Most of us feel an internal discomfort from time to time. Something inside that is itchy and empty and thirsty. It’s what drives us to try to understand the meaning of life and our purpose on earth. It’s what turns us into seekers, wanting connection with our fellow travelers and a higher power. It is what prompts us to step off the edge of the earth into the black beyond in hopes of finding fulfillment and deeper meaning and truth.
We turn to something beyond ourselves. Religion. Spirituality. Yoga.
Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of chit-chat at Soul Stretch and at other yoga events about those three words… religion, spirituality, yoga, and whether you can be right with your religion and still practice yoga, whether spirituality is religious in nature, if all three are different sides of the same triangle.
Well, lovelies, I’m here to tell you that for this yogi, they are not mutually exclusive practices. They all teach us that there is more to life than we can see looking through the Hubble Telescope. They all teach us that there is more to life than feeding kale smoothies and pizza to our physical bodies. They all teach us that we are on a journey to seek truth and goodness.
And yet they are different. Religion is usually practiced with a spiritual leader in a group, and asks us to believe in and practice an established dogma in our search for fulfillment. Spirituality is more solitary, a self-motivated looking beyond oneself for awareness and purpose. Yoga is about physical, mental and spiritual well-being achieved through inner understanding rather than outer worship.
It surprises me when I hear people say practicing yoga cannot co-exist with believing in God. I wish they could peek in my windows. I have a half-dozen Italian ceramic crucifixes hanging on the walls, along with mandalas and chakras. I have a Catholic rosary in my purse, a Christian-blessed prayer shawl draped over my sofa, a chunk of rose quartz on my windowsill. And I lean on them all.
There are times when I need the ritual of religion, letting the scriptures and prayers and hymns wash over me in a shower of inspiration and hope, the words of my pastor deepening my faith. There are times when I need the healing ritual of yoga, when the mudras and the pranayama and the asanas calm my fears and open my heart. And there are moments when I need to be alone to do the self-study that leads me to my spiritual path, my personal connection to my God.
Think about this for a minute: Spirituality is the essence of both yoga and religion.
By that I mean that the idea of “beyond oneself,” which defines spirituality, goes to the heart of both religious and yogic practice.
Before yoga, I really didn’t understand what “being spiritual” meant. I went to church, sang the hymns, put my envelope in the collection plate and zoomed home to my regular life, which didn’t include a lot of thought about God… until the next Sunday. I kept my moral compass tuned up and was a practicing Good Samaritan, but it wasn’t until yoga that I went deep enough to find a path to a real relationship with God.
Like many people, I came to yoga damaged, with lots of sorry-ass soundtracks playing in my head, none of which have a place in a healthy life. Guilt. Shame. Unworthiness. Some moments of inner bliss happened on my mat, but when I was studying the Yamas and Niyamas during my yoga teacher training, it dawned on me that I had to do the work if I wanted to carry that inner bliss with me off the mat. The Yamas and Niyamas are the ethics of yoga. They encourage us to dive deep into our souls and figure out our own personal path to spirituality, our connection to our own personal Higher Power.
As the 12th century Islamic poet, Rumi, said: It is your road and yours alone. Others may walk it with you, but no one can walk it for you.”
Modern yogis believe spirituality is just that: personal. No one can get you closer to your God than you, yourself. And you can’t connect to God until you’ve learned to forgive yourself, love yourself, and love others. Grace. Forgiveness. Kindness.
Kindness. It is what connects the manifold strands of our various beliefs. It is a part of the work we do to go beyond ourselves.
Lent, too, is a way to do the work. It is a way to plumb our souls, re-discover the path to our personal spirituality. Lent is a Christian tradition, often associated with self-denial, but almost all religions and spiritual paths practice asceticism in some form. Even yoga.
The thing is, I’ve never quite understood how not eating Dove dark chocolate or doing without peach jam on my toast during Lent prepares me for a more spiritual relationship. What I can understand is that giving a random-someone a Dove dark chocolate and a smile during the 40 days of Lent stretches my soul. I get that. I understand how kindness to others grows grace and forgiveness in me.
Kindness. It is where religion and yoga and spirituality intersect. It is the foundation of each.
I know of no better way to discard guilt and shame and unworthiness, and quiet the sorry-ass soundtracks, than kindness. It is the most honorable self-work we can do as seekers and travelers. And it is absolutely the best … maybe the only … way to soothe the empty-scratchy-thirsty place inside us.
Kindness. Something we all can believe in and practice. Something we all need to believe in and practice!
I have a challenge for you, lovelies. I challenge you to undertake a journey of kindness (see our 40 Days of Kindness attachment). A journey of 40 days in which you stretch your soul by offering the balm of kindness to yourself, a friend, a co-worker, a stranger, or even your worst enemy. To someone in need of a meal or a new coat or a smile or a ride or a shoulder. Whether it costs money or time or a strong back.
Just be the light of kindness.
Namaste, yogis. Rose