I first got into yoga during my attempt to cultivate a sustained sitting meditation practice. In classical yoga, the yoga postures, or asanas, are to be cultivated before developing the practice of sitting meditation. They follow a specific pedagogical order. After a person has been instructed in the ethical teachings, they are instructed on developing a good sitting posture and cultivating sound breath control. Generally, after this comes meditation practice.
I had been attempting to develop a meditation practice and realized that I could really use something like the physical exercises and breath control practices. In short, I needed yoga.
I suppose it might be necessary to explain what I mean by meditation as well as it is an ambiguous word. I had been influenced by Buddhist mindfulness meditation and was also interested in the centering prayer practice of Fr. Thomas Keating. I was an avid participant of the online group Meditation Chapel but, as I mentioned, had a hard time sitting in meditation. I have been a Catholic for many years and was genuinely happy in my faith. I was looking to go deeper in my spiritual practice and in particular to cultivate mindfulness and more embodied awareness.
Unfortunately at first, just sitting in meditation practice can be rather difficult for longer periods of time. Usually, it involves concentrative breathing and can also involve saying a mantra–a short prayer or word– depending on the school of spiritual practice one follows. I liked it but also found it difficult. Like many people, I got restless and antsy. My mind flitted to and fro. One time in meditation I remembered someone saying to me that yoga exercises are a good preparation for sitting meditation. At first, yoga just meant the physical postures of yoga, what we in the West associate with yoga.
In the beginning, I went on to YouTube and looked up yoga practices to follow. Like millions of people in contemporary culture, I followed a yoga instructor online. In my case, it was Yoga with Adrienne. Even though yoga through YouTube or the internet may not be the best in the long term, in the short term it can be a great beginning.
I bought a yoga mat and props and I spent most mornings doing poses like downward facing dog and triangle pose usually finishing with a corpse pose. I’m still working on this practice. Every morning or at least most mornings, I spend sitting or standing on my yoga mat in front of the TV screen as I move my body in the postures of yoga. I began my practice during the period of the pandemic when everything was online.
One morning in a Zoom group I belong to, I met a retired yoga teacher who offered to give me some private in-person yoga sessions. This was a transformative experience! Specifically, she taught hatha yoga in the tradition of B.K.S Iyengar. Iyengar was a yoga guru and one of the main figures responsible for the introduction of yoga practice in the west. She gave me some private lessons on the intricacies of postural movements. Most critical for me, she also gave me a copy of a commentary on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Iyengar called, “Light on the Yoga Sutras.” In these pages, my eyes were opened to the mystery of the classical eight-limbed practice of yoga, what is sometimes called raja yoga, or royal yoga.
In Hindu thought, there are numerous paths to the divine. For example, there is bhakti yoga, the path of heartfelt devotion to the divine, and karma yoga the path of selfless action. Even though the different yogic paths are complementary and often blend together naturally, I found a home in the emphasis on meditation and the holistic integrated nature of Patanjali’s eight-limbed path of yoga. I found much more than just physical yoga but a whole philosophy and integrated lifestyle.
Right now I’m continuing my daily asana yoga practice and hoping to soon start practicing at a yoga studio as well as trying to integrate some of my newfound yoga philosophy and the Catholic faith into my daily life. My meditation practice in particular has also greatly improved.
The postures of yoga, among many benefits, have settled my nerves and relaxed my body in general and contributed to being able to sit in meditation practice for a much longer period of time. Although I recognize the philosophy of the Yoga Sutras will take a while to start to integrate into my life, even now I have begun some basic pranayama (breathing exercises) which I'm hoping to improve my breathing and energy level. I’ve also begun incorporating what might be called the ethical teachings of yoga the yamas and niyamas sometimes known as the very foundation of yoga. But the deeper aspects of yoga will be a lifelong journey, just like my Catholic faith. The exact nature of the relationship between yoga and the Catholic faith is also a work in progress to be discerned in prayer and faith.
This post was written by Brian Hay. If you are interested in contacting him, you may do so by email.