Ommmmmmmmm. Imagine a room full of fourth graders breathing deeply and trying their very bests to balance on one leg without giggling. This was my introduction to yoga. Our teacher, Mr. Martin, was a free spirit from Mozambique who took time each day to push our tiny desks to the perimeter of the room and teach us a correct tree pose. There was a lot of muffled laughter and wobbly hips. Our daily practice ended abruptly when the principal got complaints from parents, but here I am, almost two decades later, writing about that formative experience.
Originating in the fifth century in India, yoga has very strong ties to Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. More specifically, it was linked to the concept of asceticism: spiritual growth through denial of material belongings and desires. Over time, globalization has popularized yoga as a physical and meditative practice throughout the world. In the later part of the 80s and 90s, Americans began to take part in this ancient tradition to emulate Jennifer Aniston’s flawless triceps and calves. I began my yoga journey as a physical discipline, rather than a spiritual one, and that is how I practice now. However, there are so many parallels between my Christian journey and my yoga journey that I cannot tell one without the other.
One parallel between these two journeys was my early exposure. I grew up going to church. My childhood memories range from being a four-year-old eager to see my church friends each week to being a seventeen-year-old who pleaded to stay home on a Sunday morning because of my homework load, feigned illness or laziness. This early exposure normalized many of my behaviors and values, such as prayer, generosity, forgiveness and community. Yoga played a similar role in my life. I had adopted ideas about yoga that shaped my personality, such as the virtues of patience, introspection and being still. My Christianity informed and guided my yoga, and my yoga affirmed my faith.
The next parallel is less positive. In college, I stopped practicing yoga and could not find a church in my college town that was a good fit. For about six years I was a floater. I dabbled in a few Christian groups and took a total of 10 yoga classes over four years. I wasn’t very committed to anything. Without getting too technical, I decided to try out different forms of yoga: Hatha yoga, Vinyasa yoga, Iyengar yoga. I started saying things to myself like, “This type of yoga is too easy,” and “I don’t really like the people in that class.” Similarly, I felt apathetic and cynical about church. I found myself in a mental state where I felt that yoga had become too popular to be meaningful. Ugh, how hipster of me! As far as my spiritual journey, it was in disarray. I became increasingly intolerant of churches or Christians that didn’t seem to understand me. I withdrew completely.
One day, my sister sent me a Groupon deal to attend Bikram and Ashtanga yoga for an unbeatable price. I felt like a first-timer again so I bought a new mat; so new in fact that it still curled embarrassingly into the shape of the container it had been shipped in. My clothes betrayed my novice status as well; I had painstakingly selected a matching, on-trend and overpriced yoga outfit to wear. It was clear that not a drop of sweat had touched any of my moisture wicking garments.
As I walked into the class early, I looked around at the people bending into impossible poses and greeting one another with smiles. I was pretty nervous and could not tell if I was drenched in sweat because of the emotions or the 95-degree room. I set my mat up in the back and lay down with my eyes closed. Then I smiledfor a long time. I was radiating joy and gratitude. In Sanskrit, this is known as ananda, meaning bliss or the condition of utter joy. After the class, I reflected on my deeply personal yet communal experience where I knew I would have to develop discipline, consistency and resilience. I felt humbled, optimistic and comforted just by being present. It was a safe space of support and understanding, free of guilt. These were all the things I yearned for in my spiritual life; and so, gradually, I stepped back into church as I had the yoga studio. I have been smiling quite a bit since making this decision. Namaste.