“Yoga is the journey of the self, through the self, to the self.”
– The Bhagavad Gita
Last week my personal and spiritual evolution got annihilated in 90 minutes. During a yoga class…
You’d think that sounds pretty reasonable, right? After all, isn’t yoga somewhat fundamentally about returning to your true self? Isn’t the asana designed to move and clear energy blocks?
This, however, was not the spiritual chiropractics I’d anticipated having.
I’m still processing and that’s why I’m sharing this story with you. I’d love to hear from people about how they’ve healed from the wound I’m about to open up.
Long story short: I had never done this “Bikram” yoga thing. I think I accidentally walked into a class last year at Arjuna and ran out of the room. I called Bel and was like, “what the actual fuck was that? It was insane! The teacher kept barking at us!”
Seeing as how I was attending a hot yoga retreat (mostly just to find a peaceful place to get away and work with my business coach), I attended a Bikram class on my last day.
Really, there was nothing else going on and the teacher seems like a cool dude; killer reputation, amazing brand, awesome marketing, and genuinely adored by the retreat participants. OK, I thought, I’ve gotta see this dude’s magic.
The instructor began class by cutting up a bit and some of his decade (or two decade?) long followers looked at him with gooey eyes… and increasingly gooey bodies in the hot room in humid Puerto Morelos.
Rather suddenly, class was to start. The casual, comical, chill teacher turned into a bonified Bikram drill sergeant. His energy completely shifted. He was facilitating something I knew nothing about and didn’t understand for shit.
I love that yoga classes I’ve done in the past force me to get out of my head and focus on the postures. I generally don’t hear music (unless it’s just awful) and I don’t really think about anything else while in class, or else I’ll literally lose balance.
This Bikram class was the opposite. The class “script” was so loud and tedious that I couldn’t keep up; not with the script, not with my own feelings about it.
I don’t remember what was said. Except that I found it impossible to follow. I don’t remember the postures we took. I just remember that suddenly I was surrounded by darkness. The room was spinning. I couldn’t hold my balance (and I have some crazy good balance for a brand new baby yogi), and my heart was pumping out of my chest.
The room wasn’t hot (I was near an open window), but I was suffocating. I think I was having a panic attack.
I looked over at Bel during the first of what seemed like 50,000 Savasanas in the practice to tell him I needed to leave.
He began laughing. He knows me too well. “It’s the teacher’s birthday. Don’t even think about it.”
Next Savasana came. “Bel, I’m freaking out. I need to leave.”
“It’s almost over.” He replied. Then firmly he said, “don’t leave.” Probably he assumed I was bored and looking to go lift some weights (fair assumption).
Then again, he’s been in this game long enough (and knows me so well) that he may have actually seen that I was having a total fucking spiritual meltdown.
I literally began itching to get up (the 60 bed bug bites on my legs and ankles contributed to be sure. Sara Gustafson, does this remind you of anything?! ) Then, the panic became rage.
I’m not sure how I stumbled back to my room, but having left way before Bel, he returned before me. I stomped around the room. I yelled, “why the hell did you and Emily do that for so many years?! It’s horrific! It’s hideous! It’s mind-control! It’s for a gaggle of lobotomized dopes!” I raged like a mother.
In some weird way, I felt like I’d been assaulted. Violated. Taken without consent.
Bel left our room, presumably to saunter around the beach in his teeny weeny swim trunks for a spell; and I sobbed. I wailed. I absolutely freaked TF out.
Suddenly I was standing in the frigid Wisconsin winter air in December of 2002. I was an assistant youth director at a big Pentecostal church in Chicago. The head pastor had a friend who was a trendy evangelist from Canada… more like a tongue-talking ambassador. He basically attended churches and tried to get people to talk in tongues, shake, shimmy, fall backwards with their eyes glazed over, and generally turn off their brains.
To an extent, I love that shit. Ecstatic dance facilitates a similar immersion for me, but I digress.
The retreat room in Wisconsin was packed with middle and high school children.
I’d traveled with these kids around the country and spent every waking moment of my life leading them on anything from prayer meetings (with a boatload of tongue-talking, to be sure), choir practices, humanitarian efforts, volunteer missions, and ample incineration of secular music at the alter.
The evangelist began to deliver his message. Ultimately it was a mission to amp up the emotions in the group with fear. “You are a sinner. You will go to hell without a savior. Your friends are going to hell if they’re not here.” You know, the usual.
But something shifted in me that night. I wasn’t raising my hands or crying or singing. I wasn’t tongue-talking. I was standing in the back of the room observing. And I had every damn right to do so… or so I thought.
I watched as the evangelist bullied a young boy near the alter. He screamed, spittle showering the front row. “Jesus was a chameleon! Here, move your tongue like this!” It wasn’t for many years that I realized how fun it can be to move your tongue like that. But even my virginal self knew of the sexually charged references.
Some of the children tried not to giggle. It made the preacher try harder, waving his tongue grotesquely in the faces of the children. Up and down, around, side to side. He was trying to tell the children to relax and wag their tongues to facilitate the “spiritual gift”.
My jaw dropped. He didn’t back down. The adult chaperones looked concerned, but they kept their eyes droopy and arms raised to support the preacher and the melodramatic music played to facilitate the climax of the event: the alter call.
The preacher asked everybody who hadn’t talked in tongues to come to the alter to receive their gift. “If you don’t have it, you don’t have faith. If you don’t have it, don’t worry. God wants everyone to have it. Come and get it.”
The evangelist saw my energetic resistance and pointed me out. He raged on me. “Are you here to serve Jesus? Or are you here to flirt with the boys?!” He screamed. I was in the back row with the kids who’d gotten in “trouble” on the bus that day. He thought I was a high-school student flirting with boys. I was, in fact, their jailor.
He went on, “are you here to serve Jesus? Or are you here to fix your hair and look pretty?!”
“Are you here to serve Jesus? Or are you here to sabotage the spirit of GOD?!”
Somehow I got kicked out of the retreat center. I stood in the freezing cold in the middle of god-knows-where rural Wisconsin and called a friend from college to drive me home. I called my uncle, who’s a Biblical scholar and one of my heroes, to this day.
“No, honey. That’s definitely not right. You should leave.”
Despite having my family’s support… incredible, undying support… to the point that they left a congregation they’d attended for decades (they lost, truly, their family that day)… I lost my Christian innocence that day.
I never settled or released or sat back or surrendered in church ever again. I saw the evangelist in my mind. I saw the manipulation. I saw the perversion. I felt the assault.
When people are the most spiritually vulnerable, he used that moment for a perverse agenda. Those poor kids. And poor me! My experience with church was forever tainted.
Today, I understand that without Jesus Christ, Buddha, and other enlightened men and women, humanity would have long ago self-destructed.
I still pray in Jesus’ name, actually. Periodically I find myself in something like “intercessory prayer”. I also meditate. I also dance. I also study spiritual teachers across the board with fierce obsession. Rarely a week goes by I don’t devour both a business and a spiritual book or audio conference.
And to this day, I’m persecuted for my seeking. I’m chastised for my earnest, passionate chase for God. I’m now engaged with my whole heart, brain and gut. But because I’m not “in church”, I’m going to hell.
The church is still trying to put me back in FEAR, just like that day in Wisconsin. My Messenger inbox is full of it, regularly. Even a few hours ago.
So I’m left with this. Fear or love?
When I earnestly seek Truth with my entire heart, soul, body, free time, mind, and money… it’s not enough if it can’t be referenced in the New Testament. Do I fear hell?
I don’t go to church, but I seek God all day. I look to hear His voice. I regularly assess how well I’m in Surrender to that voice. I see His work everywhere in synchronicity.
I don’t go to church because all I heard was man and manipulation. Please show me your exception.
Today I mostly worship in nature, with nobody’s voice drowning out God’s.
But periodically I’ll throw down some Brooklyn Tabernacle, Donnie McClurkin or Tye Tribbett with a vengeance, especially when SHTF.
Today I love people around me with authenticity and not an agenda. I don’t see people as desperate prospects for my miracle of salvation. I just see them as miracles.
Today my aura emits love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control a thousand times more than when I was living in fear of hellfire if I didn’t behave.
I’ve begun to finally relax in and receive God’s love.
I’m really happy I was in that class.
I don’t know if Bikram had some crazy channel to the Almighty. I don’t know if the absolute awkwardness of the class is precisely what facilitates spiritual awakening. I don’t know if it’s brilliant or bogus.
I don’t know if the militant script and cult-like following of Bikram was precisely the same thing as my church experience… or through the movement and heat and scripts somehow… the opposite?
To be sure my experience of using my body to hear Spirit has been transformed… and I was already a big fan.
I guess that whether it’s church or yoga or meditation or travel or sex or dance… what happened to me is the whole point of life.
Fuck the fear.