When I visit my local Hindu temple for worship (puja), I am often asked why, as a Westerner, I am drawn to be there. When I mention that I am a yoga teacher, smiles of understanding break out. Despite confusion in the contemporary yoga world of how much the discipline should be equated to its Hindu roots, I personally find the Hindu philosophical framework essential in understanding – and achieving – the union of mind, body and spirit that yoga promotes.
Asana, the physical postures of yoga taught in a general class, comprise only a small part of a much larger system of spiritual observances that eventually lead to samadhi, the enlightenment that occurs when human experience merges seamlessly with that of the Divine. Acquiring a strong, flexible, appropriately aligned body to work as a channel for Divine energy is a helpful step towards this merging, as is meditation, the transcending of, or separation from, mind-dominated activity. Engaging in ritual worship is another important spiritual tool, one often overlooked by Western interpretations of yoga. Which is where my visits to the temple come in.
Ritual can be described as a transmutation of the mundane into something sacred through intention. Adopting an attitude of gratitude and understanding that everything in our experience has equal spiritual significance lessens the grip of the ego (which works to separate us from the world) and promotes a greater sense of oneness (yoga) with all things.
Everything that occurs within a Hindu temple setting is deeply embedded in ritual and symbolic meaning. To leave shoes at the door and bow one's head on entering invites humility. To honour the many Gods on display, each one representing a different aspect of manifest reality, denotes the sacred complexity of being human. Offering fruit and flowers implies gratitude and a desire to devote our karma (actions) to something larger than ourselves. Lighting oil lamps symbolizes the light of conscious awareness becoming enlivened within us, and burning incense and sprinkling water indicates the need to purify our environment of the distractions that take us away from our spiritual path. At the end of each puja, those in attendance sit and eat blessed food together, both to promote, and show the importance of, community and sharing.
One of the things that I particularly admire about Hinduism is its inclusivity. Everyone is welcome, as is pretty much any interpretation of what is on offer. Which allows me to tailor worship specifically to my own needs. The deities whose vibrations I find myself particularly wanting to embody are those of Shiva and Parvarti, the Divine Masculine and Feminine; Ayyapan, the Nature Spirit; Subramanyam, Peace, and the triumverate of Goddesses, Lakshmi, Durga and Saraswati, who represent abundance, spiritual strength and Divine beauty respectively. Ganesh, the elephant-headed God, is the remover of obstacles on the spiritual path and the gate keeper to all the other Divine beings, so an important energy to focus on. Over time, I have come to understand that these icons are not something outside of me that need to be petitioned, but the representation of an archetypal facet of myself that can be awakened through intention.
And once these energies have been awakened, they can be imbued into daily life. Visiting the temple creates space to quietly focus on whatever needs to be enhanced within, which in turn helps hold us through the challenges that inevitably face us when we leave. For example, if my Masculine (active) and Feminine (passive) aspects are in balance, if I let the spirit of Nature flow through me unhindered, if I am peaceful, strong and in service to abundance and beauty, then my experience – of asana practice, of relationship, of being in the world – is transformed into something higher, more satisfying and undoubtedly more effective.
We live in a complicated world where religious divisions and developments in science have left many people suspicious of ceremony and sacramental rites. I can understand why Western yoga has separated itself from the broader church of Hinduism and religious observance. Indeed, my own public teaching contains very little of this historical framework in order to make it more accessible to my immediate audience. But if we can step back from pre-conceived notions of what it means to identify with a particular culture or tradition and allow ourselves to find the gifts inherent in approaches to life that have been handed down through the generations, we open ourselves to the possibility of growth and new ways of being. Even, potentially, to the union of all things that the practice of yoga aims for.
First published in 2018