The reason i never blog anymore is all this silly anthropology i study. i get too sick of writing papers to really want to write on my blog. so how about an anth paper folks?
its for anthropology of religion. the assignment was to attend a religious service/ceremony or take a secular practice that has aspects of ritual in it and apply course concepts. what did i use? well duh, a yoga class. if you spot any typos/have comments let me know, its due thursday!
Yoga is a practice of Eastern spirituality that is gaining increasing popularity in the West. While many Westerners think of their yoga practice as secular, yoga classes retain many ritual elements. I am a certified yoga instructor and I teach a number of classes each week in studios and community centres. When I teach, it is important for me to differentiate yoga from mere physical exercise by incorporating elements of ritual. This paper will explore the significance of these rituals and relate them to theoretical concepts in the Anthropology of Religion.
In her paper “Transcendental Meditation, Reiki and Yoga: Suffering, Ritual and Self-Transformation,” Garrett, a sociologist as well as yoga practitioner, examines yoga as a form of ritual in Western contexts. She claims that “rituals are often used as initiations from one form of subjectivity to another” and that practitioners approach yoga, as a ritual, as a means of self-transformation (Garrett 2001:329). I often ask my students why they choose to take yoga classes. Although some of my students come seeking physical transformation in the form of weight loss or relief from physical pain, the majority are seeking transformations of their mental state: to reduce stress, relieve anxiety, or find a sense of calmness. An even broader transformation may be sought: to ‘work on myself,’ to learn acceptance, reconnect with ‘something bigger’ or ‘move towards closer union with the divine.’
Garrett says that yoga is “a constant process of initiation, an ongoing training devoted to deepening knowledge of the body,” and then, according to its philosophical roots in Hinduism, to ultimately transcend the body (337). As a process of initiation and transformation, a yoga class may be considered a rite of passage and would thus fit into van Gennep’s (2002:130) model for the stages of ritual rites of passage. Using a typical yoga class that I teach at a studio I will explain van Gennep’s three stages of ritual: separation, liminality, and incorporation. Turner, who has also developed important theories of ritual, defines ritual more narrowly than I do in this paper. However, his emphasis on symbols has influenced my analysis of yoga as a ritual. For Turner, rituals must involve spirits or mystical beings and this may be the case for some yoga practitioners but it is not the norm. Turner (2002:123) finds that among the Ndembu, “Each kind of ritual may be regarded as a configuration of symbols.” Turner also emphasized the study of the dynamics of social interactions. It is through ritual symbols that social interactions are made possible and maintained (Hicks 2002:122). In a yoga class, gestures, postures and the use of metaphorical language symbolize what the individual should experience and what the experience of relationship between student and teacher in the class should be.
In van Gennep’s first stage of ritual, separation, the individual is removed from their original state. The yoga student enters the yoga studio space and changes into yoga clothing (typically form fitting, comfortable stretchy cotton). They separate themselves further from their everyday state when they enter the yoga room: they become more quiet, collect the necessary props for the class such as blocks to sit on, and unroll their yoga mat on the floor which creates their delineated space upon which they will ‘do yoga.’ I, the teacher, motion that class will begin by sitting down at the front of the room, facing my students. I begin by instructing my students in how to take a seated position with good posture. I then invite them to close their eyes and become aware of how they are feeling, noticing the thoughts and feelings they have brought with them to the practice. I invite them to turn their awareness inwards to their breath, shifting the focus away from those thoughts and feelings. This is a period of transition, of coming into a greater awareness of the body and mind.
Next we enter into the liminal stage, in which van Gennep (2002:130) says that clear-cut status is lost,; we are “in between.” In a yoga class, this phase is the bulk of the class, where I lead students through postures, called asanas. Before beginning the asana practice, I lead the class in singing the sound of aum together three times. I have been taught that sound is the original sound of the universe, and in singing it we reconnect with the Universal Source of energy for our practice. In beginner classes, often no one or only few will sing along with me in the aums. In classes with students that have been with me for several months more students join in. Usually if a few loud people sing out, others will join in also. If it is a more advanced class, a chant is also sung. The chant in Sanskrit that I teach my students is typically sung at classes taught in the Anusara style of yoga:
Om Namah Shivaya Gurave
I offer myself to the Light, the Auspicious One, who is the True Teacher within and without,
Who assumes the forms of Reality, Consciousness, and Bliss
Who is never absent and is full of peace,
Independent in existence, the vital essence of Illumination.
The aums and chant underscore liminality because students are invited to let go of their previous ego-centred self. They connect to a Universal Source of energy/The Light/The True Teacher through the chanting of aum or by singing a chant like the one above and they join their voice with the teacher and other students. It is important to note, that although these more “spiritual” or philosophical parts of the yoga class are offered, not all students participate, some remaining quiet during chanting. As the teacher, I explicitly give the choice to participate by telling students to join in as they like or feel comfortable.
The liminal stage continues as we move into the asanas, the physically active part of the class. Students move together as I instruct. In our day-to-day lives, we choose how and when to move our bodies, at least to some degree. In a yoga class, students defer the freedom to move as they choose; they are in different state where a teacher directs their movement. Many of the asanas, in name and form, invoke symbols in Hindu mythology or embody characteristics of animals. One example is virabhadrasana, or warrior pose, which refers to the Bhagavad-Gita where a symbolic battle is being fought against self-ignorance. I plan my classes so that asanas fit together in a sequence, poses progressively opening the body and eventually bringing the students into a peak pose, the most difficult pose or sequence of poses that brings the class to a climax physically and emotionally. Then I follow with postures that are gentler, preparing students for final relaxation. The final pose is savasana, which is translated as corpse pose. Students lie on their backs, with palms facing up for about five to ten minutes. During savasana I encourage students to let the body go completely,; there should be no effort in the pose. I also instruct them how to gradually let the mind go, trying to suspend the busyness of thinking for several minutes. This pose can be seen as a symbolic end to the liminal stage in which the old self dies.
The last phase of van Gennep’s triad is incorporation; it begins as we end savasana. Students are awakened from their relaxation (not sleep) gently by the sound of a bell. While still in the lying on their backs, I invite students to become aware of their breath, and then slowly bring movement back into their bodies. Next, I tell students to roll onto their right side, and “check in with how you are feeling:” noticing the breath, sensations in the body, thoughts in the mind, and emotions. Then I invite students to slowly move into the cross-legged seated posture that we began with at the start of class. Here students have entered into a new state; it is often evident from their body language that they are more relaxed and peaceful than when they began. I invite students to again close their eyes and bring their focus to the breath, becoming aware of how their bodies feel in the new state. We then sing the sound of aum together one time. The class ends when I say the word namaste with my palms together in a prayer position over my heart,; at the end of the word I take my hands to my forehead bowing to my students and they do the same bowing to me and one another. In India namaste is a common greeting that literally means “I bow to you,” but in yoga classes (at least in the West) we translate it as meaning “the light within me honours the light within you.” The meaning assigned to this word in yoga classes is significant. It signifies the transformation that has occurred throughout the class, whereby the individual transcends their small self (ego) and connections with something larger, a “light” or “spirit’” that is thought to reside in all.
Human action, according to Leach, serves two purposes: to do things, “altering the physical state of the world,” or to “say things,” communicate information, particularly information about human relationships (Leach 2002:118). Leach argues that the term ritual is “best used to denote this communicative aspect of behavior” (119). Yoga alters the physical state of students, providing exercise as well as relaxation. Yoga has come to signify a number of things in our society: health, relaxation, the East. In taking yoga classes individuals might be communicating their interest in improving their health, their need for stress-reduction, their desire to be more self aware or their curiosity about “Eastern” or “New Age” spirituality.
The symbols within a yoga class also communicate important information about students and their relationship with each other and with the teacher, and also about the transformation of the ego through yoga. Turner (2002:124) explains that symbols in Ndembu ritual “connects the unknown to the known.” In the process of ritual, the “unknown, invisible, hidden” may be revealed and in turn what is private may be made public, what is personal may be made social. Among the Ndembu this process allows social tensions that may at other times threaten the cohesion and continuity of the group to be expressed in ritual and dealt with in a socially acceptable way. These processes, of revealing the unknown, hidden and invisible occur on several levels in a yoga class.
The first unknown is the body. There are few contexts in the West when we are encouraged to actually pay attention and be aware of our bodies, especially not in the context of a group. In a yoga class, I teach students to become aware of their breath and how it changes and affects movement, of the way that the body moves within space, and of the way that parts of the body move in relation to one another. I also encourage students to allow bodily processes that are normally expected to be hidden in social situations to be exposed throughout the class; for example, by telling students that it is normal for certain poses to cause them to pass gas. (One instance is pavanamuktasana, a supine pose, where one knee is drawn into the chest. The Sanskrit word pavana means air or wind and mukta means release, therefore this is the "wind relieving posture" and often releases trapped gas in the intestines). Another example is that I ask my female students to tell me when they are on their menstrual cycle as it is beneficial to modify some asanas at during this time. Here women are asked to reveal to a group of other students whom they may not know at all a matter that is normally expected to be kept private and cleanly concealed. In yoga classes the teacher creates a space in which students can experience their bodies and even reveal aspects of their bodies in ways that are not normally socially sanctioned. Here the private realm of the body is experienced publicly. However, there is a contrast from Turner’s theory of Ndembu ritual here. Turner argues that by expression of anti-social sentiment in ritual contexts, individuals “are purged of rebellious wishes and emotions and willing to conform once more to public mores” (2002:124). Although I don’t think my students will start passing gas in other public contexts due to their yoga studies, it is my hope, and I think the hope of many teachers that through yoga students will become more comfortable sharing about specific functions such as menstruation, and become more aware of their bodies and their health in general.
Several of the components in the ritual of a yoga class symbolize what is happening to the ego. These symbols, which are acted out physically and verbally, make public and social the more personal or private psychological experience of transcending the ego. Students come to a class as individuals, with their egos intact. In the separation phase they prepare themselves to begin to transcend the ego. In the liminal phase the teacher guides them through this process by performing asanas, such as virabhadrasana, which may symbolize the battle to defeat the ego.
The final asana, corpse pose, is a symbolic death of the ego, after which the student is reborn in a state of oneness with the other students and the teacher, so that they are all carrying the same light within themselves. Richard Rosen (2009), a well-respected yoga teacher and author, writes, “In Corpse Pose, we symbolically ‘die’ to our old ways of thinking and doing. The normally perceived boundaries of body image dissolve, and we enter a state of blissful neutrality.” This state of oneness is communicated by the gesture and vocalization of namaste that ends the class. Aadil Palkhivala, a prominent teacher in the Iyengar style of yoga explains, “For a teacher and student, Namaste allows two individuals to come together energetically to a place of connection and timelessness, free from the bonds of ego-connection” (2009). This word is a symbol that communicates the relationship between student and teacher. Palkhivala continues, “If it is done with deep feeling in the heart and with the mind surrendered, a deep union of spirits can blossom.” This symbolic gesture and word reveals a common sentiment between students and teacher that may otherwise be hidden, and that is normally only expressed between individuals who are in very close relationship.
Van Gennep’s model for the phases of ritual provide a viable framework for examining the journey of letting go of the ego and coming into a peaceful state of oneness that is an underlying goal of yoga. Yoga differs from Turner’s theories of ritual in some respects, but his insights to symbolism in ritual apply to yoga in a number of ways, particularly as pertains to processes of revelation and making the private public and the personal social. In contrast to Turner’s perception of ritual as a bounded event in time, the practice of yoga forms a ritual that can continue to influence the individual’s mental and physical state long after the ritual actions are over. Many students report a sense of mental clarity and physical well-being that persist through the remainder of the day after a yoga session. For some, yoga begins to approach the status of religion in their lives. I practice yoga regularly every morning, as many people might begin their day with scripture reading or prayer. Yoga becomes a resource to turn to in times of stress and anxiety, and a means to celebrate on a joyful sunny morning. In fact, yoga has become so integrated into my life that I will often do a sequence of poses as a study break, or while I am having a relaxed conversation with friends. This practice might be compared to the pervasiveness of prayer in the life of a devoted Christian, Jew or Muslim. In a functionalist sense, yoga and its accompanying philosophy provides much the same framework for understanding the world and interpreting events as any established religion. In this way, it surpasses merely the practice of ritual and encompasses the realm of belief as well.
2001 Transcendental Meditation, Reiki and Yoga: Suffering, Ritual, and Self-Transformation. Journal of Contemporary Religion 16(3):329-342.
Hicks, David, ed.
2002 Ritual and Belief. Second ed. Boston: McGraw Hill.
2002 Ritual. In Ritual and Belief. David Hicks, ed. Pp. 114-121. Boston: McGraw Hill.
2009 The Meaning of "Namaste". Electronic documnt, http://www.yogajournal.com.proxy.lib.uwaterloo.ca/basics/822.
2009 The Purpose of Corpse Pose. Electronic documnt, http://www.yogajournal.com.proxy.lib.uwaterloo.ca/basics/824.
2002 Ritual Symbolism, Morality, and Social Structure among the Ndembu. In Ritual and Belief. David Hicks, ed. Pp. 122-129. Boston: McGraw Hill.
van Gennep, Arnold
2002 Conclusions. In Ritual and Belief. David Hicks, ed. Pp. 129-133. Boston: McGraw Hill.