Spiritual stretch
By Pieta Woolley

When Eoin Finn hit his early 20s, he found that the Catholic Church he’d grown up with just wasn’t satisfying his spiritual hunger anymore. His deepest questions—“What happens when I die?”, “Why am I here?”, and “What can I contribute?”—weren’t being addressed in a digestible way. As a student of comparative religion, he bent away from Catholicism toward Buddhism, and then to yoga. That’s where he found his spiritual home.

Now a Kitsilano-based yoga instructor, Finn (who calls himself a Blissologist) believes the discipline is filling a spiritual need for many Vancouverites who have abandoned western spiritual traditions—just like him.

“The myths associated with our religions don’t work for people anymore,” he told the Georgia Straight. “The idea of a white, bearded guy in the sky passing judgment doesn’t make sense to the average person.…For the past 50 or 60 years, there’s been a spiritual void in North America. Now, all of a sudden, there’s something people can relate to. That makes it hugely popular.
Yoga is about how to deal with greed, which is a huge spiritual issue in our culture.”

His statements are sweeping, but Finn might be on to something. Vancouver is the least-religious major city in Canada, with 42 percent of us declaring on the 2001 census that we had “no religion”. That’s up from 30 percent in 1991. Indeed, we seem to be losing our religion.

Meanwhile, Buddhism, which is associated with yoga, has almost doubled its ranks over the past decade, according to Statistics Canada. From University Boulevard to Boundary Road, mat-carrying locals can be seen strolling to and from classes, with Tibetan emblems embroidered on their sacks. So, is yoga filling our city’s religious void? Like everything in “Lotusland”, the answer is richer and more complex than it might seem, thanks to our diverse and contemplative population.

For yoga instructor Evelyn Neaman, it’s not a matter of replacing one religion with another. A synagogue-attending Jewish Kabbalist, Neaman told the Straight that yoga practice strengthens her Judaism—and the faith of her dozens of students. “I’m trying to bring life back into an ancient movement,” she said. “People are searching out meaning from ancient traditions, asking themselves, ‘How can I blend them and make my life more meaningful?’?”

Neaman pointed out that among Buddhists, there’s an abundance of Jewish people. She calls them “Jew-Bus”, shorthand for the kind of spiritual mixing she referred to. In a synagogue-based faith, she said, you depend on your attendance to express your faith. With yoga, your faith’s expression is integrated into your life. You depend on yourself.

At Naramata Centre, a left-leaning Christian retreat in the Okanagan, Marion “Mugs” McConnell has taught interfaith yoga for more than 25 years. In yoga, she said, you can find the compassionate core of all faiths: Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and others. As baby boomers approach old age, she believes, they’re looking for their spiritual selves.

In this framework, McConnell believes, modern North American yoga is where ancient religions meet, flow into each other, and bloom in a new consciousness, like the lotus.

“When I teach, people want to find the similarities, not the differences” between the religions, she told the Straight. “That’s the beautiful thing about yoga. You don’t have to be Buddhist or Hindu or Sikh to enjoy yoga. You can follow whatever fits with your heart. The teachers today are so accommodating.”
Some say they are over-accommodating, and that North American yoga has been watered down into a turtle-speed aerobics class. Like many, McConnell is sad for the instructors who seem to be in it for the money, and the pretty-pants couture among B.C. yoginis.

Neaman agrees with the Buddhist point that the reason for doing yoga is to make the body sound for meditation, rather than hot in a bikini. Without meditation, what’s the point of the warrior pose?

Tatsuya Aoki, the resident minister at Vancouver Buddhist Church in Chinatown, hopes that yoga and Buddhism will be practised together by everyone.
“It’s like if you play ice hockey,” he said. “If you understand all the strategies in your mind but you never play, you can’t be good at it. And if you play but don’t understand the strategy, you [also] can’t be good.”

It’s a tenuous argument to press, because yoga has been fluid for thousands of years. Each culture that has embraced it practises it slightly differently. Most likely, it was Hindu first—the exact origins are obscure—but it has also been incorporated into Buddhism, Sikhism, Sufism (a mystical sect of Islam), Judaism, and Christianity.

Finn argues that yoga has now been incorporated, as part of its evolution, into our materialistic culture. And that’s not a bad thing.

“You cannot transport something into another culture without having that culture transform it,” said the man who teaches a yoga class for surfers in Tofino once a week. “A lot get into yoga for shallow reasons; it will make you very fit. And I don’t think that yoga would have enjoyed the renaissance it has if women couldn’t go to it in such nice clothing.…But the values will become a part of people’s life, even if they’re just concerned about how their bum looks in the pants they’re wearing.”

Finn thinks that yoga’s next incarnation, as a spiritual practice for these atheistic times, could be legitimate. So do Neaman and McConnell. In fact, even the shallowest yogini-Barbie likely can’t resist what yoga has to offer—beyond flat abs.

“When you do yoga for a long time, it does change you,” said Neaman. “Your soul shines through. When you’re lying there in savasana [relaxation] at the end, it is a bliss state, and we’re all looking for bliss. It’s when your mind and body are connected. And who wouldn’t be attracted to that?”

Aoki is concerned, though, that fad-loving North America might drop yoga like the Hula-Hoop. He remembers when the Dalai Lama came to town in 2004, and Chapters was full of books about the Tibetan spiritual leader. When he left, Chapters was no longer full of books about the Dalai Lama.

“Last December, so many people donated money for the [Asian] tsunami, and shared their compassion with those who suffered through the disaster,” he continued. “But after a year has passed, hardly anyone thinks of the tsunami. Now our attention is to the people of the United States.

“People’s interest comes quick, and it can be gone quick, too.”

But for yoga, Vancouver has proven, there’s always another incarnation.