Why Yoga is My Church (But Not My Religion)

In a world of faceless strangers, often appearing as empty shells, busily navigating their individual lives in an overcrowded, fast-paced metropolis like New York City, it’s quite a wonder to find small pockets of community; and moreover, communion with spirit. One such treasure exists for me in a small, dimly lit, superbly hot room of sweating, writhing bodies on a quest for physical and spiritual release. Ironically, this room, too, is crowded and full of strangers, but it doesn’t feel like it during the 1-2 hour sessions of hot vinyasa yoga.

Situated on a grimy, messy, unevenly-paved narrow Brooklyn street, dark and ridden with noise pollution due to the above-ground train station and perpetual construction nearby, is an unassuming small three-story walkup, the top floor of which happens to be the home of my yoga church. The alley right around the corner reached its zenith two decades prior as the backdrop for the office of “Glengarry Glen Ross,” but the new high rise luxury condos currently being built vaguely promise a return to trendier times. As I walk up the rickety stairs, clutching my mat, I allow the guests of the previous class/sermon to pass by in the narrow space. Out here, we barely make eye contact or acknowledge each other as fellow yoga-church-goers. Inside, we are brothers and sisters; daughters and sons of our yoga teacher/guru/priest.

I leave my shoes in the small designated area in the corridor and make my way to the mirrorless studio, claiming my spot with my personal mat. I breathe a sigh of relief, and my breath mingles with the musky scents wafting from lit sacred resins. I’m lucky to even get a spot, let alone near the front, in a space usually densely packed wall to wall. Any latecomers will have to hustle as the rest of us shift and shimmy to make a little more room.

I quickly shed my street clothes and change into sweat-wicking, stretchy attire. I sit in the small changing room clutching my iPad, and getting last minute work done, before the clock strikes the next hour. Finally, I go in and take my spot among my yoga family, all of us starved for something we can’t name, something beyond the physical duress we’ve come to expect from this class.

No one session is ever alike — the sequence of pranayama breathing, chanting, stretching and flowing always changing. Sometimes there’s music to accompany our movement, sometimes there are singing bowls or gongs, sometimes a bit of singing as led by the teacher. Sometimes the teacher walks around and supports us on our simple stretches or complex poses, and sometimes he performs the flow sequences with us. Sometimes he has us partner up and challenge each other in core conditioning exercises or in deepening our stretch. But always, there’s a sense of full physical exertion to the point of exhaustion, complemented by a peculiar lightness in the heart and mind.

“Yoga is the union of mind, body, and spirit… We exert our health to earn money; then we spend the money to try to restore our health (loosely quoting The Dalai Lama)…When you practice yoga, you realize that life happens in the present; you don’t have to think about the future or the past… We strive for material wealth and compare our possessions…Yoga helps you get out of your mind and drop down to your heart…” And on and on, we hear small pearls of wisdom dispersed throughout the class. We are encouraged to do poses with eyes closed, the overhead classroom lights gradually dimming as we move towards the finish, towards serenity.

There’s usually some time for meditation and a small sermon around the time of savasana, or “corpse pose,” the last pose of the practice. As our bodies labor and toil, we allow clarity and peace into our minds. As we collectively breathe and sigh, we vibrate on the same frequency as we hum our “om’s” as one. The teacher gently reminds us to relax our jaws, and at times jokes kindly; we inadvertently smile, at least inwardly, at his sense of humor and apt advice. At the end of class, we sit in prayer pose, heads bowed, in gratitude for this guru’s leadership, for our bodies that serve and house us, and for the community we have created in the confines of the time and space allotted by our humble classroom. The teacher invites us to smile to one another, and smiles at us in turn.

We part ways, smiling as instructed. We rush to put all the props and blankets away; we run to the dressing rooms in a blind haze, anxious to get back to the real world, to travel home, and finish our night. We pack our bags and pick up our cell phones, entering into the fold of technology and the world wide web as quickly as we left it behind – quicker, even. We wave a hasty goodbye to the teacher, and part ways with one another, silently darting through the doors. So it begins, until next time. Namaste, yoga…om (pronounced AUM), New York.

This was originally published in Jejune Magazine.

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