From church to yoga studio

'I chose a mat over the sactuary, but I'm still searching'

May 16, 2018 | Young Voices | Volume 22 Issue 11
Sarah Steiner, Special to Canadian Mennonite
‘As I encountered contradictions to my teenage understanding of faith, yoga offered a contemplative approach to spirituality,’ Sarah Steiner writes. (Photo by Aaron Epp)

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

I was 14 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.

That said, are most teenagers ready to align themselves to one moral philosophy for the rest of their lives while navigating puberty, part-time jobs, relationships and finding their identity?

One November evening around my 13th birthday, my pastor visited our house and asked if I was interested in attending baptismal classes. I said yes, and six months later I was professing my commitment to the Mennonite faith in front of my dear congregation.

It was a good choice. My congregation nurtures many progressive Christians who walk the talk and demonstrate a kind faith built on love. They embrace many values I align with: authentically welcoming the LGBTQ community in church, recognizing the ecological crisis, acknowledging their role as settlers in European colonialism and actively looking for ways to promote peace in our local community.

I can credit my 14-year-old self on having wisely shared in my testimony: “This decision doesn’t mark the pinnacle of my faith, but rather the beginning of a lifelong journey.” Looking back, it was a great life path to take to get through those tricky years of “teenagehood” mostly unscathed, full of sunny experiences that when dwelled upon make me question why I don’t attend church anymore.

Matthew Remski, a prophetic, social justice-oriented yogi, relates to this feeling in his essay in 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, & Practice. Remski describes a “church relapse.” After attending a moving service where he was struck by the generosity, support, sacrifice and social capital of his old congregation, he asked himself, “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 it with? 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,” referring to a program at his former church.

When high school finished, I entered young adulthood: travelling, working, learning, moving. Suddenly, attending a church became a choice to make. It was no longer the default place to be on a Sunday morning, no longer a default congregation with familiar friends and families. I found myself wondering, is the investment involved in dedicating myself to a new church community really worth it?

While yoga first emerged in a purely athletic form for me, it didn’t take long for it to turn into more than just exercise. 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 quality. As I explored positions of courage, curiosity and grace on the mat, I experimented in how to posture those same traits in my life off the mat.

Somewhere along the way, the words of peace activists like Thich Nhat Hanh and mystics like Richard Rohr, as well as ancient and modern-day yogis, began to enrich my understanding of spirituality more than verses in the Bible. Life experiences, both terrible and wonderful, caused me to cultivate gratitude towards the Creator, but at the same time to be driven into scepticism towards a patriarchal, dogmatic, fear-loving Lord.

As I encountered contradictions to my teenage understanding of faith, yoga offered a contemplative approach to spirituality. This was a welcome practice when compared to the black-and-white rules of traditional Christianity.

I found new solace in my yoga practice. However, no spiritual community is perfect. While my yoga practice has nurtured me as an individual, it does not fill the void that a strong church community can provide. And rest assured, the maturing western yoga establishment has familiar faults as an institution. It has tainted reputations, leaders who transgress in the public eye, masses who feel excluded by high standards and a clique-like community. There are many camps with opposing beliefs and unwavering principles that create a divide among yoga’s practitioners. After class there is little fellowship in the studio, rarely a potluck or coffee time.

It’s hard to foster spiritual communities in which people can show up, as they are, and be authentically seen. What I like about my pursuit of yoga is that I am more kind to myself and more kind to others. It fills my cup so that it might overflow.

Today I look for a spiritual community that has some theological range of motion and flexibility. A place that lives, speaks and acts from its heart as much as its head. A place where you can belong in mind, spirit and body.  

Sarah Steiner, 26, works at a software start-up by day and is a registered yoga teacher by night. She lives in Kitchener, Ont., with her husband, Jono Cullar. A longer version of this article originally appeared on pastorsinexile.org.

More on mental health: 
‘Acceptance without exception’
Suicide isn’t painless

Meeting the mental health needs of students
‘Poetry and art for mental health’
Resilience Road leads to mental health for women
 

‘As I encountered contradictions to my teenage understanding of faith, yoga offered a contemplative approach to spirituality,’ Sarah Steiner writes. (Photo by Aaron Epp)

Yoga has become more than simply an athletic pursuit for Sarah Steiner. (Photo by Michelle Kauntz)

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