Why Ritual Matters
“There is more to life than increasing its speed.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi
In my family, we have adopted a number of traditions to mark special occasions. Some of these have been passed down through generations and others are newer. Perhaps you have your own traditions for celebrating birthdays, holidays and significant events with your loved ones. If you do, you already have an intuitive sense of how the way in which you mark a special event helps to make the event more transformative and memorable.
These are rituals. Rituals serve to slow us down and help us connect to the present moment – the here and now. They need not be big and elaborate. In fact, any small purposeful action that you perform consistently and that helps to bring you into the present moment can be considered a ritual. Big events like graduations, weddings, funerals and naming ceremonies are intentionally ritualized. And often we are forever changed by the event because of the ritual that surrounds it.
At the everyday level of your life, think of when you come to your yoga mat or meditation cushion and how you take your seat. Perhaps in class you are guided to turn inwards and get centered. Perhaps class begins and ends with the sacred mantra Om. Most likely you have been part of the ritual of closing yoga class with the salutation “Namaste”.
Taking part in these rituals in yoga practice is intended to focus your energy and allow you to go more deeply into yourself. These small rituals are intended to transform you. They are there to help settle the busy activity of your thinking mind and bring you into a calmer, more present state of being.
The many rituals of yoga also signify to us that we are undertaking a practice or process that is special and different than the mundane activities of our days (our routines) if we practice them with awareness. Rituals are also an important way for us to connect with history and tradition, too.
Perhaps you have attended a Satsang, which is a gathering of people that features devotional songs, mantra chanting and inspiring talks, often led by a teacher or community leader. I remember the first time I attended a satsang and feeling completely at a loss. What should I do now? What are we doing next? What does all this mean?
What I learned from participating in this first satsang is the purpose of ritual. As soon as I got out of my head and allowed myself to flow with the process, I felt the powerful way that ritual helped me to bypass my thinking mind and connect me with a wonderful yoga tradition.
Rituals, like those embedded in satsangs, also help us to connect back to ancient times. We connect with all who have walked the path of yoga before us when we partake in a ritual they would have performed. We connect with them every time we repeat a mantra that has been passed down to us through the millennia.
And, our rituals – both ancient and modern – allow us to enter a state of flow, where we’re not actively thinking, not aware of any single thing other than the act of what we are doing in the moment. When we enter a state of flow, we step outside of ordinary time and space.
This state of flow points to the difference between ritual and routine. Routine can sometimes drag you into a rut. No presence is required. Routine is just something you do.
Rituals are uplifting, transformative and bring you into presence with your Self. This presence is the difference between doing yoga, which could be routine, and being in a state of yoga, in which you are fully present. This is why ritual matters!