Recently a student asked our Ashtanga yoga teacher, “Can people do yoga if they don’t believe in god?”
I stopped what I was doing to listen to his answer. See, the thing is, I’m not a Believer. I’m a New Yorker who learned that gurus/pastors/rabbis were just guys with enough charisma to charm their way into beds and wallets. But two years ago (13 years after my first yoga class) I “surrendered” to my Guru. I trust him to adjust me into serious postures, to “give” me new postures when he considers me proficient in the one that precedes in the sequence, to guide me into a more balanced life (sometimes needing more ambition, sometimes more stillness.)
Our guru answered her, “Yes, of course. Yoga is for pondering the Big Questions of life. Like, How can I be less of an asshole? Why am I here? What was I put on Earth to do?… Surrender to God is not a matter of belief. It’s a matter of personal experience.”
Once we become serious yoga practitioners, we wind up on the mat for 8-12 hours a week. (That doesn’t include readings, workshops, pranayama, teaching or parties with yogi friends where little else is discussed.) Over time, we inevitably figure out the concept of “surrender.” I’ve felt it in deep adjustments (resisting the teacher just makes the pose harder) and led classes where the teacher is pacing the breath too s-l-o-w. Savasana, the last pose of every class, is famous for teaching us to let go of all muscular engagement, responsibility and tension. Tim Miller, the teacher I keep alluding to, jokes that, “The Big Savasana is coming,” as a reminder not to get attached to our physical bodies and current abilities.
This physical surrender is a good first step. Surrender to a Guru is the next step. Where are we headed? Toward oneness with something god-like. But we can’t control the experience and we can’t force ourselves to believe something. All we can control is the dedication to the practice, year after year. We wind up somewhere different from where we started.
Saying, “You have to believe in God to practice yoga” is like saying, “You have to be flexible to practice yoga.”
*** As these ideas have been churning in my head, NFL’s Colin Kaepernick decided to sit down for the national anthem. America, in his experience, is racially unjust. He can’t force himself to believe that America is the “land of the free” so he acted on his truth. Isn’t speaking/acting our minds one of the major benefits of living here? The media and hatemongers call him unpatriotic but the opposite is true; he cares enough to stoke the political fire and affect his country. Being an American, just like being a yogi, is a personal experience.