Years ago in the Shala in Lakshmipurram one of the students asked Guruji which God they should worship. Guruji replied “Pick a God, any God, it doesn’t matter”. Of course as a Brahman Indian, Guruji meant any god in the Hindu pantheon, but he went on to say that when you put a picture of God in front of you to worship it was not the picture that is God. This is just a representation of what God is, just as each different god in the Hindu pantheon represents a different aspect of what God is. He told us that there is only one God and that God encompasses all, so it does not matter which god we worship, as long as we do worship.
Years later, after Guruji had passed on, a student asked Sharath at his workshop in Auckland if Ashtanga Yoga was Bhakti Yoga. Sharath replied that all Yoga is Bhakti Yoga. If your practice is not devotional, then it is not Yoga.
How do these two statements relate to us Western Practitioners and in what way should they effect the way we practice? For myself, they align perfectly with my approach to my practice. When I first started to practice Yoga, back in 1992, I did it for almost entirely physical reasons. I needed to do something nice for my body after hammering it for 10 years as a full time shearer. From the moment that Guruji looked into my eyes after a practice on my first trip to Mysore in 1994, that attitude changed.
I think that I should go back a little here. I was baptised, took first communion and was confirmed in the Catholic faith, but my family was almost completely secular. During my early teens I became sceptical of “churches” as it became obvious to me that so many of the atrocities and much of the fighting that was being done all around the world was being done in the name of religion (and still is). I could not, and still cannot, reconcile a belief in God with acts of violence against fellow humans. I retained a strong belief in a universal energy but needed to find a way that I could express that in my own terms.
Many years later, it is my Ashtanga Yoga practice that fills that gap for me. It is through my practice that I express my devotion. At the start of every practice as I chant the mantram I give thanks to those who passed Yoga down to us and I also offer up what I do the universal. It is through my practice that I connect with God, and the longer I practice the more this is evident.
Do you have to believe in God in order to practice Yoga? I believe that if you want to practice Yoga in the sense that Guruji and Sharath think of Yoga, then you do.
Is there anything to be gained by practising Yoga asana without belief in God? Of course there is. The physical benefits of a Yoga practice have been proven for a long time now. There is nothing better that you can do for your body than a regular Yoga practice.
Do you need to have a belief in God to live a good, happy and moral life? I don’t think that you do. Every religion has its moral code. Yoga has Yama and Niyama. But it seems to me that if you want to be content then you should treat those around you with compassion and honesty and this starts with treating yourself with compassion and honesty. This has nothing to do with Faith, .. it is simply common sense. For me, Ashtanga Yoga is the best tool I have found to engender compassion and honesty in myself. At the same time it is my daily ritual in which I express my gratitude to the Universal Spirit and feel my ultimate connection with everything around me.
What does this mean in the context of my practice? It means that it is through my practice that I connect with and nurture the universal energy. In this way I give thanks for the miracle that is my physical body. It also means that I bow to the lotus feet of my Guru. In other words, I practice as I was taught by Guruji. I don’t try to second guess the method he showed me. I don’t try to meld it with “modern scientific knowledge”. I surrender to the wisdom of those who came before me, and practice. I know that some people find this restricting, but I am yet to find the boundary of what Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga has to teach me.