Here’s what a typical meditation in yoga class is like for me:
Yoga teacher: “…Exhaling, ground down through your sitz bones. On your next inhale, tune into your Higher Self, and sense how we’re all connected through the Divine.”
My inner voice number one: “Pft! I’ve got only one Self, lady, and she’s sitting right here attempting to ignore how deeply her yoga shorts are plunging into her, ah, Divine.”
My inner voice number two: “Relax. Think of your Higher Self as a metaphor for a mindful state, and the Divine as the carbon cycle that connects everything—the recycling and sharing of molecules throughout the planet and universe. Like Carl Sagan says, ‘We are made of star stuff.’”
Yoga teacher: “Feel your heart chakra opening…”
Inner voice one: “Heart chakra? What a load of—”
Inner voice two: “Symbolism! For love and compassion.”
Yoga teacher: “…as we chant om together. Om is the sound of the frequency of the universe.”
Inner voice two: “Let’s take that as the sound of the Big Bang.”
Inner voice one: “Wasn’t the sound of the Big Bang, you know, bang?”
Inner voice two: “This is going to be a very long yoga class.”
I began practicing yoga in 2000 when I was fourteen—not because I was on some spiritual quest, but because I thought it was hilarious to watch adults stick their butts in the air, and because my mom never allowed me to burn incense at home.
In the beginning, I chanted when they chanted without thinking much of it, much like in Catholic mass wherein I prayed when they prayed. When I began questioning religion, I did so both in the pew and on the mat.
Yoga in the West frequently incorporates loose New Age ideas with pseudo Hinduism and Buddhism. “Spiritual, not religious” is a ubiquitous term that disfavours organized religious structure while encouraging the personalized cherry-picking of supernatural beliefs (e.g. our Higher Selves and the Divine). I struggled for years to harmonize my atheism with my practice. Many yogis consider it taboo to do yoga solely for the physical benefits, insisting that yoga is more a practice of the soul than the body. So what if you don’t believe in souls? Is it still okay to chant when they chant?
The answer to the second query, I’ve come to believe, is no. As the dancing Shiva statues in home décor boutiques and the poignant Buddhist quotes on social media feeds demonstrate, Eastern religions are currently trending. While I understand the mystical allure of Sanskrit mantras intoned over singing bowls—I did start yoga largely for the incense, remember—I think about how my devout grandmother would feel if non-Catholics wore rosaries just because they deemed them cool.
In Thailand, government-sponsored billboards implore tourists to avoid buying Buddhist trinkets or tattooing Buddhist images because it’s offensive to true believers, and arguably the same principles apply to yoga class.
Now, back to souls. I contemplated why I kept returning to yoga class even while disagreeing with much of the philosophical discourse. Finally, I realized that it’s because yoga is, well, fun. It’s funny when you fall over, exciting when you try a new pose, uplifting when you achieve a personal best, and awesome when you realize that for the last ninety minutes you’ve actually stayed present in the moment—even if that moment included the occasional face-plant. Plus, innumerable styles, studios and instructors elicit opportunity for an individualized and endless journey.
Douglas Adams wrote, “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it, too?” While he was speaking of the world in general, this notion likewise summarizes the atheistic approach to yoga: Practicing simply because it makes you happy is no less valid than doing so for perceived spiritual gains. We all have our own reasons for coming to the mat, and no one supersedes the other.
…And that includes the incense.
Illustration by Valeria Ko.