Yoga class in the Western world is generally a bunch of hot babes meeting up and getting all sorts of flexible. However, traditional Yoga is a mind and body practice that originated from the Hinduism religion. While Yoga itself is not a religion, I found it to be as powerful as any major religion out there. Major religions serve two main purposes. They explain why we’re here, and they teach followers how to connect with a higher being or universal spirit. Before I came to India I had never thought of Yoga as a spiritual practice; however, after trying it myself, I saw firsthand the truly powerful forces of this practice.
One goal of my trip was to experience true Hindu spirituality, but after three weeks in India I hadn’t come close to finding it. This was not because the opportunity wasn’t there; it was because I did not know what to look for. After learning that Yoga is a Hindu practice I thought that taking a class might be a good way to sample the Hindu religion. I was hesitant because of the few Yoga classes that I had tried in America. These classes were good because they improved muscle flexibility and tendon strength, but I never got the impression that there was much more to them.
I was Kochi, India when I decided to seek out a Yoga spot. I wandered around the town until I found signs that read “YOGA”. I followed them to the end and found myself in a yard with a small hut. I didn’t think that it was the right place, but I gave a knock on the rickety door. A small Indian man opened the door revealing a surprisingly spacious Yoga room. The man’s name was Sahgen, and he was the instructor. He was in the middle of giving a lesson over the internet to one of his students in California, but he invited me in and asked me sit down.
When he finished he directed his attention to me. I folded my legs into a Yoga resting position, and he began to share his philosophies.
“Breath in. Feel the oxygen coming from the plants and the trees. Breathe out. Feel the carbon dioxide returning to the plants and the trees.”
I did as instructed. I focused on the air: tasting it, straight from the plants. Then I released it, giving it back to the plants. We continued for a few minutes until Sahgen felt I was ready for some more advanced Yoga philosophy.
“Do you eat meat?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Because animal protein is good for you.”
“Elephant eat only vegetables and grow up to be mightiest of all beasts,” he explained. He made a good point. He did only weigh about 110 lbs though.
“Oh I see what you mean.”
I prefer not to argue with the hard core vegans. It’s never a conversation that really goes anywhere. Plus I had no desire to convert him to the wonderful world of meat. The off chance that I converted him would just mean I would have another carnivore to compete with over Earth’s precious food supply. Better not to risk it.
“Dog jaws work like this,” he continued. He made a chomping motion to mimic a dog’s inflexible jaws. “Dog made to eat meat. Our jaws work like this.” He made a grinding motion with his mouth to mimic human jaws. “You see. It same as cow, same as elephant.”
He made another good point……I was ready for stretching, but still not ready to give up eating God’s delicious creatures.
I noticed a dog scurrying around in his backyard. My argument to him would have been that by having a dog he was sustaining a carnivorous animal, and therefore he was indirectly causing the death of other animals. His dog would undoubtedly hunt rabbits and mice and other little creatures. I imagine that he would have made a chomping motion with his jaws and tell me that the dog is naturally designed to eat other animals and therefore it’s ok for a dog to do so because it is part the natural circle of life. However, by sustaining a dog that nature could not sustain on its own, he was intervening with nature and creating an imbalance in the natural circle of life. He was good willed because he was caring for the life of another creature, but on a deeper level he failed to see the conflict with this action and his own beliefs. His human intervention sustained a predatory creature which nature would otherwise not permit as nature limits the amount of predators based on the food supply.
My mind was racing, but I held my tongue. I was there to learn his beliefs, and not to taint them with my own.
By the time we were done talking five other students were in the room waiting for class to start. I grabbed a mat and Sahgen began leading the class. We went through an active routine of stretches. We started with a hip stretch where we put one leg flat on the ground and our opposite foot as far forward as possible. We went into a lower back arch and then moved to a downward dog stretch where we put our butts high in the air and straightened out our legs to get a calf stretch. We ended the set by standing up and alternating between touching our toes and doing a backward bend. We repeated this several times.
Despite the peaceful environment, I could not keep my mind from wandering. I asked myself, “What is natural?” Creatures evolve in the wild to eat new food sources all the time. When a specific creature can successfully digest and convert a new food source into energy, it slowly evolves until a new species emerges that has a niche advantage in eating that particular food source.
As man was evolving, certain humans learned how to survive the harsh northern habitats by wearing furs and hunting the animals in cold climates. When we think of early man, we generally picture cavemen in animal furs hunting mammoths in the frozen tundra. However, these cavemen were well evolved over their predecessors. These cavemen had developed an advantage and capitalized on the lower competition for food in the harsher climates. The effect was that a primarily vegetarian creature was able to sustain itself on meat and live in an area that was uninhabitable for humans prior to that point in time. Thus, population boomed due to man’s newfound and “unnatural” source of food.
Humans in warm weather climates also realized advantages by hunting animals instead of gathering plants. The humans that hunted found a larger supply of food that they could harness with less effort required than gathering. This allowed early cavemen clans to sustain larger populations which improved their chances of survival against other clans. It also provided them with more free time do other things. While most cavemen probably just used this free time to party around the fire and squabble over caveman babes, many used the free time to create better weapons and tools which gave them further advantage over rival clans.
Humans evolved above their “natural” state and became something more. Perhaps eating vegetables was better for long term health, but eating meat improved the odds of survival in the real world.
Despite that fact that my views were conflicting to Sahgen’s I was thoroughly enjoying the session. Sahgen instructed us to measure a distance with our hands, put our heads down on the mat, and jump up into a head stand. I did as he said and maintained the position by keeping my keeping my abs flexed tightly. I held it for a few minutes and then sat back down.
A strong sensation came over me. I cannot quite describe it in words because I had never felt anything quite like it, but somehow I felt spiritually connected to the world around me. I took a minute to look around the room. I admired the beauty of the bare walls. I appreciated the small gathering of ants in the corner. The fitness Yoga I had tried in America didn’t come close to this experience.
I had thought that I would have to go to a Hindu temple, dress up as a monk, and meditate without food or water for seven days in order to feel true Hindu spirituality. However, I discovered in this moment that none of that was necessary. I had found Hindu spirituality right in Sahgen’s crudely made hut.
We finished off by sitting strait up and chanting to the Hindu gods. “Ohhhh-mmmmmmmm,” “Rrrrrrraaaammmmm,” “Huuuuummmmmmm.”
Then Sahgen turned the main lights on. I felt recharged and energized. My body felt great and I felt completely aware of the world around me.
Although I have found most spiritual Yoga instructors to be a little kooki, this experience showed me that Yoga is a great practice for people to participate in. I would go as far to argue that Yoga could be religion on its own. It promotes interconnectedness with all beings on the planet. This does not directly satisfy the first question that religions should answer, which is to explain why we are here, but after enough meditations students will understand that this explanation is not something that can be understood through words or writing alone. It also satisfies the second important aspect of religion because, through the meditations and exercises, it teaches its students how to connect with the spirituality of the world, which is the equivalent of a higher power in other religions.
Aside from these spiritual benefits, Yoga improves the students’ flexibility and drastically reduces their risk of injury from physical activities. These are tangible benefits that actually benefit them “in this world”. Even if the students start for the physical benefits, the spiritual aspect eventually grows on them, and Yoga becomes more than just a series of exercises. Ultimately, if people give their time to this practice, it gives back in the short term by improving health and in the long term by providing a sense of spirituality.
When the class ended it was almost 7 PM. I couldn’t believe almost 3 hours had gone by. I hadn’t eaten since noon, so I stopped at a local restaurant on the way home. They were advertising a fresh catch of jumbo Tiger shrimp. It sounded delicious. I felt my carnivorous, evolved human lust for animal flesh take over me. The waiter came over to take my order. I looked at him and put my finger on the line of the menu that said “Tiger shrimp”. Then right before my eyes the waiter’s face began to blur, and his facial features began to change. I rubbed my eyes and looked at him again. It was not the waiter that was taking my order, but it was Sahgen. He was giving me the evil eye and moving his jaws around like a proper vegetarian creature. I thought better and slid my finger down the menu and away from the seafood section.
“I think I’ll have the vegetable curry please.”