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Young Star

Om my God! Yoga and religion?

- Audrey N. Carpio -
James Brown gets funky, yoga stylee: Urban Ashram visiting teacher-trainer James Brown was the personal yoga instructor of the Red Hot Chili Peppers on their Californication tour. Photos by JOSEPH SAWIT

MANILA, Philippines - Talking to experienced yoga teachers, I’ve come to expect certain things: they’re very relaxed with their bodies, they have a calm and focused way of talking, and they go directly to the deep stuff. But I would never have thought that talking about yoga would turn into a conversation about Jesus Christ, as yoga seems to tread on that fine line between physical exercise and spirituality — the very reason why Christians are told to shun yoga, and something my mother had been admonishing me about ever since I bought my first yoga mat several years ago.

“In India, yoga has to do with Hinduism as much as pasta has to do with the Catholic Church in Italy,” says James Brown (who is white), a yoga instructor who held teacher training courses at the new Urban Ashram studio in Mandaluyong, and whose celebrity credentials include teaching yoga to Fugazi, the Gore family, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers for 10 years. While some Hindus may contest Brown’s statement, from what I’ve read, modern yoga as was developed by Krishnamacharya in the 1920s was already a bastard sport, being heavily influenced by Western gymnastics. He respected his students’ different beliefs or non-beliefs, and was said to tell them to close their eyes and “think of God. If not God, the sun. If not the sun, your parents.” 

Yoga is often mixed in with chanting, wearing beads, having a dot on your head and changing your name to Saraswati, but Brown says that isn’t what yoga is about. There is no denying that a personal transformation does take place with serious yoga practice. “You start to see the world a lot more clearly. You start to make decisions that harm other people a lot less,” Brown says. This is not a religious conversion, however, or the effect of praying to Ganesh or Shiva, and should be attributed instead to the power of the mind, and the focus it creates through concentrating on a posture. “My experience is that when people practice yoga well, they become more compassionate, more connected, more rich in relationships with other people.”

Yoga, as taught by Brown in his Los Angeles studio Yogaposer, is not advertised as such, because people are more interested in the physical: working on their core, getting into handstands. But in the process of doing the poses, the mind is conditioned into stillness, without being told to “be still.” When the mind learns to hold just one thing and rest in a state of being, instead of constantly moving around, you start to realize that the thoughts and emotions you’ve been identifying with are not “you.”

Interestingly, this is what brought Brown back to Christ. He grew up typically and traditionally Catholic, being an altar boy and having shrines around his grandparents’ house. And though he loved the rituals of the religion, he never understood what they meant, and why he was taught what he was being taught. In his early 20s, he left the Church because he couldn’t find any answers or applications to Christianity. “Then I got really into yoga years later, and I started to understand it in a way that I hadn’t as a child,” he says. “I now completely understand what the crucifixion means, what the resurrection means, what Mass is all about.” 

Brown explains, “When you’re identified with your own thoughts, you’re separate from the rest of the world. When you restrain the mind and its movements, even momentarily, it’s like stilling the surface of a lake so you can see down to the bottom, and when you see down to the bottom of yourself, what you see is absolutely and inextricably connected to other people. These are the lessons Jesus taught about unconditional love.”

Christian yogis may be a minority, but I believe, as Brown does, that yoga and Christianity are neither incompatible nor irreconcilable. Sun salutations are kinesthetic prayers to the Lord, pranayama are breaths of holy fire, and every drop of sweat revels in the glory of creation. Maybe you won’t take it that far, but consider this: at the beginning of a yoga class when “Om” is chanted, voices are disynchronous and unsure, stubbornly clinging to an off key; at the end of class, when “Om” is chanted, voices suddenly find harmony, they become one. The vibration of the word manifests a unity beyond its Hindu origins, it is universal, and the energy of the class working together has brought everyone there. Their voices have found their way Om.

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Urban Ashram is at 3 Brixton Street, Kapitolyo, Pasig City. A new studio will be opening at the Fort in July. Check www.urbanashrammanila.com for details.

BRIXTON STREET BROWN BUT I JAMES BROWN RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS URBAN ASHRAM YOGA
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