If we are absolutely grounded in the absolute love of God that protects us from nothing even as it sustains us in all things, then we can face all things with courage and tenderness and touch the hurting places in others and in ourselves with love. ~ James Finley, faculty, The Living School
Several years ago, I ran into an old friend from The Samarya Center. He was someone who used to be a dedicated student and even a part-time yoga teacher, but I hadn’t seen him in a very long time. This was when we had just relocated the studio, and I asked him why he hadn’t yet been to the new space.
He told me, “Well, you just seem so into God now, that’s not what I’m into.” I remember feeling defensive, like, “I’m not that into God, what does that even mean?” I felt really irritated, and remember wanting to distance myself from the perception that I was somehow “into God.”
I was just a yoga teacher, and I was just teaching what I was learning from the practice. I wasn’t into God, I was just getting into the idea of “the Divine,” as I understood it in my practice and study of yoga. That wasn’t God; it was …… well, something else. I just wasn’t sure what.
But the exchange with my friend kept coming back to me. How could someone say I was into God? I didn’t even know what “God” was – in fact, I still don’t.
Sure, I have tried to put my thoughts about God into words, and essentially, when I use the word God it is closest to what the ancient scriptures of yoga and Vedanta would call Brahman, an experience of love and space, a sense of holding and connectedness and solace and intimacy – an intimacy that transcends every other intimacy I have ever known. And this experience, I found, was deeply comforting when things felt really hard, or when I felt really alone inside my own head, or when I felt the deep suffering of those around me, and it felt like it could almost be too much. This sense of connection and intimacy came from my yoga practice – my studies, my meditations, my own longing. It was something, I thought, altogether different than the “God” I had grown up with, the God that my friend seemed to be referencing, the personified, punitive God of my Catholic upbringing.
Like so many others with similar backgrounds, during the time I was learning more and more about yoga and “Eastern” traditions, I was simultaneously rejecting the religion in which I had been raised. Perhaps because I “grew up” with Jesus, and associated Jesus exclusively with the religious doctrine – and in my experience, often the hypocrisy, exclusion and wounding that his name invoked – the idea of Jesus as the “lord and savior,” bumper stickers about Jesus, or really anything that seemed overtly “Christian” made me cringe. But pictures of Shiva, or Ganesh, or quotes about the Buddha on a bumper sticker seemed to carry a different weight. In their “newness,” they moved me in a way that references to Christianity did not.
I was surprised then, when I first read Autobiography of a Yogi and found how much Paramhansa Yogananda loved Jesus, and whose mission was “to reveal the complete harmony and basic oneness of original Christianity as taught by Jesus Christ and original Yoga as taught by Bhagavan Krishna.” My surprise turned to deeper intrigue when I began studying at the Vedanta Society and saw that along with Sri Ramakrishna and Buddha, Jesus Christ always had a prominent place on their altar – one year I even attended a Christmas eve service there, singing religious Christmas Carols with the Indian swamis and devotees. It was in this spirit that I began to reexamine my own relationship with Jesus, with Christ consciousness. I began to understand, in an entirely different way than I had before, my own desire to offer the practices and teachings of yoga to those least likely to have access to it, but most likely to benefit from it.
I recently came across this 2003 interview in the Huffington Post, and felt a sense of recognition and relief.
There is one point where the interviewer asks the question “What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you?” and I respond, “My original motivation most certainly came from my family experience. I am continually motivated by the endless need, as well as by the intellectual and spiritual aspects of healing through changing and healing myself first.”
I was coming to realize that the sense of Christ consciousness that permeated my upbringing was the true motivator for much of my work. My parents taught their children to be open minded, accepting of all people, compassionate toward the suffering, and dedicated to personal and spiritual growth. They taught us it was our duty and responsibility to be involved, to vote for the interests of the “least of our brothers” to be vocal and active advocates for social justice and social change. Their service to others, their advocacy for the marginalized was not incidental to their religion, it was a natural outflowing of their spirituality contained within it. I began to understand that I had simply changed the avenues to reach that same sense of alignment, but that in fact, my own work also came out of a sense of duty to my fellow beings as part of my own relationship to God, a relationship that was reignited and strengthened through this new spiritual path called yoga. In this understanding, it finally occurred to me that it was not in spite of, but because of, my own religious upbringing that I too was ignited in that desire to use my yoga practice as an avenue to serve others. It was the true spirituality of my parents, their understanding of the message of Christ, separate from church doctrine, that inspired me.
I didn’t fully understand this when I first founded The Samarya Center, nor when I offered my first yoga teacher training. We didn’t talk much about God back then, we only shared yoga. In fact, while through The Samarya Center we offered “yoga service,” we offered “accessible yoga,” we offered “yoga as therapy” and we encouraged a sense of social justice through our practice, we didn’t “do” any of these things as “things.” There was no trademark; there was no catchy name.
In fact, I remember more than one occasion in which my board of directors lamented that we were not getting the support and funding and recognition that many of our peers were enjoying specifically because we sort of “did it all.” We couldn’t point to this one thing, this one population, this one project. We had so many different projects that fell into so many different categories – yoga for homeless youth, yoga for end of life, yoga for Veterans, yoga for kids with autism- that we didn’t know how to effectively verbalize, how to capture the spirit of what we were doing.
In some ways, this became my own undoing. When I closed the center in Seattle, it was in part because of my own frustration with not being recognized and supported for the diversity of our work. My ego was surely bruised watching new studios and organizations popping up that were doing what we had been doing all along, but with better branding or a singular focus. I had never compartmentalized our work in that way. I didn’t understand it then, but I know now that it was because the work we were doing – all of it, the therapy, the volunteer and outreach work, the emphasis on radical inclusion – was a natural outflowing of the mystic tradition of yoga, a natural response to “seeing God in all things,” a natural indication that the practice was working.
Having moved to Mexico I had time and space to reflect on this process, time and space to dive even more fully into my own meditation and contemplative practice. And without the center in Seattle to define me, I also had lots of time and space to worry about “my brand.” If I couldn’t describe what I was doing when I had a thriving, effective and loving organization to point to, how could I describe what I was doing now? Who would take my trainings? How would I make a living? And how could I share what I had learned and experienced over the 15 years of the Samarya Center in Seattle?
Everything seemed to be left bare. Searching for a new direction, a new infusion of the mystic heart, a new way to ignite my practice and teaching, I found the Living School, a two-year program grounded in the Christian contemplative tradition. I had come full circle. While I still didn’t – and don’t – identify as Christian, I was back to Jesus, back to the roots of faith planted in my childhood, but understood in a new way. The Living School teaches the Christian tradition as a mystic tradition. Richard Rohr, the school’s founder says, “All great spirituality teaches about letting go of what you don’t need and who you are not. Then, when you can get little enough and naked enough and poor enough, you’ll find that the little place where you really are is ironically more than enough and is all that you need. At that place, you will have nothing to prove to anybody and nothing to protect. That place is called freedom.”
This is the same freedom, exactly the same freedom, that is the promise of the practice of yoga.
Suddenly everything seemed to make sense. I had many moments in our first symposium in July, and many more in the continued study that reminded me of all I had gained through my experience in practicing and teaching yoga. I understood non-dualism, I understood being grounded in compassion, I understood that compassion for one another, and especially the most forgotten and marginalized, is at the heart of a spiritual practice. And I understood that it was, in fact, my spiritual practice, both the one I had been raised in and the one I was in which I was now immersed, that was the foundation of every other thing I did in terms of therapy, service, radical inclusion or social justice. And further, that at their mystic roots, these traditions were the same in their pursuit of union with God, by whatever name she might be called. I understood too, that to have this experience, one had to prioritize one’s own personal relationship with God, and one’s own dedication to that relationship. This too, is part of the teaching of yoga.
I have finally settled in to this understanding, just as I have settled into being comfortable with being “into God.” To me, this is only proof that yoga – as a spiritual, mystical tradition – really does work. I believe this to be true. If we focus first, and with deep dedication, on our own devotional life, our own intimate experience of and relationship to the divine, if we align ourselves with wisdom teachers across all spiritual traditions, whether Sri Ramakrishna, or Thich Nhat Hanh, whether Saint Ignatius, or Saint Bonaventure, or the Sufi mystics like Hafiz or Kabir, we will be naturally inspired to love God, and to love and serve others as reflections of God. We will become naturally attuned to the common philosophies of all of these teachers, to the perennial wisdom, to the most important message: do your practice, see God everywhere, serve God by serving and standing with your fellow beings.
I guess my friend was right. I guess I really am “into God” now, whoever or whatever “God” actually is, or whether or not God is “real.” If this sense of divinity provides us with solace and grounding, and inspires us to love and care for one another, and ignites in us the courage to face our own limitations, biases and growing edges then who cares to argue about proof of God’s existence, or how to name her, or how we come to that experience, whether through yoga, or Krishna, or Jesus, or the sound of the wind in the trees?
And I guess too, that that is my brand. That if you are thinking of becoming a yoga teacher, or you are a dedicated student wanting to heighten your understanding of the practice, if you want to learn to teach through a lens of social justice and radical inclusion, if you want to learn therapeutic aspects of yoga as an extension of your own spiritual practice, if you want to make yoga accessible to all who walk through your doors, if you want to truly be of service through offering the practices and teachings of yoga from the depth of the tradition, meaning the depth of your own experience and awakening, the depth of love itself, then I invite you to study with me, with us.