The Path To Bodhichitta

You start where you are, the practice will meet you there.

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Location: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Letter From A Devout Muslim

Below is letter to a local daily from The Wise One concerning the recent fatwa over yoga for Muslims. It is moments like these that remind my why I hold her in such high esteem.

The Editor,
Star Online.

Dear Editor,

I am a devout Muslim woman and have been practising yoga for 7 years now. I practice 4 to 5 times a week, in the mornings after my Fajr prayers and doa.

I was attracted to yoga for very much the same reason millions of people in the world are. In 1999, I had been a court going lawyer for 12 years and was suffering tremendous amounts of stress and anxiety. My immune system was very low and I was constantly ill. My sinuses were infected and I had already undergone 2 minor surgeries for sinus related problems. Migraines were a daily occurence. Briefly, I was miserable and angry. I fought with loved ones around me, and when I started fighting with strangers in the street, I realised I needed help.

A visit to a psychiatrist resulted in a Zoloft prescription, which I hated after 1 pill and I promptly abandoned it. I started going to the gym and was a regular for 3 years. However, the gym started to appeal to younger and younger people and I no longer felt comfortable. Then, came Madonna and the Ashtanga Yoga craze. She was beautiful, and I wanted her body.

A Malaysian born Astanga yoga instructor was back in KL for a holiday and was willing to teach a short 3 week introductory course. I fell in love with the system from the first lesson.

There was no mantra, no meditation, no chanting going on. It was sheer breathing and movement and sweat. I did not know it then, but yoga brought tremendous changes in my life subsequently. I have done tremendous research on yoga as I was concerned with its system and impact on my faith and beliefs as a Muslim.

Let me share a little of what I have learnt, and how I have applied it to my life and how it has helped me in my religious faith. First, we must understand that yoga is not a religion. It is a scientific system designed five thousand years ago. Its wisdom is tremendous. But for simplicity's sake, it is enough to state that there are eight limbs to yoga, and they are -
1. Yamas - thou shalt not injunctions (non violence,speaking truth, non stealing, non grasping, self control)
2. Niyamas - thou shalts (purity, contentment, disciplined use of energy, self study and remembering God)
3. Pranayama - the science of breathing - how one's breath affects one's physiological and psychological responses
4. Asana - the physical poses - which makes bodies flexible, lubricate joints, strengthen muscle , cleans out the organs and flushes the toxins
5. Prathyahara - science of withdrawing your senses - ie looking inwards into yourself as a discipline for concentration
6. Dharana - concentration, by way of many different methods such as concentrating on an object such as a small ball, or a lighted candle and some people use mantra repetition (ie concentrating on fixed phrases), or just counting 1,2 3.
7. Dhyana - Meditation - the science of remembering God
8. Samadhi - unification of mind, body and soul . Classically, in the yoga texts it indicates going back to God.

I have often been asked, how as a Muslim, I can bring congruency of the 8 limbs to my own Islamic beliefs. My answer is simple. In Islam, the rules regarding worship (ibadah) is "what is not permitted is prohibited" , and not to be confused with the rules regarding human relations (mua'amalat) which is "what is not prohibited is permissible". Therefore, in Islam, there are only certain prescribed ways of worship of Allah, and nothing else will amount to worship. Any other so called form of worshipping is "shirk" or disbelief. And everything a man does in his life, his conduct, his words, his thoughts are governed by intention (niyat). Anything that I am doubtful of, I will avoid.

Therefore, where the Yamas are concerned I see no contradiction to Islam. Where Niyamas are concerned, the self study and remembering of God I take it as study of the Quran, the Hadith and many numerous scholarly Islamic books. Rememberance of God I practice as dhikr and tassawuf. Pranayama, Asana, Prathyahara and Dharana for me is combined in the Ashtanga teaching system, which is a breath - movement - counting system. One and half hours of this system 5 days a week result in a tough sweaty work out for my body, mind and soul. I am calm by the end of the practice, and have recharged my internal resources to take on the challenge of the day. As for Dhyana or Meditation, contrary to some views, does not result in an "empty mind" for Satan or other sorts of evil to enter. In meditation, I only remember Allah, and Allah alone. There is no place for anything else.

Finally, Samadhi . This I have never experienced, but having read many Sufi books, I believe this is similar to the concept of "Fana'a" or anhilation of one's ego. Since I cannot speak from personal experience, I will only state what I have read. In the holy al-Quran, it is stated that we all come from a place of pre-eternity from whence we made a primordial covenant with God to worship Him and Him alone. When our souls were sent forth into this world, we have forgotten, and our minds, bodies and soul were split into different Ego selves. Fana'a indicates and anhilation of this Ego, and a remembrance of the place of pre-eternity.

As for Mantra? I do not use mantra repetition.

I am a Muslim and am devoted. Yoga has not only allowed me a cheap and efficient method of maintaining my physical and mental wellbeing, it has also deepened my faith, to the point that I have decided that Islam must now pervade my commercial and professional dealings. Towards this end, I am now studying for my doctorate in Islamic Finance. So strong are my beliefs in my religion, arising from the discipline and discoveries that I gained from yoga, that nobody who knows me will dispute or deny my determination and loyalty to Allah and the religion of Islam. I am indebted to yoga, both for my health, my mental state and my deepening love for Islam. In the past few years, I have been to holy Makkah 4 times on Umrah, and Insyallah will proceed for my Hajj soon.

Is it possible for some people to be misled and misguided by yoga? Yes, if they are not mindful or careful enough or do not have sufficient knowledge of Islam. But ask the numerous religious and devout Muslims I know who practice yoga, whether they have ever been confused or misled - they will answer with a laugh. You will never be able to levy a charge against them that their yoga practice has reduced their faith in Islam or that they are shirk. Count amongst these people so many educated Muslims, including my 70 year old mother, who has continued to practice yoga regularly, in order to aid her flexibility so that she can perform her Solat. Further, yoga is so very suitable for a Muslim woman, as she can practice this in the privacy of her home, without financial cost to her.

The Holy Quran states in Verse al-Isra':84-

"Say: Everyone acts according to his own disposition, but your Lord knows best who it is who is best guided on the Way."

I quote al-Ghazali from "The Alchemy of Happiness" -

"Although these matters [referring to earlier discussion] are comparative novelties in Islam and have not been received from the first followers of the Prophet (PBUH), we must remember that all novelties are not forbidden, but only those which directly contravene the Law. For instance, the Tarawih, or night-prayer during the fasting month, was first instituted by the Caliph 'Umar. The Prophet said, "Live with each man according to his habits and disposition," therefore , it is right to fall in with usages that please people,when non-conformity would vex them."(emphasis is mine)

Perhaps, on the basis of "maslahah" (or public good) the authorities that be should do further research into yoga, and perhaps refine their concerns regarding certain aspects which they feel may affect the Aqidah. However, to issue a blanket ban or label of "haram" on a system that is so beneficial to the health and wellbeing of so many Muslims, and a system which is now in use as therapy in cancer, heart disease, diabetes and stroke in hospitals all over the world (eg the John Hopkins Hospital) , is very careless and negligent of Allah's gift of knowledge to humankind.

As for me, without yoga my health and mental well being will deteriorate. If I stop, it will be a great oppression on my human right to preserve this body and mind that Allah has given me. I will continue to practice yoga until I am no longer able to move.


Sunday, November 23, 2008

It Isn’t Yours To Own

On Friday night, when the world prepared to slip under its bedcovers, I stepped out on my balcony and opened one of my favourite books - A Lotus Grows In the Mud. When I first chanced upon it at a book sale, I gave it a cursory glance, mainly because it is an autobiography of Goldie Hawn. Shallow and rich with self-glorification, I thought. Yet, I found myself coming back to it and eventually decided that a light read wouldn’t hurt. I stayed up for two nights lost in its pages, my heart alternately swelling and squeezing. By the time I ran my eyes over the last sentence, A Lotus Grows In The Mud had become a guiding light for me. I later lent it to The Healer, who devoured it with the same passion, reading out snippets to her fiancé during their nightly long-distance phone calls.

Now I have picked it up again because I am in need of its wisdom. In the chapter, Altered State, I found it.

“Dr. Gearson also helped me deal with my success. He helped me understand that the adoration or unkind criticism wasn’t mine to own. That it was all about how other people perceived me to be, not how I really was. I needed to take no responsibility other than just being a Rorschach test, an inkblot that others interpreted whichever way they needed to.

The key is to learn to respect and honour the complications of other people’s lives. It allows me not to identify personally with others’ perceptions or to become wrapped up in my own defenses against them. If someone tells me “I love you,” it should carry no weight than if they say “I hate you.” I give them back their joy; I give them back their anger. My truth remains detached from theirs.”

This morning, I had brunch with The Captain and he told me of an abusive text message he had received from an acquaintance who had over-reacted over a misunderstanding. I marvelled at his cool, amusement over the attack.

“Because it doesn’t belong to me,” he said. “He has chosen to react that way, so the anger belongs to him. I have no power or responsibility over it. What I do have control of is my response to him and this is how I choose to respond. It’s easy to deal with such situations when you remember that the other person’s words and actions belong to them and not to you.”

I mulled over his and Goldie’s words on the drive home and wondered how I could apply it to my little conundrum. I have recently amassed a tidy little collection of mistakes for which I am being tongue-lashed. Being someone who has long lived to please, I am taking it hard. How then can I let the words of others belong to them without relinquishing responsibility for my slip-ups? How can I give them back their disdain, anger and disgust even when I am also being judged in my own eyes? How can I let my truth remain detached from theirs while making sure that I am not running from the truth? And how do I become more self-aware, more enlightened and more connected with my own mind in the process?

I have decided to begin at the only logical place right now; acceptance. So I accept that I have made imperfect choices that have caused deep hurt and disappointment. I accept that many people may no longer choose to remain in my sphere, as a result of those choices. I accept that I cannot please myself and other people. I accept the possibility that I could be the naive, self-centred, cruel person that I have been told I am. I accept that my actions will one day come full circle. And I accept responsibility for my actions and the consequences it brings.

This acceptance doesn’t make it right. It doesn’t make the pain less searing. Nor does it liberate me completely from the anger-tipped arrows of others. But it has opened a hidden window just a crack and a tiny scoop of their anger has slipped out to make its way back to them.

This is just a start. But least I am somewhere.

Yoga Ban

So screams the headline on today’s newspaper.

The National Fatwa Council of Malaysia has declared yoga haram for Muslims on the basis that its roots in Hindusim threaten their faith. The Muslim yoga practitioners have separated themselves into two camps – those who have maintained that yoga is just a form of exercise and those who have decided to adhere to the edict.

Those who know me well enough would know my stand on this matter, but it is not my place to question another’s religion, so I will just be content with bits from Thomas Moore’s book Dark Nights of The Soul:

“Religion easily becomes a defense and avoidance. Of course, this is not the real purpose of religion, and the religious traditions of the world, full of beautifully stated wisdom, are your bets source of guidance in the dark. But there is real religion and there is the empty shell of religion. Know the difference. Your life is at stake. You have to use your intelligence every step of the way.”