Lessons From a 20 Year Atheist Yogi

Actually 21 years now. I have to thank an also 13 year old Jessica Moore for getting me into it in 1996. She used to come over off the bus in the eighth grade and we’d do yoga poses from books she had. I’m not sure how she found out about it but I’m glad she did. I’ve been an every day practicer at certain points and I’ve gone months without practicing. I was born a flexible freak of nature so I’ve always been good at that aspect which stroked my ego but I’m not in it for the spirituality at all. I wanted to title this something else other than atheist like non-spiritual, agnostic or something else less controversial. But the truth of the matter is… that’s me. So maybe you’re like me a practiser who sometimes feels like your absorbing something you’re not supposed to be. Or maybe you ‘get’ yoga on a deeper level than I do but either way it’s still taught me a lot. Now I practice astanga about twice a week at average at home and I get to my teacher’s Tuesday advanced/intermediate class as often as I can. I really look up to and trust my teacher and I’m pretty honest about my motivation. I’m not really sure how she feels about me being there, but I have some ideas.

yoga 20
I’m not sure who this is a statue of but I bought it because it looked cool and was on sale, unfortunately my cat recently broke it. Sad face.

You can still get some zen if you don’t believe

I understand why it is considered a spiritual practice and why it originated from a religion. Practicing yoga calms you and centres you. I’m not entirely sure why this is but I have a few ideas I have as to why you feel that way. Truthfully at least part of that inner calm and mood boost comes from other exercises as well. Focusing on your body, moving with intention and getting your heart going is an aspect of all exercises. Taking time out of your day to intentionally slow down is bound to make you more zen. And it works for me too. If I’m stressed about something, going through tough stuff or having a disagreement with my partner yoga helps me with deal with the big stuff in a big way. I’ll even admit that practicing yoga for 90 minutes does more than a bike ride, swim or run of similar length, though all help. My teacher often invites us to dedicate our practice to someone at the end, sometimes ourselves, a friend in need but occasionally someone we don’t like as well.

It could be the slower movements, the quiet, it’s meditative nature or the things my teacher talks about during class that gives me that calm zen feeling. In my case it could also be the fact we’re surrounded by ocean on three sides and get to watch whales, dolphins and seals while we practice at my teacher’s cliffside studio. It also makes sense as to why the practice of yoga has it’s roots in religion. Even though that might not be the case at all, or in most studios anymore in the west, some practitioners view it as a spiritual part of their lives too and this is probably why.

Sometimes that makes you feel like you are taking something your not entitled too

I’m not sure about my teacher’s religion and it’s none of my business but she does bring in some very nice spiritual stuff. She blesses you and one time when I said I had accomplished something major at work that day she did a chant in my honour. If your not spiritual and you don’t believe in that aspect you might feel like you get nice things from yoga and that can make me feel guilty. I’m a believer in be nice to others and you’ll get what’s coming to you but that’s about it. If for you it’s self care, exercise or cheap physiotherapy you can feel like your taking something that your not supposed to.


Think long and hard about outing yourself but answer truthfully if asked a direct question

You might be totally cool with your practice whatever that means to you and your atheism but that’s not necessarily true for all the others in the room. Even those that don’t have strong religious beliefs they might be true devotes to yoga, no matter what their practice looks like. People have talked about the cult of yoga leading it’s practitioners to claim they are reaching towards enlightenment and treating it as a religious experience consciously or not. Yoga teachers do hundreds of hours of training to get their certifications and chances are they believe in it. You might be cool with your reasons for being there but everyone else might not be. Think long and hard about outing yourself because you might find yourself less comfortable after. I’ve been practicing with my teacher for 11 years consistently for 3 then I moved away for a few years but pretty consistently again for the last 4. And I would say I’m out there as a non-believer. Usually there are about four other people but lately Tuesday night have meant a private lesson so we get to know each other well. My teacher does probably over 100 hours of additional training each year at a major centre in North America for Ashtanga. One of the regulars is also a yoga teacher and some of the others are believers too. I might play up the zen I get from yoga from time to time but they know for me it’s mostly cross training and self-care. You should never ever lie to people about something that they truly believe in if your asked a direct question but you also don’t have to offer your differing opinion either.

Treat it like not your church only nicer, since you chose to be there

As a non-church goer you occasionally have to go to church. Whether your church is the outdoors, your atheist or even anti-theist life takes you to church from time to time. It might be a wedding, funeral or family baptism but chances are you’ll be there on the regular. I go to church when the occasion calls for it, I was there this week actually. I go at Christmas when my mom asks me too and participate and if it makes someone else happy as long as it doesn’t cross any lines for me. I was raised Anglican, and it’s a pretty low-key religion. I’ll say the wrote prayers I know but I won’t declare myself a reverent believer when those lines come up. And while I’m there I listen, am quiet, bow my head, kneel and stand when told to. But I’d have to think long and hard, probably respectfully declining in the end, to be someone’s godparent. One Christmas my mom dragged along a couple of other atheist family members who mocked the whole thing in whispers and giggles the whole time. Their behaviour made me blood boiling mad and feel incredibly protective of my mom, this was an important tradition to her! When I go to funerals on honey’s more fundamentalist side, I wear a skirt.

You should treat yoga like someone else’s church no matter how the people around you behave. I think you should go a step further because you are choosing to be there. There’s not much risk in compromising your values by being there, chances are any chanting your doing is only understood by your teacher, if that. If your morals are so strong that you can’t participate perhaps watch a youtube video instead. Say Om, namaste and be respectful!

Like any other exercise you can get injured

Ok I’m going to catch a bit of crap here, maybe a lot. Any activity you do can lead to injury, jumping in too fast, pushing too hard or repeating the same movements over and over are recipes for disaster. All of those things are true in yoga and it presents some particular risks too. There is a philosophy that all yoga is good and healing, be careful of this. You can get injured if you jump in too fast and try to hard to get into the positions. Also leading to this sort of injury are hands on corrections by teachers. Some styles, including mine, include the teacher trying to pull you into the position. If your uncomfortable with that you can ask not to be physically corrected. Even though I knocked out my knee by running too much it actually ‘popped’ in yoga class.

If you are a regular practicer, like everyday, you could be at risk for overuse injuries. Just like a runner should take rest days and not run through pain the same is true for yogis. Sometimes the philosophies pushed in a yoga class can put you at risk.

From what I know it seems to have a beautiful philosophy that has made me a better person

I’m not going on about this at length because I’m a novice in that regard. But slowing down, getting into that meditative head space and dedicating something good to someone I don’t like every once and a while has made me a better person. Having a way to reliably calm myself has added a lot to my life and taken away from my stress levels. Hearing the ideas like yesterday’s ideas of embracing the unknown in life and letting it mingle with what is known has expanded my horizons. Even though I don’t think yoga is a path to spiritual enlightenment it may well still have things to teach you.


If it is truly against your teacher’s or studio’s philosophy you should probably leave

There are many, many yoga studios out there now and many of them are even franchises of yoga studios and almost all of them are a business at least on some level. Each one is different and each teacher is different. There is no world yoga authority though there might be within certain styles. If you get the sense that your exercise first philosophy or really any yoga ideals you hold are at odds with your studio’s or you teacher’s on a very deep level it is best that you find somewhere else to practice. I’ve found a beautiful space and teacher to practice yoga with but if my ideas were really against my teacher’s I think it would be my responsibility to find somewhere else. But you don’t have to broadcast your values and chances are with that you’ll be able to find a spot almost anywhere.

There are a few other ideas that might be dear to you that put you at odds with your studio. One is not holding any beliefs but more likely to put you on the outs is to believe that yoga is a christian practice and actually part of a religion you already have. If this is you I suggest you seek out a teacher with the same ideas as a starting point. You might see yoga as only a type of physiotherapy to heal your specific injury. By all means let your teacher know that that’s what your there for but do your best to be open to the other stuff too. No matter who you are if your new to yoga or a studio make sure you look into etiquette by looking it up, asking or hanging back and following the lead of others.

Even though I’m not in it for enlightenment and don’t really believe in that aspect yoga has taught me a lot. It’s also been a great way to get in some cross-training, calmed me down after conflict and given me a way to take better care of myself. If your a yogi believer or not what does it give to you?

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