Yoga and Spirituality in Rural Ohio

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 This post is a little outdated, I wrote it last week.

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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.


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This entry was published on June 27, 2011 at 2:29 am and is filed under family, travel, yoga. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

14 thoughts on “Yoga and Spirituality in Rural Ohio

  1. That’s a lovely post. My Mum just doesn’t get it, maybe I will just get her to read this, I find it so hard to explain that once you practice regularly that it goes way beyond being just a form of physical exercise.

  2. What a lovely post. My Mum still doesn’t get it, perhaps I will show this post to her, I find it so hard to explain that it goes way beyond being just another form of physical exercise. Some if the nicest people I know are in the yoga community

  3. Excellent post Ellie! Yoga is the closest thing to religion that I have in my life. It took me a while to understand how spiritual it actually is.

    I hope things are settling down for you after the big move! oxox

  4. Thanks guys! Yes, I think it can be different things to different people (at different stages of practice as well).

    EE, yep life is swell in MN. πŸ™‚

  5. Great post, Ellie. I really like your description of a Mysore class as this “we’re-all-working-through-our-shit-and-it’s-not-pretty community”. I think this quiet connection is what makes Mysore different from much of organized religion (and may I add, even some other styles of yoga), with all that feel-good preachiness. Uh oh, am I getting into an angry rant? Hmm… I better stop now πŸ™‚ But once again, great post!

    • Ha. Doesn’t sound like an angry rant to me. πŸ™‚ But I do love that about Ashtanga, that it’s not all “shanti shanti” all the time. Sometimes you’ve got to muck it up a bit in order to see what’s really there.

  6. Beautifully written, and I love that your grandpa is in his 90s and still going strong. What a treasure.

    I was brought up in a strict Catholic family, was very active in Church through my teens and early 20s before I started to see the hypocrisy behind the form, and it was never the same after that. Although I’ve been doing yoga for about 8 years and Ashtanga for only the past year, there’s something about this mucky practice that draws you into the spiritual side of things. I love it and wouldn’t trade it for the world, but of course, my Catholic parents have no idea and would probably flip if they knew πŸ™‚

  7. I once had a yoga teacher say something along the lines of (I will butcher this, so bear with me) “when you practice yoga, and when you’re very much IN the moment of the movement, whatever it is, you can get to a place that is the most genuine version of yourself that you’ll ever be – just you, and your body, and your breathing, without any of your ego that you carry, or frustrations of the day, or all the millions of external things that influence how you show yourself to the world. When relaxing into the pose and surrendering to the movement, this is the most true version of yourself”

    I like that idea, that through the practice you can strip away the ‘extras’ and be the you that you are. In that, I see God.

    • I love this. I also love that you often preface these really insightful ideas with “I’m probably going to butcher this…” Face it, Liz. You are actually really eloquent. Sorry to have to be the one to break the news to you.

      • Well, I appreciate that, but I am also hyper aware that just because I can rock the hell out my lulus, I know very very little about the practice of yoga, not to mention my consistent crimes against grammar. πŸ™‚

  8. Ellie-Having been brought up in Western PA, I can relate totally. My family all think I’m this crazy hippie who won’t eat meat when I come home for the holidays.
    I was raised Catholic and Protestant and now a yogini
    I did achieve 1 feat-I got my family to chant “Shiva, Shiva Shambo” at our Xmas dinner table!
    I hope you are loving it and your grandpa is so cute!!!

  9. πŸ™‚

    (Good posture he has. You too.)

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