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Quaker practice unbound from belief

By: Lucy Duncan
Published: May 2, 2014

Quaker meeting sign by Stephen Coles

Photo: Stephen Coles

I started taking yoga again a few months ago in a well lit, open studio in west Philadelphia. The teacher started the class by saying that yoga isn’t a religion; it is a spiritual practice open to all. When she introduced each standing pose, she talked about how important alignment is: that taking time to pay attention and settle into the pose with attention makes all the difference in how you practice yoga and in the benefits you receive from it. 

Sunset yoga by John and MelanieThere was a quiet intentionality to the words she spoke as we moved into each pose and as she suggested we pull up our toes to feel our feet fully on the ground, or adjust the position of our hands. She had us focus on our breathing and modeled a focus and calm and I could feel my mind still as we moved through the asanas (poses), from downward facing dog to tree pose. Though we were moving, I felt centered the way I do in meeting for worship.

It made me start to wonder about the history of yoga.  How did it become so popularized? Though there are many varieties of yoga (Bikram, Anusara, Vinyasa, Iyengar), the core poses are the same, sun salutations are the same, and the focus on breath is always there. Most yoga teachers I’ve met consider it a spiritual practice.  What could yoga teach us about popularizing Quaker practice?

The history is interesting. Yoga nearly disappeared in India as a result of British colonial rule. “Traditional” yoga was not focused as much on movement, but on “pranayama (expansion of vital energy by means of breath), dharana (focus, or placement of the mental faculty), and nada (sound).” By the mid- 1900s and early 20th century there was a Hindu revival movement in India.  Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, credited with inventing the yoga we know today, steeped himself in this movement. He found and studied with one of few remaining masters of hatha yoga. He eventually obtained a salaried job teaching yoga and influenced many of the key yoga teaches of the 20th century.

At the time in India there was a large focus on physical fitness, because people believed it would prepare Indians for independent rule. In Europe there was a rise in gymnastic posture practice, “harmonial movement,” that used breathing and relaxation techniques to attain higher levels of awareness. These shifts in the zeitgeist laid the ground for the popularization of yoga and the key teachers gained traction in part because they were meeting a felt need in society.

Reverse prayer pose by Eric WardThere was also an intentional unbinding of the asana practice from belief. Krishnamacharaya “stressed that yoga could serve any creed and adjusted his approach to respect each student's faith.”  It’s my sense that this approach, along with responding to a felt need of the time, made way for a worldwide movement of yoga teachers and practitioners.

What would it mean to unbind Quaker practice from belief? Could we say that those who practice the core Quaker poses – worship, meeting for business, clearness, living the testimonies, queries - are all a part of the Quaker body, are Quaker practitioners?

A couple of years ago there was a conversation at Philadelphia Yearly Meeting sessions about a proposed document about what Quakers believe. The text itself was interesting because it basically said that Quakers believe that belief isn’t important, practice and the way you live is. But it provoked a fascinating conversation.  In the end, many spoke powerfully about how discovery is at the core of Quaker faith and practice. Many Quakers are aligned in what they hold as core commitments that inform how they live, but they have come to those commitments and understandings experimentally, through lived experience and in community.

Praise song by My Yoga OnlineOne woman stood and spoke movingly about how there are no shortcuts in Quaker practice, that for her so much of the power of becoming Quaker was finding out for herself, learning through worship, through meeting for business, through living. She expressed concern that a document which laid out the core understandings too succinctly might truncate the process of learning Quaker faith. She wondered if people might read it and say, “Yes, I agree,” and not do the hard work of finding out for themselves where Quaker faith practice might lead them.

This story speaks to my experience. I was drawn to Friends after I had a powerful mystical experience in the midst of struggle.  At a time of deep sadness, I felt the presence of God holding me, guiding me, letting me know I would be alright.  I felt loved by a power much greater than myself. I immediately associated that experience with Quakers and sought after a Friends meeting soon thereafter.  The Friends I encountered welcomed me with open arms as one of them, and gently and enthusiastically taught me Quaker practice. They didn’t ask me about my belief, but about my longings and leadings.  I was invited to experiment with where living Quaker practice might lead.

I want to be clear – faith and belief matter. They inform the way we see and how we live. But my sense is that practice is at the center, it is what draws us closer to the sacred that holds us together. Can we make space for each of us to work for, to uncover our own name, our own words for what binds us? Can we meet people where they are and respect each person’s journey of faith?

It seems to me core Quaker practices could be gifts for many who will never claim the name Quaker. What would happen if we released them into the world, understanding that, like our children, they do not belong to us, that they come through us and could be useful tools in an aching world? In that process, our practice is likely to be changed in creative ways, and, hopefully, so will we.

About the Author

Lucy Duncan

Lucy serves as Director of Friends Relations for AFSC. She has been a storyteller for 20 years and has worked with Quaker meetings on telling stories for racial justice and of spiritual experience. Before working for AFSC, she was Director of Communications at FGC, managed QuakerBooks of FGC, and owned and managed her own children's bookstore in Omaha, The Story Monkey. She attends Green Street Friends Meeting (PhYM) and lives with her son and partner in a Quaker cemetery.

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