and other observations from the threshold between yoga and activism
By Matthew Remski
I have self-identified as a yoga practitioner for ten years now. Through practices and practice periods ranging from mild to intense, I’ve gained considerable self-awareness, emotional constancy, personal integrity. I have rediscovered my body, and learned how to commit to the present moment, almost at will. These gifts have radiated into my writing, helped me to parent, taught me to listen to my clients, helped me serve a friend who was mentally ill, helped me survive the death of a close friend, and are currently a life-raft through a difficult divorce.
But I am lonely, because my chosen path is not contained or supported by a coherent culture. It has no family infrastructure. It offers no life-transition rituals. It does not marry or bury us. It does not host AA meetings. It runs no soup kitchens. I don’t need yoga to be a religion. I need it to provide community. Community that acts consciously and pragmatically for the common good. Community that is not bankrupted by its exclusive consumer classism. Community that reaches out as much as it reaches in.
my catholic relapse
My journey with this theme begins with how I became catholic again, for about two hours.
It was a few springtimes ago: tender buds under a tender sun. I was nostalgic for youth and family, and especially singing. I biked to Thomas Aquinas Chapel at the University of Toronto with dew on my fenders. I had taken first communion there, 33 years gone by. I didn’t know I was about to take second communion that morning.
The choir members are in their early 20s. Babies sing along. Little girls shine like pennies in their Sunday dresses. Boys pull on sleeves and ask where the priest lives. The yellowed hymnbook smells like 1922. I run my hand along a groove in the pew and the wax of an earlier time curls up under my fingernail while the sun pours through rippling leaded glass. An ecstasy grows, of childhood memory, of the softest kind, pictures and sensations that echo in a primal womb. I don’t find this space anywhere else. A quiet rapture in the warmth of worn stone and the ambient swell of a collective breath. I open, finally, once again, to the openness of children, who watch, and listen, and let the spectacle of life flow in.
As churches go, it is a good church – social action, thinking people, cultural diversity, folks with projects, an old Victorian rectory that feels like a union hall, a grand piano beside the altar, Jesuits who read Tagore. A well-cooked masala of catholic communalism, frankincense, paraffin soot, and nasty perc coffee only drinkable with lots of sugar and cream.
It had me. The damn church had me so melted that I could forgive the psychotic Old Testament reading and the clumsy homily apologizing for it. I shook hands with an ancient man to the left of me, and played with the toy truck of the four-year-old boy to the right. I took communion (first wafer in 25 years?), shivering at Jesus’ line: This is my body. Yes: this is my body: this bread, these people, this human condition. I couldn’t sing at communion because yearning was a star in my throat.
But what happened after communion sealed the deal. A woman took the podium to give housekeeping announcements for the parish. Mondays: a mentorship program. Tuesdays: blanket drive for the homeless. Wednesdays: AA meeting. Thursdays: bereavement support group. Friday: teen dance. Saturday: Tiny Shrouds Society.
I turned to the old man. “Tiny Shrouds?”
He had watery eyes. Underweight, and a quiver in his right hand. He whispered “A few of the gals get together and knit little shrouds for the babies that die every week in the hospitals.”
That did it: I lost it. Was this the church I’d left so many years ago in a storm of disillusionment and cynicism? A place with such kindness, such organized empathy? What had I replaced it with? A solitary, counter-cultural 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?
Surely this is harsh. Yoga is a cultural adolescent in our age, driving forward on the fumes of counter-culture disillusionment, wanting more than the known patterns, wanting more than what we’re programmed to expect. It wants self-expression and constant redefinition. Young and dumb and full of possibility, yoga is also looking in the mirror, wondering how it looks. Today, yoga is more about identity than it is about service. Yoga’s just getting started here – we wish it well. We really do.
You can’t ask a teenager to suddenly manifest a social service network that the churches have been mothering for generations. The churches have paid their mortgages through centuries of focused intention and tithing. (And feudalism, and colonial economy, and collusion with the state . . . but don’t get me started.) Can we really expect yogis to run soup kitchens while we’re still making our rent? And as long as there are churches that corner the market in binding people in this love that transcends dogma because it acts, studios will offer a much thinner product: classes, self-help tools, self-discovery adventures to tropical paradises. It may be another generation before the patina of real community starts to glow.
I wonder. Will our yoga studios ever run with children and the tears of alcoholics? Will we tithe ourselves? Will we take all of this self-work and turn it inside out, and show our societies that we have as much food as wisdom, as much politics as peace, as much home as Om?
Will we take over these well-worn buildings when the last of the clerics fall into disgrace or simple irrelevance? When the last and bitterest shreds of moral hypocrisy and intellectual bankruptcy rupture the last congregations, will we rejuvenate their networks with a kinder vision of human relationship and ecology? Will we buy up dilapidated churches for pennies during the next crash and put them in collective yogic trust? If we did, could we shake up yoga’s stunting, competitive, commercial model through which we’ve been propagating our spirituality? Will we be up to the task?
This article is an excerpt of my chapter in the recently published anthology, 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice, edited by Carol Horton and Roseanne Harvey. The rest of the essay explores challenges faced by yoga practitioners and studio owners craving a greater sense of community, and offers practical and visionary suggestions for building it.
I invite you to read the rest of the chapter, as well as the 11 other phenomenal essays in this book, which discuss contemporary North American yoga and its relationship to issues including recovery, body image and spirituality. You can learn more about 21st Century Yoga by visiting the website and purchase a copy in print or via Kindle.
Matthew Remski is writer in the morning, therapist in the day, and teacher in the evening. His writing includes poetry, novels, posts and fragments, focusing on yoga, ayurveda, and evolution. As a therapist, he holds space for people as they illuminate the shadows of body and heart, informed by his knowledge and training in ayurveda, yoga, psychotherapy, and philosophy. Matthew teaches courses in ayurveda and yoga philosophy based upon his ongoing research of writing, and experience of practical therapy. He also teaches yoga asana, primarily in a therapeutic context. With Scott Petrie, he is the co-creator of the Yoga 2.0 project, and co-director of Yoga Community Canada. He blogs at www.matthewremski.com
His highly-acclaimed new “remixed” translation of Patanjali, Threads of Yoga, is now available here.