Let me first begin by stating that I do not think I will ever believe in "god" in the sense of a singular deity or multiple deities. For some reason, I just find it impossible to think that there is a singular (or multiple), separated consciousness(es) that is/are responsible for everything that goes on in the Universe. With that said, let's get on with it.

For the last eight years or so, I've been a rather staunch atheist. I've oscillated between strong atheism and weak atheism; I find it perfectly logical to say "I don't believe in god," just as it's logical to say "I don't believe in unicorns, the easter bunny, or invisible leprechauns that rule the world." I know that it is impossible to disprove god's existence, but I've often been of the opinion that "there simply cannot be a god." So you can say that I unbelieved in god, and believed in god's nonexistence at the same time. I've always been annoyed by people who say "I believe that the whole Universe is god," or "I believe that everyone has a little god inside of them, and it all ties together." Why call it god? Why not just call it "the Universe?" Yet I was a hypocrite; in my late teens I became very interested in Satanism (not the literal belief in Satan), and took to calling this "Universal force of cohesiveness" the "dark force in nature," the "black flame," or "Satan."

I grew disinterested with Satanism when I realized that I don't like adhering to labels. I talked to many Satanists on newsgroups, and found some pretty intelligent people -- but I was usually annoyed by their overwhelming pretentiousness. Anton LaVey interested me to no end, but something told me that it would be utterly stupid to join his church. I came to realize that Anton was indeed a Satanist in every sense of the word (meaning individual, indulger, etc) -- and his followers were a bunch of suckers. For the longest time, I wore an amulet of baphomet (the inverted pentagram with the goat and the Hebrew characters spelling "Leviathan"), but this changed as I reached the ripe old age of 19.

So how does this tie in with yoga? Well, I've started doing some Hatha Yoga lately. (For future reference, "yoga" means "connectedness.") For the clear majority of my life, I've eschewed exercise in favor of being a lazy, self-indulgent loser. I long thought that "as long as I've got a girlfriend and some recreational substances, life is a breeze." Then my best friend got into yoga and tai chi and couldn't stop telling me about the benefits. I dismissed the spiritual aspect of yoga for many weeks, thinking "I'm a hedonist. Yoga makes me feel good, and that's why I do it. Fuck spiritualism."

I've got an old book from 1969 that gives strict, dogmatic instructions, which to me seems counterintuitive. I've ignored them for the most part. It's a 28-day plan. "Do this in this order, then this, then that, and don't deviate!" is the theme of writing. I ignore the writing and look at the pictures. Lately I've been doing a lot of chest expansions, triangle poses, back stretches, cobras, planks into downward facing dogs, etc. There is some structure to my routines, but I generally just do what I want to do. Before I get into any detail, let me state that I don't just do yoga. While many yoga-snobs will tell you that "conventional" exercise uses the "wrong" half of the nervous system, the "wrong" part of the brain, etc, I've decided on a more dialectic approach. (Incidentally, I just learned the meaning of "dialectic" yesterday. Isn't it funny how things come together sometimes?)

I've got this great little mountain behind my apartment complex. I'm pretty sure it's technically a mountain, although it's really more of a short, wide mesa (which is still a type of mountain!). It takes me about ten minutes to climb it if I push myself, and then I can make little loops, reclimbing the hardest part. I try to do this for 30 minutes a day, first thing in the morning, and it kicks my ass pretty well. I've also been trying to jog more often. When it rains or snows, the mountain is far too muddy and I must jog around town instead. So yesterday, I jogged the longest consecutive distance in my life -- about two and a half miles. (I'll get to a point sooner or later, really...)

Today, something possessed me. I rode my bike to the store to buy some gatorade concentrate (sure, it's loaded with nasty artificial colors and whatnot, but nothing gets me started better in the morning), and drank about a quart. I stretched a little, and then hit the mountain for 30 minutes. I'd never combined jogging and climbing, but I just felt like jogging for another 30. I must've gone three miles, and I still had energy (this mesa spans for a huge distance once you get to the top). I felt so happy to be alive. Endorphins pumped through my brain, giving me a second wind. I descended from the mountain, drank a bunch more gatorade, and began yoga.

During "conventional" exercise, it's pretty difficult to preserve mental clarity. Yoga-snobs call this "the boredom factor." It's seemingly impossible to become absorbed in what one is doing, so one must think about various things to entertain oneself. It is pretty hard to meditate and turn off the internal dialogue when one is flailing one's self about, is it not? The point of yoga is that the body is strained and exerted, but the mind can maintain clarity due to the slowness of the movements.

I've never been "good" at meditating. My mind wanders constantly. I can't stop thinking, or at least, I think I can't. But today, as I was finishing yoga, I sat in an upright relaxation pose (I can't remember what it's called -- the bottoms of the feet touch each other and are pulled towards the groin, and the back is upright) , and my mind stopped wandering. During the whole routine, I couldn't shut off the internal dialogue, but here it froze. And I felt more relaxed than I'd ever been, and soon felt myself overwhelmed by the most incredible positive feeling of connectedness. I've consumed psilocybin mushrooms and LSD before on a few occasions, and I can tell you that this was similar, but superior. My whole body tingled, and I began laughing and crying simultaneously. I think I felt better than I ever had in my entire life, and I sensed the most overpowering sensation of benevolence. The word "God" simply popped into my mind, out of the blue. I laughed and cried some more, then scrambled some eggs and went to work. As I showered, I thought "I'd really like to raise my own chickens some day, so I can still eat eggs and know that they are laid by happy chickens." Hmm.

Like I said, I don't think I'll ever believe in "a" god. But now, I can understand why people choose to use such a simple word to convey the idea of Universal interconnectedness. I've almost always felt that everything is tied together; that even the most distant galaxies somehow affect our lives. If there is any science to be found in astrology, this is it, but that's another matter entirely. I've almost always known that the Universe is not "good" or "evil," it just is...that I will die someday, perhaps because of another foolish human being, or perhaps because of my own foolishness. The thing is, I've always been sort of misanthropic towards the majority of the human race. I've always thought "most people suck. I hate most people. Most people are going to kill me some day." But today, I felt such a strong, affectionate feeling for the entire planet. I was at peace with the entire fucking Universe, god damnit.

So what's the scientific explanation here? I could analyse the situation and say "well, the physical postures combined with mental relaxation most likely caused a release of endogenous chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine, endorphin (this is more associated with high-impact exercise), and certain phenethylamines." Serotonin is chemically very similar to DMT and psilocybin. MDMA, also known as "ecstacy," is a member of the phenethylamine family (as is mescaline). The brain is full of wondrous psychotropic substances. Will I become a yoga addict? Probably. But the difference between being addicted to an endogenous chemical and an external one is staggering -- I've always got a stash. My body will never assume that it can stop producing endorphins because I'm not introducing them from outside. And the process of releasing these chemicals happens to be positive for my physical well-being. I'm not inhaling carcinogenic smoke, damaging my nasal passages with abrasive dust, or burning a hole in my stomach with caustic liquids. I'm stretching. I'm breathing. I'm simply using my body and mind in unison to change my entire perspective, if even for a moment. I can always get high in my own way, and feel at peace no matter what the hell is going on in the world. Even if it boils down to a bunch of chemical reactions and brain-wave patterns, it's still incredible.

But I'm not going to become a yoga-snob, damnit! Running makes me feel great. There are plenty of yoga asanas that work the abdominal muscles, but I can't stop enjoying old-fashioned sit-ups. Like I said, I'm going for the dialectic approach.

As a sidenote, is it not curious that so many words meaning "god" or "Universal connectedness" contain the phoneme "AH?" This may not be an original thought, but it popped into my head right after breakfast. We've got AH-m, G-AH-d, AH-ll-AH, Y-AH-weh, Jehov-AH, B-AH-l, Shiv-AH, K-AH-li, Quetzeco-AH-tl, AH-badd-AH-n, R-AH, even S-AH-t-AH-n... Is it any coincidence that in English, "AH" means "I comprehend?" My Lithuanian co-worker says this probably isn't a universal expression, since his countrymen don't say "AH," but it's interesting nonetheless. Unless of course, you disagree. And that's fine with me, yo.

vuo asked me to add "Jumala" (Finnish) to the list of "gods with an AH sound in their name." The last "AH" is pronounced with a strong exhalation. Very interesting -- if you have any you'd like me to add, /MSG away.

stash adds: Jah, of Rastafarianism.

I was raised an atheist. Nobody of my immediate family is religious, unless you regard science as a religion as well, in which case my father is a firm believer. Both my parents were raised in non-religious households as well. Based on the stories my mom tells me about her grandmother and her opinion about the religious music her downstairs neighbour used to play on Sundays, even my great-grandmother wasn't all that religious. I don't know where this started. Surely sometime in the rather recent history, my forebears must have been Christians. There was a time when all Dutch people were Christians of one brand or another, so my family probably was no exception. But the only religious family member that I know of is the wife of my uncle, who is a catholic.

So I was raised in a family that regarded religion as something of a crutch for the weak. The only times I would see a church from the inside would be on holiday, for my father is a keen visitor of churches, as long as they stand in foreign countries. I went to a so-called public primary school (as opposed to a protestant or catholic one) and when given the choice between classes in religion or humanism, I chose humanism. Both times.

Then when I went to university, I chose to study materials science at Delft University of Technology. This is not a good place to cultivate any sort of metaphysical thinking. At university I learned exactly how the world around us is built up, from a technical point of view. I know about atoms and molecules and crystal lattices, about fracture mechanics and Gibbs energy and phase transformations. At Delft University, the most important thing you learn is a way of thinking. If there's a problem before you, you take it apart into solvable components. To me, the world consists of forces, matter, objects, chemistry, physics. That does not mean I don't see beauty or appreciate art, by the way. Just that if I see a rainbow, I don't see God saying he's sorry, or a stairway to heaven, or the pointer to a pot of gold. I see a pretty light refraction pattern.

So not only am I an atheist, I am a thoroughly materialistic one – in the philosophical sense of the word. When I met my boyfriend, who studies cognitive psychology, things got worse: now I've read his books and think that most - if not all - of what happens in people's heads can also be described and sometimes even explained in terms of chemicals and electrons.

And then I took up yoga! I first went with a friend and soon was hooked. Yoga is the perfect antidote for someone who spends most of her time either thinking or reading. Both activities make your mind hyperactive and your body stiff and squeaky.

Now, the basics of the hatha yoga I practise are rather simple. Every person has a body and a mind. These aspects of the person need to be in balance. It's not healthy to live your life all in your head and ignore the things your body is telling you (Like hey! You need to stop working now and get some sleep! Or, hey! Your arms are hurting, perhaps you should spend some time away from the computer!). Likewise it's not healthy to ignore your mind and just follow your body's urges, I'd imagine you'd end up with no friends, too much weight and some nasty disease or other. Body and mind are, according to yoga, linked through breath. And this also seems reasonable. Observe what happens when you get anxious, angry or excited: your breath speeds up. Then try to take slow, deep breaths: you soon start feeling calmer and more in control. Emotions and breath are linked.

So the main ingredients of yoga lessons are all logical to me. We do asanas, or postures, to strengthen the body and make it more flexible. Apparently, some postures provide some sort of massage for inner organs, and this has positive effects on your health, and this seems believable. We pay attention to where our boundaries lie, we learn what our bodies cannot do and sometimes are amazed at what they can do. We learn to appreciate our bodies for what they are, for with all their flaws, they still carry around our minds and that is something to be appreciative of. We concentrate on the feelings we get during the exercises so we learn to pay attention to our body. Then we do breathing exercises to learn to control our breath and use it. Finally,we do meditation exercises and this stops the thoughts from running through our heads. It's all good.


My mind tends toward the technical. So when we're lying down for relaxation, and the teacher says, "Relax all your muscles...feel Mother Earth supporting you...", the first thought that pops into my head is "wtf is she talking about, Mother Earth? We're on the second floor! There are three layers of solid concrete between us and Mother Earth!". This does not help to get into the right frame of mind, I can tell you. Or we're doing something called pyramid meditation, where you sit on the floor cross-legged, with your hands on your knees, and you visualize in your head the pyramid that is formed between your tailbone, knees and head. My mind keeps insisting that if I have to draw a line from the top of my head, over my shoulder, to my knee, as the teacher is instructing, that this is not in fact a straight line. This will not become a proper pyramid. Concentration and an empty mind likewise will not soon come.

These things are minor. I just let the thoughts go and continue with the exercise. Sometimes, however, our teacher starts talking about the other ideas behind yoga. About prana and chakras and positive energy that you can inhale by visualizing a bright white light - I'm paraphrasing here. Here my scientific mind really starts protesting.

Do you know about prana? It is 'life energy', 'vital essence', a concept like the chi the Chinese use in their medicine and martial arts. You gain prana through your food and through your breath. During stretching exercises, you can 'send' prana to the body parts that are giving you trouble by breathing towards the right spot (this actually works, by the way). Prana can easily penetrate the body, it seems. It would have to, to get from the lungs to the back of my legs almost instantaneously. Nevertheless, I once found a yoga exercise on the internet that said to breathe in deeply, so prana could penetrate deeply into the stomach, and then to tightly clench the anus so it couldn't escape. So... it goes through your lungs and from there to any part you wish, it comes up through the soles of your feet and leaves through the crown of your head but if you pucker up tightly enough, you can stop the flow? I don't think so. I have the same sort of problem with the concepts of chakras ("wheels" of energy?!) and "breathing out tired energy"... it just makes no sense to me.

I get the feeling that many of these concepts came into being when the people who started yoga tried to make sense of the world, without knowing many of the things we know now. When you don't know about the oxygen in the air, the digestive system and how our bodies' cells get their fuel, it's logical to deduce a sort of all-pervasive life energy that you ingest through breath and food. On ideas like this, a whole "science" has been based, the teachings of which are still used by many people: yoga teachers, ayurvedic healers, new age quacks. Who knows. There might be grains of truth in there that modern science hasn't seen yet. I might be wrong, too closed-minded to see the truth and beauty of it all. For now I just file all of these things into the slot in my mind labelled "might never quite get".

I don't mind any of this. I happily go to yoga class every week, stretch and balance, breathe deeply, feel the energy, still my mind. I use the ideas of prana and chakras as visualisations and try not to dwell on the lack of scientific logic. Perhaps, one day I may have a transcendental experience like lordyach describes above. For now, yoga makes me feel good in myself. That's what matters.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.