Can Yoga Defeat the Seven Deadly Sins?
I've read quite a few articles dealing with the question of, “Is yoga a religion?” Most of the articles dispelled the idea and I agree that yoga is not a religion. A couple of weeks ago, I was reading some texts dealing with the seven deadly sins which are: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride. As I began to think of how we try to avoid falling prey to these sins I was drawn to thoughts of my yoga practice and how I thought some of the yoga teachings help me cope with avoiding these sins. Even though yoga is not a religion I found myself asking the question, “Can yoga defeat the seven deadly sins?” These are my thoughts on the seven deadly sins and how yoga addresses them.
1. Lust. Lust is a sin usually defined by excessive sexual desire although the word is also associated with excessive desire for money, power and fame. As people, the problem is not that we feel desire: the problem is that the feeling of desire overwhelms us. We push other important things aside to devote our energies to try and satisfy our lustful desires.
Within our practice of yoga we don’t try to purge ourselves of lusting desire and purposefully deny ourselves from receiving pleasure. Instead our practice tells us to focus inward and when we discover these feelings of lustful desire we acknowledge the feeling without judgment or guilt. Because we acknowledge that we have these feelings we can then try to understand where these feelings come from. We learn that excessive desire comes from wanting things to be a certain way instead of loving and accepting how things are. Yoga teaches us to love who we are right here and right now. By focusing inward and loving ourselves for who we are and all that we are we learn to control lustful desire.
2. Gluttony. The word gluttony is derived from the Latin word, gluttire which means to gulp down or swallow. When we think of gluttony today we think of over-indulgence and over-consumption to point of wastefulness. Gluttony is mostly associated with food however it equally applies to the excessive purchasing of materials. Gluttony most often comes from a place of trying to fulfill a need that can never be filled. In other words we are not living a life of balance.
Balance is one of the most important aspects a yogi learns in their practice. The secret in learning to physically balance the body is to learn to maintain focus. Maintaining balance in the rest of our lives is no different. We all must consume to live. We consume air, water, food and material possessions in order to maintain our lives. When we learn to focus we are able to discern what is important and when we know what is important we can maintain balance. With focus we can balance our consumption to just meet our needs instead of being gluttonous in trying to meet our wants.
3. Greed. Greed is a sin associated strongly with excesses of lust and gluttony. Greed is most commonly thought of in terms of excessive desire for material wealth. Greed has its roots in people wanting to demonstrate they are superior to their fellow man. Whether it is a bigger car, a bigger house, or nicer clothes, excessive material wealth is how people try to satisfy a need to demonstrate they are better than someone else. This unchecked desire leads people to commit acts which cause harm to their fellow man. People will steal, lie and betray their fellow man in the name of acquiring more material wealth to satisfy their greed.
One of the benefits of yoga is we learn to develop a connection to other people. When we feel this connection we understand that we don’t need to be superior to our fellow man because we need our fellow man. It doesn’t matter what level a yogi is at, or what the quality of their mat or clothing is, we all draw energy equally from each other during the chant of
Om. The yoga
teacher needs the students, the students need the teacher and the students need
each other. With an appreciation of this
deep human connection, greed becomes a useless desire.
4. Sloth. The sin of sloth is usually thought of as physical laziness although it also is defined as spiritual laziness. This laziness is a symptom of a person loosing the connection with their true selves. When this connection is lost a person gives up on any desire toward self-improvement. With no desire for improvement people form connections with things such as food and television which fill large swaths or their time.
In our practice of yoga sloth is combated by first establishing a connection to your inner self. By shutting out the outside world we focus on how we feel inside. When we pay attention to our inner feelings this helps motivate us to want to improve ourselves. After we have discovered this want, we are motivated to continue our physical yoga practice. With continued practice we feel better both physically and spiritually and so our motivation to improvement continues to build.
5. Wrath. Wrath is a sin of having uncontrolled rage in which people are subject to overwhelming feelings of anger and hatred. The sin of wrath has lead mankind down a path of self-destruction involving violence, murder, feuds and wars. Wrath is a symptom of a person who feels that a physical reaction is the only way to correct whatever they perceive to be wrong. They feel they have been harmed, slighted, embarrassed or disrespected and the only option available is to explode. These people are slaves to their emotions.
Yoga helps to control wrath by teaching a yogi to connect to the breath. The expanse of the chest during a deep breath prevents the chest and the body from tightening when the feeling of wrath is experienced. Without this tightening of the body it becomes easier to relax which allows the feeling of wrath to begin to fade in the mind. With continuing deep breathing the yogi focus on their breath which prevents wrath from compelling the yogi to physically react.
6. Envy. Envy is an insatiable desire for what somebody else possesses and is strongly associated with feelings of jealousy. In religious terms it is defined as coveting your neighbor’s property. People that tend to feel envious suffer from low self esteem. They don’t like things about themselves and don’t know how to fix them so to feel better they focus on what other people have and they try to emulate these other people. Fifteen minutes in a supermarket checkout line and you will find numerous magazines dedicated to feeding the sin of envy.
One of my favorite phrases in yoga is, “Loving yourself for who you are and all that you are.” Even though we learn to have a connection to all other beings, yoga is a very personal practice. Whether you are in a studio class with 50 people or you are just practicing by yourself yoga is a uniquely personal experience. I think what makes it personal is that yoga teaches to focus on how you feel during a pose instead of how you look. When we learn to focus on how we feel instead of how we look it’s very easy to defeat feelings of envy.
7. Pride. Pride is the granddaddy sin of them all. The Catholic Church deems pride to be the most dangerous sin of all the seven deadly sins because it is considered a gateway to all the other sins. Pride is usually defined as excessive love of oneself. This self-love can be love of one’s looks, accomplishments or possessions. Pride is marked by a failure to acknowledge your fellow human being due to a feeling of superiority.
When I am struggling in class I remember a phrase, “Not today, but maybe tomorrow”. For me, the core of my study and practice of yoga has always been battling my own ego. I feel that pride has its roots in a person’s ego. Ego tells you what you should be able to do. The study of yoga teaches us to look inside and embrace what we can do and not to listen to our prideful egos tell us what we should be doing. When you learn to control the ego, pride simply withers away.
So can yoga defeat the seven deadly sins? I think the seven deadly sins are symptomatic of living a life out-of-balance. There are many paths that a person can follow to attempt to bring balance into their lives and yoga is just one of many different paths. Even though I don’t think yoga by itself is a religion, I think it can play an integral part to leading a more balanced, spiritual life which would include avoiding falling prey to the seven deadly sins.
If you want to live a life that is more balanced I would advise getting off the sofa and getting onto the mat.