Yoga is not my religion: A scientific spirituality

Religion always creeped me out. The word ‘God’ still makes me wince inside, and any mention of Jesus in the present tense and I’ll be zoning out of the conversation. Being brought up in a Christian society, I was exposed to the principles and practices of this belief system from early on, and even at a very young age I found the whole thing entirely illogical. There was no debate to be had; if you thought there was a male being controlling everything and a long-haired man looking down on us, we were clearly not on the same planet, and no discussion was needed.

I’m becoming far more tolerant of the language and imagery people use to find meaning in their lives. But as an infuriatingly incessant questioner, I need tangibility to believe in something. Though I don’t consider myself a scientist per se, my belief system is firmly rooted in my perception of reality. What I’ve recently been learning is that science is also a perception of reality, a belief system - it’s own religion. The difference is the approach to discovering the meaning and mechanisms of life through experimentation, theorising, and constant questioning. If the reality of our existence is unmeasurable, even through the strategic theorising of our greatness scientists, surely we all need to explore our faith in the unknown. Albert Einstein puts it this way:

“Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind...What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility. This is a genuinely religious feeling that has nothing to do with mysticism.”

I still don’t like to give the name ‘religion’ to this exploration of the human mind and the world around us. Perhaps the word has become too closely associated with prejudice and intolerance, all the way to violent crusades and extremism. To me (and I am only speaking for myself), ‘spirituality’ has a more curious, inquisitive meaning, and along with it a freedom from any dictated answers to life’s big questions. I believe the study of the ‘spirit’ is the study of our own unique experience of life, demystifying that ‘true self’ underneath all the context we’ve been dealt. While what Einstein here refers to as ‘mysticism’ could be the facade that protect us from deeper exploration into reality, the spirituality I speak of is this uncovering of what is - however imperfectly we may comprehend it. 

It’s such a shame that spirituality is not addressed more in formal education. Not memorising passages of scriptures and learning to be in awe of their supposed authority - rather, being encouraged to look within to our immediate experience, and learning to be in awe of our own intuition. To me, it seems a natural progression of study from the foundations of arts and sciences. The arts are often defined as the study of the human condition; the sciences, the study of the life. Spirituality seems to me a marrying of the two: the study of the human experience of life. 

Any sense of spirituality I have experienced boils down to wanting to decode reality, the truth behind all the noise of culture, upbringing and egos. I was never able to fully do this by reading science textbooks or exploring emotive drama. My greatest appreciation for the workings of the universe have come from my movement and mindfulness practices, which require the use of my body and mind as the tools of perception. Though it may have first been introduced to me during GCSE Physics, it was only through these practices that I started to fathom that everything is indeed energy. Though I may have felt that physical resonance with or repulsion to different people and places throughout my life, it was only through my structured practices that I understood that people and places literally have their own vibration, a frequency that makes us relax or recoil. Even Einstein wrote that “there is no logical way to the discovery of elemental laws. There is only the way of intuition, which is helped by a feeling for the order lying behind the appearance.” So while I’m not yet inclined to wrap my head around quantum chaos theories, I’ve at least started to understand their premise; by taking the time, space, and quiet of mindfulness practices, I can somewhat discern a subtle intelligent mechanism underlying everything. 

Whatever practice may be your introduction, I believe this kind of somatic connection to reality has the potential to bring significant meaning to our lives. Though we may still not be able to concretely track the laws of energy, through this visceral connection we can develop that felt sense of every particle of us sharing energy with every particle around. Nothing created, only transformed. Everything as potential manifestations of the same stuff: universal source.

This experience of energetic perception was first introduced to me via the yogic concept of prana - life force. Any talk of some sort of mystical energy field around us used to make my eyes roll. As with religion, this sort of belief system seemed to be for those who wanted to escape reality and live in a dreamland. It was only after a period of consistent practice, in which I fully allowed myself time and space to inhabit my body, that I began to physically sense subtle changes in vibrational energy. Whether that was a rush of electricity following a deep backbend, or a sudden shift in physiological state following a series of breathwork, I started feeling the shift in my cells. It’s a sense that I’m trying to bring more consciously into daily life, drinking in when feeling elated, and taking note when a dark cloud of negativity passes over.

For anyone who has not brought their awareness to this subtle sense in a deliberate practice, this may all continue to sound altogether other-worldly and fantastical. But whether it’s the yogis with prana, Chinese Medicine practitioners with Chi, the Jedi Knights with The Force, Christians with the Holy Spirit, or scientist with quantum physics, lineage after lineage of theorists have taught about this life force that makes up the world. It’s that elusive essence that means we gain energy not just from the calories we consume, but also the people we surround ourselves with. It’s that immeasurable intuition that tells us when a situation is not safe, that wave of comfort we feel when in the presence of people we trust, that subtle lift we have at the sight of a bright sky, and the very content of our dreams. Suddenly this mystical concept reserved for people who believe in fairies and angels becomes something that we can all discern. The reservation from self-proclaimed rationalists comes from a distrust towards mechanisms that are beyond human cognition. Maybe, like Einstein, we require a little more abstract vision for the forces that lie beyond our humble human grasp. 

Life force is simply the energy that orchestrates the world. To me, that makes a lot more sense than putting it down to a singular male presence that judges our every move and must be worshipped. But when we have no way to measure or prove what is beyond our human comprehension, I can understand why some people need the depiction. To teach about such an indescribable phenomenon, storytelling is vital. I’m now starting to appreciate that all this imagery of gods and goddesses, the sun and the moon, the wind and the earth, mythical creatures, and even Hollywood heroes - they all serve a purpose. Through depiction and narrative we may be introduced to an artist’s interpretation of the experience. All art is the attempted recreation of an artist’s lived experience, so perhaps religion may be considered the attempted articulation of a believer’s perception of the ways of the world. Art is subjective because the beholder either understands this interpretation that is beyond definitive words, or they do not. 

I’m drawn to philosophies like those of Buddhism, Yoga and the Stoics because of their emphasis on taking full responsibility for the way you live your life. There are no short-cuts to the enlightened state of contentment; there is much work to be done. Practices and insights are offered to help illuminate the path of self-realisation, but nothing is prescribed. We must all ultimately find our own path to making sense of our time on Earth. Whatever the strategy, we’re simply doing our best to join the dots. As Bruce Lee said: “absorb what is useful. Reject what is useless. Add what is essentially your own.”