Well, I’ve been terrible about blogging since I got to Minneapolis. I’ll try to do better. This post is a little outdated, I wrote it last week.
I have been in West Liberty, Ohio visiting my grandpa since the middle of last week. He is 97, golfs every Friday, weather permitting, and is a devoted Mennonite (raised in India by missionary parents) with complete faith in the teachings of Jesus. Last night, after a round of Scrabble, he asked me about my yoga practice. I briefly described what I do each day, and he asked me what I got out of it. Was it just exercise?
Knowing that he was a little worried about me, spiritually, I wasn’t sure how to respond. My relationship with religion is a complicated one. My parents raised a good atheist with a scientific mind, and the only times I went to church were when we visited my mom’s parents, who were Episcopalian, and my dad’s parents, Mennonite. I was ten when my mom’s parents passed away, but I don’t remember religion being terribly important to them; certainly not the looming presence it was in my dad’s parents’ lives. Before every meal there was Grace, and my sister and I learned enough over the years to just barely be able to mouth along with the songs, always feeling a bit like the black sheep of the family. My cousins would take turns telling the Christmas story. We would all occasionally be called on to read a passage from the Bible: this I didn’t mind, since there was a script. But we played along, not ever discussing the fact that we didn’t go to church, or read the Bible, or believe.
Outside the family, I started to learn how destructive religion could be. How it had been (and was being) manipulated to judge, to oppress, to kill. How religious folk often defied the commandments that were supposedly the backbone of their faith. But this was not my grandparents’ religion, and I started to appreciate that there was nothing hypocritical in their faith in God and desire for peace in the world. Still, religion had no appeal to me, and I began to think that if faith in God, any God, could help a person be happier, more loving, more peaceful, then it was a wonderful thing, but I had no use for it.
Enter yoga. To be clear, it did not start out as a spiritual endeavor, rather a way to escape the vicious cycle of gym-going, calorie-counting, scale-watching. I found a way to be strong and healthy without punishing myself. (Though make no mistake, the mirrors in Bikram yoga are unforgiving, and my body judgment often crept in.) Over the years (during which time I passed through several styles of yoga on my way to Ashtanga), I started to realize that this feeling that I was cultivating when I was on the mat, this peacefulness, was not just a physical relaxation. There was an energetic softening, a peeling-back of layers of perfectionism, criticism, self-doubt. “Going deeper” is maybe an overused term, but it describes pretty accurately what I went through: beginning with the external, stretching and strengthening, and somehow finding my way to less intense reactions in difficult situations and more self-acceptance.
At first, this was definitely a solo endeavor. Though I was in class with other people, the idea that it was my journey alone helped me to not be competitive, to not compare my form to the yogi next to me. And this was an important step for me. But once I began a Mysore-style practice, this idea that I was alone in the process started to fade.
In Mysore-style Ashtanga, there is no “all together now” verbal instruction. During the alloted time period, students may arrive at any time, provided they finish their prescribed sequence of poses before the end of the class. New students start with just sun salutations, and more experienced students may be practicing for an hour and a half to two hours. What this type of practice began to provide for me, among many other things, is a sense of community. Not let’s-all-hold-hands-and-sing community (though I’m not knocking that), but we’re-all-working-through-our-shit-and-it’s-not-pretty community. When you’ve heard your neighbor cry, or grunt, or breakdown, or swear, or celebrate because of a pose that is transforming them in some way, and they’ve heard you do the same, there’s a connection that can help you get back on the mat the next day. It’s a powerful feeling, this connectivity. A friend once described the Mysore practice room as being the closest thing to Church that she had experienced, and I would wholeheartedly agree.
Which brings me back to my Mennonite grandpa, and his question about what I get from yoga. It’s not just physical exercise, I told him, although that is an important part. I said that it was a moving meditation, that it gave me a sense of peace and well-being. What I wanted to add was that to me, it was the equivalent of church. A place to find connection, to the people around me, yes, but also to God. In retrospect, it seems silly that I didn’t just say this, but I worried, I suppose, that it would disappoint him to know that his granddaughter found God in yoga, not in Jesus. But isn’t it all the same, really? He has the Bible. I have the Yoga Sutras. In the end, it’s all about decreasing hate and violence, and increasing love.
Perhaps we’ll have a longer conversation about it next summer, when I visit him before his 99th birthday.