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.



Anonymous yati said...

As a Lawyer, how do you not recognize the importance of words and their meaning? You make many references(incorrectly) about Patanjalis YS. You falsely state Yoga is not religion, please see schollary references below. Also, note in Pada I, Sutra 8 - words devoid of their meaning is delusion. The yogas are the progressive religious/spiritual practices of Hinduism.
~Aum/Om: The most sacred syllable in Hinduism [Oxford World Religions]
~yoga: Skr. "Hinduism" [Webster's]
~yoga: Oneness of Atmana and Brahman [Dict. of Skr. Names]
~yogi/yogini: (male/female) Hindu Ascetic [Oxford World Rel.]
~Atmana: Skr. Self/Spirit; Hinduism [Webster's]
~Brahman: Skr. Hindu Religion [Webster's]
~yoga: Skr. A Hindu discipline [Oxford Am. Dict.]
~ yoga: Skr. A system of Hindu religious philosophy [Thorndike Barnhardt]
~yoga: Skr. general term for spiritual disciplines in Hinduism [Columbia Encyclopedia]
~Swami: Skr. Title of respect of a (Hindu) Holy man or teacher. [Oxford World Religions]
~Guru: Skr. A teacher of worldly skills...more often of religious knowledge...liberation (Moksa). [Oxford World religions]
~Moksa: Release/liberation - the fourth and ultimate goal of Hinduism. [Oxf. World Religion]
~The first recorded evidence of the Skr. word "yoga" is found in the Vedas.
~Veda Skr. The most ancient sacred literature of the Hindus. [Webster's]
~Upanishads: Text in Hinduism which ends or completes the Vedic corpus (body of [Hindu] laws)

1:23 PM  
Blogger starlight said...

Dear Yati, thank you for your comments. I will not touch on Islam, as I am not a Muslim, but I will share my opinion on the so-called threat of yoga on religion. I can only speak from my position as a Catholic and I take the same stand as The Wise One. I do not treat yoga as a religion but a spiritual path and this path has helped me become more devout in my own faith. My love for the beauty of my practice has encouraged me to explore how yoga could have a place in my own religion and I have found it. As a result, both my practice, my faith and my life have been greatly enriched. To me, any path that leads you to become a better practitioner of your faith cannot possibly be a dark one. :)

12:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Starlight
One has the right to combine paths, although you will not reach that "mountain top" goal. One is being unethical in teaching a religion (other than in a comparative setting)unless they are truly qualified and of course of that faith or change the meanings of words for their own ego. Would you go to a "studio" for Mass by a Hindu? Now clearly seeing all yogas are Hindu you still are in denial, confusing "opinion" with facts presented. There is Karma Y., Bhakti Y. etc. and of course Hatha y. that people most often unethically uproot from Hinduism. Another point, if your Chrisianity needs Yoga/Hinduism, perhaps you need to question your beliefs...a Christian (nor any other religion)can not pick and choose their tenets. Convert and practice one religion honestly. "Not treating yoga as a religion..." is like saying I'll take Communion but it is has nothing to do with religion. Do you get the insanity of what you and many are doing? Religion is the form to Spirituality, which means incorppreal, the two can not be separated. Delusion, stealing, misrepresenting,etc. is "dark" and most asuredly will bring one "down." What makes one feel good is not always good. Choose a path and stick to it. Do not take sacred Hindu texts and say it is not Hindu.

11:46 AM  
Blogger starlight said...

Dear Yati, thank you for continuing to share your opinions. I understand, respect and appreciate your point of view, but I don't share it simply because my experience with yoga has not diluted my faith. It has simply complemented it. I have never seen religion and spirituality as one and the same, so perhaps that is where we should agree to disagree. To me, you don't need a structured religion to be spiritual. I'm a little more liberal in that sense and it has worked for me so far. I am of the belief that there are many ways to the Truth - I have chosen the path of Catholicism and that will not change. Yoga is one of the vehicles that I use to to travel this path. Thank you again, Yati, for sharing your stand and I hope it gives clarity to readers of this blog who are reevaluating their stand on this matter.

6:15 AM  

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