In Praise of Downward-facing Dog

I’ve never quite understood organized religion. Dressing up, going to church, following a set of imposed rules and doctrines -- it always seemed like such a fruitless obligation. A + B + C = what exactly? I know, I know, it’s intangible. But that made it, well, hard to understand. School made sense to me: you went so that you could learn, go to college, and one day get a job. Even familial obligations seemed clear: these are the people that love and support you, and honoring special occasions with them is important.

But church (or temple, or what have you) always felt a bit out of reach to me. What exactly was the purpose of gathering in a room of (mostly) strangers to listen to someone else telling you what and how to feel and believe?

Well, it turns out that’s a pretty successful formula.

As kids, we’re used to having our days paced out for us. Our parents (if we’re lucky enough to have responsible parents) carefully map out a balance of familiar routines and new experiences, to provide us with opportunities to grow, explore, and discover the world around us.

Gradually, though, as we get older, that process becomes less clear. Done with formal schooling and working a series of intermittent jobs, there are days when I simply look around and think: now what? I have a career. I’m a responsible “adult” (sort of). But that doesn’t mean I always know how to keep myself on a steady path.

This is where yoga comes in. That lovely actor-training-technique-turned-exercise-regimen-turned-spirtitual guide has been an evolving part of my life for the last four years. And, surprisingly, at every turn it reminds me more of that church-going practice I never quite understood.

Criteria #1: community

Let me break it down: it’s a chilly Wednesday afternoon and I’m at home in Boston, MA, braving the winter doldrums. I pry myself off the couch long enough to make it to a far-too-intense 90-minute hot yoga session at a nearby studio. Midway through class, the instructor is encouraging us through a particularly difficult pose. “Remember,” he says, “there are 23 other very sweaty people in this with you. They got this. You ALL got this.”

That was when it hit me: there’s something powerful about a roomful of people committed to exactly the same thing as you. And all the better if you don’t know them, because there’s less social anxiety to deal with. It’s like the spiritual equivalent of writing an essay in a crowded coffee shop. You feed off the energy of your comrades, without even having to interact directly with them.

Criteria #2: sermon

But that class wasn’t just about the other people in the room. It was also about the instructor, pushing us to go deeper into a pose, or reassuring us that wherever we were in that moment was perfect.

My favorite yoga classes are the ones that begin with a small reflection or meditation on life. I like when the instructor actually takes a moment to recognize that we’ve all come together in the midst of the holiday madness, or on a rainy afternoon, or following a national tragedy.

Sound familiar?

This introductory “sermon” makes the practice feel pointed. Purposeful. We set our intentions so that we have something to work toward during our class time. As somebody with a type A personality, this always reassures me that it is time well spent. That something was accomplished.

I realized this was part of what I’ve always overlooked about religion: its potential for focusing or contextualizing the messy business of life.

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Criteria #3: ritual

Perhaps the most baffling thing to me about religion was the idea of being told what to do.  I value my own independence and free will to the extent that the very notion unnerves me.

So, why is it that I don’t mind it – and in fact crave it – when I am on my yoga mat?

The answer is something yogis call vairagya, the practice of “nonattachment,” or letting go. We spend so much time and energy as cruise director for our own lives that it can be nice to let go and allow someone else to steer the ship for a while.

And what’s more, that may be just what we need.

Yoga teachers and religious leaders alike rely on the power of ritual to help us along this path. Ritual provides a clear, familiar, comforting structure in which to release the need to control.

My favorite book on yoga, Meditations from the Mat, frames it this way: “yoga is about getting unstuck.”

Criteria #4: music

This one came as a bit of a surprise to me. The idea of yoga-as-religion had already been rolling around in my head for some time, and I figured I had picked out all the relevant similarities.

And then the “om” began. And I thought, of course. That clinches it. The part of the practice that connects us in an unspoken way, allows simultaneous, universal, egalitarian participation: music.

We are allowed this one, brief window into each others’ souls, uniting the disparate voices in the room, as would a familiar hymn on a Sunday morning.

I still don’t understand organized religion. I don’t think I ever will, truly. But the need for connection, for community, and for coherence? Yeah, that one feels pretty universal.