I spent a long time searching for a spiritual home before I found yoga.
Growing up in a half Catholic, half Jewish, all secular household — no spiritual tradition was ever forced upon me, or seriously emphasized. My parents simply taught my younger brother and I that we are connected to something greater than ourselves, and to feel this connection we need to treat others, animals, the earth, and situations as if they were extensions of ourselves.
Other than this basic commandment, I was given spiritual freedom to explore. And Explore I did.
I began with the familiar, deciding at age 15 to become Baptized, receive the blessed sacrament of Holy Communion, and get Confirmed in the Catholic Church. I continued down this path in ebbs & flows for about a year, and then again in college for about the same duration.
I appreciated the humility Catholicism teaches. Having found myself kneeling before an alter on numerous occasions during some of my more difficult years — I found great comfort humbling myself physically, mentally and spiritually in such devotion before God.
I spent a much shorter time exploring my Judaic roots. During the eight months between undergrad and graduate school, I visited the Jewish Temple where I attended pre-school to speak with the Rabbi who was still there 19 years later. (He remembered me. :))
At the time, I was searching for a religion that aligned with my more progressive politics than the Catholic Church was willing to tolerate.
In both faiths, I was drawn to their mysticism. They both openly embraced the possibility for a direct, intimate, mysterious and magical experience of the divine. I desperately wanted this kind of extraordinary encounter, and the mystic religions presented made room for this within their history and teachings.
But, despite what I enjoyed of these religions, they shared a quality that prevented me from subscribing my heart, mind, and soul to them fully.
They are both rigid. They are closed.
They teach that there is only one way to be with the divine, and that is to believe that any practice other than what their dogma perscribes are misdirected attempts. As a seeker coming from an interfaith home, this was something that I could not accept.
The kind of faith I was seeking was put best, oddly enough, by a Franciscan Monk whom lead a Catholic retreat I attended in college. After listening to my reservations about what seemed to me like a members only club, he said, “You are looking for a faith that is Universal.”
I was looking for something more open.
He was right about what I was seeking. Just not about where I would find it.
I went on religion-less for some time. Always feeling slightly less than full, always like something was missing. I went through moments where this sense was the most poignant piece of my existence, causing me great suffering. I also had moments where, likely instinctually, I numbed myself to these feelings completely.
Take these feelings and fast-forward another year and a half to the summer semester of my first year in graduate school. After the most intellectually and emotionally taxing eight months of my life, a friend from school suggested I try yoga to work through some stress.
I had heard about yoga. I knew it had many mental and physical health benefits; that is was a great workout; that I might even one day get a yoga butt. But what intrigued me most about yoga that for many, it was their chosen spiritual path.
The first yoga studio I ever visited was called Journeys in Yoga. (I wonder if the owner of this studio knew, when deciding upon this name, that it would come to seem so serendipitously perfect for what would become a life-long journey in yoga for so many.)
The second class I took at Journeys in Yoga was called “Open Flow.” The “Open” was in reference to the wide open double French doors at the rear of the practice room, which overlooked a brick courtyard adorned with wrought iron fixtures and a fountain in its center. The courtyard looked as though it belonged in an Italian province rather than next to a Win Dixie in Northern Florida.
The trickling water from the fountain could be heard faintly in between breaths, instructional cues, and the occasional laughter that would erupt after, Suzanne, the instructor and owner of the studio, let her sarcastic, real-talk, brand of humor shine.
But by the end of class, there would be much more open than just the double French doors.
The physical part of yoga (which is only one eighth of the full tradition) creates openness in the body, aiming to unblock and maintain an optimal flow of energy. This is achieved in a two-fold and simultaneous process. First by, literally, loosening up where energy tends to get stuck through stretching those areas. And second, by learning how to direct that energy efficiently through developing a controlled and mindful kind of strength.
But, as I mentioned, Yoga is so much more than physical.
As I flowed through that class, I wasn’t just opening my body, I was also opening my mind and my heart to experience something I was least expecting: myself. With all the bending and twisting and holding and flowing, ending finally in stillness, yoga opened me to myself in a way that was most intimate and so simple.
And way down in there inside of me, I found what I had been looking for, for so long, but somehow never thought to look in a place so close.
I found God.
I found that I needed to open myself to myself, to uncover the deep and personal connectedness to the Divine that has always been there. I found that deep within this openness, there exists an experience so peaceful, so comforting, so fulfilling, that it can be none other than the hand of God touching your heart, from within your heart.
Yoga is not a religion. It is not a cult. And it has no dogma. It is simply a practice of becoming open, again and again and again, so that we may have a direct, mystic experience with the divine light that is not only our essence, but the essence of all things.
This not only fits the one commandment that my parents bestowed upon me (that I am an extension of all, and all is an extension of me) but it is also the kind of universal faith that the Fransiscan Monk knew I was seeking.
And though my journey in yoga is not over and I have much more opening and searching to do, at least now I know exactly where to look.