According to the article “Ritual [Further Considerations]” in the Encyclopedia of Religion, “The term ritual remains difficult to define...For these reasons, ritual has been identified in many unexpected places” (Bell, web). However, if we consider what Mircea Eliade has to say about ritual within a culture, we can identify that one use of ritual is to manifest the sacred in an otherwise profane world, what he would term “heirophany...or that something sacred shows itself to us” (Eliade, 11). Through the yoga asana practices of our modern day, students are able to create this heirophany within themselves and experience not just the space in which they practice as sacred, but their own existence becomes sacred as the yoga practice allows the manifestation of the sacred to irrupt within them. As they do this, they move within their own life as an embodiment of the sacred, which gives the practitioner an elevated state of mind. What Patanjali would call in the Yoga Sutra “chitta prasadanam” or, blessed mind-stuff (Yoga Sutra 1.33).
In his article on Yoga in The Encyclopedia of Religion, Eliade states that through the practice of asana, “one arrives at a certain neutralization of the senses; consciousness is no longer troubled by the presence of the body. Furthermore, a tendency toward "unification" and "totalization" is typical of all yogic practices. Their goal is the transcendence (or the abolition) of the human condition” (Eliade, Yoga, web). As Eliade discusses in his book, The Sacred and the Profane, the irruption of the sacred from the profane can occur just about anywhere. Within the yogic practices, the irruption occurs internally as the practitioner uses the tools of yoga to shed any profanity, or impurity (in Sanskrit, avidya) within the body and mind in order to view oneself and one’s very own existence as sacred. While yoga practitioners may not initially join their local yoga studio expressly for this benefit, this benefit, nonetheless arises. Generally, the initial pull into the yoga studio is the physical ritual itself and its more physical benefits of greater flexibility and health.
The primary yoga practice of this modern day phenomenon is asana, literally “seat” in Sanskrit and it is the physical movements that often resemble a fancy combination of acrobatics and aerobics. This is a very modern development of the practice of asana, as initially the practice was the seat of meditation. In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali describes asana as a way to singularly focus the body to and “is the first concrete step taken with a view to abolishing the modalities peculiar to the human condition” (Eliade, Yoga, web). As modern day yoga practitioners move through their various asanas, or postures, with one another in a studio, or even guided in their living room by one of the popular contemporary instructors via DVD or video streaming, they are doing a practice that helps them refocus their entire body and mind away from the mundane, or what Eliade would call the profane, in order to elevate their consciousness and reinsert themselves into their lives after the practice as a more sacralized human being. The practice of yoga is a mystical one, meaning it is an internalized process of using the body to create a physical experience that will elevate the practitioner’s mind and state of wellbeing. All of the various practices of yoga will do this, though the contemporary focus is on asana.
And so, millions of practitioners flock to yoga asana practice and move and breathe together creating a modern, ritualized expression of the millenia-old yoga practice. The style of modern day yoga is largely a physical one consisting of postures known in the lexicon as asanas. These asanas move the body in various ways giving the yogi (one who practices yoga) not only flexibility and strength, but also a movement practice that allows them to embody yoga’s deeper benefits. The general course of a group yoga class in the various venues throughout the country will start with students in some kind of seated, or grounded position. From there, students typically warm up in a movement style called a “sun salutation.” This series reflects a type of full-body prayer or prostration done by pilgrims in India throughout the millennia, with the body beginning initially in a standing position, and eventually making its way to a type of bow where the body is closer to the ground, eventually coming back up to stand. The class then progresses with various postures that represent various forms of nature.
There are bird poses, sage poses, angular poses, poses to different Hindu deities, and all these postures help the practitioner to experience themselves as each of these aspects of their world. The practitioner embodies the tree in tree pose, learns how the bird tucks its wings underneath him in crane pose, and finds the three angles in his or her own body in a triangle pose. Each of these asanas gives not only a physical experience of embodiment, but also a psychological opportunity to shed the ego and experience oneself as a part of a greater continuum. As a physical ritual, the practice concludes with corpse pose, known as shavasana in Sanskrit, where the practitioner emulates a dead body by lying quietly and statically on the ground for a period of time. This little death symbolically ends the physical ritual by allowing the practitioner’s physical body to relax, and his or her psychological body to release any lingering hold by the ego, reflecting what Eliade said, in order to “transcend the human condition.” (Eliade, Yoga, web).
And while many practitioners may not initially come to the physical practice of yoga in order to “transcend the human condition” and sacralize their life-experience in their world, many are lead to the deeper aspects of yoga simply through the physical ritual of the practice. The asana itself, with its integration of movement and breath, its ritualized group enactment and its place in yoga studios, which have swiftly become the new community centers of the modern era, eventually lead many of the most skeptical yogis to a deeper awareness of their physical, mental and psychological well-being. According to a study by Smith, Greer, et al, “participants in both the integrated and exercise yoga groups experienced decreased depression and stress, an increased sense of hopefulness, and increased flexibility compared to the control group” (Smith, EBSCO). Essentially, the yoga always does its job whether the practitioner comes to the practice hoping for an elevated state of mind (chitta prasadanam in Sanskrit), or whether the practitioner only intended to get a decent stretch and effective workout.
In terms of Eliade’s description of ritual as an irruption of the sacred, the benefits of yoga elevate the state of mind of the practitioner, resulting in their experience of themselves as sacred. Yoga practitioners begin their practice in a different state of mind than when they leave it, no matter whether they show up simply for the physical benefits or not, the yoga essentially accomplishes its own goal of creating internal sacrality within the yogi, or as Eliade states, yoga ‘always has a soteriological purpose, for it is by knowledge of ultimate reality that humanity, casting off the illusions of the world of phenomena, awakens and discovers the true nature of spirit (ātman, puruṣa)” (Eliade, Yoga, web). As an embodied ritual, yoga has the potential to elevate the yogi out of their mundane experience to experience all life as sacred, as that is how they will view it from the lens of their own elevated state of mind.
By Alanna Kaivalya
Alanna Kaivalya, has a mission: to convey a sense of joy and freedom through harmony and synchronicity, which she does beautifully through her classes, workshops, writing, and music. Alanna is known for her ability to translate the ancient practice of yoga into a modern day context. Visit Alanna's website and learn about the Kaivalya Yoga Method at AlannaK.com.
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Bell, Catherine M. "Ritual [Further Considerations]." Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. 2nd ed. Vol. 11. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. 7848-7856. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 4 Mar. 2013.
Eliade, Mircea, and Willard R. Trask. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1959. Print.
Eliade, Mircea. "Yoga." Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. 2nd ed. Vol. 14. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. 9893-9897. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 6 Mar. 2013.
Smith, Andy J., Tammy Greer, and Timothy Sheets. "Is There More to Yoga Than Exercise?" Alternative Therapies in Health & Medicine 17.3 (2011): 22-29.Academic Search Complete. Web. 6 Mar. 2013.
"Yoga Statistics." Statistic Brain RSS. N.p., 12 July 2012. Web. 04 Mar. 2013.
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