June 15, 2012

Why I Call Myself Religious. ~ Jade Sylvan

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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