Last weekend, I went to a Sivananda Yoga camp in Val Morin, Quebec. Sivananda has several yoga centres over the world, and a handful of ashrams: secluded environments where aspiring yogis or drop-in guests enact the yogic lifestyle on a full-time basis, whether it be for a few days, a week, or several years.
I don’t practice yoga, although I’ve dabbled in it throughout the years. I ended up going to this camp because a friend of mine had visited their ashram in the Bahamas and spoke very positively of it, telling me that by no means does one have to be a hard-core yogi to attend. I also liked what I read about Sivananda: the founding principles of this worldwide organization is that of peace and harmony and respect for everyone’s respective faiths. More than anything, I really loved the idea of yoga being something you uphold in all aspects of your life, no just for an hour prancing on a designer mat in the gym. So I signed up.
Here is roughly what my routine looked like throughout my stay:
5:30 am: Wake up
6:00 am: Satsang – a period consisting of 30-minute silent meditation, devotional chanting, and a brief talk on yogic principles.
8:00 am: Yoga class
10:00 am: Brunch
10:45 am: Karma Yoga (selfless service) – a brief period where guests help out with the upkeep of the ashram.
1:00 pm: Weekend special program: sacred drumming workshop
3:00 pm: Free time: I usually explored the area, said my prayers, or visited their sauna.
4:00 pm: Yoga class
6:00 pm: Dinner
7:30 pm: Satsang
10:00 pm: Lights off
I was surprised at the effect of the place on me. Two hours of yoga class whizzed by, whereas in my day-to-day life I have difficulty sparing half an hour for any sort of exercise. I experienced no longing for caffeine. It helped that everyone there was so friendly, that we were in the mountains where I devoured lungfuls of fresh air, and that the food was lacto-vegetarian, ayurvedic, and delicious. A recipe for healing…my own mini-Eat, Pray, Love, one could say!
There were plenty of moments of loneliness and confusion throughout my stay. At times, I was bewildered at myself for being there, and a part of me demanded justification. I had to do a great deal of self coaching and telling myself to just remain with the present.
Now, several days later, I’ve had a chance to reflect, absorb, internalize, and even enact some of the lessons I learned during my stay. Here are some of the lessons and key changes:
I can do fajr. I’ve had a lifelong battle to pray the pre-dawn prayer on time. I’ve always had difficulty either waking up, or (more often) going back to sleep afterwards. Given the awkwardness of fajr time–especially in the summer months–this meant that I neglected to wake up for it. I was dictated by my body’s need for sleep.
Seeing everyone up at dawn for satsang was inspiring and motivating for me in a novel way. It is not just my mind, but my body, my habit, that knows: It is normal to wake up and spend some time in spiritual activity. Not waking up for fajr is keeping me from being the best I can be. It can no longer be so.
I am now trying to get better at waking up for fajr, and even if I end up with less sleep, it doesn’t bother me the way it used to.
I absorb myself in my salaat. My salaat is my primary meditation. I’m a “doer,” someone who is happiest in the midst of activity and movement. So sitting meditation is not well-suited for me. It’s still worth practicing, but my priority will be being mindful of my salaat.
There were a series of instructions given to us gently prior to our meditation session: to deepen our breathing, to acknowledge any distracting thoughts and simply bring the mind back, to recite a mantra to ourselves internally if need be. These are all instructions I reflexively offer myself prior to starting one of my five daily prayers. I don’t just dive in with takbeer: I take a moment to ground myself and acknowledge that I am beginning a sacred act.
Housework is karma yoga. Karma yoga refers to volunteering in a selfless, spirited manner, without any dislike for the act. In the ashram setting, it was a way to make guests a part of the ashram. In my case, it was fairly small-scale work: helping set up for the workshop and sweeping the front entrance, neither of which took more than fifteen minutes. (I think they start you off easy to not be off-putting.) Doing those activities and seeing the hustle and bustle of the full-time volunteers cooking and cleaning filled me with love for this type of yoga. It is me, because, again, I am a doer. No wonder it is thought to obliterate one’s selfishness!
Witnessing karma yoga in the yoga camp showed me the kind of loving attitude required in one’s housework. Since I came back, such work has felt less like a drag and more of an opportunity to be mindful, to know that one’s actions mean something.
I will make an effort to recite the Quran out loud as often as possible. A kirtan was an impressive thing to observe, but for me personally it did not contain the positive energy and vibrations everyone referred to. However, I knew what they were talking about when they referred to positive energy and vibrations, for I feel the same when reciting or hearing the Quran read out loud.
Just like there is special virtue in reciting chants in Sanskrit, there is virtue in reciting the Quran in its revealed Arabic. In both traditions, there is an emphasis on the benefits and power of these frequent recitations, even if one does not understand the meaning of what they are saying.
When possible, food should be austere. The food at the ashram was vegetarian, deeply nourishing, and omitted the use of garlic, onions, and sugar. Thanks to being a vegetarian I was already in sync with one aspect of it. However, I realized that “normal” food tends to work too hard at stimulating the senses. Another maya, another trick to distract oneself in this dunya. Partaking in their food was a lesson in austerity
I am not my thoughts or my emotions. This is a lesson I learned from a talk delivered during my first Satsang session. The speaker gave us an explanation for the role of the ashram and the human spirit. “Your mind is like a vinyl record,” she said. “Every thought, feeling, and action you have creates a groove in that record. The more you repeat it, the deeper that groove gets.” Boring as the ashram’s routine may seem to some, she said, following it is the process of creating new grooves, filled with positive action and energy. Focusing on deepening those “good” grooves means letting go of old patterns of negative thinking and behaviour.
This description was empowering and illuminating for me. It fit right in with the readings on meditation I have been doing nowadays. Hurts from my past, I realized, may be nothing more than a story I have kept telling myself, on repeat. Everything, good or bad, ends. It is to God we return. “A person who is enlightened,” said another karma yogi, “still feels emotions. However, they do not get attached to those emotions.”
The more I think about the ashram–both in theory and in my lived experience–the more I realize how much I learned about willpower, personal restraint, and inner peace. It has given me a blueprint for continuing life as a Muslim, no matter what happens ahead. Something’s kicked in, and my lifestyle, intention, and outlook are visibly improving, for the better.
I end this post with the prayer delivered at the closing of Sivananda yoga classes:
Auspiciousness be unto all; peace be unto all;
fullness be unto all; prosperity be unto all.
May all be happy!
May all be free from disabilities!
May all look to the good of others!
May none suffer from sorrow!
(Oh Lord) Lead us from the unreal to the Real
From darkness to Light
Many months ago, I met a Muslim with a very compelling, grounded, and soulful take on sexuality. Thinking that her view needed to be aired, to be shared with the world, I asked her earnestly to write for Altmuslimah.
Without a pause, she shook her head. “There are a lot of people saying a lot of things,” she said. “But it’s the people who matter who need to say them.”
* * *
Last week, I resigned from my position as editor of Altmuslimah. As I went through knowledge transfer tasks and goodbyes, I found myself thinking of that woman’s words.
My Altmuslimah career began when they picked up a post of mine and I became an on-call writer for them. In December 2012, I joined their editorial team. I found myself in an epicentre of a fascinating discourse on being Muslim today. I reviewed books, got acquainted with talented writers, and interviewed amazing women such as Tayyibah Taylor. I even flew to D.C. last year for our annual retreat, hosted graciously by the Editor-in-Chief, and spent two incredible days with my highly intelligent, talented, and insightful colleagues.
Recently, however, I started to realize that this role didn’t mean to me anything it itself; rather, I wanted it to mean something for me. I started to think a lot about the limits of what I can offer and of certain mediums themselves. This tweet is a perfect illustration of the kinds of issues I pondered:
The “more than a hashtag” part is tough for me, both theoretically and practically. There is a world of people out there–most depressingly, community elders –who see online platforms like these as just a group of subversive women chattering amongst ourselves. Whatever their reasons are, the reality is: they will keep calling the shots for generations to come. Part of my wake-up call was realizing that such individuals and the communities they influence will never take endeavours like Altmuslimah seriously. If I ever thought they would, it was because I had socialized myself, through my work there, into being around people who talk and think like I do.
I’m ready to be de-socialized now, whatever that means in cybersphere. I want to join the land of the living, of Muslim friends who have never heard of the Mipsterz video or the storm around the Abu Eesa controversy, or don’t make such a fuss about every hijabi athlete or the Muslim marriage crisis. For a while, it was cool to be hearing about everything Islam and gender in its glory and ugliness. But exposing myself so much to that discourse was draining. I don’t doubt that there are hundreds or thousands of seeds being planted via Altmuslimah’s work. I just don’t think I’m meant to do the planting anymore.
I think back to the woman that I talked to, how she, just like me, struggled to have her faith to align with her lived reality to what she knew to be true in her deen and spirit.
There are indeed a lot of people saying a lot of things, and maybe I should not worry about helping everyone say those things. Maybe it’s time for me to just be, and to embrace whatever fills up the space where Altmuslimah used to be.
It’s a delayed farewell, but one I deliver with relief.
“Ya Allah, we come as we are,”
Adjusting her large spectacles,
Her large dupatta hugging her shoulders through her abaya,
Large, burr-covered men’s socks in bunches around her feet.
“However we are,
We come as we are.”
Her words glimmered from afar,
For I now think I know.
When I wash to pray,
The pigment used to cover the darkness beneath my eyes dissolves.
And I go back to work.
As I am.
I come as I am.
A period of silence from verbal speech is one of the greatest gifts a person can give to themselves. I have found that people are very intimidated by this notion and say that I am introducing a bidah–innovation. I’m not sure where they are coming from. This practice is not without precedent in the Islamic tradition, as you will see in the following:
The practice of Itikaaf–designating a time and space to focus on remembrance of Allah–includes refraining from frivolous speech and arguments. If one is especially prone to such manners of speech (thanks to information overload and engagement in online communities, which can make us very reactionary), the way for them to uphold Itikaaf is not to speak at all.
Many know that Istikharah–the prayer for guidance–is supposed to be made after Isha (the night prayer) and before sleeping. In some traditions, however, it is emphasized that the supplicator not speak to anyone after this prayer and before bedtime. (I wasn’t able to find a decent source for this claim.)
There are several times in the Prophet Muhammad’s (peace and blessings me upon him) life when he consciously disengaged from everyone and either took the company of very selected people, or worshipped Allah in solitude.
If the idea of a designated period of silence is still too difficult for you to digest, perhaps you can start by watching the film A Thousand Words. It’s a light and entertaining watch that will give you an understanding of how excessive use of words can be toxic.
I pray that we cultivate a culture in which vows of silence are as understood and respected as voluntary fasting, memorization of the Quran, philanthropy, and Itikaaf.
I am now conscious of words the way I started becoming conscious of animal products about a year ago. They feel heavy on my system. I’m sensitive to excess. They make me feel uneasy, the way something might feel if it’s makruh.
At first I thought the solution was silence from speaking*, and I tried it for a few days. It was not without its benefits. I realized how much I talk over my sister. I slept better. My prayers and meditation deepened.
However, I also realized that my spoken words do not hold a candle to my internal dialogue. When I talk over people, I feel as though my head is going to explode from everything I have to convey. I have over twenty unfinished blogposts. I write long, detailed emails that don’t necessarily meander, but they delve into so much detail that writing them exhausts me. In my spoken speech, on the other hand, I suddenly go on tangents, causing others to look at me quizzically. Every conversation is a matter of trying to catch the slippery fish of my thoughts. And then there are the worst symptoms: I haven’t finished a book in months. I would start a thread of supplications, and then forget I was doing it halfway.
To sum it up: I am constantly in a state of writerly rehearsal, thinking of thing after thing to write about, to say.
There was a time when I would have loved to have this problem. But this immense gift of barakah in writing goes hand-in-hand with the necessity to keep listening, keep reading. If I don’t uphold the latter two, I am no longer fit to receive this barakah. Hence all the symptoms.
And so I declare my writerly vow of silence for the next forty days, so that I may to purge myself of internal writing oriented dialogue. There will be no drafting and publishing of blogposts. No journaling. No long emails. A conscious restraint in spoken speech. I may check into Facebook from time to time for reading purposes, but I won’t engage.
Ya Allah, let a space open within me, so I may absorb more of Your Wisdom.
*In two days’ time, I will publish a short (pre-drafted) post that discusses vows of silence in light of Islam.
In between bodily sickness, word sickness (more on this shortly) and the dozen other things going on with me, I was struggling to write a proposal for “sect neutrality with caution.”
It turns out that no effort is needed on my part. This fellow describes exactly what I was trying to, only better:
Many Sunni Muslims today will rhetorically ponder “why do we have to create divisions of ‘Sunni’ and ‘Shia,’ and why we can’t we all identify simply as ‘Muslims’?” . . . As Omid Safi puts it, “it is vital that mutual respect and coexistence not be a license for eradicating real historical grievances and particularities.” . . . Shi’is, like other minority traditions, must preserve and maintain their identity, legacy, and historical narrative among the eclipsing dominant Sunni tradition. Reflecting on the Battle of Karbala is also a way for many to call attention to the ongoing oppression of Shi’as and other minority groups (seriously though, the oppression of Baha’is in Iran is highly hypocritical) around the world (e.g. Gulf States, pre-war Iraq, Bahrain, etc). Neither Shi’i Islam, nor Sunni Islam, can lay claim to an absolute truth of Islam, but together, and within each respective tradition, Muslims are able to achieve a more holistic picture of truth. Being completely unaware of epic events such as the Battle of Karbala, causes us to sacrifice a comprehensive understanding of our religion and tradition.R
I implore you to study the religion to which you subscribe, and fight for a more robust, anti-hegemonic retelling of Islamic history. . . Familiarity with what is out there will inform our understanding of what we believe and why we believe it.
There’s much more where that came from. Please read Abbas Rattani’s original piece here and a follow-up piece here.