The long answer: Wicca, Yoga, Buddhism oh my

I’ve received an interesting question from The Oasis Within:

Hello! What are your thoughts on practicing wicca, yoga, and Buddhism together? I am a yoga teacher and I’m really drawn to Wicca because it advocates connecting with Mother Nature, the elements, and cycles of the Earth. Also, do you have any references (books, articles, websites, youtube, etc.) for someone who is new to Wicca? And what do you suggest should be the first step for someone who is new in regards to Wicca? Thank you and namaste~

Answer Part One: The Wiccan Part

I admit that, as a Keltrian Druid, I am probably not the go-to source for Wicca, arguably the most popular of Neo-Pagan religions. Keltria falls under the Reconstructionism category of Pagan faith, albeit “Reconstructionist Light.” Wicca is on the opposite end of the spectrum, as a more eclectic faith that is not married to a particular pantheon or ancient culture. Of course, there are similarities and, like many long-term polytheists, I had years’ worth of experience with Wicca before finding that modern Druidry best suited my nature.

When I did practice Wicca, I leaned toward the Reclaiming tradition for its ecstatic and poetic nature, and its intriguing philosophies. With that in mind, I strongly recommend Starhawk’s seminal work, The Spiral Dance.  There are folks, however, who are highly critical of Starhawk; she is a progressive politically, and that thread — along with non-adherence to traditional gender roles — runs throughout her work. If that sets you off, I’d suggest the late Scott Cunningham‘s work, which remains a decent explanation of Wicca, and includes rituals that can get you started on your own path. Other folks criticize Cunningham, portraying his gentleness as “fluffy bunny,” but I’ve always viewed it as a decent, friendly start on the Wiccan path.

Answer Part 2: Yoga and Paganism

Whether yoga is compatible with modern Pagan faith depends entirely on how you define yoga. Asana — the postures that yoga is most famous for — is a modern tradition that ultimately has its root in Danish bodybuilding practices in the late 1800s that made their way to India via the YMCA. It also largely mimics the Harmonial Gymnastics moves of the 1930s, popular in Britain and elsewhere; this tradition also had Indian influences through Theosophy and the early New Age. Asana process, to be blunt, is not a 5,000-year-old process tied to Hinduism, as is often claimed. In fact, when Indian gurus brought meditation to the West in the late 1800s, the deliberately did not call it yoga, because yogis were considered charlatans who twisted themselves into pretzel shapes and performed faux miracles for money.

Mark Singleton’s excellent and well-researched book Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice lays this history out. It’s an academic work and thus a challenging read for the lay practitioner, but I found it rewarding — and confirming what I suspected. (I minored in religion as an undergraduate, and did one of my comprehensive exams in comparative Indo-European mythology during my Ph.D. program, which is the knowledge base I am drawing on for comparison.)

Simply put, yoga practice — asana, meditation and pranayama, the latter of which probably has its roots in tantra and Hindu mysticism — presents you with a set of tools, and does not constitute a religion in and of itself. As such, you can use these tools no matter the faith path you tread, be it Druid, Wiccan, Christian or Buddhist. The idea that you need to be Hindu to practice yoga has its roots in Indian nationalism — understandable, considering the need to break from a colonial past, but still, at its root, political in origin, nature and intent.

The yamas and niyamas are probably comparable to codes of ethics in many religions, Pagan ones included. They’re similar, in my mind, with the Celtic idea of firinne, which would be equivalent to the Vedic rta or Hindu dharma. And this makes sense; the Celts were an Indo-European people, as were the northern Indians. (The southern Indians, the Dravidians, and the Dalits of the north were likely the true “natives” of India prior to the IE invasion in antiquity. But every culture is an amalgram of new peoples and those who are currently living on the land, so this is ultimately neither here nor there.)

As a polytheist, I honor the Gods in many forms, and I do keep both Hindu and Buddhist altars, along with the Celtic ones (and even a Greek one, a remnant of a brief dabble in Hellenic religion). As a Keltrian, however, I make sure to honor only the Irish pantheon during my Keltrian rituals because that’s the garden fence of the tradition, so to speak. Outside of my Keltrian rites, I am free to honor the Gods as I will. If I choose to pour an offering to Ganesha or chant to Krishna, that’s perfectly okay. Polytheism as a whole is an open system, although traditions may have limits within the contexts of their own rites.

As a Wiccan, the possibilities are even more open to you. Before I found my way to Brighid, I honored Sarasvati quite heavily and mainly honored variants of the Hindu pantheon as God and Goddess. Wiccans are essentially eclectic and syncretic, meaning that they can combine or mix-and-match cultures in a way that Reconstructionists do not. If you wanted to honor Shiva and Parvati during your Beltane rite, that would be up to you. (I did that as a Wiccan, although as a Recon, using the name “Beltane” to describe my rite makes me twitch a little….)

Answer Part 3: Buddhism and Paganism

This part of the question, albeit implied, is something that I’m probably the least qualified to answer. I’ve studied Buddhism in my undergraduate years, and some years ago read the Dhammapada. I think the Four Noble Truths can be a fine guide to living life, and I draw on their wisdom from time to time — although I’d never in a million years describe myself as a Buddhist.

In short, I’m all about the Gods and have been that way since I was 7 years old. Buddhism is an essentially non-theistic faith. It’s not atheistic, although atheists would probable be comfortable with its practices. From what I remember of the Buddha’s teachings, he held that it ultimately didn’t matter whether gods existed or what lay beyond; what mattered was following the Eightfold Path and alleviating suffering in both yourself and the world.

Of course, Buddhism does combine with polytheism in many regards. Tibetan Buddhism combines the teachings of the Buddha with the native Bon religion, which is shamanic in nature. Other traditions of Buddhism absorb gods long worshiped by the culture in question, and redefine them as Boddhisattvas. (Kwannon/Kwan Yin is a great example, and a name I use for my music project.) People do make offerings to the Buddha, even though he is definitely not a God in actual Buddhist doctrine. So, yes, I suppose you could approach Buddhism from a polytheistic bent; many cultures do.

Answer: The Cliff Notes Version

Ultimately, the answer is this: You can practice any traditions you like, in any combination that makes sense to you. Now, that may piss some people off, especially the “everything is cultural appropriation” warriors. But no matter what you do in this life, you’ll piss somebody off, so I wouldn’t worry too much about that. At the end of the day, the journey is about discovering and clarifying your world view and your dedication, your bhakti, if you will. This takes different forms for different people.

You start by reading books — whether it’s traditional texts such as the Yoga Sutra or Dhammapada, or books about modern traditions such as those listed above. You read and you think, and you read some more.

And then, when you’re ready, you take a cup and pour an offering — to a god or goddess, a spirit, or even the universe as a whole. And you speak words of love and gratitude, or show that love and gratitude in other ways, ritualized or not. And then you sit — in trance, in silent meditation or simply in a spirit of listening — and hear what They say back to you, whether in intellectual thought (jnana), vision or simply the movement of leaves in the wind.




One thought on “The long answer: Wicca, Yoga, Buddhism oh my

  1. Gosh, what a wonderful comprehensive answer to an extremely ‘complicated’ question! It’s certainly given ‘The Oasis Within’ a lot to muse over! The thing that puzzles me though is that the writer claims to be ‘A Yoga Teacher’. Surely then in his/her training the various concepts you have so aptly described would have been covered? (If only to ‘enlighten’ potential students who might very well ask these and/or similar questions.) I’m glad you didn’t go into the various ‘schisms’ of all these philosophies (along with all the antagonism between their followers) – or it might have been an even longer posting! Well done!

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