Sound Against Flame: The Process of Yoga and Atheism in America

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excerpt from
Sound Against Flame: The
Process of Yoga and Atheism in America by Derek Beres, out now from Outside
the Box Publishing

half-cocked-brow gaze over slightly glazed eyes when I tried to explain the
premise of my book to friends insured that I'd have some serious
explaining to do. A comparative philosophy book on the practices of yoga and
atheism, two systems with so (seemingly) little in common? Trying to establish
a common ground between a devotional practice with images of blue-skinned,
elephant-headed, flute-playing gods, and the complete opposite, the blasphemous
idea of no God at all? Beyond a surface grazing – that of a South Asian spiritual
practice mostly known in America as an exercise routine and for polytheistic
iconography, alongside the outright denial of a Supreme Anything – there is
plenty of shared wisdom. The premise of this work, and the underlying
foundation of both yoga and atheism, directly pertains to the experience of life, not the abstraction
of it.

There is little surprise that these
two forms of belief/practice (or unbelief, depending on your definition) are
the most rapidly expanding philosophies in our country. This is not to deny the
brute strength of megachurches growing like wild weeds across the nation. (And
this is not to necessitate the idea that such churches are inherently bad for
us, as many atheists, as well as many sitting on the fence in the God question,
put forth.) True, we are a Christian nation. There is little doubt about that.
Even if we do not claim that as our faith, the forms of thought that arise in
our brains have been conditioned by a specific cause-and-effect,
rewards/benefits musculature defined and developed through biblical and
political training. Indeed, it is impossible not to have been taught in such a
manner if you have gone through the public school system. (And if you attended
a private school, all the more so, as religion has a strong hold on nearly all
of these institutions, as well as the majority of parents who home-school
children.) Churches, it must be remembered, constructed the original
educational system in America, so it is not surprising that the way we learn is
dictated by theology. In many ways, this psychological underpinning is more
relevant than outright belief, for when the manners in which we are conditioned
stay hidden, we become prime targets for anxiety, depression, social confusion
and general dis-ease.

What the basic ideological thinkers
of the three major religious traditions of the West – Christianity, Judaism and
Islam – have conceived is that your actions on this planet are preparations for
a) some sort of kingdom of which people of your faith will lord over, and b)
some form of afterlife, where a style of judgment will occur. This judgment
comes in many varieties. Some maintain that you can convert to the faith and be
"saved," while other sects are so bullheaded that only those born into families
of their specific faith are righteous. Regardless of the degree of severity,
anything done for another life beyond this one is rooted in egoistic idealism,
something both yoga and atheism (at their best) aim to dissolve. To get to the
roots of this comparison, which is just as much a survey of the social and
spiritual state of American ideologies as it is these two specific practices,
we will have to apply the wisdom of philosopher Daniel Dennett: "If we want to
understand the nature of religion today, as a natural phenomenon, we have to
look not just at what it is today, but at what it used to be." And this involves
looking into the way all humans used to be, not just examining the doctrines
passed down by a few men with specific agendas. The paths we will take may
surprise you, and may not always be pleasant, but they will prove worthwhile.

Yoga, while given an Indian veneer
due to its geographical roots, has been remixed and redefined in innumerable
ways in its two century-plus history on American soil. Today it is believed
that over forty million Americans have tried some form of yoga, and there is
little doubt that millions more are in tow. Yoga has successfully been transplanted
from a noun to a verb to an adjective, used to describe everything from the
physical asana practice to bread,
tea, clothing, and spa services. While there are many ways to dissect and explore
this aged philosophical system, we will focus on two: by utilizing the tools of
yoga that enrich the everyday through an appropriate understanding of the
symbolic references of its mythology, and by contemplating the importance of
the body (and how we treat it). We will look at these predominantly through the
gaze of jnana yoga, the yoga of
knowledge — otherwise known as the art of discrimination. I will not be confined
to one time period or culture in this investigation, and will do my best to
avoid the trappings of the modern yogi in this advice from anthropology
professor Joseph S. Alter: "If there is one single thing that characterizes the
literature on Yoga, it is repetition and redundancy in the guise of novelty and
independent invention."

Atheism is, believe it or not,
rooted in a similar soil. It was founded as a reaction to the political and
social situations of the surrounding environment by people yearning for
something deeper than the rigid and unscientific laws of religious codes. Yoga
too was a reaction, a fusing of the Samkhya philosophy and an ever-expanding
Vedic literature of differing schools of yoga, all of which opposed the façade
constructed by religious and political leaders. Like the Buddhism that grew
from yogic teachings, yoga was inherently atheistic, even if that specific term
had not yet been coined. The term comes from the Greek atheistos and originally meant a denial of the Athenian
establishment, not the flat-out refusal of a divine figurehead. Like most
concepts, it began to have a universal connotation as cultures picked up the
trend, and today is used in reference to anyone who does not believe in God.
Unlike the agnostic, who believes that there are certain things that cannot be
answered (or, put another way, that we ask the wrong questions), the atheist
has no room for fluffy mystery.

The question of belief plays a
major role in my thinking, though I want to make a precautionary note in the
usage of this word compared to the term faith. The two often walk hand-in-hand,
but there is a subtle, yet crucial difference, at least in the way I want to
approach them. Belief is the idea that something is true regardless of proof,
while faith relates to something instinctual and primal, and does not
necessarily have to be applied to a god. Faith is often defined as a belief,
but I want to reorient it for the context of this work. This constant default
of religionists to phrases like "It just is" is why the immediate colleague to
atheism, science, is in dismay over movements like those led by champions of
Intelligent Design (ID). There is simply nothing realistic in their claims. It
is pure, untested belief that only reflects their particular view on the world,
and not the actions and habits of the world itself. As Alan Watts wrote, "The
believer will open his mind to the truth on condition that it fits in with his
preconceived ideas and wishes." Cloaking science in biblical creationism with
no evidence does not make for good science, good religion, or even good

Let us treat faith as something
necessary to the human condition — not as an untested hypothesis, but the innate
ability to feel a connection to something beyond our everyday lives. More
importantly, let us try not to give it form, color or taste. I do not want to
label it, for there are already so many names and so little evidence that any
fit the description. It is more of a connection to instinct, a sort of
foresight that the experiences and the world at large are united as a process
moving at the same speed and in similar directions. It is important to remember
that both the words "yoga" and "religion" come from root words that mean
"union." And, as we will touch upon, it is the seemingly innocuous usage of
language that separates the innumerable aspects of what could be seen as part
of the same process — that is, life. Words, the letters and meaning that bring us
together, are equally perilous when used to divide.

What we're looking for is an
understanding of the process of life.
This is not an easy task, as it requires stripping away commonly accepted
companions to the ideologies under scrutiny: dogmas and rituals, of course,
although we need to go deeper than those. In order to grasp the process of an
idea, the iconography and visual/emotional association must also be removed.
Christmas cards, Easter eggs, mandalas, menorahs, cute little baby gods with
blue skin and sheep are parts of the manifestation of the process, but not the
process itself; they are forms, not essence. We have to get to the pure
process, of belief, of faith, as well as the promises that these supposedly
lead to: liberation, salvation and equanimity. We need to go beyond
"righteousness through Christ" and "liberation through yoga." We need to push
through the verb and get to the essence, which requires a proper understanding
of the symbolic meanings of rituals, and not the form that they happened to
take once, somewhere else.

Let's try an actual example. One day
I was dining with a fellow yoga teacher. We were planning a retreat, and before
either of us committed to anything, we had to make sure that our philosophies
played along well together. She told me that the foundation of her style was
that the "universe pulsates with love." Her system extended out from that idea,
one that she believed embodied the "true" nature of yoga. I then asked her why
it couldn't stop with the "universe pulsates." Why did love have to be the
definitive attachment to the universe? I reminded her that at the basis of yoga
was the shadow, and that by introducing a concept (love) you by default create
its opposite (hate). I suppose this is why the Buddha did not preach that
freedom arises from love, but from compassion. It's a much more sane
philosophy, and not so open to misinterpretation. Needless to say, we never
went on that retreat.

Having decided to devote my life to
the practice of yoga, there are many precepts that I adhere to. But I do not subscribe to them simply because some book told me to do so. Classic texts like
the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Patanjali's
Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita are important resources to
understanding the psychology and practicality of yoga. Books, however, are not
experiences; they are reflections of experiences. They do not suit each person,
as a suit will not fit every skin. As much as the atheism movement has lashed
against the hypocrisies and tyranny of Christianity, yoga is not free from such
unforgiving surveillance. The presentation of yoga in America has been
bastardized in many forms, and not all of them are helpful. Like cherry pickers
seeking out sweet sayings from biblical scripture, yogis are equally guilty of
accommodating their needs and discarding the rest (or, as is often the case,
not researching if a "rest" even exists).

Seeing a badly Photoshopped
rendering of a bearded man in a white robe sitting on a cloud does not help
promote the ideology of yoga, yet it appears constantly in the pages of yoga
and natural health publications. It cheapens the practice, pushing forth the
notion that a) there is an image to liberation and b) this particular person
embodies it. An idol is an idol, and what's worse, is idle. The earth does not
stop movement, and so has no need for fixed images. There is good reason that
you never see images of the Buddha gazing at you with a mask of anger, yet to
say that he never experienced such an emotion is to take away his humanity.

There is much good to be learned
from both yoga and atheism, and like mushrooms hiding under a canopy of leaves
in dark forests, sometimes it takes a little research. You have to know where,
and how, to look. There are also amazing benefits from religion, even as the
western model has manufactured it. We just cannot treat any of these paths as
the "goal." It is in this exact seeking of a goal – of some reward or
promise – that we lose ourselves, time and again. We need to be critical in our
pursuit, opening our deepest held beliefs for debate, and, what's more, being
compassionate in the process. Only through questioning will we uncover answers,
and we may even find there's more power in the former.

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