As a single, 40-year-old yogi who has tried many spiritual practices from Buddhism to mantra, I also pray. But prayer is not something you’re supposed to talk about in our tradition - even though yogis are generally comfortable with all sorts of different spiritual styles from tantra to sufism.
Although, I've sometimes bristled at the term myself, prayer usually comforts me. But then I got into an argument with my 87-year-old grandma, and prayer was at the center of it. So I decided to look into this controversial subject (for yogis) more fully.
"It was an irritant, an allergy to you," said meditation teacher David Harshada Wagner, who is passionate about prayer, and writes great blogs on the subject. I told him that most of my relatives are conservative Protestants or Christian Scientists, a sect that puts soaring faith in the power of prayer over simple medical procedures. Six years ago, I became a Protestant again. Through prayer, I realized I could love my kin, without being near them. The organized religion that so many yogis complained about didn't matter. It was the routine -- alone, with others, in silence, or in shouts -- that guided me to a flow that felt different from meditation.
Wagner understood. "In order to get your experience straight, you had to get away." he said. "But the important thing is not to stop there, to re-claim the relationship with spirit that is everyone's birthright."
Wagner and I discussed why some yogis preferred meditation to prayer. He suggested that many people have swallowed religions that didn't belong to them. The trick was selecting the digestible bits -- to make prayer personal for ourselves.
"Sometimes I talk to the spirit when I ride my motorcycle," Wagner said. "There's a lot of noise and it's hard to hear with my helmet. I use that for some very loud prayer."
Before a group ride, Wagner asks God to keep the deer in the woods and the guys focused and safe. "What we're doing is making sure that every man is making the same commitment," he said. "Whether some believe in it from a mystical sense or not, it is a powerful force. The best prayers are the ones that ask for strength within our own karma. That said, I believe in the power of prayer to grace a situation with its energy."
Wagner was talking to me from the airport on his way to India. When he told me about his prayer life, so easily and so close to his departure time, I knew he was onto a truth and wanted to further develop mine for myself.
I found a yoga teacher with another unusual way of doing this practice: Victor Colletti,a non-practicing
Catholic, who has developed a daily routine of writing letters to God. "I pray without wanting an answer, Sometimes, I have all the time in the world and nothing comes out. Sometimes the most inspiring work comes out in 10 to 20 minutes."
"I'm a lot happier," Colletti said since he starting his letters two years ago. "I'm a lot more free-spirited. I worry less. I have so much gratitude. I totally pray when I'm dancing. I pray when I ride my bike. On a Sunday morning in Manhattan, there are no cars, and it's quiet. I pray multiple times a day."
Colletti’s empowering version of prayer made me feel like I was part of his inclusive ecosystem. After our interview, we happened to be in the same class as students, even though we had never met before in person. In the front row, he kicked up into a handstand and boogied with his legs. I just knew he was praying. Colletti’s prayer life wasn’t about “being good” but about receiving and savoring the moment, which I loved.
So what do officials in the church think of the ways that prayer sneaks into yoga in alternative forms? Turns out, some are just fine with it. "A lot of prayer is dialog," said Elizabeth Cunningham, an Interfaith Minister. "I think I had a time when I was very bitter and angry and I could cry and scream at God. Then I thought, 'Maybe I should listen to what is coming back.' An overwhelming sense of love washed over me, held me. Whatever is out there/in their suffered with me and knew suffering far greater than mine -- mine being just a drop in a vast ocean. And the love was bigger than or encompassed the sorrow, the way a mother's arms can cradle a baby. After that I remembered to listen, even if I don't always hear."
Cunningham had recently visited my church after we read The Passion of Mary Magdalene, the second volume of her series The Maeve Chronicles. Cunningham's outspoken version of Mary, in the book, continues to visit her as an imaginary friend.
"Can prayer heal?" I asked.
"What it can do is create an atmosphere with that person," Cunningham said. "It's like changing the weather for that individual. From the outside, we don't really know what healing looks like."
Then I went for my big question: "Can prayer be used against someone? Like my Christian Science grandma who wants me to be move back to the Midwest, get married, and worship like her?"
"I don't think that we are all that powerful," she said to my relief. "But prayer can interrupt a relationship. It can be invasive if someone has an agenda."
Admittedly, I have made my own clingy requests, like: “Please God, let my boss see how hard I’m working so I can get a raise without asking for one.” These prayers can become thematic enough to be ridiculous, I told her.
“In these situations, prayer can move us to direct confrontation,” Cunningham said.
For me, this meant my spiritual life had finally collided with that of my family matriarch. A week ago, I begrudgingly gave Grandma a call. I asked about her healings with Christian Science. Her philosophies still made my skin crawl, but I understood she was the daughter of an alcoholic father and opinionated mother who cleaned houses to survive. It was a tough life. Prayer comforted her. Grandma said, "I have to bring my worries to God, and then I just get out of the way," she said. I assured her I was happy and safe. We parted by saying, "I love you," which was a step. And we were both doing it our own way.