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.