Friday, February 17, 2012

A Muslim Yogi's Affirmation

I am a practicing Muslim, I believe in Allah, I believe in the prophet Muhammad (PBUH), and I believe in the Koran. I also believe in Yoga. I believe in my breath and my sighs, in my angles and my curves, in my twists and my turns and the voice in my heart.  I believe that you don't choose your sexuality, that everyone has a chance to go to heaven, that being rich is as much a burden as being poor, and that Islam and Yoga can co-exist. Somewhere along the road, it has been insinuated that I might not be a 'good Muslim' because I do yoga. This post is to address that voice and to quiet it. 

Yoga did come through Hinduism, there is no denying that, but we are grown up enough to understand that you can take your practice where you want it to go. Who says when you meditate, you can't call out to Allah, Jesus, Yoda or even the Candy Man? In the end, you know what is in your heart and no God will deny your truth.

I have a feeling my parents don't like to tell people I teach yoga, because they are embarrassed and maybe even ashamed that their daughter went all the way to the United States to get a degree in finance and instead, is teaching yoga. It seems blasphemous, is not glamorous, and I could probably make more money baby sitting. 

A lot of people don't realize this but if you look at the Muslim prayer, the actual routine, it is very similar to yogic poses. It has the mountain pose, hero's pose, forward bend, child's pose and a hand mudra. To someone like me, there are many similarities between these two deeply spiritual practices and I find a natural flow and balance in living as a Muslim yogi. I am NOT saying that Islam came from yoga, or vice versa, I am simply saying that yogis and Muslims are more alike than people realize. In a place like India where Hindus and Muslims live side by side, yoga is a way of life. I once read a story about an Indian Muslim man who woke up at 5am to say his prayers and then did his yoga routine. When asked if he felt yoga was in contradiction to his faith, his response was that from a purely physical point of view yoga helped him perform his prayers better. (You can read this great article here: Can't Yoga and Islam Get Along)

Islam and Yoga teach you to be true (satya), do Seva or Zakat, Ahimsa or Non Violence, Anekantvada or multiplicity of viewpoints and Non Possesiveness (Aparigraha). Allah never forbade me from loving him in a downdog or a shoulderstand. If anything we are taught to take care of our bodies, good health is a gift and we should not be 'defiling' it with bad habits. What about Sufism? Do whirling dervishes experience nirvana differently from a yogi working on his crown chakra?
Every year I fast during Ramadan. When we observe the fast, we are not supposed to eat from dawn to dusk. Yes, nothing, no food, no water. Since we follow the lunar calendar we have years where Ramadan falls during the summer. You are not allowed any food or water from about 5am to close to 8-9pm.  Every year I wonder if I can do it, how will I face myself if I want to give up. But at the same time I am excited about seeing if I can live up to the test. It truly feels like a detox of body and soul, when you can't have a single drop of water, and you have to go about your day, you will feel grateful for everything you have and everyone you love. You will pray for the poor and you pray God shows mercy on the people you're not crazy about. And I don't think Allah has the heart to refuse a starving man's prayer. So far, I have gotten through Ramadan pretty well and I always feel invigorated. I am able to teach yoga just as normal and I feel I have no right to complain when there are construction workers in third world countries who fast.

Zakat or almsgiving is no different from Seva. You give what you can, when you can. And if you don't have much to give, the fact that you had the intention is enough. And I think that's what it comes down to. The heart of Islam is all about intention. There is a principle of karma in Islam. Muslims don't believe in rebirth but you will be rewarded or punished for your deeds in the afterlife.  There is no need to question what happens to you, do what is right and you will be alright. We are constantly given choices, to eat halal or non halal, to believe or not believe, to stand up to an injustice or to be quiet. You 'give in' to the universe or to Allah and trust that all will be well. No prayer or fast is going to save you from an evil thought or a cruel deed. If you read the teachings of the prophet (PBUH) and other Islamic scholars, you are constantly encouraged to work on your intention, you are told that Allah will bless you and yours for being true in what you pray for, and even if you are not able to see your promise through, you will still be blessed because your intention was true. At the same time, you are not punished for having an evil thought, because in the end, you are human and you are not perfect. You are allowed to have bad thoughts as long as you are aware of them and don't act on them. So its fine if you are so mad you want to kill someone, as long as you don't actually go out and do it. This to me is no different from energy or vibes. You send out the right energy and it comes back to you. So why should Islam and Yoga be at odds?

Does this sound like a militant lifestyle to you? Does this sound like an extremist, suicidal, ignorant belief system to you? I hope not, because Islam is my heart and soul. I would be so lost without having Allah to turn to and yoga has brought me closer to Allah than ever before. Yoga taught me to trust my instincts and to listen to my heart. That I should do what I truly love and I will stop to exist and I will start to truly live. Is it a coincidence that Allah planned my life in such a way that I came to yoga, that I got jobs teaching yoga? That opportunities keep coming my way? I feel confident and strong, I am grateful for every toe Allah has given me that keeps me grounded in my tree pose, I am grateful for the joy I felt when my tight hamstrings finally gave in and opened up in standing head to knee, I am grateful for every breath that has freed me, for every sigh that has released me.  I feel like a child born out of Islam and Yoga. A child with no ego, no lies, only strength, courage, conviction, grace and compassion.

Namaste and Salaam.