On a recent cover of Yoga Journal I am promised many things: eight building blocks for practicing at home, six best foods to fuel my body, five poses to bring me into deep relaxation and four steps to help me cut through stress and think clearly. Plus, yogic wisdom for decluttering my life.
I’m exhausted just thinking about all the self-improvement I should be pursuing. And though the yoga world pays lip service to self-acceptance, there is a hortatory and judgmental quality to much of what passes for “yogic wisdom.” You should be juicing more; you shouldn’t be eating meat; you should wear organic cotton clothing; you shouldn’t eat pizza. This is OK, though it can get preachy. And all of this thinking is largely self-focused, as if the individual is the measure of all things. I suppose this could make you feel either very good about yourself—if you happen to be an adherent to these exhortations or very bad about yourself—if you find yourself in violation of them.
But the point is, it ends up being about individual self. And that flies in the face of what it means to develop spiritually. Chogyam Trungpa’s term, “spiritual materialism” pretty much describes it—this upward-striving, ultimately ego-centric effort at self-improvement in the avoidance of suffering. Yet all religious traditions acknowledge such suffering—or sin—as central to our embodiment as humans.
You can make the argument that yoga is not a religious tradition, but it doesn’t hold water. That’s because the way most of us understand yoga is through the asanas—the postures into which we move our bodies. But that’s only one of the eight limbs of yoga. We mostly ignore the other seven because they are truly spiritual practices that don’t build up forearm strength or hamstring flexibility.
So we when take a gym-tastic yoga class, we’ll spend plenty of time on postures (asana) and maybe a little on breath control (pranayama). But nobody’s likely to be talking about ethical disciplines (yama) or self-observation (niyama), sense withdrawal (pratyahara), concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana) or a state of peace and joy (samahi). Even in yoga studios where the teachers themselves have been trained in and probably practice some aspects of the eight limbs of yoga in their personal lives, yoga is treated more as a means for self-improvement than it is as a multi-faceted spiritual tradition.
Which means there is a kind of Pollyanna-like emphasis on how good things can be and how we can improve, with effort. But I think it grounds us to be reminded that, along with the good in life, we suffer, we die. We are creaturely and what the great religions teach is not so much a way to escape from our creatureliness, but a way to unite with the divine beyond us. In other words, faith strives for union with the other that is sacred. (Of course “yoga” means “union,” but our American understanding of yoga rarely explores that concept.)
That is why so many prayers from so many different traditions sound desperate and a bit like love poems—which is what they truly are. And it is also why so many prayers sound like frenzied pleading for a release from suffering—because true faith acknowledges genuine suffering
And so when we encounter an anonymous prayer from the Indian tradition, we can see the yearning and devotion that transcends a belief in mere self-improvement: “Like an ant on a stick both ends of which are burning, I go to and fro without knowing what to do and in great despair. Like the inescapable shadow which follows me, the dead weight of sin haunts me. Graciously look upon me. Thy love is my refuge.”
Prayer from the Muslim tradition equates God with an incomparable brightness, as in Abu-I-Hussain al-Nuri’s poem, “Though knowest well the heart’s design/The secret purpose of the mind,/And I adore Thee, light divine,/Lesser lights should make me blind.”
What the world’s religions share is that sense of our created-ness—imperfect, of course, but loved nevertheless. Loved, as is. And this theology, common to so many faiths, doesn’t negate the need to do good in the world and to use those deeds to bring glory to the divine. But there is an absence of an ego-driven competition to somehow better oneself (or to be better than somebody else).
Perhaps the guilt I was raised with in the Lutheran tradition is a less destructive one than what I feel when I read Yoga Journal (less than good) with its personal disciplines set forth as spiritual virtues (less than perfect). Maybe when all is said and done, self-improvement is just no substitute for the hope of a divine love. And hating the self—which happens when self-improvements fail—is, itself, a kind of blasphemy.