A Religious Experience

Posted on May 23rd, 2012 by in Yoga

In yoga, one writer reconnects with the notion of faith.

Like most kids in my middle-class New England town, I was raised Catholic, though in my case it was something of a default option. My parents had both been brought up in religious households but, by the time I came along, they were largely non-practicing. My mother’s strict Irish-Catholic family—so devout (or stubborn) that they refused to acknowledge her secular college education—turned her away from the church, and my father, a journalist, had been trained to follow facts, not faith. While they wanted the decision of religion to be mine, they also sought to provide me with a base from which to explore, a base that would include Baptism, Confirmation, and 10 years of weekly after-school Catholic-education classes.

But while I made all the milestones, I neither connected with nor opposed their meanings. My given religion was never something to think about; it just was. Later, as a teenager, church on Sunday remained important to me mainly because to my parents it was not. (What a rebel, right?) But it wasn’t as if my friends were so pious: The annual Christmas-eve midnight mass was as much about socializing as it was about celebrating the birth of Jesus.

Throughout, no one I knew questioned what we’d been taught. We took the word of our teachers, and our priests, on “faith.” In those early years, “faith” meant believing that if you were a good person, good would surround you; that if you treated others well, you would be treated well in return; that if you followed the Catholic doctrine, you would be rewarded with peace while you lived and after you died. Faith, for the most part, did not include questioning authority. And, for a long time, I didn’t.

It was in my late teens that I started to feel disconnected to, and even betrayed by, Catholicism. I was learning to identify with feminism and cultures beyond my small town, and some of the church’s rigid politics, which no one really talked about during those after-school catechism classes, came across as outdated and offensive. I couldn’t help but see most sermons—which preached the importance of goodness and love, while denouncing vast groups of people—as hypocritical. I had gay friends; I believed absolutely in a woman’s right to choose. Condemning birth control seemed just plain reckless, the idea of creationism ignorant. Life, I came to believe, required more flexibility and open-mindedness than Catholicism’s rigid, always-right dogma allowed.

Later, as I became a journalist like my father, I prided myself on my cynicism, my objective perspective. I saw horrible things happen to good people. I suffered through my own tragedies. I wondered, as so many of us do, how and why bad things happen. God failed me, and many people I knew, consistently. There was still a part of me that wanted to believe, but the evidence was clear. If my most kind-hearted, churchgoing, devout aunt couldn’t save her son from drug addiction, what use was prayer, or church, for any of us? Who decided whom was worth saving?

When I began to practice yoga regularly, I was skeptical about how my cynicism might fit in with the spirituality I encountered. Yoga, in any form or brand, is a spiritual experience, even if it’s not necessarily tied to any one religion. We chant, we hold our hands in prayer, we devote our practices to others. Many instructors speak of “a higher power” and a god of some sort. We perform ritual movements. Still, the word “god” and the devotional aspect made me uncomfortable. Wasn’t I just here to work out, get fit?

As we went through the various rites of yoga, however, I found myself not repelled or divided, but calmed. It was as if, through movement and breath, I was taught—allowed—to believe, for the first time, that god was not an absolute. That god wasn’t Catholic, or anti-abortion, or a Republican; god wasn’t either He or She. Defining god became something I understood to be very personal, and on some days I felt god right there in class with me. That belief didn’t make me naïve, a bad journalist, or even a bad Catholic. It just made me Me. I still wasn’t sure who “god” was. But I found myself calling to that being, through yoga, whenever I desired some comfort, or direction, or just company. Sometimes god was my dead grandmother. Sometimes it was a vision of the Buddha. Sometimes, god was the future self I envision when I picture myself old and content.

On occasion, I have missed the idea of Catholicism, the blind faith and the comfort that handing your life over to someone, or something, else can afford. But yoga has allowed me to reclaim belief in something of a higher power, in that it’s helped me see the best in myself. My practice has allowed me to approach the world off my mat with an open heart and mind, to find comfort and peace in an existence that isn’t always kind, that doesn’t always make sense, that isn’t one-size-fits-all. It’s allowed me to feel at ease during times I otherwise would have felt anything but.

Recently, I caught myself calling on the spirituality I’ve found through yoga when my husband and I hiked too far into the Utah desert without adequate water. Intellectually, I couldn’t imagine that there would be anything out there to acknowledge my plea when so many others were suffering, when I hadn’t truly believed for so long. But there I was, asking for help. And you know what? It came, just as I knew it would. You could call that luck. You could also call it faith.

 

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  • Maathac

    I can very much relate to your experience.  I may not have been raised catholic, but with the New England Protestant version.  My yoga practice has been my salvation on so many levels.  I do not believe in coincidences.  Yoga may keep me flexible physically, but most important to me is opening my heart and mind to receive my higher power.  Thank you for sharing .

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