I went to India for two primary reasons: to expand my knowledge of yoga and to deepen my spiritual practice. Looking back, I realized this trip could better be described as an Ignatian Yoga pilgrimage – I weaved in and out of Jesuit communities and Yoga centers, I practiced different forms of yoga while remaining grounded in Ignatian spirituality each day, I learned from countless people rooted in either traditional yoga or Ignatian spirituality, and from several steeped in both of these traditions. My hope is that the Ignatian Yoga community can benefit from the knowledge gained from this experience and join me on another India pilgrimage in the future!!
Between December 23 and January 24, I visited four ashrams in south India — Sameeksha, Sivananda, Isha, and Shantivanam–along with Jesuit communities and family homes. (“Ashram” is a Sanskrit word referring to a residential center for spiritual learning and practice). Each ashram differed in size, history, leadership, and connection to larger institutions. Sameeksha and Shantivanam were founded and run by members of Catholic religious orders with the aim to integrate Christian spirituality and Indian culture and spirituality. Sivananda and Isha are two large Yoga centers founded by Indian yogis dedicated to passing on the ancient wisdom of yoga to spiritual seekers from around the world.
Although a trip like this is difficult to put into words, here are four themes that convey some aspect of the experience: grateful, stretched, confirmed, and drawn into silence.
- Grateful: The opportunity to travel abroad, step outside my culture and comfort zone, and experience new food, music, language, dress, and customs was a gift. I am deeply grateful to Jesuit superiors for the time and resources for my travels, to the many Indian Jesuits for the hospitality or companionship they offered, the generous family who took me in on three occasions, teachers at the yoga centers, and the many new friends I met from India and around the world.
- Stretched: The level of comfort, efficiency, and material consumption deemed normal in the United States is, well, quite unique to most of the world. On many occasions in India, I came in touch with my attachments to control, comfort, privacy, autonomy, and independence. Indian culture challenged me to recognize and confront many of my attachments. I was stretched physically and mentally in numerous ways: a lot of time seated on the floor for spiritual practice and meals, limited phone/internet connection, inability to control time, language and cultural barriers, and lack of personal space.
- Confirmed: A lot has happened with Ignatian Yoga in the past few years as we have explored bringing together two vast traditions. And yet questions persist: How do we respect and do justice to both the Christian and Yoga traditions? I wanted to go to India to gain more clarity about being Catholic and a yogi. Not surprisingly, there are no easy answers. The religious and cultural context in India is very different from that in United States. It is important to learn from the wisdom and knowledge of India and to carefully discern how to embrace this wisdom in a Western context. We still have a lot of work to do. Our team continues to educate ourselves in Indian philosophy and spirituality, Christian theology and spirituality, modern psychology, and how to embrace the “signs of the times.”
- Drawn into silence: Most of all, my trip to India challenged me to slow down. Slow down the thinking and problem-solving mind. Slow down the pace of life, activity and consumption. Slow down trying to control and figure it all out. Slow the breath. Silence.
A whole new dimension of yoga opened up for me. I now have a deeper, felt-sense understanding of yoga as the union between the individual soul (true self) and Divine Spirit (Christ consciousness). This is the depth and core of yoga and the spiritual life as I currently see it. I seek to participate in this dynamic encounter – to believe that God seeks to be part of creation and deepen within each created being, to believe God desires union with creation and, in turn, that all creation desires union with this Source and Ground of our being. I like to call this Christ consciousness.
Some final thoughts:
- Yoga is universal and can be practiced by people of any or no religious tradition. However, if we claim to “do yoga” it is our duty to learn and be sensitive to the place and people before us. Do your research. Know the various pargas (bhakti yoga, jnana yoga, karma yoga, raja yoga). Read the Yoga Sutras, Bhagavad Gita, Light on Yoga, Heart of Yoga, and other foundational texts. Be an ongoing learner. Ask questions. Be prudent in the ways you adapt yoga.
- The asana portion of yoga is just one part of yoga. It is important to consider the various margas (paths) of yoga: bhakti, jnana, karma yoga, and raja yoga.
- Eastern spirituality (including Eastern Christianity, other religions, and Wisdom traditions) has much to teach us in the West. Learn from it. Challenge & question the ways Euro-centrism and Ameri-centrism show up within your spiritual life.