I was raised in a faith, 12 years of school in that faith, all the sacraments, all the Sundays at church. And I can see the benefit for my parents to follow this framework. It was what their parents did, it was how they were raised and it made sense to them to continue in the same way. Well, as commonly happens, around the time I was 16, I started to question the faith and why I had so many disagreements with their approach. I eventually denounced my faith, spent a lot of time pondering, experiencing agnosticism and at times even bordered on atheism. I was really turned off by organized religion and felt that I had to make it very clear, very loudly, that I was no longer a practicing member.
It took me nearly a decade to come to the realization that I can be a spiritual person without any religious affiliation. For so many years, I just couldn't separate the idea of divinity/spirituality from that of the rules and dogma present in most of the world's religions. It actually came as quite a relief to discover that I wanted to feel spiritually connected to something and to be able to recognize it as a joyous moment when it occurs. For my whole life, I've felt really deeply moved by classical music. But I didn't ever see it as a divine experience until I could create separation. The same is true of natural beauty. The joy that I experience in the quiet of nature is almost unsurpassed. I now feel a genuine, at times even physical pull toward this depth of feeling.
I was talking to my sweet little sister Laura this weekend and she asked me if yoga was a religion. I think this is a great question. And one that I'm surprised I don't hear more often. There are a lot of aspects of yoga practice that seem well, religious. Chanting at the beginning of class seems a lot like praying, mala beads seem a lot like a rosary, many studios have statues of the Buddha or Hindu deities, there is a whole body of philosophy that goes along with a physical discipline. And I can say from my own experience that it took me several years of asana practice alone before I was even remotely interested in the spirituality/philosophy piece. I think this is one of the brilliant things about a yoga practice—there is always the potential for more depth, more knowledge, more study. And not in a one-dimensional way, in so many ways—physically, mentally, emotionally and spirituality. But everyone must allow this to play out in their own time. I think we become ready to learn the deeper aspects when we're truly ready to be open to them.
So, what's the answer? Is yoga a religion?
Yoga is a science.
The ancient yogis developed yoga practices as tools for enlightenment. Open up the energy channels in the body through asana and pranayama, create vibration and additional energy through chanting and devotional practices and then meditate in a cave in India for 15 years.
While this level of devotion isn't super practical for most of us in the modern world, we can certainly benefit from these ancient practices in much the same way. Through our asana work, we cultivate sensitivity to our bodies and minds, we begin to tune-in, to awaken essentially. And on a spiritual level, when we are moved by beauty in the world, we can recognize it for what it is.
I think you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn't had a spiritual experience, but many people are uninterested or unwilling to view it in those terms. I think that each time we are moved by beauty, joy, contentment, even sadness; these all have potential for spiritual awareness. Of course some experiences are more intense than others and one can certainly have feelings without it being a divine encounter. But when we feel really deeply about something, when we are really open to the experience of depth, the potential for spiritual connection is present. As with anything, it takes practice to see these experiences for what they are. But with a bit of effort and self-reflection, any one of us can find ourselves on a spiritual journey.