I went to a Global Mala on Sunday. The Global Mala idea was started by yoga teacher Shiva Rea, with the idea that peace starts within us, and can spread through the world, one person at a time.
When we gather as a group on our yoga mats, with that intention, we share that feeling of inner-peace with others around us on their mats. We hope to create an energy, a vibration, that pulses out into the world. We hope to leave with a feeling of peace that we each can maintain, and share with everyone we meet along the way.
It was a bright and sunny day, clear blue skies and perfect autumn weather. There I was in the middle of a stadium on the 50-yard line, in the middle of Newark, NJ. I was standing on my yoga mat, with my hands in front of me at my heart center, anjali mudra. There were literally hundreds of people all around me, some sitting crossed legged, some standing with their hands at their heart. Led by a group of men at the microphone, we all chanted in unison, 108 times. Ommm Ommm Ommm…
As I chanted, I could feel the vibrations in my chest, in my throat, in my nose, behind my eyes. I could hear the sound of Om all around me, coming through the PA system, echoing off the bleachers. It was a full, beautiful sound, a strong vibration.
After about 20 Oms I decided to open my eyes so I could soak in the scene around me, and mark it in my memory. I turned my head to the left to see people sitting and standing, eyes closed, Om-ing. I turned to the right, more people, and I could see through the wrought iron arches out onto the city street. There were people walking past the stadium, looking in. I wondered what they were thinking as they passed? What was it like, looking in from the outside? And suddenly, I had a flash of Kristy McNichol in my head.
In an instant I realized it was because of the movie “Blinded by the Light”. Do you remember it? Jimmy McNichol ran away and joined a cult and his sister Kristy had to try to save him. I was very young when it came out, and I hadn’t thought about it in years. But it flashed in my head for a second. It’s not unusual for strange images to pop into my head when I practice, or meditate. I made a note of it, closed my eyes again and continued with my Oms.
When I got home I remembered the image. Why did that crappy old movie pop into my head? Maybe there was a scene in the movie that was like the scene in the stadium? I don’t remember any details of the film, but I couldn’t help but think that something inside of me was sending me a message.
I’ve heard people say that yoga is a cult, usually people who have never practiced. And I have heard yogis joke about it. Shortly into our yoga teacher training, a friend of mine said, “We drank the Kool-aid”. But for me, and for most people I know, yoga is a very personal thing. No two people feel the same way about yoga. No two people have to follow the same teacher, practice the same way, or adopt the same beliefs. It’s just another road to personal enlightenment. It’s not a cult, but I guess it is sort of cult-ish.
In a cult, people’s problems are reduced to one simple explanation, which is repeatedly emphasized. Yogic tradition teaches that all suffering comes from our own ego. Our mental modifications of, and our ego’s reaction to the world around us are the causes of our suffering. We can change our view and reduce that suffering. It sounds like a pretty simple explanation to me.
In a cult, members receive what seems to be unconditional love, acceptance, and attention from a charismatic leader or group. When we say Namaste, we are saying that you and I are the same. We are made of the same matter, the same energy, we are one, and we honor each other. It sounds like unconditional acceptance to me.
In a cult, people are put in physically or emotionally distressing situations. I had to hold my arms up and out at my sides for what felt like ten whole minutes after doing 108 sun salutes, listening to a teacher tell a story about breathing through the tough times. Of course I didn’t have to, I wasn’t being forced to, and it wasn’t distress really, just discomfort. And have you ever held pigeon pose for more than five minutes? Talk about emotional distress.
In a cult, people get a new identity based on the group. Many yogis change their names after practicing and teaching for a long time. They experience a sort of reinvention of their self, and they take a Sanskrit name that has meaning to them. I doubt I would ever do that, but I know that I have a new identity with my yoga friends. They know me as a yogi and not as anything I was before this.
In a cult, the members are subject to entrapment, isolation from friends, relatives and the mainstream culture. Hmm… Not by force, but by choice, as I have practiced yoga I have begun to move away from some negative people and some mainstream ideas.
So, is it a cult? The word “cult” has a negative connotation for sure, but by definition, it is “a group or sect bound together by veneration of the same thing, person, ideal, etc.”. By that definition, maybe it is.
There I was, in a huge stadium, filled with hundreds of people, all gathered together for, and bound together by, that one thing; our common desire for peace. We share a common desire for our own inner-peace, peace in our lives, and peace in the world.
A Peace Cult , then? …I guess I’m in.