"Are you religious?" asks the guy in the hot tub at the community pool after asking me about my shoulder tattoo. I respond "No," and get out of the hot tub. However, something about the exchange stays with me. If I am completely honest with myself, perhaps this thing called yoga has made me more religious than I ever thought was possible.
Oxford English dictionary provides three definitions of religion, as follows: i) The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods:; ii) a particular system of faith and worship; and iii) A pursuit or interest followed with great devotion. I'd like to focus on the third definition, as this is where I have to say I have found that I have perhaps betrayed the agnosticism of my youth and found myself to be religious, much to my own surprise.
Devotion, or in sanskrit bhakti is not something intellectual, it is something that is felt in the heart, or in the heart-mind or body-mind. Not something that can be logically explained. This sense of devotion is something that often is stirred up from deep within, perhaps you had no idea that it was even there. I would say that in my experience this practice of yoga really invites and allows you to soften your heart, to create space and opening, to be vulnerable and tap into you sense of devotion, not only to the divine that is outside of you, but perhaps most importantly to the divinity that lies deeply within yourself. This awakening to the divinity within has really altered my perspective. I think so many religions (and I grew up going to church) teach the idea of sin and wrong doing and repenting. The message of love and devotion get lost. The focus is more on judgement, punishment and penance, or at least that has been my experience. A lot gets covered over and lied about because everyone is trying to live up to some impossible idea of what perfection is, or what it means to be religious. Perhaps, I see it this way because I was never able to connect with the divine in this traditional manner, nothing was ever sparked in me. I more felt the uncomfortable nylons, dresses and the fear of going to confession weekly. I did however, enjoy the choir, but even that had a lot of rules and was very serious.
If you had asked me a few years ago if I liked chanting if I was into mantra, or even just singing, I would have given you the quick reply of "No" It's almost like I was unable to open up to that part of myself. That box was sealed. Now here I am playing a harmonium and chanting mantra like there is no tomorrow. What has shifted? It's the awakening to myself, to the light within myself, and for me, it is the practice of yoga, all the parts of the practice, not just asana, or not just the philosophy, but all of it that has allowed me to open in this way.
The devotional practices of chanting and mantra are a way for me to connect to that inner light, when a chant, when a play my harmonium I am filled to the brim, I actually get butterflies. The bhakti practices, have helped me find my voice, my true voice. I was listening to the CBC a while ago and they were interviewing a monk about singing in the choir at his church and he was talking about how it brought him joy. The same is true for chanting, it brings me joy. Just like spending time in nature, it allows everything to fall away, for the stories to drop, the over active mind to be quite and a connection to develop to the feeling and breathing heart space. So if that is religion, then yes, I am religious. I believe deeply in the power of the practices of yoga, from jnana all the way through to bhakti to assist in uncovering our true nature, our inner divinity and in this way connecting us deeply to our humanness and to all of the humans around us. That is my religion. It is vulnerable to feel into the heart space. It takes great bravery . . . Take the step and meet me there. The waves continue, however, at least I have ways to find my way home.