I walked into the high-ceilinged, sunny-yellow Philadelphia yoga studio with ebonyashes clouding my skin. The mark, smeared across my forehead earlier that day by an old man’s thumb, was less a cross and more of a faded, L-shaped blotch.
It was 4:30 p.m. on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, and I noticed that no one else in the class had a similar mark. I hadn’t had ashes on my forehead since I was in Catholic high school more than 10 years ago. When I was young, I learned that we wore ashes as a public admission of guilt—an expression of a deep and incomprehensible sorrow. Back then, I knew I was supposed to spend Lent correcting my faults, purifying my heart, and controlling my desires, the way Jesus had when he was allegedly tempted by Satan as he spent 40 days in the desert.
I, on the other hand, had carried my lavender yoga mat past a red-and-gold Om symbol painted on a wall next to copper statues of Buddha and Ganesh, inhaled smokey sandalwood incense, laid out my mat, and dropped down into Balasana (Child’s Pose). My knees splayed out wide past my bare feet, my arms stretched forward to the top of the mat, my ash-anointed forehead touched, in humility, rubber over hardwood floor.
The sounds of flutes and sitars and Indian devotional music played in the background, and a slender, soft-voiced yoga teacher advised us to clear our minds, focus on being present, and to set an intention for our practice.
Earlier, at church, a kind and graying priest had advised worshipers not to “give something up” for Lent, but to instead be fully present to God—the divine—in ourlives. In the modern, minimalistic church, with its familiar central crucifix and ornate portraits of saints and the Virgin Mary lining the sunlit walls, I had felt as much at home as I did now in the yoga studio. The pews had been packed to capacity for Ash Wednesday, with people crowding in the back vestibule, coats still on, like my family always had when we’d arrived late to Christmas mass.
In the humid, heated yoga room, class was filled to its highest capacity as well—not because of a day-of, religious obligation, but because it was a community yoga class costing only $7, rather than the usual $15. A crowded class (or church, for that matter) never bothered me, really. But today I was dimly aware of the mark on my forehead, my struggles with faith readily visible to all. I rose from Child’s Pose to stand with the other spandex-clad men and women on a sea of neon mats, our legs locked in Vrksasana (Tree Pose) and our hands in Namaskarasana.
Searching through my Catholic faith in my late 20s sometimes feels empty and regressive. There are so many reasons to not believe in it: abusive pedophiliac priests, lack of equal respect for women, blatant disregard for LGBTQ people I hold so dearly. Unsurprisingly, for years since college, I’ve been more comfortable with yoga mats and meditations rather than confession and unrelenting guiltI learned to bear from rigid nuns in brown habits when I was young and still clapped blackboard erasers.
I remember being a child in a wooden pew wearing flowery dresses on Easter and contemplating, in an abstract and sanitized way, what it would have felt like to have iron nails put through my hands. I pictured the blood running out in neat rivulets, always imagining it as a manageable pain, something confined, before drifting off to other daydreams and bemusements. In my world, my concept of pain was not enough to understand the gory and impossible torture of an actual crucifixion. Everything is neatly packaged when you are 11, delivered in a picture book both palatable and disturbing—a story accepted and then dismissed.
But at 28 years old, I haven’t just been searching for faith, but also for a sense of self I seem to have lost somewhere between growing up and post-college malaise—learning that I wasn’t going to marry that guy or the one after that. I also wasn’t going to have the perfect career and easily sketched life I’d imagined for myself all those years. Somewhere along the line, I realized, with a staggering jolt, that I didn’t have all the answers, nor would I. This realization of how little I knew led me on a bumpy path back to a yoga mat, a church pew, and finally, after years of shying away from the one thing that had always made me, me: writing again.
I started writing in tiny notebooks, in notes on my iPhone, on airplanes, waiting in line outside free concerts. If I’ve learned anything of value so far, it’s that spirituality is intrinsic to the writing process, because creativity itself is justa form of spirituality. What is a writer if not someone, as William Faulkner put it, attempting to understand and convey “the human heart in conflict with itself?” And is spirituality not just trying to understand that same heart? A search for peace and meaning and inner strength? A way to slow down in a world where it is all too easy to speed up until one day you wake up old and wrinkled, and you cry, looking back, thinking, “That was my life.” Fiction, poetry, nonfiction—these are all really just attempts at divinity.
For years, I had stopped writing, practicing yoga regularly, and praying, allowing myself to sink into a daily fray—worrying about the unruly edges of my life, how things were not settling how I wanted them to. I lost my true sense of awe and wonder, of spirituality. I was overwhelmed, instead, by personal tragedies and plans gone awry, at heartache and mistakes that built up into disillusionment and depression. But, I also think, like almost any great religious story—whether it be Jesus wandering off into a desert in Israel or Luke Skywalker flying off on a spiritual quest to Dagobah—there comes a universal knowledge that to find yourself, and your true voice, you must first lose everything and build up from the dirt.
Over time, I shifted direction. I began walking out of my personal desert—a place where I had felt lonely and entitled, angry at my life for not unfolding asI imagined. AndI started being more humble: accepting that even if some people involved in the church were terrible, that didn’t make faith terrible. I started going to yoga, not to improve my form, but to calm my mind.
I began to, slowly, feel happy again. I started laughing more, and talking more, and drinking more red wine. I started meditating. I went to yoga classes regularly again. I started praying again, in odd, awkward moments, as I’d done as a girl. I focused seriously on meditation in a way that felt not at all incongruous with blessing myself with the sign of the cross as I lay in the dark, reading Psalms from my iPhone Bible before bed.
I prayed when I needed a parking spot. I prayed when there was airplane turbulence. I prayed when I felt anxious about a conversation or a relationship. I prayed thanks when I had a piece of writing published. I prayed thanks when I was laying in Half Pigeon Pose. I prayed for my family.
When I prayed, I said that I wasn’t sure if what I was praying for was the right thing, but if God could just do whatever was right, I would be OK with it. It didn’t even matter if anyone was listening—capital G God or anyone at all—it just mattered that I had finally learned, once and for all, that everything was not up to me.
I started to shake myself out of whatever had been holding me. I did legs up the wall every night. Psalms told me, “You are fearfully and wonderfully made.” I started acting fearfully and wonderfully made.
Spirituality, both in yoga classes and in prayer, simply became my non-acceptance of my predicament. I didn’t consciously decide I wanted to be Christian again, but it was a survivalist instinct. If I wanted to live and not just exist, I hadto let myself believe again. It was as simple, and perhaps as childish, as that. Spirituality became my decision to transcend depression, emotional malaise, and discontent, and instead worship the creative process, the divine in everyday life, and the things I loved about the world. After all, how we are all cosmically connected and divine is real—and I would rather believe it and be called foolish than die faithless, cynical, and smart.
At the end of yoga class on Ash Wednesday, I sat up straight, cross-legged, breathing heavy with eyes gently shut. My ashes were sweaty on my forehead, my yoga tights sticking to my thighs. I felt emptied and grateful,reminded thatI am dust.
Our teacher offered an option for our final pose: “Rest your hands on your knees facing down if you are searching for answers within yourselves,” she said.
Without a thought, I placed my hands down on my knees.
“Or,” she continued, “rest your hands on your knees facing up if you are searching for answers from the universe.”
I flipped my hands facing up.
“Namaste,” we said, in unison.
The week after that, I read another Bible verse; I wrote another poem, another essay, another short story; I took another yoga class; I rose up into Warrior Pose II before transitioning into a twist, my hands folded softly together in Prayer Pose, my breath moving steadily, my heart open.
About the Author
Gina Tomaine is a Philadelphia-based writer and editor. She is currently Deputy Lifestyle Editor of Philadelphia magazine, and previously served as Associate Deputy Editor of Rodale’s Organic Life. She’s been published in Prevention, Women’s Health, Runner’s World and more. Learn more at ginatomaine.com.