By Hasan Awan, MD.
In The Name of God, the All-Merciful, the Ever-Merciful.
Once upon a sacred time and space, an Eastern spiritual sage was asked by his disciples to demonstrate the postures of the "highest form of yoga", which he did for their benefit. He began by standing and facing a particular direction (the East), raising his arms and hands in awe of the Sacred space before him and within him. His eyes, humbled, looked down towards a particular position on the ground as if in reverence before this all-encompassing and transcendent Presence. Then, to some people's amazement, he began to hold postures for a certain period of time, while focusing on his breathing and meditating which started in a standing position, then a bowing position while keeping his spine straight and extended, and then ultimately in a yoga "child-pose" like position of prostration, realizing fully the form of the curvature of the spine—again aligning the posture to his breathing and meditating. Finally, after repeating this cycle over again, he ended the posture in a sitting meditative position with his arms on his thighs, this time whispering something upon his lips, and finally exiting this form of yoga with an extension and release of the neck to the right and then to the left. When finished, and after weeks of practicing this posture with his disciples every dawn, high noon, later afternoon, evening/sunset and night; and after appreciating that his disciples were physically, psychologically and spiritually transformed by this form of yoga under his guidance, the sage turned to them and congratulated them on performing the "yoga" of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ and his followers!
Lest one doubt the veracity of this story, allow me to state that it is indeed a "true" rendition transmitted to me, albeit dramatized. Over a period of some time, the disciples of this spiritual sage eventually entered Islam and followed this beautiful "friend of God" in practicing the Shariah and Spiritual Way (Tariqa/Sunnah) of the Prophet ﷺ. The spiritual sage's name whom this story is attributed to was none other than Shaykh Bawa Muhaiyedeen (may God have Mercy on him and sanctify his secret), who is buried in Coatesville, PA, USA. He is arguably the first well-known Muslim "saint" to be buried in this beautiful "land of the free". He is succeeded by a beautiful Muslim community he single handedly produced, who continue to practice Traditional Islam as it was transmitted to them by Shaykh Bawa.
The truth of such a story should not seem so far-fetched as many parallels can be found between how certain "converts" to Islam may learn the salat and how children of Muslim families (or other Muslims new to salat) may learn the practice of the Muslim canonical prayer through mimicking the motions of their parents or someone who prays. Such a process involves imitating the outer form of the salat—a practice which many years later may lead to an inner spiritual opening, God-willing. The only difference of the transmission of the salat for others and the situation in this story here is that these seekers of spiritual truth learned the salat under the guidance of a man who was privy by the divine grace (tawfiq) to a profound spiritual attainment through Islamic praxis in the form of the rites of prayer and invocation of Allah's Names.
It has been about three years since I first heard this wonderful story. What intrigued me about the story was the idea that each position of the salat was being taken so seriously and performed with such devotion and presence of mind, body and heart by these "yogis-come-Muslims". I began to ask myself, how could it be that such "yogis" were transformed so profoundly by just practicing the outer motions of the salat for a couple of weeks while I was going "through the motions" five times daily for decades and apparently understood its meaning without any real or wholesome transformation? And then it hit me: perhaps there was a profound meaning to be found in each physical posture of the salat—a meaning intimately related to the very fundamental notions of being Muslim (that is, one who submits their very purpose to their Lord). Was there something that "yoga" could teach me about the salat that I had been lacking? My heart told me there was indeed. It was for this reason I started practicing yoga and still practice it regularly. Even to this day I am astonished at how such yoga practices heighten my awareness of a spiritual attitude and divine presence realized through every posture of the Muslim Prayer.
In any case, as a Muslim who now practices yoga regularly for health benefits, who attempts to pray his salat on time, and attempts to bring more presence (hudur) and concentration into salah through dhikr (remembrance), it is important to ask myself (and others) the following questions:
How physically, psychologically and spiritually present are we in our salat?
And for those yoga practitioners out there who have experienced first-hand the many "healthy" effects of yoga (I have in mind forms of hatha-yoga and not other forms of yoga):
How come we cannot attain the suppleness, centeredness and even "relaxation" that we attain in yoga through the salat?
Does not the Qur'an state, "Spiritually successful are the believers. Those who maintain 'khushu' in their salah (prayer)" (23:2)? Now khushu is a Qur'anic term that can not sufficiently be translated by one word. However, after some years of practicing dhikr (and yoga) I appreciate more and more that Khushu is simultaneously a form of physical suppleness, psychological mindfulness and a spiritual reverence before the Divine Presence of God. In other words, khushu is a Qur'anic term which connotes the effects of being "fully present"—body, mind and spirit—before the Divine Presence in Prayer. Khushu in many ways can arguably be seen as one of the "goals" of yoga!
Now, if you are still with me, in this Qur'anic light, is it possible today to practice "yoga", attain its benefits, and apply the "insights" gained through its practice in order to fully realize "khushu" in salat, ultimately appreciating how salat may actually be "the highest form of yoga" for the followers of Muhammad ﷺ?
Let us first define "yoga" so as to appreciate how it is possible for the salat to even be described as a form of yoga.
According to wikipedia, yoga is a Sanskrit word and is defined as "the physical, mental, and spiritual practices or disciplines which originated in ancient India, (dating back to the third millennia BC), with a view to attaining a state of permanent peace of mind in order to experience one's true self." Such practices have been integrated organically in their own way into many forms of traditional spirituality rooted in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. This to me, points to the possibility that the original form of "yoga" can arguably be viewed as a kind of inspired or "prophetic science" of the body and soul. Anyone who has truly tasted yoga and is Muslim would appreciate why I make this claim—which is just a claim to say the least. To be sure I wish also to stress the term "original" since yoga has taken on many forms and guises, especially in its New Age forms in the modern West, and is unfortunately associated with many scandals. This fact should not deter the perceptive and contemplative Muslim to appreciate its many health benefits—especially in its hatha-yoga forms.
In any case, the actual term "yoga" is derived from two Sanskrit words meaning "to yoke" and "to concentrate". This naturally leads to appreciating how the form of the body can be maneuvered, positioned, or "yoked" in such a way as to illicit a proper form of concentration or discipline upon the "mind" (soul). This process of using the body as a support or means of contemplation can fine-tune itself through various postures of the body, in order to find peace and realize one's true inner self. It can be argued that in Islam such a definition and spiritual goal of yoga ultimately translates into attaining khushu through salat which, as a revealed rite in Islam, involves and integrates the body, mind/soul and spirit in its own particular manner, the ultimate objective being the attaining of spiritual nearness (qurb) to God. Through such a process of inwardness and attaining qurb, it can be said that finding peace (itmi'nan) through a penetration of the spiritual consciousness from the body to the heart (qalb) through dhikr (remembrance of God) (see Qur'an 13:28)1, is most prominently realized in that "form of yoga" Muslims identify with as the canonical prayer of Islam, that is the salat (see Qur'an 29:45). Thus, one may appreciate how for Muslims "the highest form of Yoga" can be viewed as the salat.
In regards to appreciating the form of the salat in general and the physical positions of the salat in particular, it is intriguing that Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr notes the following in his article, "The Interior Life in Islam":
"The form of these prayers is derived directly from the sunnah of the Holy Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and the daily prayers are considered as the most important of religious deeds for as the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) has said, “The first of his deeds for which a man will be taken into account on the day of resurrection will be his prayer. If it is sound he will be saved and successful, but if it is unsound he will be unfortunate and miserable. If any deficiency is found in his obligatory prayer the Lord who is blessed and exalted will issue instructions to consider whether His servant has said any voluntary prayers so that what is lacking in the obligatory prayer may be made up by it. Then the rest of his actions will be treated in the same fashion.”2
The salat punctuates man's daily existence, determines its rhythm, provides a refuge in the storm of life and protects man from sin. Its performance is obligatory and its imprint upon Islamic society and the soul of the individual Muslim fundamental beyond description.
Yet, the meaning of the prayers is not to be understood solely through the study of their external form or their impact upon Islamic society, as fundamental as those may be. By virtue of the degree of man's ihsan, and also by virtue of the grace (barakah) contained within the sacred forms of the prayers, man is able to attain inwardness through the very external forms of the prayers [emphasis added].
He is able to return, thanks to the words and movements which are themselves the echoes of the inner states of the Holy Prophet, back to the state of perfect servitude (ubudiyyah) and nearness to the Divine (qurb) which characterize the inner journey of the Holy Prophet as the Universal Man (al-insan al-kamil) to the Divine Presence on that nocturnal ascent (al-miraj), which is at once the inner reality of the prayers and the prototype of spiritual realization in Islam."
In a footnote to this excerpt, Dr. Nasr more specifically relates the miraj (ascension) of the Prophet ﷺ to the outer and inner reality of the prayer (salat) in the following manner:
"The external movements of the prayers are said by traditional Islamic authorities to be reflections in the world of form, movement, time and space of the states experienced by the Holy Prophet during his nocturnal ascension."
All this is a profound commentary upon the hadith that "the salat is the [spiritual] ascension of the believer", and allows us to further appreciate how salat is a form of "yoga" in the most profound and highest sense of the term—aligned as it is to our inner, spiritual ascension to the divine presence. It is significant to note the connection between the outer physical form, postures and movements (in short, "the yoga") of the salat and the inner, spiritual essence attained through performing salat through khushu. Practicing yoga has allowed me to become much more sensitive to this connection between the outer form of the salat and its inner, spiritual reality (ma'na). Although one need not practice yoga to appreciate the profound spiritual meanings contained in the salat, for this writer the practice of yoga has heightened the awareness of those same realities. As such, the salat can be viewed, from an Eastern and spiritual point of view, as a form of yoga whose roots are found in the Islamic Revelation and Prophecy, which strives to attain khushu and itmi'nan as a "wasila" (means) from and to Allah (subhanahu wa ta'ala), engaging the body, mind/soul and spirit of the believer.
So can it actually be said that the salat is the "highest form of Yoga"? Shaykh Bawa believed so. And I believe those who have experienced yoga and who strive to perform their salat with khushu would say the same. Perhaps one day when your children return home from school and try to teach you the new yoga posture they learned in gym class, you can retort: "Allow me to teach you the best kind of yoga."
And God Knows Best.
1. Qur'anic verses cited:
"Spiritually Successful are the believers. Those who maintain 'khushu" in their salah (prayer)" [23:2]
"You shall recite what is revealed to you of the Scripture, and observe the Salat, for the Salat prohibits evil and vice. And the remembrance of God is greater. God is aware of all that you do." [29:45]
"Those who believe and whose hearts find rest in the remembrance of Allah, Verily, in the remembrance of Allah do hearts find rest. [13:28]
2. Footnoted hadith found in Mishkat al Masabih.