I practiced Yoga to relieve stress and build flexibility before I understood what it truly was – a map to long-term happiness.
Feeling anxious about my life throughout my early 20’s, I quit my job and moved abroad, landing at a yoga center in Cambodia. There, I discovered the philosophy behind the Yoga postures, my own self-worth, and a pathway to personal fulfillment. While Yoga led me to long-term happiness, this has been a lifelong journey so let’s start at the beginning…
Searching for Purpose
When I was 15, I was up late one night at my friend’s house for a girls’ sleepover. We had delved into a deep philosophical discussion as late nights often allow. I was curious…
Why should we do good and moral things in our lives like treat others well? Why should we tell the truth, refrain from stealing, be good people?
Without hesitation, my friend replied, “Because if we are good to others, God is watching. He will guarantee a place for us in heaven.” I nodded silently and said no more, because I had nothing to add.
I shared so much in common with this girl – my best friend – our education, passion for the arts, hometown, hopes, and dreams. But I realized that on this particular subject, we could not relate. It was simple, she believed in God and I did not. Her faith provided her with a moral code and a purpose in life that I could not grasp.
Growing Up Without Religion
It’s not that I didn’t want what Christianity or so many other religions have to offer. My determined Mother had dragged me to church as a child. While I admired the beautiful sense of community (and enjoyed the free pastries), I could not make the leap of faith.
If I had to guess, I’d probably blame it on the not-so-subtle signs of disbelief my Father displayed. Often during Mass. I admired my Father and looked up to him for most things.
Maybe it was my private school education that highlighted religion’s ambiguity through its blatant omission from the curriculum. It may well have been my secular society that prevented me from bridging the gap between church and everything else in my life.
Whatever the reasons, religion was not a pill I was going to swallow. And it seemed that nobody around me had any other clear answers. The only conclusion I could draw was that some people (myself included) did have an innate desire to be good.
Later, I came across a theory Howard C. Cutler describes in his book The Art of Happiness, a compilation of his discussions with the Dalai Lama:
Cutler articulates exactly what I had been grappling with. Without religion we’re on our own to decide what is right or wrong, good or bad, and what kind of life we want to create. Including one of long-term happiness.
Substituting with Secular Values
Over time, I found other value systems to put my faith in. These were my education, my career, and my overall “success.”
I hoped that these aspects of my life would eventually lead to fulfillment, peace of mind, and long-term happiness. I felt comfort observing the people I loved and respected around me. They were pursuing similar tangible ideals with the same amount of passion and self-sacrifice. Surely if we were all doing it, there must be some merit to our way of life.
At first, I felt proud to be part of a generation of self-starters, people who had ideas and motivation. I felt connected to a community of like-minded and talented individuals.
But after a few years of major burn out, our connectedness became mutual complaining, de-stressing, and confusion. Those became our strongest bonds. Truthfully, we were all kind of miserable.
Breaking Free from Dissatisfaction
Eventually, this path I had chosen started to get more depressing, bordering on unbearable. I wasn’t able to separate myself from my work. I measured my self-worth based on how complimentary my annual review was. Any mistake I made or any time I came up short, I was crushed.
When I did indulge in some of my passions such as travel, music, and dance, I noticed that they had lost their magic. I didn’t really enjoy or appreciate a beautiful sunset, or dance without inhibition. My mind was never truly freed from a looming fear of failure, or worse, untapped potential.
I told my parents one day that I felt like I had figured out adulthood. What the rest of my life would generally look and feel like. It was depressing. I had backed myself further and further down a black hole that had numbed my senses and separated me from the world, from truly living.
At some point I recognized the dangerous path I was on and decided to forge a new one. I became aware of the dark place that I had fallen into, found the edges and walls, and began to crawl my way out. My only guiding light was the hope of something more.
Discovering Yoga as a Philosophy
While I didn’t have a plan or a clue about what to try next, my desire was enough. It fueled my search for something different. At that time I didn’t remember the questions that I had started asking as a young girl. But they must have been there, subconsciously tugging at me.
As it turns out, yoga was my guide, my bridge. I had developed a consistent self-practice that stemmed from its growing popularity for fitness and stress-relief in the U.S. Hoping to improve at yoga, if nothing more, I set off for Cambodia. I signed up to volunteer at Vagabond Temple, a budding Yoga and meditation retreat center.
The classes at Vagabond were nothing like those I had experienced in the United States. Yoga poses (or asanas) were only one aspect of a holistic daily program. My day included meditation workshops and philosophical discussions called “Dharma Talks” that drew from Eastern & Western modalities.
Unknowingly, I had stepped into a place where the teachers were openly discussing everything I had just experienced. Within the context of Buddhist and Yogic philosophies, I could clearly identify what I had recently been through. Why I had chosen to start over.
In the process of becoming a witness to my thoughts, beliefs and overall identity, as these modalities teach, I came to a breakthrough realization. Ironically, in the absence of religious belief, I had fallen into the grip of a powerful secular ideology. And this way of life did not value well-being. I had been seeking to belong in an environment that promoted material qualities and valued external gains. This belief-system, as well as my own outlook as a subscribing member of it, had been prescribing my happiness.
What I didn’t consider until then was that I didn’t need that system. I didn’t need any system to give me a purpose or a reason to be happy. I could just be. That was enough.
Logically, it was perfect. Once I realized it, I couldn’t deny its truth. While feeling caged within a distorted belief system about who I was or who I should be, I sank further and further into depression. But, this ill-resonating system had also led to me to seek out and discover who I really was. I appreciated finally knowing my unconditional value. Knowing and practicing it became the foundation for my long-term happiness.
Transforming My Perspective through Yoga
While this new information made sense to me, my yoga practice brought me to a deeper understanding. As my yoga teacher always says,
Information teaches, but experience transforms.
This transformative experience came during the final chavasana of a Kundalini yoga class, when I had released into a deep meditative state. Focusing on the breath and quieting the mind, I was able, for the first time, to feel truly connected to the world around me. As I relaxed further, my energy slowly began extending from my body to fill the whole room. I could feel myself expand further, out into the Cambodian streets, and finally joining with the greater world and cosmos.
Suddenly overcome with a sustained sensation of love, of peace and acceptance for who I was, I sensed my seamless connection to the earth and all of its life forms.
While I will never be able to accurately describe my experience and how euphoric it was, I can tell you that it was life-altering. And, after doing some research, I discovered that it does have a name. What I had experienced is commonly referred to as Samadhi – the perfect union of the individualized soul with infinite spirit. A state of oneness; complete absorption.
Coming out of the meditation, I cried tears of joy, hugged my teacher, and had a natural high that lasted for a week. Upon further reflection in my journals and meditations, I discovered enormous appreciation for my past. I had a deep trust in my future. Feeling lighter, I had released a burden I had been carrying my whole life. I didn’t realize that I had been looking for this release. I didn’t know it would come in this way.
Learning that Yoga Means Union
For all the years that I could not put my faith in religion, I could understand the teachings of Buddhism and the Yoga Sutra. They appealed to my analytical mind and resonated with my personal experience.
More than that though, I felt their resonance through an embodied yoga practice. The philosophy and practice worked together to deliver their message. It was truly the union of a mind-body experience.
Later, I was amazed to learn that “union” is the direct translation of the Sanskrit word “yoga.”
For me, Yoga is not a religious doctrine or a set of rules. It’s a refreshingly simple understanding of who I am, of who we all are. We are each a valued part of one whole, connected with each other and the earth. And as teachers within the tradition encourage, don’t believe it until you’ve experienced it yourself.
Sustaining Happiness Long-Term
Being able to access a feeling of self-worth will always lead to long-term happiness. Whether through a consistent Yoga and meditation practice, or simply through an unwavering knowing. It is the foundation for all else in life.
Yoga helps us realize that no matter what we do or achieve, we are always worthy, and we are always successful. Simply because we exist. When we acknowledge and accept ourselves no matter what, it can be possible to move forward without fear, and even with peace of mind.
With this understanding, we can open ourselves up to feeling happiness and joy in our mere existence, and for whatever reason, whenever it arises, not only until we have achieved, acquired, or proven something.
Make no mistake, sustaining and living by this idea is not going to be easy. I haven’t unlocked the gates of eternal bliss and transported myself to another dimension. There will still be hardship and challenges. As with every human, I deal with the usual suspects of anxiety, self-doubt and pain.
However, I now possess the framework, value system, and tools to approach my life with a sense of purpose, clarity, and well-being. Because I know my value is inherent, not contingent, I can cut out the unnecessary drama or experiences that do not match that core belief, and make this life much more exciting and enjoyable.
For all those who have asked or forget that they once asked “Why should we do good and moral things in our lives like treat others well, tell the truth, refrain from stealing, be good people?”
Consider the idea that we are all connected by our individual value to this whole world, and that what we do to others is what we do to ourselves. That all of us are inherently worthy of and responsible for the good in this universe. That each of us deserves the long-term happiness that knowing this brings.
With so much love and honor,
xx Nomadic Priestess