Why I Call Myself Religious. ~ Jade Sylvan

Via elephant journal
on Jun 14, 2012
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I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, home of Harvard and MIT, their constituents and gaggles of pseudo-intellectual noggin-groupies.

I often joke that it’s the secular humanist capital of the world. The term “religious” is almost never heard except as an acerbic synonym for “ignorant,” as in, “They’re religious. They think the sun revolves around the earth and hate gays.”

No one in my neighborhood would describe themselves as religious. In fact, they’d probably bristle if you suggested it. You also can’t walk ten blocks around here without passing a yoga studio.

I’ve been practicing yoga regularly for five years. Over this period of time, my friends and family have noticed me grow calmer and kinder. I’ve become a better writer, a better friend and a better consumer.

It’s helped me work with what psychiatrists once described as “chronic” depression and OCD, and what orthopedic surgeons dubbed “chronic” pain. In all ways that matter, I’ve become a more effective human being, and I credit it, in large part, to my practice. Yoga’s not exercise for me. It’s the way I live.

But when I’m at a party or out to lunch with non-yogis, I’m almost embarrassed to talk about yoga. “Will they think I’m stupid? Will they think I believe in magical thinking, fairies, and Narnia if I let on what my practice means to me?”

The word “religious” was ruined in this country a long time before Jerry Falwell and Proposition 8. More than anything, it was really the unwillingness of certain Christians to move forward with the times that caused the intelligentsia to brand all religious people as bumpkins across the board.

Hence the word “spiritual.” But now that word’s even more gag-worthy, ruined by air-headed celebrities, New Agers and a hindsight view of the 1970s. It’s all heart, and occasionally groin, with no belly and no brain.

So do we just say, “I do yoga?” That’s doesn’t feel right to me; that could just mean I like tight abs. Yes, many Americans still view yoga mainly as a form of physical exercise, but a ton of people are actively seeking out and benefiting from its philosophical aspects, the effects of which aren’t sufficiently captured by the connotations of American “spirituality.”

My practice is not a feel-good system of warm-fuzzy free association. It’s raw and physical. It’s how I exist in the world, how I open every door and put one foot in front of the other to move forward. It’s doing, not believing, and it’s the framework by which I create meaning in my life.

From writing a blog-post manifesto to going to a birthday party to cooking oatmeal in the morning, for me, every breath is a religious experience. Religion has dignity and weight. Its tradition ties us to the past and its ritual ties us to the present, and to each other.

Religion’s not easy-breezy, but it doesn’t have to be rigid or hateful. Just like us, it lives and breathes. It’s something to follow, but also create. Lately, I’ve started calling myself religious.

People who know anything about me (I’m a publicly queer socialist writer and performance artist) are often taken aback. There’s usually a pause as they try to rearrange either their idea of me, or their idea of the word. Then they swallow and breathe, and ask, “What do you mean, religious?” Discussion started. Success.


Jade Sylvan is an internationally-touring, award-winning poet, performance artist, and nonfiction writer living in Boston, MA. She’s currently at work on a memoir about her experience as a working poet in Paris and a book about 20th Century Classic Rock icons and mythological archetypes. You can see more of her work at jadesylvan.com.



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14 Responses to “Why I Call Myself Religious. ~ Jade Sylvan”

  1. edieyoga says:

    Impressive article…fresh and crisp and poses authentic and real questions. I practice and teach yoga. Recently I started investigating Christianity, for my education, those being my roots….knowing I know more about yoga, buddhism and hinduism than Christianity.
    I also love to write, especially poetry but recently discovered this forum and am loving it.
    Thank you for your candor and honestly. I lived in Cambridge for 6 years over 20 years ago. The writing scene was fabulous.
    Good luck on your books. I will keep an eye out.

  2. Vaani says:

    Thanks Jade for good piece of writing, but I differ with you. I don't think I should be embarrassed on my yoga practices whether it is banned by my religion. After all Jesus, Muhammad our God did not say anywhere, you can't do yoga. Perhaps old gods were not introduced with the new stuff.

    And think about the situation peoples like you are gathering and everybody want to avoid yoga in discusses despite all are yoga practitioner openly or secretly. Once it happened with me, then I got the Gyana or no shame. If we can show our naked body to other, why we should be ashamed to follow a healthy life style.

  3. thelindseyoneill says:

    Jade. Darling wonderful Jade. This is yogic music to my spiritual and religious ears. What a wonderful way of reclaiming what the spiritually religious experience feels like, from the inside-out. As a writer and yogi myself, I also feel like the two worlds frequently seem to be at odds; dis-embodied writers often critical of what they deem fairy dancing yogis moving through life without a realistically grounded care in the free loving organic cotton world. Yogis, on the other hand, sometimes confused when we talk about experiencing our writing from within the body, regardless of what our abs look like.

    Both Yoga & Writing truly allow us to embrace our own unique day-to-day sacred visceral experience. The two have allowed me to understand the humanity around what being religious and spiritual truly feels like—the gratitude one has for each breath she takes, the small things we do for ourselves, and for others, all within a sensory-filled day. My own writing, yoga teaching, and even my daily experience of self is all the better for having embraced these same spiritual and religious parts. The parts of being human that make life mysterious, beautiful, and worth the living. Quips, foibles, and all.

  4. Scott Miller says:

    Good for you, Jade. Written like a true poet. I like to point out that almost no one has a dictionary understanding of the word "religious." In the dictionary, religion is defined as "belief in a superhuman force." Like gravity. It's a superhuman force. We wouldn't exist without it, but no one knows what gravity is. Newton and Einstein didn't know what gravity is. So we're all in the gravity religion. We believe in a mysterious, life-sustaining, superhuman force that no one understands, and our gravity religion is going very well. No one fights wars over it. I like to think of yoga studios as gravity churches. All we need are pictures of Newton and Einstein on the wall. At the end of class we could give thanks to gravity for coalescing matter into bodies that have such a good time doing yoga poses.

  5. Chris Fici says:

    Thank you Jade for helping to reclaim a word I also feels applies to me and my own life.

  6. Hui Mcclung says:

    The word “religious” was ruined in this country a long time before Jerry Falwell and Proposition 8.

  7. Tara Rose Crist says:

    I second Chris Fici’s comment. Thank you.

  8. […] felt like a religion to me. One that I couldn’t just take part in without question. It felt like it required me to […]

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