Sacrifice or Offering?

I was raised by my Polish mother and Irish father to be a Roman Catholic. In the early part of my life we were only nominally religious. We existed in that nether realm of folk religion that borders on superstition: rarely going to church, but saying prayers to saints in the hope of good things coming to us; making the sign of the cross when passing a church or a funeral procession; lighting a candle for the really big requests such as health and good fortune. It wasn’t until, in the middle of my childhood, that we re-embraced the religion formally. When I was about seven or eight years old we moved to Brazil, settling eventually in São Paolo. The fusions of Catholicism and African faiths, known as Macumba and Candomblé amongst others, were strong enough to overwhelm even the combined Irish/Polish Catholic blend of our family. The African/Brazilion religions are rich and vital, and very much part of the everyday functioning of life. Offerings and sacrifices are openly made to bring success in love and relationships, even in business. One would constantly see leftover offerings on street corners, often a bottle with a flower in it, or plates of food. At one point, one of my parents’ employees, whose father was a pãe-de-santo--”father-of-saint” or a priest of the religion--told us that someone was doing a work against us, so we underwent ritual cleansings and burning of candles to counter the work. I think it eventually became too overwhelming for my parents, so we went to confession, took communion and began going to Mass every Sunday. It brought us back to familiar ground. It seemed like the rules of what you could and could not ask for were much simpler in the more austere and Europeanized Catholicism than in the abundant dance of the Brazilian faith.

My parents took Catholicism seriously enough to send me to a Catholic boarding school in the United Kingdom run by Benedictine monks. As Catholic upbringings go it was only moderately strict, with none of the standard cliches of emotional and physical abuse. But it was very, very serious. The idea of sacrifice features prominently in Catholicism. Jesus Christ’s self-sacrifice on the cross was held up to us as the pinnacle of worthy behavior. Self-denial and ascetism in surrender to god’s will were highly prized. We were to abjure the pleasures of the flesh and doggedly say our Rosary, eat fish on Fridays and abstain from mundane luxuries during Lent. We were to revel in the exquisite pain of devotion to god.

It was very easy to be religious under those conditions. The ritual of Mass--including the setting, the chanting, the incense and the music--entice the senses. The drama of the liturgy, played out over and over again, shapes your emotional responses, helping you to identify with Jesus’ surrender and martyrdom, with the resurrection at the end of the tale providing a satisfying sense of completion. My first introduction to a group yoga class was at Jivamukti Yoga in their old space on Second Avenue in New York. The Jivamukti class as it was back then (I haven’t taken class there in some years) had its own ritual power with all the same elements, and its own liturgical drama. The intense physicality fit in perfectly with my Catholic notions of mortification of the flesh. All of that regimentation of the breath, intense exertion, incense and chanting produced the same buzz as High Mass on Sundays in the abbey. But that ecstatic connection always came, I found, with a price: after Mass, the return to mundane existence; after class, aches, pains, and exhaustion.

For four or five years I practiced this way: the grand gesture of surrender and sacrifice leading to the ecstatic high of immersion in the divine. And then real life got in the way and my inner drama was replaced by the real thing. First came the loss of my father to cancer, followed by my struggle to find work and stay in the country. The big emotions of yoga became an escape from the darker things that were happening to me. One turbulence was replaced by the other, constantly flipping back and forth. It was exhausting.

After a bad knee injury in a Mysore-style Ashtanga practice being put into Marichyasana 2, I found myself unable to take class for several moths. At the inspiration of a friend, I decided to try the courses in the back of Light on Yoga by BKS Iyengar, starting at the beginning and struggling through as best I could with my lack of experience and injured knee. It took me about a year of dedicated practice to get through the first course. This steady perseverance changed my relationship to yoga completely. Small, consistent effort produced steady, consistent results.

When I look back over that time, I realize this was when my thought processes first began to shift from being more Western in outlook to taking on a truly Eastern flavor. The Judaeo-Christian frame of mind can be very mechanical in its way: agony now in the hope of luxury later. Sacrifice is something you take away from yourself. The Eastern way, or certainly that aspect of it I have learnt though yoga, is more of an offering. Effort is made with enthusiasm and dedication, building joy and freedom in the present. I see my practice now as an offering, building awareness and balance action by action, thought by thought, moment by moment with the certainty of immediate and concrete results.

So I throw this back to you, dear reader: is your practice a sacrifice or an offering?

[My thanks to Donald Moyer and his “Heritage of Yoga” course for the inspiration for this post.]

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Yoga in Action
The Great Vow of Yoga

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