For someone coming from a Southern Baptist background, Buddhism can seem like a lonely thing. It didn’t take me long to realize growing up that the church I attended was as much about community as it was about anything to do with god or Jesus. When I was young, I thought this was bad and hypocritical, but that was because it seems fairly hard to have a true appreciation of community under the age of 30 or so. Folks went to my little Southern Baptist church mostly to be with each other, and that in itself is a deeply spiritual thing. One of the puzzling things to me about Buddhism has always been this lack of community. Where’s the Wednesday supper and the church picnic? Shouldn’t community be a part of this somehow?
Community is part of Buddhism; it just may not always be the easiest thing to find in small town Indiana. In Buddhism, there are Three Jewels we can take refuge in: the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The Buddha is pretty self-explanatory. The Dharma are the teachings of the Buddha. The Sangha is the community of practicing Buddhists. Again, not the easiest thing to find in southern Indiana. Well, Yoga IN Madison may not have a Wednesday supper yet, but I think I may have found my church.
There have been yoga classes available in Madison ever since I’ve been here, some of them through the local hospital and some offered at the college. Yoga IN Madison is a new yoga studio that opened on West St. in the old City Hall building at the beginning of this year. As with many things, it took me a while to catch on to the new studio. I think my start of 2012 would have been improved a great deal by regularly attending yoga classes, but alas, that did not happen. For the past couple of weeks, my husband and I have been hitting between 2-4 classes a week (the four classes a week would be my husband, who is blissfully living in sabbatical land).
Because the Yoga IN Madison studio is in a beautifully restored historical building in downtown Madison, it is a lovely space. The floors are hardwood, and the walls are decorated with painted messages like “Peace” and “Joy.” The small room where you store your belongings is actually a vault, complete with a heavy old safe that simply cannot feasibly be removed from the building because it’s too heavy.
More importantly for me, all the instructors at Yoga IN Madison treat yoga as more than mere exercise. Yoga originates from Hindu traditions, where it refers to many different kinds of practice. The literal meaning of yoga is “yoke,” as in to attach or join something together. In my understanding of Hinduism, I’ve always understood yoga to signify a way or a means; yoga is a practice designed to help achieve something. In Hinduism, yoga is a means to help achieve moksha, the release from the cycle of rebirth. In Buddhism, yoga is a means to achieve enlightenment. But these means are more comprehensive than the particular set of movements that most of us in the United States understand as yoga.
Here begins the diatribe on the idiotic Western mind/body distinction. In many Eastern philosophies, achieving enlightenment or moksha or just trying to become a little more content and a better person, has always been a body/mind thing. Of course “both” are involved, because really, there is no “both.”; body and mind are the same thing. When you feel that your mind and body are separate, something has gone wrong. So of course any spiritual practice should involve body/mind. Meditation as a practice may or may not involve moving your body, but it is still deeply rooted in the body; it begins with the breath. It often focuses on developing awareness of one’s body.
Because in the West, we bought into that whole mind/body distinction at some point, we seem to lean in the direction of seeing yoga, the set of physical movements, as a body thing. Yoga is, in other words, exercise. It will help strengthen your core muscles or increase your flexibility or heal injuries. And all of these things are true. But it should also help you develop awareness, build compassion, and understand that all of your thoughts and emotions are physical as well as mental. Only in the West would we attempt to take all of those things out of yoga and reduce it to a set of physical movements.
Luckily, this is not true of the instructors at Yoga IN Madison. If you are looking to take a yoga class for exercise, you will certainly get that here. After my first few classes, I had sore muscles that I didn’t even know existed. But the instructors might also explain to you that it’s important to open up and stretch out your hip joint because as one of the largest joints in our body, it’s where we store up a lot of our stress and anxiety. Or they might show you a set of movements which Tibetan Buddhists use to treat depression.
Let me admit right here that in the past there’s a good chance I would have laughed out loud at reading the above paragraph. Breathing to treat depression? A stretch for anxiety? What kind of new age mumbo jumbo is that? And then I started using the magic of chi to open pickle jars. Seriously. Next time you can’t open a pickle jar, focus all your energy into the area right beneath your navel. Breath from your belly and, voila!
|The beautiful interior of the studio,
courtesy of Yoga IN Madison Facebook page
Even if you don’t believe in the power of chi to open pickle jars, it’s not a huge stretch to understand that the mind/body distinction doesn’t tell the whole story. Even in the U.S. we know that getting regular exercise can help with things like concentration, depression and anxiety. And with some awareness, you can begin to feel that your emotions are, in fact, quite physical in their nature. Whether your mind is causing you to feel emotions in your body or vice versa is beside the point. It probably makes good sense to treat the problem on all fronts, even if you can’t quite believe that in reality, there’s only one front because your body and your mind are one.
At the end of a yoga class at Yoga IN Madison, my muscles feel tired, but more importantly, I feel better. I feel a little bit healed. Yes, I believe I have released some of the anxiety that’s been stored in my hip joints. And at the beginning and end of each class, I’ve done a little bit of meditation, setting my intention for the practice and thinking about the hour as a drop in the worldwide bucked of intention to end the suffering of all sentient beings everywhere.
I feel that because of the nature of yoga as a practice in and of itself, but also because I’ve practiced with a small community of people. I have been cared for by the instructor who took the time to plan our practice. I have been buoyed up by the collective energy of a roomful of people working towards whatever particular means they see yoga as a path toward achieving. No one else in the room may know the first thing about Buddhism or Hinduism, but we have practiced together all the same. In practicing together, we have created something more than the sum of any of our individual movements or thoughts. We have found refuge in the Sangha.