Sound Against Flame: The Process of Yoga and Atheism in America
An excerpt from Sound Against Flame: The Process of Yoga and Atheism in America by Derek Beres, out now from Outside the Box Publishing.
The half-cocked-brow gaze over slightly glazed eyes when I tried to explain the premise of my book to friends insured that I'd have some serious explaining to do. A comparative philosophy book on the practices of yoga and atheism, two systems with so (seemingly) little in common? Trying to establish a common ground between a devotional practice with images of blue-skinned, elephant-headed, flute-playing gods, and the complete opposite, the blasphemous idea of no God at all? Beyond a surface grazing – that of a South Asian spiritual practice mostly known in America as an exercise routine and for polytheistic iconography, alongside the outright denial of a Supreme Anything – there is plenty of shared wisdom. The premise of this work, and the underlying foundation of both yoga and atheism, directly pertains to the experience of life, not the abstraction of it.
There is little surprise that these two forms of belief/practice (or unbelief, depending on your definition) are the most rapidly expanding philosophies in our country. This is not to deny the brute strength of megachurches growing like wild weeds across the nation. (And this is not to necessitate the idea that such churches are inherently bad for us, as many atheists, as well as many sitting on the fence in the God question, put forth.) True, we are a Christian nation. There is little doubt about that. Even if we do not claim that as our faith, the forms of thought that arise in our brains have been conditioned by a specific cause-and-effect, rewards/benefits musculature defined and developed through biblical and political training. Indeed, it is impossible not to have been taught in such a manner if you have gone through the public school system. (And if you attended a private school, all the more so, as religion has a strong hold on nearly all of these institutions, as well as the majority of parents who home-school children.) Churches, it must be remembered, constructed the original educational system in America, so it is not surprising that the way we learn is dictated by theology. In many ways, this psychological underpinning is more relevant than outright belief, for when the manners in which we are conditioned stay hidden, we become prime targets for anxiety, depression, social confusion and general dis-ease.
What the basic ideological thinkers of the three major religious traditions of the West – Christianity, Judaism and Islam – have conceived is that your actions on this planet are preparations for a) some sort of kingdom of which people of your faith will lord over, and b) some form of afterlife, where a style of judgment will occur. This judgment comes in many varieties. Some maintain that you can convert to the faith and be "saved," while other sects are so bullheaded that only those born into families of their specific faith are righteous. Regardless of the degree of severity, anything done for another life beyond this one is rooted in egoistic idealism, something both yoga and atheism (at their best) aim to dissolve. To get to the roots of this comparison, which is just as much a survey of the social and spiritual state of American ideologies as it is these two specific practices, we will have to apply the wisdom of philosopher Daniel Dennett: "If we want to understand the nature of religion today, as a natural phenomenon, we have to look not just at what it is today, but at what it used to be." And this involves looking into the way all humans used to be, not just examining the doctrines passed down by a few men with specific agendas. The paths we will take may surprise you, and may not always be pleasant, but they will prove worthwhile.
Yoga, while given an Indian veneer due to its geographical roots, has been remixed and redefined in innumerable ways in its two century-plus history on American soil. Today it is believed that over forty million Americans have tried some form of yoga, and there is little doubt that millions more are in tow. Yoga has successfully been transplanted from a noun to a verb to an adjective, used to describe everything from the physical asana practice to bread, tea, clothing, and spa services. While there are many ways to dissect and explore this aged philosophical system, we will focus on two: by utilizing the tools of yoga that enrich the everyday through an appropriate understanding of the symbolic references of its mythology, and by contemplating the importance of the body (and how we treat it). We will look at these predominantly through the gaze of jnana yoga, the yoga of knowledge -- otherwise known as the art of discrimination. I will not be confined to one time period or culture in this investigation, and will do my best to avoid the trappings of the modern yogi in this advice from anthropology professor Joseph S. Alter: "If there is one single thing that characterizes the literature on Yoga, it is repetition and redundancy in the guise of novelty and independent invention."
Atheism is, believe it or not, rooted in a similar soil. It was founded as a reaction to the political and social situations of the surrounding environment by people yearning for something deeper than the rigid and unscientific laws of religious codes. Yoga too was a reaction, a fusing of the Samkhya philosophy and an ever-expanding Vedic literature of differing schools of yoga, all of which opposed the façade constructed by religious and political leaders. Like the Buddhism that grew from yogic teachings, yoga was inherently atheistic, even if that specific term had not yet been coined. The term comes from the Greek atheistos and originally meant a denial of the Athenian establishment, not the flat-out refusal of a divine figurehead. Like most concepts, it began to have a universal connotation as cultures picked up the trend, and today is used in reference to anyone who does not believe in God. Unlike the agnostic, who believes that there are certain things that cannot be answered (or, put another way, that we ask the wrong questions), the atheist has no room for fluffy mystery.
The question of belief plays a major role in my thinking, though I want to make a precautionary note in the usage of this word compared to the term faith. The two often walk hand-in-hand, but there is a subtle, yet crucial difference, at least in the way I want to approach them. Belief is the idea that something is true regardless of proof, while faith relates to something instinctual and primal, and does not necessarily have to be applied to a god. Faith is often defined as a belief, but I want to reorient it for the context of this work. This constant default of religionists to phrases like "It just is" is why the immediate colleague to atheism, science, is in dismay over movements like those led by champions of Intelligent Design (ID). There is simply nothing realistic in their claims. It is pure, untested belief that only reflects their particular view on the world, and not the actions and habits of the world itself. As Alan Watts wrote, "The believer will open his mind to the truth on condition that it fits in with his preconceived ideas and wishes." Cloaking science in biblical creationism with no evidence does not make for good science, good religion, or even good humanity.
Let us treat faith as something necessary to the human condition -- not as an untested hypothesis, but the innate ability to feel a connection to something beyond our everyday lives. More importantly, let us try not to give it form, color or taste. I do not want to label it, for there are already so many names and so little evidence that any fit the description. It is more of a connection to instinct, a sort of foresight that the experiences and the world at large are united as a process moving at the same speed and in similar directions. It is important to remember that both the words "yoga" and "religion" come from root words that mean "union." And, as we will touch upon, it is the seemingly innocuous usage of language that separates the innumerable aspects of what could be seen as part of the same process -- that is, life. Words, the letters and meaning that bring us together, are equally perilous when used to divide.
What we're looking for is an understanding of the process of life. This is not an easy task, as it requires stripping away commonly accepted companions to the ideologies under scrutiny: dogmas and rituals, of course, although we need to go deeper than those. In order to grasp the process of an idea, the iconography and visual/emotional association must also be removed. Christmas cards, Easter eggs, mandalas, menorahs, cute little baby gods with blue skin and sheep are parts of the manifestation of the process, but not the process itself; they are forms, not essence. We have to get to the pure process, of belief, of faith, as well as the promises that these supposedly lead to: liberation, salvation and equanimity. We need to go beyond "righteousness through Christ" and "liberation through yoga." We need to push through the verb and get to the essence, which requires a proper understanding of the symbolic meanings of rituals, and not the form that they happened to take once, somewhere else.
Let's try an actual example. One day I was dining with a fellow yoga teacher. We were planning a retreat, and before either of us committed to anything, we had to make sure that our philosophies played along well together. She told me that the foundation of her style was that the "universe pulsates with love." Her system extended out from that idea, one that she believed embodied the "true" nature of yoga. I then asked her why it couldn't stop with the "universe pulsates." Why did love have to be the definitive attachment to the universe? I reminded her that at the basis of yoga was the shadow, and that by introducing a concept (love) you by default create its opposite (hate). I suppose this is why the Buddha did not preach that freedom arises from love, but from compassion. It's a much more sane philosophy, and not so open to misinterpretation. Needless to say, we never went on that retreat.
Having decided to devote my life to the practice of yoga, there are many precepts that I adhere to. But I do not subscribe to them simply because some book told me to do so. Classic texts like the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Patanjali's Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita are important resources to understanding the psychology and practicality of yoga. Books, however, are not experiences; they are reflections of experiences. They do not suit each person, as a suit will not fit every skin. As much as the atheism movement has lashed against the hypocrisies and tyranny of Christianity, yoga is not free from such unforgiving surveillance. The presentation of yoga in America has been bastardized in many forms, and not all of them are helpful. Like cherry pickers seeking out sweet sayings from biblical scripture, yogis are equally guilty of accommodating their needs and discarding the rest (or, as is often the case, not researching if a "rest" even exists).
Seeing a badly Photoshopped rendering of a bearded man in a white robe sitting on a cloud does not help promote the ideology of yoga, yet it appears constantly in the pages of yoga and natural health publications. It cheapens the practice, pushing forth the notion that a) there is an image to liberation and b) this particular person embodies it. An idol is an idol, and what's worse, is idle. The earth does not stop movement, and so has no need for fixed images. There is good reason that you never see images of the Buddha gazing at you with a mask of anger, yet to say that he never experienced such an emotion is to take away his humanity.
There is much good to be learned from both yoga and atheism, and like mushrooms hiding under a canopy of leaves in dark forests, sometimes it takes a little research. You have to know where, and how, to look. There are also amazing benefits from religion, even as the western model has manufactured it. We just cannot treat any of these paths as the "goal." It is in this exact seeking of a goal – of some reward or promise – that we lose ourselves, time and again. We need to be critical in our pursuit, opening our deepest held beliefs for debate, and, what's more, being compassionate in the process. Only through questioning will we uncover answers, and we may even find there's more power in the former.Tweet