Tuesday, August 2, 2011

altars and devotion

Often new students of yoga are put-off by what feel like the foreign or even seemingly religious elements of the yoga room. In addition to yoga mats and props, one is likely to find an altar as a central element in most any studio in the country.

It can feel affronting to walk into a studio and find an altar with Hindu statues or other Eastern deities adorned with flowers and candles, or photographs of the Guru and other spiritual teachers.
If the student is connected with a religion of her own, this iconography might feel like contradictive or even sacrilegious idolatry. If she is an atheist or skeptical about the verity of religion, an altar can be disorienting all-together.

In order to understand our feelings toward the altar at the yoga studio (or in the church, temple, or Prince concert for that matter) we need to examine how we feel about DEVOTION.
What does it mean to be devoted? What is reverence? Is devotion always 'to' something, and if so, what?

We’ve gotten so ensnared in this question of ‘to-what?’, that it is literally killing us. We find ourselves perched on devotion’s most pernicious outer fringes: atheism and fundamentalism. Religion has gotten us into trouble, and we’re confused. We think that belief will en-trance us into submission and mind control, or, on the other hand we’re not thinking at all, and our critical lack of critical thinking is mistakenly being though of as devotional. For many of us, religion looks like extremism, and we don’t know how to talk about God without thinking of a fictitious patriarch in whose name many have suffered ordeals of discrimination and death.

We’re missing something so fundamental that it could be at the heart of everything that ails us. We are already connected. We are not, nor have we ever been, truly separate from eachother, from ourselves, or from that source to-whom we might be devoted if we were willing to give it a shot. At the heart of our lack of devotion we encounter our deepest isolation.

The yoga lineage calls this anava mala. In simplest and admittedly limited terms, anava mala is the primary misunderstanding of humankind: we perceive ourselves as separate from a greater whole. This is the human condition. This is our primary human injury, the stuff wars and deceit and simple day-to-day anxieties are made of. We yearn for connection yet fail to recognize it; we ache for this connection yet we resist its grace.

Back to the question of ‘to-what?’: to what would we be devoted?
Our dis-ease with this condition, and even the very question itself, stems from our sense of separateness. If we are separate from a cohesive unifying force, devotion resembles subservience. If we are devoted to someone or some outside power, we fear that we are interned by ‘his’ or ‘its’ superior authority. We fear a loss of autonomy and freedom.

There is a Sanskrit term for devotion that changes things entirely. The word is saranah, which most closely translates as: ‘taking refuge’ . Our taking refuge is INTO freedom itself. We aren’t shackled by our devotion, we are freed by our devotion. The power of the great FREEDOM is received, and it begins to flow through our lives. If we can SURRENDER into devotion, we find ourselves more alive and deeper in love than we could have ever imagined. Having dropped our perceived separateness, we sense that we are devoted ‘into’ something, rather that ‘to’ some outside entity: the river flows into the ocean.

This entire inquiry is explicated by the image of pranam, a fully prostrate bow. The concept singes the edges of our Western comfort zone perhaps even more than the image of the altar. Outside of specific rigorous religious traditions, this is foreign to us. We are starkly uncomfortable throwing ourselves at the ‘feet’ of anyone or anything.

Herein lies the yogis’ radical shift in perspective, the magical changing of the lens of perception: what if we were to look again and see the pranam as a DIVE.
It is essentially the same corporeal shape: the arms are overhead and the head is down-turned, belly facing down. Seen as a dive rather than a bow, however, we can see devotion the way yoga sees devotion: as a full, willing surrender, as a dive into the ocean. The individual wave settles back into the deeper waters of the sea; the raindrop falls to the surface of the lake and becomes the lake. The wave is still there and the raindrop is still there, yet by dissolving our basic resistance, our shelled-in anxiety, we find that we can take refuge in the great source that we were already a part of all along.

We don’t lose ourselves when we surrender, we RECEIVE ourselves when we surrender.