[Yoga Practice]

What Does Yoga Mean In My Life? [How Does Yoga Fit Into My Cultural Background?]

Yoga is generally seen to have developed in India, whether stemming from the ancient Vedic culture that is thousands of years old, or from a more recent development of physical exercise culture in the last century. It has been claimed by the Indian government to support its pursuit of Indian nationalism as stemming from a Hindu religious culture. There are Indians who claim that the development of yoga in the West is cultural appropriation.

Alongside this Indian background there are also aspects of yoga, such as Yin Yoga, that claim a Chinese background. In this there is a connection not to religion but the philosophy of Daoism.

Western Culture

Both of these viewpoints of yoga are way outside the normal western cultural background in practical, philosophical and spiritual aspects. The dominant religious culture in the West is Judeo-Christian/Muslim, a far cry from either Hinduism or the philosophy of Daoism.

Given that I am a westerner brought up in a christian culture how can I balance my background with the ideas and practices inherent in yoga? Whilst it is easy to justify the simple physical practices, divorced from their religious/philosophical core, how can I equate myself with that core? How can I see myself as a Yogi in the western context that I live in?

I do not live in India—or China/Tibet—and I have not rejected my christian upbringing. I may no longer be a practicing christian but I still accept it as my cultural context. I live in Spain, a thoroughly Catholic country, and have chosen to live in a visible western context. So how do I see my practice of yoga, what do I believe about it as set out in texts such as the Yoga Sutras or the Bhagavad Gita?

My Upbringing

To see my way through this I need to go back to my childhood and upbringing. My parents were Protestants from Scotland. I attended the Presbyterian Church with my mother. It is a typically Scottish church that is rooted in a bottom-up approach to church structure, distinct from the top-down approach of the Catholic or Anglican churches. I grew up believing in a personal view of God and seeing democracy as the core attribute of being a Christian. I was not so much told what to do as able to decide myself what I thought.

My grandmother—my mother's mother—believed in Spiritualism and the idea that, in certain circumstances, we continue to exist after death. She openly contacted her dead husband after he was suddenly killed far away from her. My mother followed on in having that view. My parents were married in a Spiritual Church in Glasgow, and I was given, along with my brothers, a spiritual name at birth, distinct from my normal name.

So already my beliefs diverged from a standard christian view. I was a child of the Reformation believing in an individual, personal view of God and I was brought up to believe in our existence after death. Looking at this objectively I can already see parallels with views inherent in yoga. I am not yet at acceptance of re-incarnation but getting there.

A Spiritual Being

A view of myself as a spiritual being was something I always had. For a long time I didn't know how to pursue or understand it, relying on the Bible and a deep dive into christianity as my only route through it. As youth I was always seeking but never finding satisfactory answers. I knew there was something out there that I was grasping for, I just didn't have the understanding to see it.

My life continued to follow a spiritual path. I flirted with different aspects of christianity. In my forties I was baptised in the Anglican Church, albeit in an evangelical congregation. Both in Bristol and Edinburgh I attended evangelical anglican churches that emphasised the need to spread the word of Christ and open the church up to diverse views. These pushed the bounds of anglicanism often beyond the central views of the church. For example I helped to run a group for gay christians within the church, to help them accept that being gay was possible for a christian, rather than believing that they needed to be reformed. To say this was controversial is an understatement.

In Edinburgh I also became involved in a charismatic christian organisation, outside of the Anglican Church. They believed in the existence of spirits and that the Holy Spirit reigned supreme. They spoke in tongues and allowed the Spirit to take them over and direct their lives.

Spirituality In Lighting Design

I eventually moved away from these churches/organisations because my beliefs moved beyond a view that Christ was central to a religious view. I still, however, retained a professional connection to churches as a whole. My practice as an architectural lighting designer became focused on lighting churches and cathedrals. Early on I re-designed the lighting for Durham Cathedral. In the two years I spent working on the project I felt the spirituality of the task and saw that it was no coincidence that I was responsible for the work. The success of the lighting resulted in a great deal more work in cathedrals and churches, to the point where the central body overseeing work on the fabric of English Cathedrals, the Cathedrals Fabric Commission, became concerned that I was exerting too much influence on the interiors of cathedrals.

Whilst I was haphazardly practicing yoga and meditation throughout this time it wasn't until I retired that I began to fully explore what I believed. I became a writer and started exploring my life in depth.

My Realisation As A Writer

My practice of yoga and meditation helped me to approach and understand the concept of a Universal Consciousness. At first I understood it intellectually but was still to experience it myself. I firmly held on to the idea of me being a separate entity with my own soul and spirit. I didn't discount the idea that my soul was part of something universal, I just had not experienced it. In the end this quest informed my approach to yoga and meditation. It was a continuation of the seeking commenced when I was young.

It wasn't until I realised that the answers I was seeking were not 'out there' but were inside me all along that things began to shift. The book The Alchemist helped me to see a context to my journey but the real clincher was when I was led to the well-known quote by Marianne Williamson,

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, "Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?" Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

This helped me to see my spiritual life as something that spread way beyond me, even if I couldn't quite see it yet.

Universal Consciousness

The finalbrick in the wall came when I discovered Mooji through a yoga teacher friend of mine. He showed the simplicity of embracing a Universal Consciousness through his Invitation to Freedom. Something he called 'an immediate awakening for everyone'. He came to this through an Indian background but showed that to embrace it you didn't need to embrace the Hindu religion, or indeed any other. His views came down from Sri Ramana Maharishi, who believed that "Our own Self-realisation is the greatest service we can render the world." Mooji says,

As you follow the Invitation earnestly, you will recognise that what you are discovering is deeply familiar to you, for what we are searching for is already what we are—the ever perfect, impersonal awareness. The Truth that we are one indivisible Being, which the mind avoids and denies, is now being fully confirmed inside your own heart. True Being is beyond the rigidity of personal identity, or ego. It is timeless awareness—pure spirit.

So finally I see what is behind yoga, stripped of its religious and cultural connotations, a Universal Consciousness. Man has constantly sought to find a context for this and so built up religious and philosophical concepts to explain it. The Truth is simple and we can discard these concepts in favour of simple experience. I can practice yoga and meditation because behind it is the One Truth that we can all embrace, no matter what our cultural background is.