I was asked recently how much of yoga is religious.
Let’s be clear: I have been atheist from the age of four, when I called my mom out on the non-existence of Santa. “Why,” I taunted, “would Santa ask you to write my name on the tag of the gift he left me?” The next year, Mom’s fuzzy memory led to a total brain fart, which is to say that the tag was not written in her handwriting. Instead, the tag was written in a squiggle that literally no one ever could reproduce without great effort.
A few years after this incident, my brother Corey lost a tooth. He is five years older than me, and must not have believed in the tooth fairy at his age. It was late at night, probably after midnight, and we three kids were staying at my dad’s apartment for the weekend. I don’t remember why I was awake. I just remember my dad tipping over this enormous, novelty plastic coke bottle and dumping out tons of change. He handed me a silver dollar, and asked me to put it under Corey’s pillow. I casually acknowledged that there was no tooth fairy, that Dad and I knew this, and that somehow my twelve-year-old brother was still blissfully unaware.
When I was seventeen, the year was 2000. I had just finished high school and spent a rough month being bullied by the other counselors at the Jewish summer camp of my childhood. I had never really felt a connection to my Jewish heritage beyond my bubby’s latkes and the ritual candle lightings and long prayers before holiday meals. You might want to blame my parents for giving me too many options as a child, confusing the situation by celebrating both Christmas and Hanukkah, both Easter and Passover, but they were always very clear with me that I was a Jew and that Christmas, while very fun, was a made-up holiday about Jesus, the supposed messiah. You can stop looking for somewhere to point the finger. I was an inquisitive little shit disturber, have been an optimistic skeptic from birth, and I still am.
The thing about God that I couldn’t get behind was that it was something external. Some outside being was apparently affecting me, had all of this power, and yet was choosing not to – or worse, couldn’t – prove it? I constantly sought out this “God” character, making ridiculous wishes. Until the day I turned seventeen and decided to admit to myself and my family that I am atheist, every time I threw a penny in a fountain or wished upon a star, I prayed for my Teddy Ruxpen doll to come to life. Why did I persistently wish for this dumb miracle? I wanted to prove the non-existence of God.
I floated along quite pleased with myself and what I felt was undeniable, nay, scientific proof of the absence of a Higher Power or a First Mover. In university, I studied philosophy and the arguments for the existence of God at length, laughing with my fellow students at the idiocy of the whole human race kowtowing to this fictional belief system that had been imposed by previous generations of dim-wits.
And then, after years of mockery and jokes about being #blessed and a lot of yoga, I began to feel differently. Like the Grinch, I felt something warm around my cold, calculating, methodical heart. I was living in Paris and taking yoga classes with my beloved hatha teacher, Silke Schroeder. I remember one day in particular – it was a few days after the attack on the Charlie Hebdo writers, and the police had cornered one of the killers in a kosher grocery store, where he was holding everyone inside hostage. A young Muslim man working there managed to hide quite a few people in the walk-in refrigerator. He saved their lives that day, and Silke pointed out that it is hard to see a candle in a bright room. If you think about it, she said, there isn’t much need for a candle in a lit room. But turn off the lights, and the candle is suddenly very necessary. In those dark days in Paris, she reminded us that we needed more candles. And she said: Be that candle.
I want to write about how I had this sudden experience and it all turned around for me, but it wasn’t like that. What happened was that moments like that one, and another, later, when I realized that all of this giving and teaching I had been doing was more than a habit, but a calling, attuned me to a force within myself that grew so loud and so large I’m surprised you can’t see it busting out of my body. I have been told from infancy by the religious people around me that I am an angel. I always thought it was sweet. Now I realize that my grandmother and my family’s housekeeper were picking up on my light, and my dharma, my purpose in life, which is, to borrow a turn of phrase that stayed with me, to be a candle in a dark room.
For a long time, though, that feeling didn’t lend itself very well to explanation. It was only the other day, sitting on the floor with my Catholic grandmother, talking about our beliefs, that I came up with the words to express my spirituality. My mistake, I realize now, was seeking God elsewhere. I had only to dive inward to find the divine. It’s a little light I can feel, beaming out from my heart center, washing over me like the waves of my breath.
"If you have good thoughts, they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely."
- Roald Dahl
My teacher here in Montreal, Tanya Dawe, taught me that the word namaste has many meanings. She tells her students her favourite one often: The light inside of me shines brighter because of the light inside of you.
So how much of yoga is religious? That depends how dedicated you are to connecting with your highest self, how willing and open you are to connecting with others, and how seriously you take that off the mat. To take Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous words slightly out of context, “What lies behind us and what lies before us are but tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” This is one of the reasons why your yoga teacher is always trying to bring you back to the present moment. It’s to bring you face to face with yourself; when you find love there, you will be ready to recognize love in the face of the person across from you, and any person you encounter. Always greet them with love.
Everyone you see, you say to them,
Of course you do not do this out loud;
Otherwise, someone would call the cops.
Still though, think about this,
This great pull in us
Why not become the one
Who lives with a full moon in each eye
That is always saying,
With that sweet moon
What every other eye in this world
is dying to
- Hafiz, as translated by Daniel Ladinsky