow understanding of yoga that we have here in America, there are nevertheless a wide array of styles and approaches to the practice of these postures. By the time I saw that neon sign on Merrick Road, I had had acquaintance with a number of styles of hatha yoga. Some styles emphasize strength; some emphasize flexibility. Some styles encourage you to use props to help you contort your body into postures you couldn’t do on your own. Some styles emphasize very straight alignment, while others encourage over-extension. But the type of yoga that I found on that second floor at Merrick Road and Park Avenue was a type of yoga I had never heard of. Officially, it is called Bikram Yoga; named after Bikram Choudhury, an Indian man who now resides in California. He claims that his style of yoga is the only legitimate one being practiced in the United States today. He claims that all the other styles of hatha yoga that people like me had tried are new-fangled exercise routines developed for the American market. He claims that these other styles of yoga encourage practices contrary to the ancient wisdom of India. Whether these claims of his are fair or not, I do not know. I am always skeptical when anyone claims to have the only correct way of doing something. But what I do know is that the Bikram yoga class is quite a bit different from other yoga classes I have taken. For one thing, the room is heated to at least 100 degrees, and the level of humidity can get oppressive once all of the bodies in the room start sweating. Before we even begin any postures, we are sweating. It is because of this that Bikram yoga is popularly referred to as “Hot Yoga.” Another difference between Hot Yoga and other yoga classes I’ve taken is that there is a sequence of 26 postures that are practiced in a set order every time, and the instructors push us to take our postures further and further. They don’t tell us to take it easy and go gently—quite the contrary.

I was practicing hot yoga every day for quite a number of weeks and I’ve fallen out of the habit a bit recently, so I am not preaching this sermon as someone who can claim any mastery of the practice, nor even any particularly admirable discipline in it. But each time I have gone for one of these hot yoga classes, I found myself wanting to share some of the insights I have gained with my SNUUC friends.

Other yoga classes I’ve taken in the past emphasized listening to your own body. Only push yourself to a comfortable level, instructors would say. Go at your own pace, they encouraged. Therefore, when I got to the Hot Yoga class, I held postures for however long I chose, falling behind the others if I desired, and catching up later. The instructor, I suppose, let me get away with this because I was new. But after I’d attended a few classes, she began to emphasize the importance of the whole class beginning and ending the postures together, at her command. My first reaction when she began to insist that I do my postures at the exact same time as everyone else was a prideful sense that “I know the needs of my body,” and that “Yoga is all about listening to your own body and no one else.” This prideful response on my part was, thankfully, short-lived, and when the instructor continued to firmly ask that everyone begin and end postures together, I found that complying with her wishes gave me a bit of a spiritual transformation. I suddenly went from having a solipsistic focus on my own needs and desires to seeing myself as a part of a community, engaging in a group enterprise. In the twinklling of an eye, I began to look on the whole enterprise as being a sort of dance or group project. I was determined for my own sake to do my best, but I also wanted to do my postures for the sake of my fellow yogis. The harder I worked, the more I might encourage them. The better I was able to contort myself into a given posture, the more I might help someone see how they might contort their body, too. And by acting in concert with others, I simply showed them respect and treated them with honor. It is not unlike being here in this sanctuary during worship. We are each here for ourselves; to receive encouragement, to hear a word that might inspire us through the week; to be in the company of like-minded people. And yet, we are also a kind of ensemble. By participating in singing the hymns, we encourage others who came in order to hear a hymn. By keeping a respectful silence during meditation, we facilitate a moment of peace for another. Even by simply being physically present, we join our lives for at least this moment with others who also seek a life of meaning.

I saw a member of the congregation during the week this week, and she expressed to me how pleased she was that so many people had been present for the worship service on the last Sunday in June. It’s natural for things to slow down in the summer, and we don’t expect the crowds now that we enjoy during the course of the year. But I was struck by how much pleasure it gave this one person to see other people showing up when she didn’t expect them. It gives others pleasure to see this sanctuary filled. The simple act of showing up means so much to others—even if they don’t get the chance to speak with you or get to know you. Our very presence is an act of service to the community.

Another lesson that Hot Yoga has somehow impressed upon me—where other styles of yoga have not—is something that Bikram emphasizes in his writing. “It doesn’t matter,” he writes, “how well you do each posture. It only matters that you try to do it the right way. Even if you can only do part of the posture, you will receive 100% of the benefit if you try the right way.” Again, in other styles of yoga the emphasis was always so much on doing the postures in the way that feels right for you as an individual that the notion of doing it right gets lost. In fact, as I looked through some of my yoga books for readings appropriate for my theme today, I kept finding poems and quotations in other yoga books that were all about how there is no right way to do yoga. This is just what drives Bikram crazy about the American style of yoga. He insists that there is a right way. For me, there has been a deep spiritual benefit to the notion that I don’t have to do it right, but I do have to try to do it right, and that in trying to do the postures correctly, I get exactly the same benefit to my body as the person who is able to actually do it right. In the same way as acting in concert with others takes me outside a solipsistic self- obsession, so too the effort to do the postures right takes me out of myself for the sake of myself. I yield myself to the discipline of doing the postures not in the manner that feels right, but in the manner that I am being told is correct. I do this for the sake of the higher good that I can gain by breaking my body from its habits and its rigidity.

Although some of you have never tried yoga, all of you have done some sort of exercise in your life—and I’m sure you’ve experienced that moment when something you’ve tried and tried, something which felt impossible suddenly becomes doable. Hot yoga, beyond being hot, is physically rigorous. The routine is an hour and a half long, the first hour of which are standing postures. Throughout most of the routine, the legs are locked and the arms are above the head or straight out. When I first began, even though I had been doing other types of yoga, I was utterly unable to hold my arms above my head for any substantial length of time. For me, trying to do the postures the right way was a pure intention—I intended to lift my arms above my head, but they were not capable of obeying my command. I sent out orders and my shoulders disobeyed. Until, one day, they obeyed. For class after class, I had had to bear the frustration and embarrassment of being utterly incapable of doing several of the postures at the beginning of the routine. I saw no progress for what seemed like forever. And then one day, for no obvious reason, I was suddenly able to do what it had seemed I would never do.

How many things do we think we are incapable of—either as individuals or as a community? How quick we are at times to simply decide, “I cannot change the direction of our country,” or “I can’t relate to that member of my family,” or, “I will never be able to get myself to….” Each of us has something that we want to achieve that feels impossible. But my small triumph in Hot Yoga gave me the experience of following someone’s advice who seemed to know what they were talking about, applying myself with honest effort for a set period of time every day, and then—voila! A result.

Yoga originated as part of a system that is explicitly spiritual. Yet, all that is physical is also spiritual, although in the West we aren’t always as aware of it as we might be. To seek a spiritual life is also to seek a physically healthful life. How many of us have found that to exercise our bodies is to get in touch with our deepest yearnings, our deepest fears, our greatest joy and the thrill of free movement? One of the postures in the Hot Yoga routine is a posture called Camel Pose. I had been introduced to this posture in other styles of yoga and I had always hated it. To do Camel Pose, you stand on your knees, bend backward, and put your hands on your ankles. I am capable of doing this pose, but I had always hated it with an irrational passion. It was in Hot Yoga that I found out why I hated this posture so much. The instructors in the Hot Yoga class explained the spiritual and emotional side of this pose. It is a posture that reverses our instinctive desire to protect ourselves. It exposes the front of our bodies in a way that is directly contrary to what our body says is safe. Logically, of course, when I am in a room heated to 105% and a bunch of sweaty and exhausted people are doing the same pose on their yoga mats, I know that I am in no danger of attack. I know that in my head. And yet, in my body, I feel deeply frightened and vulnerable in Camel Pose. It is in this pose that I am reminded each time I do Hot Yoga that any separation of body from mind and spirit is an utterly false separation.

That is one reason I am so excited about the Drumming class that we are offering here on Thursday evenings. The two men who are our instructors understand that the act of drumming is both physical and spiritual, and an affirmation of community. There is no spiritual practice that is not, in its essence, a practice of the body.

Take a yoga class; take a drumming class; take a walk. There are so many spiritual truths to be found in any physical discipline. When we take our spiritual lives into physical action, we are sure to experience amazing grace.