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.”

My journey to the Now

One of the first and most profound lessons I learned on my yoga journey was to let go of story. Let go of the narratives we grew up telling ourselves. Let go of the various identities we have constructed for the purposes of weathering the inevitable storms of life. In an instant, this teaching reframed the way I viewed my very purpose, and changed the trajectory of my life. 

This blog, though it is my story, is nothing more than my present musings on the many paths that brought me to this moment. I make no pretence that I have a arrived at some flawless deconstruction of my development or a conclusive ideology by which I plan to live out the rest of my life. Rather, I hope to express my working philosophy and maturing mindset, ever subject to change, ever hungry for evolution. I share in case my story stokes the fires of another's curiosity - a catalyst for a paradigm shift that opens up infinite potential for how we they can live their life. This has become my driving force, and the very reason I am pursuing the path I am now on. 

To begin with the seedlings of my memory, as a child, I was a dancer. That was my identity. I lived for the spectacle of the show, the precision of the practice, the smell of the hairspray, the glare of the spotlights, the imposing tightness of the costumes. Outside of dancing, my memories are characterised by sulking and tantrums, so often seemingly in a world alone where I was misunderstood, unable to articulate the frustrations of my experience. On stage - audience attentive, music on cue - here I entered a world of expression beyond what my words or thoughts could articulate. I gave power to my performance by so readily entering into the fantasy world, and my ego beamed as I propped up my constructed identity with the praise and prestige I was presented with. What I looked on then as a sanctuary from the claustrophobia of my busy and confused mind in daily life, I now understand as my own form of movement meditation; my flow state. 

Due to circumstances unforeseen and inescapable, I stopped dancing before I was 10. I don't remember the day it happened, but it must have happened in an instant. I didn't gradually stop going back to class. Forces outside my young comprehension were enacted, and I had to leave a life behind. Everything changed in such a whirlwind, and suddenly my old life was history. I was no longer a dancer. 

As is the way of most schooling in this country, it was quickly noticed that I had little aptitude for curriculum sports, and I was shuffled off to the groups forced to merely meet mandatory physical education requirements. Us children can sense all too well the attitudes of our elders, and I could always smell the lack of faith and inspiration from these teachers. I didn't show immediate promise to be on any kind of competitive team, and there was no attempt to foster any kernels of my talents; no desire to inspire growth and progress in any capacity. Frustrated by my initial poor coordination and terrified by the implications of competition, I lost interest in physical activity. Most significantly, I lost connection to my body. 

By the time I was twelve, I discovered drama at school. This opened up a whole new terrain of expression, and I fell in love with exploring psycopathic, murderous, or heartbroken characters. Looking back, I’m fascinated by my indulgence in these dark psyches. Growing up in a context in which happiness, love and peace were soppy concepts, and true passion was only expressed through anger, accusation and criticism, delving into dark worlds felt so much more in line with what I perceived to be the realities of adulthood. Performance and literature was an outlet for pain and identity confusion, while revelling in the beauty of positive emotions through art was far too uncomfortable for me. 

Though acting gave me immense pleasure, and took me back into that flow state I had found back when I was a dancer, I never saw performing in my future. I took my roles incredibly seriously, and poured all of my energy into performances - and yet, I somehow looked down on the very concept of a career on the stage. As the concept of adulthood, social status and self-worth began to enter into my consciousness, performing didn’t seem to measure up; it did not inherently denote intelligence, education, or wealth. It was just for fun, an indulgence of frivolity, merely extra-curricular. Due to family circumstances and the culture I was dropped into, I had become entranced by different metrics of success: money and status.

Following the family melodrama that tore me away from my life as a dancer, there was an unspoken fall from grace that I could not articulate from a conscious place. At the time, it only sat on my shoulders as an amorphous yet relentless weight. With the little consciousness I had, I felt a calling to overcome the adversity. I read my life’s priorities as a progression from academic attainment, an impressive degree, a high-paying job, and ultimately to financial security. With fear stoked by my current situation looming over me as the driving force, this narrative was propelled by the end-goal of this elusive (and I now know fictional) “security”. I craved the supposed safety and certainty of everything I had lost: a traditional nuclear family and upper-middle-class living. Failure to achieve this narrow framework was a terrifying and shameful outcome. 

The wealthy corporate woman was now my icon of hope. In every way the definition of achievement, I created this image with all the frills: from the expensive leather Filofax and designer suits, all the way to the stressful, long hours and sleepless nights worn proudly as badges of honour. The glamour of the grind. Actual money and opulence was never that interesting; it was the persona, the approval, the security I wanted. 

Knowing I didn’t enjoy numbers or systems, I deduced that communications was the best way to exploit my creativity and performance skills. Armed with my new, unwavering goal, I began my quest out of uncertainty. At school I was determined to tick every box I could, joining every relevant club and becoming Head Girl in my final year. By the time I was finishing university, I was deep into the recruitment game of selling myself to any employer I sat in front of, shamelessly editing my CV to please, bending my personality traits to serve. I became so convinced by the various personas I was presenting that my own mission became completely obscured. I was lost in the race with no sight of the finish line.

I landed a job in corporate PR and thought I’d hit the jackpot. Somewhere I could be creative, but with a respectable business head on; somewhere I would get approval for my incessant drive to impress and prove my worth; somewhere I could look 10 years down the line and see wealth and professional regard. The steep learning curve was a thrill, and I marvelled at the well-trained slickness of my bosses. I worked around the clock, read around every subject and made countless unsolicited and ultimately unheard proposals. I was moving so fast that I didn’t have time to stop and realise that I was in a downward spiral. I was lost in the matrix of my half-baked mission, and I lacked the space and clarity to step back and question if the ladder I was climbing was even against the right wall. I was sleep deprived, suffered panic attacks, developed a binge eating disorder - and my GP’s advice was to take antidepressants and stick with the job. After all, life is hard work if you want to be successful, and I have to learn that lesson sometime!

Yoga became my cherished sanctuary during this time. I started yoga initially to shift some of the weight I had put on from my binge eating. It was purely exercise that somehow resembled the flow of dance that my inner child yearned for. I was aggressively cynical about anything spiritual or mystical (which Catholic all-girls school will do to you), but through my practice I began to feel, on a visceral level, that the mind-body connection is not some doctrine to be preached, but a real, sensate experience. I became more open to the breathwork, meditation and philosophy, and I felt the changes to my physiology. Yoga was not, and is not, my religion; it is a way into an authentic connection to our true self, behind the fog of these stories that we hold on to.

As goes the narrative of many journeys, it took hitting rock bottom to shock me into waking up. I didn’t need to stay on this ladder to nowhere just because the road was laid out in front of me. With no prospects, I quit my job and went abroad for my yoga teacher training. I know the world doesn’t need more yoga teachers (as everyone never fails to remind me), but when I finally started listening to my gut, that was the only step that made sense. And since then that’s what I’ve been doing: listening to how I physically react to a choice, and then taking steps one at a time. 

By connecting to my intuition, I found that dancer within me. I’m now an untrained adult and have no aspirations to perform, but I’m inspired once again by that kernel of truth. I’m inspired by the underlying themes of movement, flow, meditation, freedom. Grasping at those threads and running with them, I’ve thrown myself into martial arts, gymnastic strength training, dance, and philosophy. I’m a pitiable beginner at them all, with virtually no skill and a whole heap of apprehension. Regardless of the anxiety and frustration that comes hand-in-hand with starting something new, there is something about this exploration that feels so aligned. I have no idea how it will all come together. I have dreams, but I know nothing of their standing in reality. I’m just following my gut one step at a time. 

I will always be a sucker for a five-year plan. I will always quietly dream of changing the world. But I’m also more accepting than ever of uncertainty. What is courage without danger? What is daring without vulnerability? Anxiety still rears its ugly head. Doubt sits on my shoulder to prod me now and again. Physical and emotion claustrophobia remains a demon that follows me. But my movement and meditation practices are bringing me ever-closer to a feeling of spaciousness and freedom, so I’m following the signs one step at a time.