One day, a budding teacher hung back after yoga teacher training. As I rolled up mats and put books away, she shared how disheartened she was after exploring yoga studios around town. She said, “Maybe I’m just not meant to be spiritual. I’m too quirky and loud and fun-loving.”
Sadly, I wasn’t shocked; I’ve felt that way myself. Many people feel like outsiders when faced with the exclusivity of the yoga and spirituality scene.
Why do we think being spiritual is a certain personality type: the way we talk and the clothes we wear? How did spirituality come to be an external expression rather than an inner seeking? Even if we laugh at what being spiritual isn’t, we can’t quite pin down what being spiritual actually is.
Defying stereotypes, my teacher manages to be the most spiritual man I’ve ever met, while also being loud and funny. And swearing. And trading stocks. And doing it all to support the community around him.
He once said to me in an email, “Spirituality is simple.” Which simultaneously seemed like a shattering revelation and the most obvious thing ever said. In other words, it rang of truth.
Spirituality doesn’t require an elaborate persona, acceptance in any yoga tribe, or a complex ritual. The more spiritual we become, the more real we become. Spiritual people give little external indication of their divine aspirations. They’re often down to earth, efficient, and humble. They simply give. And give. And give.
So how do we become those people instead of just dressing like them? How do we separate the appearance of spirituality from the thing itself?
Well, here’s the to-do list I compiled from the teachings of others to help myself become more like them.
1. Take off the mask.
Authentic yoga strips away the layers of our self-created personalities to reveal our divine spark. But as yoga teachers and practitioners, we sometimes put on the persona, or mask, of a yogi. We act like a caricature of an enlightened person instead of acting like ourselves. We pretend to be the rainbow-sunshine-bunny-of-bliss, forgetting that yoga has poses named after warriors, lions, and righteous sages prone to inflicting curses. If yoga was meant to make us docile and euphoric, we would have yoga poses named after Care Bears.
Students look especially to yoga teachers as examples. When teachers pretend to be perfectly conformed yogis, students think that they cannot be themselves and be spiritual. They feel as if they are somehow unworthy of inclusion in a community of divine undertaking.
In fairness, students should pay attention to the possibility that they may be putting a teacher on a pedestal, but it’s the teacher’s job to roundhouse kick the pedestal over. It’s the teacher’s job to stay honest. To show the struggle. To show that we get angry and still meditate. To show that occasional drinking, swearing, and/or corny joke telling doesn’t disqualify us from spirituality. To be unabashedly ourselves, student or teacher. To stumble down a path that’s made for flesh and blood humans who are trying to figure it out, just like everyone else. To be strong enough to share our own frailty.
2. Surround yourself with people who are spiritual, instead of people who talk about being spiritual.
You’ll have to look carefully and ask lots of questions to find the hidden swamis and secret ministers amongst us. They’re apparent by the light of their eyes and their service to humanity. Spiritual people of any tradition or religion will make you feel empowered and inspired rather than insecure and inadequate.
Look outside your usual yoga community for these guides and companions. Look twice at the used car salesman or the quiet girl next to you on the bus. The pursuit of the divine knows no demographic or geographic bounds. Sometimes the truest teachers are the least trendy. Go back to your childhood church, check out the Buddhist temple downtown, or visit the humble farmer loving his land.
Take note of what unites the luminaries you meet, not what separates them.
3. Be on your guard for spiritual materialism and exclusivity.
Don’t listen to the lies proclaiming we need to buy more stuff. You know, “Wearing this mala will balance your aura. This essential oil will open your third eye. This workshop, group, or retreat will help you connect to the divine.”
The truth is you are divine already. You don’t need to buy any accessories or memberships to be who you already are.
4. Be spiritual with what you do, not with what you buy, say, or wear.
Embody your spirituality with every action of service and each kind word. And here’s the best part – you get to be exactly you: clumsy, abrupt, loud, funny, or whatever you feel like today. Just find a way to support people and the earth. It doesn’t have to be a billion dollar international non-profit; maybe today you bake muffins for your elderly neighbor and tomorrow you pick up some trash on the sidewalk.
Whatever the scale, we must create effective change in the real world rather than cowering behind our counter-culture. Pope Francis said, “Pray for the hungry. Then go feed them. This is how prayer works.”
5. Practice. Any practice. Every day.
I saw this sign on a Lutheran church:
“Practice what you preach. Just practice.”
There’s a whole world of time-tested practices out there that lead us beyond the superficial. Find the ones that suit your particular disposition.
Are you energetic and good at multitasking? Try puja. Fidgety? Try a walking meditation. Chatty Cathy? Try japa or praying the rosary. Do you love a good story? Try paṭh (recitation). Naturally quiet? Sit down and breathe.
Don’t force feed yourself something that doesn’t resonate. Chose a practice that uses your natural personality as an ally in your spiritual endeavor. The nature of the practice is for you to decide. The divine doesn’t care what language you use to communicate. Pick one that serves you.
(Note: By itself, asana yoga as we practice it today doesn’t exactly qualify as a time-tested spiritual practice. It’s more like prep work to still the body enough so that we can hone the mind in some kind of meditation.)
6. Stick to it.
After you’ve explored a few practices, pick one. Stop wandering, wondering, and trying the next best thing.
In his commentary on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Swami Satchidananda warns against digging many shallow wells. All the wells lead to water. After you find a reasonable place to dig, just keep on digging. Dig, even when it gets rocky and well-nigh impossible, because just on the other side of the rocks is right where you’ll find the water. If you succumb to the temptation to dig someplace else, it might be soft soil for a while, but inevitably you’ll meet the same obstacles.
If it were easy, we’d all have realized our divine natures already. When it gets hard, rejoice; you’re finally getting someplace good.
7. Keep it simple.
If it’s getting tricky or complicated, back up. Don’t overthink it.
Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, said, “For me, to be a saint means to be myself.” Our quirks aren’t a hindrance on this path. Our personalities and interests aren’t something that we have to change in order to become a force for goodness and grace.
In the simple words of a saint, “Being spiritual is giving more than you take.”
And we can do that much more powerfully as ourselves.