Yoga is one of the most popular forms of exercise these days. Aimed at nurturing the physical body whilst also calming the mind and spirit, it seems to be the perfect answer to relieving the stress-filled schedules we follow in our modern-day lives.
The basic principles of yoga are simple. You need a guru or teacher who will teach you the correct forms of the different asanas (positions) and guide you as you master them. At first, as a beginner, the emphasis is on learning the physical positions of each limb so that you can find the correct balance required for each asana. Once you are able to do this, then the focus shifts to your mental state as you stay in these positions. The one thing any yoga teacher will keep drumming into his/her students is awareness – to be aware of every muscle and every limb and be aware and conscious of what you are doing and where you are, the aim being to silence your mind.
After this stage, the third stage is to take advantage of the complete balance and comfort that your body finds in each asana and to explore your inner spiritual state. Because you are at peace with your body and mind, your soul can now find an environment to make itself heard in.
If any or all of this sounds familiar, it is because as Muslims we are actually supposed to implement these very same rules in our lives daily – five times a day. Salat (prayer) is eerily similar – not just in principle, but also in the physical actions we perform – to yoga. The difference is that in Salat we have an element of Divine Connection that you cannot access simply through yoga.
If you have tried out even basic yoga, you will have noticed it has asanas that seem to be a form of Salat that has been distorted through the ages. For example, Tadasana is obviously Qiyam (standing position during Salat), Uttanasana is an extreme form of Ruku, Virasana is the sitting position between the two Sujood (prostrations), while Balasana could be an adapted version of the Sajdah which is one of the most loved positions by Allah for His servants.
The ironic part is that while we ignore prayer or take it lightly, many of us will pay a good sum of money to go for yoga classes in order to become 'healthier and more focused' individuals. If we only took the time to study and practice what Islam teaches us, we would begin to realize that there is truly nothing that is good for us which Allah has left out of our faith.
Just as it is in yoga, from the very beginning of Salat we are told that we must be aware (of Whom we are standing before) and that we must be physically alert yet relaxed, or at peace. We learn the actions of Salat (much as a novice learns the positions of the asanas) and memorize them from childhood until we have perfected that aspect of prayer. Unfortunately, most of us never go beyond this stage.
The point of learning yoga is to master the physical poses and then use that sense of controlled balance to stabilize one's mental and emotional self. In its true form, it is supposed to help a person accept him or herself and release inner tension. But that is really its limit. On the other hand, we learn how to pray properly and according to the rules of Shariah so that we can then use that physical state of Qiyam, Ruku or Sujood to find a balance between this world and the spiritual world. And when we do this, the pathway to the infinite Heavens opens for us and we can then easily travel towards Allah and make every Salat a true Me'raj as it is meant to be.
There is no doubt that yoga has a lot to offer. In itself it is a form of discipline (again, like Salat!) and it does help us to develop the necessary basic skills needed for concentration, breathing and focus. However, to reap the true benefits of this form of exercise we must implement the original, pure form that – in my opinion – is embedded in Salat. If we manage to do this, then there would be no heights of physical or mental prowess to which we may not reach, insha'Allah.
Editor's Note: Fatima Aly Jaffer is a freelance writer and the author of Surviving Zahra, a young-adult fiction novel that is best described as an 'Islamic romance'. She has graciously agreed to periodically contribute articles to Islamic Insights on a variety of religious and social topics.