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immateriality on the mat [feature]

a meditation on yoga and meaning

At YogaSix, the breath is our Bible. Follow it, and you will find your way. Interestingly enough, though, my body doesn't like to exhale fully. There’s comfort in the tiny reservoir of air I stow away in my lungs—always there, just in case. Yet I exhale slightly and surrender a bit more to its sinking trajectory, easing closer and closer to emptiness. It’s painful—my body so desperately yearning to resupply itself. But I pause for a moment longer, allowing another faint puff to seep from my lips, and open my eyes. My mother is beside me, breathing. Ted is in front of me, in his usual place. Jorie, Dan, Kristie, and Drew are here too. Here, in emptiness, in complete exhalation, my body reaches its fullest state.

Growing up without organized religion, I never thought I would have a spiritual community, a place within which souls differing in age, origin, and perspective somehow find synchronicity. But I found this at YogaSix Carlsbad. 

Two years ago, I would never have expected myself to be here. I used to hate yoga. Its call for stillness angered me. I didn’t want to worship my body; I didn’t want to be still. My body needed to be changed—at least according to the stinging expectations of competitive sports regimes. A 40-minute spin class could rid 300 calories from my body. The faster I pedaled, the higher up the leaderboards I climbed, and with that productivity came praise. So why would I ever slow down? I didn’t feel that I could. 

But when the pandemic hit, the whole world paused, which meant that I had to as well. I began going to outdoor yoga classes with my mom. Frankly, I did it because I wanted to keep her company, maybe find a meaningful mother-daughter bonding experience during such tumultuous times. But my body didn’t want to bend. It wanted to sweat, empty, purify, and repeat. Don’t tell me to worship myself just as I am… I ought to be so much more than this. 

And yet I found myself at the studio more and more. And at first, I didn’t understand why I kept returning. Yoga isn’t exercise, I would scoff to myself. But I couldn’t ignore how much it soothed me. The teachers weren’t icons I admired from afar but souls moving alongside me, their voices loosely guiding my body’s contortions through space. I didn’t need to compete with the person on the mat beside me—instead, they taught and inspired me. I didn’t need to put on makeup before class—the hot room of YogaSix Carlsbad welcomed me even in my most unpolished state. 

I started working behind the front desk of the studio in January 2021. It was my first job. I spent my Monday mornings, Tuesday afternoons, Thursdays, Fridays, and weekends at the studio cleaning toilets, contacting members, answering the phone, and greeting students coming to class. I loved the rhythm of the studio, the way the same people came in and out, the same lights switching on and switching off, just as swiftly and seamlessly as we flowed from Parivrtta Trikonasana (“revolved triangle”) to Ardha Chandrasana (“half moon”) during class. The tranquility was a shock to a body like mine, so accustomed to screaming volleyball coaches and timed exams and 8-minute mile times. I think it healed me. 

***

When I was young, I searched for God everywhere. Without attending mosque, temple, or church, I wondered if the universe would forget about me. Is there anybody looking out for me? I remember trying to talk to Him once, clasping my hands together and inhaling deeply. But I didn’t know what I was supposed to hear. What does a higher power sound like? How would I know that one is listening?

I never found God. But I can’t help but think of my YogaSix teachers as keepers of something holy. Jen loves every human in her classes so fiercely; in her presence, I live truly authentically. Tori, my manager, holds such heavy weight on her shoulders yet somehow shows so much love to both herself and to others. Melissa is a mother, courageous and relentlessly kind, both to her beautiful daughter and to me. Cearra renders beauty from nothing, in her art and in her life; her spirit touches beyond what the eye can see. These women at YogaSix Carlsbad have convinced me that guardian angels may actually be real. 

Just the same, I never thought I would find a ritual, a practice that rendered instant community, that grounded me to both the Earth and to myself. To me, physical activity was meant not to fulfill and enrich my soul but to rid my body of its contents. In yoga, I find something different. The slowness gives me time to appreciate my body’s uniqueness, to admire the way in which it transforms from one shape to another—similar but still distinctly mine amidst other bodies in the room. One of my favorite moments in class is Vrikshasana (“tree”) because everyone does it a bit differently. Some with their hands stretched like branches to the ceiling, others with them entwined in Paschima Namaskarasana (“reverse namaskar”) behind their backs—yet we all stand strong together, looking forward, as one. I have never felt more interconnected with other human bodies, more comfortable and deserving of my space in the world, than I do while practicing yoga. 

YogaSix is my home. These people are my angels, scheduled to step into my life at just the right time. This practice is sacred to me, transporting me to alternative universes of ease, of contentment, of warmth, ones that I never thought could exist. I cannot help but think of YogaSix as somehow divine. 

***

Despite its widespread adoption by Western wellness culture, yoga has deeply religious roots. Yoga is one of the six major houses of thought in Hinduism, coming from the Sanskrit word yuj, meaning to unite. Krsna (or Krishna) spoke of yoga as a means of achieving mokshaa form of spiritual emancipation considered by many Hindus as the highest goal of life. Yet in these texts, yoga seems to be considered a meditation technique of disciplining the mind and body; distinguished “positions” and “postures” are not mentioned, according to the University of Chicago Divinity School. 

Yoga’s Hindu origins are diluted in Westernized settings like YogaSix, frequented mostly by joggers and gym-goers wanting to tighten their abs and decompress after hours in a desk chair. To many at YogaSix, their practice is anything but spiritual, simply a way to sweat and increase flexibility. But for others, for me, it is so much more than movement. It is community; it is healing; it is love. For me, yoga is the space through which I found my own sacred ritual, the guardian spirits, the access to an alternative reality that I never felt that I had without organized religion. Yoga means so many different things to all of us, yet we stand as one in Vrikshasana nonetheless. 

Is yoga a spiritual practice? Some American Hindus argue that American yoga is not Hindu enough, advocating for Hindus to “Take Back Yoga,” the name of a campaign spearheaded by the Hindu American Foundation. Some non-Hindu Americans agree. In 2013, two parents in my Encinitas, California elementary school filed a lawsuit against our district, arguing that yoga classes, which had recently been implemented at all five schools, were religious in nature and in direct violation of the First Amendment. The final ruling was that the yoga program was not religious, yet the parents appealed and eventually brought the case to the California Supreme Court. In 2015, the state appeals court again deemed the program to be secular. 

Some Christians, like the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary R. Albert Mohler Jr., argue that yoga is against Biblical teachings because it is inherently religious and a “gateway into New Age religion.” Yet just the same, representatives from the “Take Back Yoga” campaign argue that American variations of yoga (goat yoga, yoga and wine) cannot be considered true yoga whatsoever, and are not related to the practice’s Hindu aspects. 

So what does it mean that I, a white, agnostic girl, found some form of immaterial meaning sitting in a tiny yoga studio, a visit others would liken to going to the gym? Is it sacred, or is it just exercise? It depends on who you ask, but it seems I’m hardly the only one to find spirituality in an uncommon place. Today, less than half of Americans consider themselves members of a house of worship, a statistic that hasn’t been seen in nearly a century. However, nine in ten Americans believe in a higher power—even if it is not God as described in the Bible. Belief in the intangible is not waning. It is just being discovered in different places and expressed through different means. 

*** 
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In my Religious Studies class last semester, we read a brief selection of sociologist Ann Swidler’s book Talk of Love: How Culture Matters. In it, she argues that culture is not something passively lingering above us, but a toolbox. Our eventual articulation of culture, including our spirituality and religion, is affected by how we “filter” the culture to which we are exposed and which “tools” we choose to incorporate into our own view of the world. 

At YogaSix, I think each of our inhalations will be composed of different substances. For me, I take in the magic, love, self devotion, and a belief in the immaterial from the hot room. For others, it is patience, stillness, and secular tranquility that they draw from the studio, that they take in to replenish their lungs. We enter the same space—exposed to the same “tools”—but inhale only what we need. Yet we breathe together, nonetheless. 



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