December 8, 2013

Is Yoga America’s Religion?

I can’t help pondering the U.S.’s infatuation with yoga.

It’s gone from a California-granola trend to a full-on accepted practice—and thank God.

I’ve been practicing yoga for 20 years and practicing daily—ahem, religiously—for nearly nine. I’ve witnessed how yoga has gone from stretches I do after runs, to my main form of physical exercise, and how its moralistic, more in-depth, studies have become a part of the way that I think and live.

A few weeks ago I received an email from a cousin questioning the practice of yoga and Catholicism. (As in, can we be both a Catholic and a yogi?)

To her, this question was new, but to anyone entrenched in the yoga scene, this question has been there—right on top of our Christian-nation surface—the whole time.

I haven’t replied back to her message, and not because I don’t care or find interest in her question but, more, because she asked it so curiously and without judgment or anger or interrogation, and I honestly haven’t wanted to find the time to offer her the sincere response that she deserves. (Also, I think she might be assuming that I was raised Catholic like my dad’s side of the family, but I was actually raised Lutheran—or Catholic lite—like my mom’s side of the family.)

I guess I haven’t wanted to find the time because, well, for one, I’m the absolute worst friend in the world right now—I owe basically all of my dearest loved ones a return phone call, email etc. Also, I’ve moved past the need to explain why and how it is absolutely possible to practice yoga—and as more than an exercise too—while maintaining cultural religious ties. (After all, that’s not even the focus of this particular blog.)

Rather, it got me thinking about the reason that I had moved past this question and, if I’m being honest, the answer is simple: it’s because I’ve moved beyond considering myself a religious person.

I’ll spare the gory details of my religious searches and quests. (I’ve read the Bible cover to cover three times; I’ve taken Biblical literature courses; I’ve checked out more books than I can name from the “religion” section of the library, in all of the main religions of the world; I’ve attended—and enjoyed—religious gatherings from Pagan rituals to Jewish weddings—my best friend’s actually—just to give a glimpse into my personal interest over the years.)

I will divulge this, though: I do consider myself to be a spiritual person.

I believe in an energy that links us all together and, more than this, I believe that all of these major religions are right and equally correct.

In short, I believe that God (or Gods or the divine or whatever) speaks to us, as a society and culture, in a way that we the people can understand.

I also believe this: that both our American multi-cultural backgrounds and our general globalizations, have left us hungry for a better explanation than people have traditionally settled for.

We know much more of what goes on across the globe than in times past, and we want to better understand our foreign brothers and sisters—and we don’t accept that there are such weighty differences between our religions and our ethnic groupings (even if we do often ignore our weighty similarities).

We can Facebook, Skype, or WhatsApp with people anywhere, which has made our existing religious structures and teachings harder to understand in the grand scheme of how the world—and people—work.

I saw a lengthy comment underneath one of my article shares on Facebook the other day.

In it, someone living outside the U.S. said she would never understand our country’s fascination with yoga. (This particular article shared some of my experiences within the American yoga community at large.)

This, too, got me thinking and I realized quickly that her thought meshed completely with my cousin’s question to me.

So why is America obsessed with yoga?

Possibly it’s because Americans want, crave, and need religion and a deeper, cultural connection just like countries that are accepted to have solid, faith-based backgrounds (the Catholics in Italy; the Muslims in Afghanistan) and we’ve tried, for years, to accept that (non-Catholic) Christianity was our American norm—but, now, few are buying it.

Because many of us accept, appreciate, admire—and expect—a rich smorgasbord of faiths to co-exist in America.

Sure, our country might still be rife with discrimination and inequality that exists on a scarily covert level, but I’m almost positive that if Schoolhouse Rock made a modern version of The Great American Melting Pot, its cartoon people in the melting pot stew wouldn’t wash off their color and wind up the same light shade as they floated in the bowl. 

Of course, we have a long way to go.

Still, an increasing number of us—regardless of race or religion—want to live in a country with multi-faceted acceptance, and this means that—as we come out of the greedy 80’s, the technologically-infatuated 90’s and the social online connectedness of the early 2000’s—we want to connect on a deeper (dare I say more spiritual?) level—but without the separation and judgment inherent within existing religious frameworks.

Even the new Catholic Pope has earned rave reviews as he steps into this modern era of community. (There’s an entire Wikipedia section on him and his “Interfaith dialogue.”)

The long and short of it is, yoga has become a way for us to more meaningfully and mindfully connect without the necessity of shared religion.

Walk into a yoga studio—even in the midwest, where I live–and it’s increasingly popular and accepted to be able to talk about the practice of yoga beyond the stretching of hamstrings.

Teachers offer that we “let go of judgment,” for instance. Students have conversations in the lobby that run deeper than the weather. Yoga studios, in general, have become a place for people to connect and find solace as part of a whole—part of a community—in much the same way that people once sought out Sunday morning church services.

And that’s why Americans are so “obsessed” with yoga—our great Melting Pot nation is finally ready to meld and become a flavorful hodgepodge rather than an over-powering white meat casserole.

We’re discovering that being a part of a yoga community can mean being a part of something much bigger than the individual.

So it’s not that America doesn’t need religion but rather that we do—and desperately—and we’ve found it in the practice of yoga.

But, don’t worry if a strong religious faith precludes practicing yoga beyond a useful exercise routine.

It’s okay if attending a more gym-like atmosphere, that keeps any mentioning of things like chakras and energy completely out of it, is more appealing—and isn’t that appealing too?

Isn’t it wonderful that we can take our yogic spirituality and more personal inner teachings to the level where we feel most comfortable?

Yet here’s a tiny secret: people that practice yoga regularly for a length of time will commonly find that they feel much calmer, peaceful and happier, that they do find themselves asking, hey, so what is this about “energy” anyway?

But, likewise, the yoga community’s down with primarily wanting to lengthen our hamstrings and strengthen our core.

It’s perfectly fine if we feel uncomfortable with this blog’s entire dynamic and want to stick with yoga-like classes at the local church. But it’s okay, too, if we want to practice yoga as a flow from pose to pose, listening to the ocean-like sound of the breath, feeling connected to the people in the room and tapping into something greater than our daily, physically shallow existence. Thankfully, there’s room for all of us here, within this practice of yoga.

And this is precisely why Americans are so infatuated with yoga—because we’re finally realizing that when we look within, we’re much more alike than we were typically raised to believe; when we live on that shallow surface of conventional awareness.

Practicing yoga makes us much more aware of what’s actually going on inside of ourselves—and this new inner dialogue makes our external dialogue that much easier.

We’re discovering that the community, similarity and connectedness, we feel when we’re side-by-side on our sticky mats, is something we want to continue experiencing out there, in the real world.

So is yoga America’s religion?

The short answer is no, but if we take yoga from within the context of its most basic interpretation of union or to yoke, then we find that yoga is exactly what the United States claims to have been founded on.

And maybe we’re finally ready to live up to this more inclusive definition?

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Editor: Rachel Nussbaum

Photo: Flickr

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