I chose a mat over the sanctuary, but I’m still searching

For many years, the church provided me with a place where I felt like I belonged.

I was fourteen years old when I “decided” to get baptized. Coming from a Mennonite Anabaptist background, I always respected the time in people’s lives when they would announce their dedication to the Christian faith and get aligned into a seemingly-perfect life of servanthood, humility, and significant personal integrity. How wonderful. That said, are most normal teenagers truly ready to align themselves to a moral dogma for the rest of their adult years while navigating puberty, high-school, part-time jobs, relationships, self-esteem issues and defining their identity? It’d be nice to think that those young folks are so courageous, smart, and ready to do so, but I don’t think that’s true.

It was a November evening not long after my 13th birthday when my pastor visited my house and asked me from across the kitchen table if I was interested in attending baptism classes. Given the simple fact that most of my friends were taking them and that for the most part, church had so far proved to be a safe and fun place to grow up, I said yes. Of course those classes turned into me professing my commitment to the Mennonite faith in front of my dear congregation six months later. Upon digging into my Microsoft word archives from the early 2000s, I see that I can credit my fourteen year old self on one thing for sure – I wisely shared in my testimony how “[t]his decision doesn’t mark the pinnacle of my faith, but rather the beginning of a lifelong journey.” 

That journey started off strong.

Throughout my teenage years, I read my bible, did devotions, journaled, worshiped, prayed, served, loved, and connected with others. Looking back, it was a great life path to take to get through those tricky years of high school mostly unscathed. I completely dedicated myself to my Mennonite congregation. They were (and remain) an incredible group of individuals who helped mold and shape me into the person I am today. They opened doors for me to develop leadership skills and understand my gifts. They gave me opportunities to share my concerns, celebrate my blessings, learn about the world, and wrestle with big issues. They encouraged me to be involved in programs making a difference and to share my talents. Each Sunday, hymns sung in four part harmony gave me goosebumps and to this day I still long for them at times. Old favourites from the blue hymnal or tunes by artists like Bryan Moyer Suderman continue to meet me in my days today.

My congregation nurtured many progressive Christians who walked the talk and demonstrated a kind faith built on love. Today, they authentically welcome the LGBTQ community in church, realize there is an ecological crisis and that “Creation” is in trouble, acknowledge their role as settlers in European colonialism, and actively look for ways to promote peace in our local community. It’s these sunny experiences that, when dwelled upon, make me question why I don’t regularly attend church anymore.

Matthew Remski, a famous Canadian yogi and spirituality thought leader relates to this feeling in his essay in “21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics & Practice,” as he describes a similar ‘church relapse’ which he experienced (Remski, 2012). After attending a moving service where he was struck by the generosity, support, sacrifice, and overall social capital of his home congregation, he had to ask himself some questions.

“Was this the church I’d left so many years before in a storm of disillusionment and cynicism? A place with such kindness, such organized empathy? What had I replaced with it? A solitary, countercultural path. I’d developed my breath, my internal observer, powers of inquiry. But now I should probably get in line for the Tuesday blanket. Had yoga made me homeless? Where were the studio food drives? Who was knitting the shrouds? Where was the yoga studio that sat in the middle of this dirty and vibrant life and facilitated its suffering and hopeful economy?” (Remski, 2012, p.111).

There are reasons why people like Remski and I find fault with the church, but no institution is faultless. Nonetheless, I eventually began to explore other ways of engaging in spirituality.

Yoga emerged in a purely athletic form for me, when my only concept of meditation was my pastor’s sermon on Sunday mornings.

It didn’t take long for those classes of physical postures and mindfulness to turn into more than just exercise. Yoga became a breakthrough activity for me, allowing my love of expressive movement to be joined in meditation. What a revolutionary and holistic framework to contemplate my human existence! While developing a basic sense of strength and ease in my physical being, it also helped me develop a stronger, more relaxed emotional and mental capacity.

Through my young adult years of learning, change, and discovery, the most life-giving spiritual discipline I found was sporadic yoga classes and a personal meditation practice in my dorm room. The study of mindfulness provisioned me with useful tools to deal with the stress of young adulthood, allowing me to somehow keep a (sort-of) even-keel through five years of constant change. It created regular opportunities to be reflective and turn inward to check in on myself. It was a time of prayer that tapped into every sheath of my being.

Not all of my peers thought this sounded like a good idea. With friends and family in other Christian faith circles, they responded to an invitation to come to a yoga class with trepidation. “My parents won’t let me go,” or “I’m not a buddhist monk.” Having found yoga to be a holistic, and complementary tool for living out my worldview, I didn’t understand these critiques. Nor did I know how to respond to them. Rather than being able to articulate the many parallels between yogic philosophy and a Mennonite faith, I shied away from these conversations.

Eventually, communication skills and an ability to articulate ideas were honed by several years of life experience and critical learning.

In this time I learned how to question absolutes and explore the context behind the facts. I was exposed to some of the wonders and horrors of our human life, causing me to cultivate gratitude and at the same time be driven toward skepticism. I was encountering contradictions that challenged my ability to stay in touch with my teenage faith.

I was having trouble rationalizing a black and white theology. I could not find peace in one person’s prescriptive sermon. These objections I had were not completely descriptive of the church community I was a part of, however, I felt uncomfortable being associated with an institution with a patriarchal, homophobic, consumptive reputation.

More recently, my pursuit of yoga has deepened into a powerful tool for developing self awareness and self compassion. I am more kind to myself, and more kind to others. I am finding an antidote to stress, loneliness, and doubt in my adult years. My practice on the mat allows me to play with new ways of being in the world. It fills my cup so that it might overflow. As I move into positions of strength, power, and grace with my physical body, I posture those same traits in my work and family life. 

The maturing western yoga establishment also has familiar faults.

It experiences tainted reputations, be it leaders who transgress in the public eye or the masses who feel excluded by high standards and a clique-like community. It hosts hypocrisy, as yogis fail to always do good and align to yogic moral philosophy. It is full of camps with opposing beliefs and unwavering principles that create a divide amongst its practitioners.

While it has no pews to fill, it competes to maintain active membership and pack full its studio space. Yoga studios are notorious for having a transient membership base, needing to fill up studio space with enticing seasonal passes and other marketing activities.

Although yoga teaches that the liberation of one is found in the freedom of all, one can easily feel isolated in the studio. Students arrive to class in silence, finding little opportunity to connect with their fellow yogis. The reception area is busy, yet no one makes eye contact; each yogi so focussed on their own enlightenment. After class there is little lingering conversation and fellowship in the studio, rarely a potluck or coffee time. Why, we yogis have rushed off to the next thing on the list before completing our last breath in sukhasana.

But Yogi or Christian alike, we all fail to always do the work.

It is easy to get caught up in the material world. It is easy to focus on our own hardships and forget that we are a part of a larger human family. It is hard to build authentic communities where people show up and invest. No spiritual community is perfect. In most cases, the intention seems good, but few are operating as they were intended to be.

Today I look for a place to feel like I belong, regardless of what I’m wearing. A place to be vulnerable, pretense aside. A place to be nurtured, depending on what I need. A place to give back, where others need me. A place to be inspired, when the world feels rough. A place to be supported, when I can’t predict life’s circumstances. A place to be challenged, when the day to day becomes mundane. A place to be seen; in body, mind, and spirit.

 

References

Remski, Matthew. “Modern Yoga Will Not Form a Real Culture Until Every Studio Can Also

Double As a Soup Kitchen, and Other Observations from a the Threshold between Yoga and Activism.” 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, & Practice, Kleio Books, 2012.

 

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Sarah Steiner lives in the Kitchener-Waterloo area with her partner, Jono. She is a full-time customer experience director and a part-time yoga instructor. She enjoys doing life with her family and friends, cooking in her apartment, biking to work, spending time dancing and moving in creative ways, and finding treasures at the thrift store.

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