Yoga and Paganism: Overlapping Worlds of the Sacred

photo credit: Frances Lane

 

I’ve practiced yoga since I first discovered it back in 1975. Held in carpeted living rooms, (because you couldn’t even buy yoga mats), wearing baggy white pants and t-shirts, relaxing and breathing between each pose, groups of six or seven came together one evening a week to chant, breathe, and stretch. I bought Satchidananda’s Integral Yoga, and devoured every page. On my sheepskin rug in my little artist’s attic, I also practiced Transcendental Meditation, having been given my “personal mantra” in 1972. I preached yoga to everyone I knew at the time, like some kind of born again convert, yet was met with mild amusement by most of my friends. Still, that’s when I started teaching about the chakras, and the rest is history.

Lesser known about that history is that I’ve been a Pagan for just as long, having discovered a religion that supported my love for nature and the idea that the Divine could be a Goddess as well as a God. Paganism gave me a way to connect with the Divine in celebration with others; Yoga and meditation gave me a way to find that connection within myself, alone.  Both are paths to the sacred, and I can’t imagine being without either one.

While yoga gains prominent popularity as a spiritual path, Paganism has long been thrust into the shadows, probably the most misunderstood and misaligned religion in our culture. Since the Christian persecution that made the nature-god Pan into a dangerous devil, and burned women at the stake for practicing herbalism and midwifery, fear of Paganism runs deep in the collective psyche. What little that survived the brutal persecutions of the Inquisition had to be kept secret in order to survive. For that reason it has always remained in the shadows and misunderstood by mainstream culture. (Even coming out in this blog is a risk for my public life.)

Paganism is catch-all term, like Christianity, that includes many paths: Shamanism, Wicca, Nature worship, polytheism, Goddess religion, Ceremonial Magick and Faery tradition –just a few of the various forms, somewhat akin to Catholicism and Protestantism, or the branches of Methodist, Congregational, Christian Science, etc. The one that seems to most lift everybody’s eyebrows is Wicca, for it is the root of the word “witchcraft,” something that has a very bad connotation in most circles.

The actual derivation of the word Wicca is from the old English wicce, which meant wise ones,  while the word Pagan came from the Latin paganus, or country dweller – those who still lived on the land while others migrated to the city, or heathens, those who lived on the heath. Wicce was reserved for the elders who kept the lore (bards), medicine men and women with knowledge of healing, and teachers of the mysteries of life.

When patriarchy overthrew the Goddess (starting 5000 years ago) and then Christianity made masculine monotheism a tool of state in the Roman Empire, any one caught practicing these teachings was sentenced to death – and not a pleasant one either. While Christianity has committed more murder than any religion on the planet (see my book, Waking the Global Heart for more info on this) it was Paganism that got the bad rap. The worship of Nature, along with the cycle of the seasons, archetypal wisdom, and the equality of women, went dangerously out of fashion. Humanity lost an important piece of its soul.

 

photo credit: lululemon athletica

 

After being involved in Paganism in the 80s and 90s, my public life as teacher and writer took me away from the creative circles I used to enjoy. For the last decade or more, yoga and meditation have been my main spiritual practice.

Last night, however, I attended the 50th anniversary of the Church of All Worlds, a group I once served as High Priestess for over ten years. It was a small gathering of people who had known each other for decades. We held our circle “skyclad” as is sometimes the custom when weather permits, meaning clothed in nothing but the sky. Almost everyone in the circle was over 50, many in their 60s and 70s, with bodies big and round or thin and droopy, definitely needing a stiff yoga practice and some good Rolfing. But it didn’t matter—all pretense immediately dropped away as we sat, each on our own cushion, singing songs and regaling stories of our lives. There was no sexual energy whatsoever, just an intimate gathering of old friends honoring an ancient tradition.

I love yoga and the community that is growing around it. People are clean and friendly, physically fit and high-functioning. Yet sometimes I feel as if everyone is trying to be a carbon copy of each other – with trim little bodies dressed in Lululemon outfits, talking about the latest teacher they’ve studied with, and thinking they can solve all their psychological problems with more handstands. My criticism is that too often knowledge of current events, history and science, mythology –and even individualism–falls rather shallow. Group think is pretty strong, and group scorn even stronger.

By contrast, Pagans are notoriously well read, generally overweight and out of shape, eccentric to the point of weird, yet highly creative and tolerant of others. Pagan rituals are pageants of song and dance, poetry and costume, while yogis get high on repeating chants in foreign languages and creating group synergy on their mats. Both are viable paths to the sacred, yogis through unity, Pagans through honoring diversity.

These two worlds occupy my chakras in different ways, yet come together in the heart. Yoga aims toward transcendence, getting high in the upper chakras, finding the overarching supreme through energizing and liberating the body. Paganism is an earth religion – focused on the four elements of earth, water, fire, and air – largely lower chakras. Paganism could use some uplifting from yoga practices, while the yoga world could use a little grounding and permission to individuate.

We live in a time of religious syncretism. So many paths, ancient and modern, are coming together as a way to find our way back to the Divine and piece together our broken world into something that can thrive into the future. We can’t afford fundamentalism in any religion – each has something to offer, each has its blind spots and shortcomings.

 

photo credit: Valerie Everett

It is time for each of us to find our core and speak its truth. To be individuals in service of something larger allows each of us to play our own song like instruments in an orchestra, playing a symphony together. To play well together requires deep listening as well as practice, practice, practice.

Together we can create a symphony in the song of creation. But can we listen without judgment?

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- who has written 1 posts on Yoga Modern.

Anodea Judith, PhD. is a groundbreaking thinker, writer, and spiritual teacher. Her passion for the realization of untapped human potential matches her concern for humanity’s impending crises — her fervent wish is that we “wake up in time.” She holds Masters and Doctoral degrees in Psychology and Human Health, is a 500 hour registered yoga teacher, with lifelong studies of healing, mythology, history, sociology, systems theory, and mystic spirituality. She is considered one of the country’s foremost experts on the combination of chakras and therapeutic issues and on the interpretation of the Chakra System for the Western lifestyle. She teaches across the U.S., Canada, Europe and Central America. She is best known for the chakra classic, Wheels of Life: A User’s Guide to the Chakra System. Her most recent book won two literary awards in 2007. Waking the Global Heart: Humanity’s Rite of Passage from the Love of Power to the Power of Love charts the history of human development into our present crisis and necessary transformation, with an inspiring message of hope for our future.

5 Responses

  • EcoYogini says:

    Yes!! I love this post. I also am a Pagan Yogini, and was extremely disturbed when I read all the negative associations stated with the fact that John Friend was part of a "GASP" Wiccan Coven. Beyond all else, it bothered me that no other yogi commented or voiced concerns at these judgemental and narrow minded associations. Would it even have been mentioned if he were part of, say, a Christian Bible Study?
    Thank you for this post.

  • Carol Horton says:

    What an interesting post! The part contrasting yoga practitioners ("clean and friendly, physically fit and high-functioning") with Pagans ("notoriously well read, generally overweight and out of shape, eccentric to the point of weird, yet highly creative and tolerant of others") is both humorous and intriguing. While I've only been involved in yoga, the Pagans sound infinitely preferable! (except for the overweight and out of shape part, but oh well. There's always trade-offs). More seriously, I'm glad to see some informed discussion of Paganism in the yoga blogosphere – I looked and could find nothing while the whole JF scandal was unfolding. On the other hand, that certainly wasn't the best time to make a case for the virtues of Wiccan covens. Now that that's died down, this is very timely. Thanks!

  • I'm so pleased that you unveil the pagan practice in light of yoga, in confluence with yoga. You and I began in the same way at the same time. Perhaps you also feel that the wildness, the wilderness, the wood sprites and songbirds have left the world called yoga now but that is only because yogis don't feel their roots. Time to take off the shoes and walk on the earth before stepping onto the mat.

  • Aslana says:

    , The issue hear is that it seems like it is stated in the article that many pagans are out of shape and scoff at the physical effort it takes to do yoga, i hope i can change that effort as i know one of my friends ms. Monaghan has taken up yoga recently. maybe more and more pagans as they get older will realize this. but it is my message that there isn't a real solid way to manifest if our body is distracted by body clutter. i would love some interviews with my fellow pagans and yoga to quote in my pagan yoga book.which is due to publish by winter solstice. please get in touch with me, id love to talk more about pagan yoga and your thoughts stories and ideas. this cant be done with out your concentrated help from the community. mysticaslana @ gmail (dot) com

  • gold price says:

    The wonderful thing about yoga is the holistic approach to living and being, the focus being on tapping into your own innate potential, seeing yourself in a new light. The discipline and the program does not delve into religious beliefs, but it is open to people of all religions and spiritual practices, and we all find common ground by practicing yoga together. We all have bodies, and we all have our unique challenges. My experience in a yoga class is that all of the dynamics/beliefs/lifestyles/differences that divide us disappear by the end of class, and we can smile at each other. We just shared 90 minutes together going through the same challenging sequence, and we found common ground. Yoga has helped me to be a better person, to find balance in my life, and it has helped so many people to be better people.