Practicing in the thin spaces, where the sacred is a little bit closer

When I saw a Toronto Star headline, “Why is yoga so cult-like?” I’ll admit I cringed.

Maybe you do, too? And then tick off the expected answers to that question: misunderstanding/misuse of the guru relationship in the West; some sort of psychological reduction of people seeking something “more”; drugs.

It turns out, the article by the paper’s ethical columnist (not totally rare, the New York Times also has one) doesn’t go there. It even suggests a different way of looking at the “sacred space” of a yoga mat.

It’s one that my Irish roots happily grasp:

Let’s begin with a concept whose roots are in Irish spirituality. There is evidence that, even before the arrival of the Celts, there was belief in “thin places.”

There are as many understandings of “thin places” as there are people to write about it. To put it simply, the idea is that a veil separates the mundane things of everyday life from the higher sacred qualities, like ultimate truth, beauty and peace. A thin place exists anywhere this veil becomes so wispy that ordinary folks can penetrate it, and “touch” the eternal.

You might immediately jump to the sense many people have of India, where that veil seems perpetually thinner. (We were warned about this repeatedly during our Yatra.) And the author does go on to list physical places where people find that thin veil. But it also can happen temporally, during special moments (even “ordinary” special moments like a sunrise or sunset).

And then there’s asana practice, which — and this now is my argument, not the columnist’s — the geographic (the yoga mat) and the temporal (the length of our asana practice) combine. Result: a thin place.

During one of the talks at the Confluence, David Swenson said something along these lines: Whenever and whenever you roll out your yoga mat and practice, you’re creating a “Mysore space.” We all join into the collective (and expanding) Mysore / Ashtanga community and tradition simply via our practice. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a fancy shala, a not-so-fancy one, your home, India or in Mysore, itself. During your practice, on your mat, you’re in the same space as every other Ashtanga practitioner.


Now, I’ll admit I’ve never been terribly fond of the whole “your mat is a sacred space” idea. It rubs the rational part of me the wrong way. (That same rational part was the one getting repeatedly burned into nothingness during our Yatra, of course.) In part, it rubs me wrong because it feels like a conflation of other spiritual traditions or thinking. And as open-minded as I think I am, I guess one place I stop short is when it comes to self-creating a spirituality. Unless you’re really good at it.

But here’s a conflation that makes sense. I know all about Ireland’s Sidhe and those “thin places” in Ireland where the mundane gives way to the sublime. And I now know how those places blanket India. (Not to mention how intense they can be in certain, ritualized settings.)

So this is a way to approach the mat via a framework I can not only understand but be comfortable in. And right before the seasonal mala practice.

Good timing.

Oh, and in further response to the “cult” question, the columnist writes:

For some, however, yoga provides a helpful vehicle for touching the thin places. The earliest yoga texts, going back 500 years before Christ, talk about eight different “limbs” of yoga. One limb relates primarily to the physical postures (asanas), which are well known today. The other seven, however, relate to developing attitudes and practices that many would label “spiritual” — practices such as purity of thought, truthfulness, non-violence and healthful sexuality. More than anything else, yoga is about letting go of tension, rigidity and fear, and in the process opening yourself to new possibilities. It’s about being flexible, and flexibility is a spiritual value, albeit one which fundamentalists in “organized” religions seem not to understand.

Now I feel like we’re heading back into the is yoga religious territory…

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

2 thoughts on “Practicing in the thin spaces, where the sacred is a little bit closer”

  1. It always amazes me how sacred spaces attached to anything dealing with g-d or other spiritual rituals is almost taboo these days. Sacred spaces are in everyone’s lives whether its that spot a woman has set up to put on makeup and dress quietly without interruption, the man cave etc. When I practice my instruments I have the place I play when i’m not practicing seriously then I move to that special spot I have when i’m going deep. As a Jew that thin space is created when I put on my Tefilin and Talete that creates another thin space. The mat can certainly be another thin space if you designate as such and you go deeper there. For me Yoga is always practiced it is a state of mind, a way, a philosophy. I like this explanation by Bhagavan Das, “If you walk out into that forest and you bow down to that tree, and you talk to that tree, and you tell that tree how much you love it, and you love that tree and you really get down with that tree, and then you sit up and you kiss that tree, and you lean against that tree and you meditate, that tree will speak to you. You see G-d will meet you at the base of that tree.” Sacred space, thin space is always around us and it’s in us!

    I like this video check it out

  2. I experienced one of those ‘thin places’ in Scotland… a far-off beach that you had to hike to get to. Most alive place I’ve ever been, buzzing with electric energy. Faeries must have been laughing at me. I’ve never forgotten it.

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