Almost a month ago, I took my discipleship vow at the Ananda Meditation Retreat, where I have been living and serving for the last 4 months. A year ago, when my friend told me about this vow and I was living in Las Vegas at the time, I thought to myself, “I would never do such a thing.” Having been raised Catholic, it repulsed me to think of having to commit – let alone prove through an official vow – to show my devotion to only one line of Gurus. After all, the byproduct of a Catholicism upbringing led me to embrace all faiths, yoga, and spiritual practices.
There was, however, value in being raised in a Catholic household. It taught me how to be patient during the distressingly long (at least for a child) Stations of the Cross. Sunday school was enjoyable; who wouldn’t like coloring pictures of Noah’s Ark and baby Jesus? Catholicism also walks an adolescent through a process of developing faith and discipline by way of Baptism, First Communion, and Confirmation. Each of these ceremonies was an excuse to wear delicate white clothing to indicate purity (playing dress-up is one of many favorite past times of a little girl), a practice parallel to many yogic traditional ceremonies and, in each of these ceremonies, were classes leading up to the occasion. These classes fostered opportunity to meet other youths of similar austere value. In fact, I recall going on a teen retreat in the mountains. At the time, I hadn’t realized how impactful the experience was – as the typical teen response was to complain and hide compact disc players – but there was something deeply moving about communing with others to build spiritual comradery. This I saw at a ripe age. I learned the power of prayer and the power of obedience. After all, if there’s anything that the Catholic church can teach, it’s to obey your parents, obey God and, more importantly, to obey the Church.
It wasn’t until I was in my late 20s when I recognized the big footprint Catholicism left on me. Years of traveling, studying, and working abroad took energy away from the discipline; that, and Mom wasn’t there to steer the wheel. However, a serious relationship that was moving into the direction of marriage had me question how we’d raise our kids, if we had kids, because he was atheist, and I wondered how important it was for children to go through the same religious classes, rituals, and traditions. What did these conventions teach me? Am I a better person because of them? Did they serve a purpose and, if so, what purpose did they serve? In the end, and in short, they were important to me, and my partner at the time got baptized so that we could potentially marry in the Catholic Church.
At the time, I was practicing yoga, my idea of yoga at least which was predominately yoga postures and breathing techniques, maybe a tinge of meditation here and there. I was already a vegetarian since the age of 17, so on the outside one could say I was a yogi, so I thought. I wasn’t very conscious of the shifts that were happening internally at the time. I exercised compassion for animals and I could breathe calmly in downward-facing dog, but there was still a bigger reality within myself that seemed unfulfilled. The meaning of life and the idea of destiny and freewill drove my thoughts, and I began seeking answers to my questions which they themselves were not so clear. Whether traveling or rooted, I dabbled in Buddhism and its various types, the Baptist Church, Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Born Again Christians, Hinduism, and various forms of yoga, in both their physical and philosophical practices – Iyengar, Bikram, Ashtanga, Jivamukti, Kundalini, Yin, Restorative, Vinyasa, Tantra, and even prenatal. Of course there were more of the fitness and creative arts sorts, like yoga with weights, yoga dance, yogalates, and acro yoga. Through these practices of yoga, I soon found a connection between my body and mind and, later, more eminently, my body, mind, and spirit.
Yoga became my church. I was the priest and bishop. I was the Sunday school teacher, and I was also the student. I learned initially about the profound nature of personal experience, the nature of ego, and what it meant to be on a spiritual path. Practicing compassion wasn’t limited to things and people; more importantly, it is to be exercised with one’s self. Through the various styles of yoga I practiced simultaneously, by way of poses that test the physical and mental condition of balance, strength, focus, and flexibility, it became clear to me that the natural and sustainable state of being is one of peace, love, and interconnectedness with all. I discovered, too, that this realization is one that can’t be taught but experienced.
A number of “failed” relationships tired my efforts for companionship. In addition, a slew of unsatisfying jobs and their impersonal environments compromised my drive to make money the goal and target a corporate ladder that seemed to be what everyone else was doing. Globe trotting, partying, dining, and the dwindling bank account exhausted and it became apparent that there would always be a desire for more to simply be happy, satisfied, and content. For me, the only lasting place of happiness was experienced in yoga and meditation. I still, however, struggled believing in God and feeling a connection with it.
One summer, a friend and I traveled the spiritual haven of India for a little soul searching. Two weeks were spent at the Sivananda Ashram in Kerala doing karma yoga, or selfless service. (The teachings of Sivananda can be summarized in these six words: Serve, Love, Give, Purify, Meditate, Realize.) Friendships, nourishing food, sacred kirtan, conquering the headstand, and healing my heart were but a few of the gifts received at the Sivananda Ashram. Upon leaving, a pivotal moment in my spiritual path, I asked the “colonel”, a 5 foot, near 100-year-old wise, comical, Sivananda devotee: “How can I believe in God again?” to which he replied, “Just believe. Stop thinking about it. Just believe.” It was as if I was hit upside the head, a light switched, and suddenly I understood the notion of devotion. I never formally took on Sivananda or Vishnudevananda as my guru thereafter, but the seemingly perfect timing and touch it had on my heart made it clear that they were.
I soon adopted a regular practice in kirtan, japa, yoga & meditation, pranayama, and I made a conscious effort to cultivate better habits of positive thinking. Teaching at UNLV was approached more as an act of service (karma yoga) rather than work. I remained devoted to Sivananda for the most part, visiting their Ashram Yoga Farm in Grass Valley and Vendanta Centers whenever possible, but I dug deeper in other classical teachers of yoga as well; yoga became more natural, a lifestyle and way of being as opposed to a mere hobby (bhakti yoga). I found myself reading the classical texts as well (jnana yoga). And then there’s the physical and mental control, the science of yoga (raja), which is an ongoing practice to this day. Additionally, I gradually fostered a community that was a more supportive environment for my spiritual growth, and I taught yoga inspired by all styles and gurus.
In the summer of 2015, when I later learned according to Vedic astrology that I “left Jupiter and entered Saturn with an ascending Scorpio (embodying intense, passionate, and fully commitment to spiritual transformation)”, I decided to complete another yoga teacher training at the Expanding Light, a yoga & meditation retreat in Northern California inspired by the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda and his direct disciple Swami Kriyananda. It wasn’t until the last 2 days of the program that I realized what an impact the experience and community truly had on me. All the stigma of “God” flushed away, and colonel’s advice rang again. The approach to yoga was presented in a scientific manner. The community emphasized joy. And, two of Yogananda’s teachings struck a chord:
– “Environment is stronger than will power.”
– “The greater the will, the greater the flow of energy.”
With these simple truths, I returned to Vegas having a stronger grasp on the directional change needed to make at a time when I reached a spiritual and professional plateau and emotional and mental static. The next few months were spent shifting focus, prioritizing my meditation practice, and paying specific attention to my personal and physical exposure.
That December I was awarded a fellowship at the Shambhala Mountain Center which is based on the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, specifically Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. Of all the touching practices generally taken from Buddhism, namely love and kindness, bravery, peaceful warriorship, and contemplative arts, I also discovered a value in having a guru.
In January of 2016, I moved to the Ananda Meditation Retreat. After playing tug-of-war for a good month or two, it became clear and natural to take on discipleship, in which I took the vow on April 6, 2016. It was a very special day, coming a long way from Catholic resistance and, what Trungpa Rinpoche would call, spiritual materialism. His renown student Pema Chodron, furthermore, has written about it and it was when this reading fell into my lap that I knew it was time. She referred to it as “sticking to one boat”:
In travelling around and meeting so many people of so many different traditions as well as nontraditions, what I have found is that, in order to go deeper, there has to be some kind of whole-hearted commitment to truth or wanting to find out, wanting to find out what the ngedon, or true meaning, is. Therefore, if you want to the hear the dharma, you can hear it from many different places, but you are uncommitted until you actually encounter a particular way that rings true in your heart and you decide to follow it. Then you make a connection with that particular lineage of teachings and that particular body of wisdom. Each religion or philosophical belief or New Age group has a kind of wisdom that it carries and explores. The point is that it’s best to stick to one boat, so to speak, whatever that boat may be, because otherwise the minute you really begin to hurt, you’ll just leave or you’ll look for something else.
Commitment to a guru teaches its devotee to draw on the guru’s power, the importance of attunement and magnetism, and the wisdom and devotion to expand into higher consciousness. Whether Yogananda is my lifelong guru in this lifetime, I’m not sure and it’s not so important for me to conclude absolutes anymore. What I do know is that he is my guru now, one that has brought more space and light into my inner path. He will lead me to another guru, if there is one, just as Catholicism, Buddhism, and Sivananda have.
Spiritual traditions are one in the same and I honor all with reverence. For this is yoga – the method of uniting the individual self with the Divine, Universal Spirit, or Cosmic Consciousness. “Unity can never be realized without love, because love is oneness with all” (Sivananda). The yoga physical and mental exercises are designed to help achieve this goal of self-transcendence and enlightenment. And yet this destination, or “goal”, is not so much what matters than the self-realization in getting there. This is my Inner Path.