As any journey goes, the roads are long and winding— this journey has been one without a gps, singly, the most complex one yet. I feel I’m not alone in deeming it the most complex, because the topic of faith, of life, of death, of worship.... is a really huge topic that governs our lives.
I come from Eastern Kentucky, far off in the hills of Appalachia, where things are pretty set in motion. 76% of inhabitants in the region identify in faith as Christian. 22% identify with unaffiliated views— leaving less than 2% of the population practicing any other religion.
As a kid, my mom and I would attend a Baptist church off and on. Our town is very religious and going to church on Sunday’s is basically mandatory if you want everyone to know you believe in the Lord and Jesus Christ. Living there, there is so much pressure to appear as a wonderful Christian. I spent many years attending church, enough to really value a connection to something larger— I gained a curiosity for something so intimidating and I always felt it impossible to understand. In fact, I doubted that everyone in the room truly understood these stories and concepts of a time so long ago. From a book that the main characters didn't even write? I could never get past the fact these stories sounded like folklore/fairytales and people took every single word in its most literal sense. With my curiosity came a lot of doubt. I would watch around the room as the preacher would speak and I always just felt... alone. I would listen closely and never really find clarity, even as a kid I felt hopeless in this pursuit.
I fell in love with a wanderer lifestyle very early on. I spent my teenage years bouncing between atheism and agnosticism, because back home, if you aren’t Christian, there’s really nothing else available for you to believe in. Especially in the times when I wasn't attached to the interwebs 24/7. I was fine with claiming the other side, the side of no religion— I listened to music that promoted that, I preferred escaping to nature, playing in mud, not brushing my hair, wearing tie dye and skinny dipping in the lake on Sundays... how could I possibly choose this over showing my face in church every week and believing that what these people were preaching is all there was? I just accepted that living my truth I would have to deny Christianity as my religion and not really address religion ever again.
Fast forwarding to my early college years, my life changed dramatically. I quickly made friends who introduced me to so many new things. I moved away from Eastern Kentucky for the first time and was quickly exposed to the dark stereotypes that my roots had instilled in me; fear of people who were different— especially those who’s outwards appearance reflected origins that were not my own (anywhere from race, to religion, to ethnicity, and clothing). I never truly feared people for these reasons but that resilience went against all my odds because I was surrounded by such a shelter place. As a kid, I felt so ill when people would draw boundaries because of beliefs. I am so thankful for my family who brought me up to love and one with pretty progressive views given our circumstances.
I attribute my openness to traveling in my youth, especially the substantial amount of time I spent with my sister in Manhattan. During those years I was exposed to diversity but was never allotted the access to actually get to know those who were different than me. I think this planted the seed in my heart that was begging me to search for more. To understand everything and everyone I possibly could on a deep level. I never wanted to be racist or homophobic or an iraqniphob. My love for travel and music and dance and art really just pushed me to search for love in everyone. How could I have faith in this world by discerning everyone else?
Another big shift in my life came after my collegiate dance career, when I found yoga. This was a practice I began to manage stress and keep myself active. It was really my first solo connection to spirituality and where my head and heart began to resonate with that big complex unknown. I religiously began practicing asana 6 days a week and decided this physical practice was my way to stay grounded. I was exposed to meditation, chanting, and a community of dedicated people coming together to work on themselves. For the first time ever, I was comfortable being vulnerable, comfortable in my absolute lack of knowledge, it was the space I began to inquire deeply into the path of knowing and accept that I was basically starting at square 0.
After a year of consistent practice, I found home in Berkeley where I completed my first teacher training. I. Learned. So. Much. That summer absolutely impacted and permeated into every ounce of my passions. I remember feeling so free. I always say that training taught me that there is and infinite world of information I have yet to learn about yoga and it opened so many pathways— truly integrating yoga into everything. My diet, my work, my play, my spirit. I did not go to training to immediately teach. I went to tear down the walls of fear— fear of the unknown and ultimately fear of myself.
I knew I was on a lifelong mission. The guiding yamas and niyamas really resonated with me and I decided I would explore them forever. The good, the challenging, I knew this wouldn’t be easy. But I yearned to search. The philosophical leg of yoga, the ancient scriptures and teachings captivated my interest. I bought so many books on spirituality and Buddhism. It has always been a struggle to digest and I think something so complex cannot be mastered alone. The ways I was able to connect yoga to all of my other interests + passions: dance, architecture, playing outdoors, listening to music, attending festivals, teaching... literally everything you could imagine... I began spotting signs of and feeling sensations of divine connectivity. Everything and everyone wasn't so different, after all. This is when I felt called to visit the motherland.
Before I speak of my pilgrimage, I must say— my stance on religion and spirituality, even in the infancy of my soul searching was very much skeptical. Architecture school really opened my mind and gifted me so much appreciation for religious sites all over the world and how that has impacted humanity. From Italy to Japan to Jerusalem, the presence of divinity in the structures, spanning so many time periods helped me see the connection across all major faiths. Wary of the confines of Christianity— I took an art history course:: “Medieval Art: Jewish, Pagan, Christian, Muslim around the Mediterranean” and was completely opened up to the ways in which art was interpreted, before words held such weight, and how this influenced beliefs and controlled the masses. Ancient stories are written based on ancient hand drawn depictions... no wonder some things seems a little confusing. I was drawn to this class that touched on foreign religions and regions of the world we don't talk about every day in America so I took the dive. I realized so many similarities across cultures and so many boundaries that had been wrongfully set throughout time. It was the combination of exploring religion through school and through my yoga practice that led me back to curiosity of the Source.
2019 I backpacked India. On a solo mission to step out of my comfort zone and explore a part of the world that was so different than my own. What better time than the present to take a pilgrimage through northern India? In my mind, I wasn't searching for anything in particular... though my deep mission is always a search for Self. I spent weeks chanting Hare Krishna, meditating with Gurus, visiting Holy Sites, and immersing myself in spiritual culture. Temples and Ashrams, Mosques and Gudwaras... I had never felt more peace. I was extremely confused, but confident I was expanding my knowledge in the right places (for me). India is pure chaos— it is foreign, it is busy, it is soooooo many things. But, most of all, I would say India is love. India is compassionate. India is a huge ball of energy that I hold so deeply. India is sacred.
My 5th day in Delhi, I visited my first Sikh temple, Sri Bangla Sahib Gudwara. During my day here, I watched people of all walks of life participate in rituals and service. Not really knowing where I was or what I was supposed to be doing, I adapted to my surroundings and followed along. Dismissing my shoes, covering my head, "no selfies" in the temple... I read all the readings they were handing out about Sikhism, walked the perimeter a couple times, accepted food, drank a soda and only kind of understood what was happening around and within me. I was so amazed by the free kitchen and eating barefoot on a floor with hundreds of people. This experience immediately imprinted on me and was an everlasting, amazing vision of communal effort. Although I was totally unfamiliar with where I was, I felt welcomed with open arms. I didn't have to have purpose, simply being present was enough. I wondered what everyone around me was praying for or to... I vividly remember my place in the main hall and my visions as I meditated and prayed for peace. I was experiencing something so beautiful I just wanted to wish the same for the world. The rest of the time I just sat in awe and disbelief of where I had brought myself.
Obviously I could talk about that pilgrimage for eternity... I’ll continually come back to it. But for the sake of present time, I’ll fast forward to today. 2020. The most terrifying year of life for me thus far— on both a personal level and collective scale. I am in a major period of growth. This growth is so painful; physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting. In the middle of these extraordinary times, my idea of a peaceful day is creating, and finding time to explore some form of new age and ancient practices to spend time with myself— I am on the ultimate quest to self care. Having so little and so much time on my hands at the same time is an overwhelming feeling and I struggle with guilt if I am not working... but I was not made to work all the time. I have been integrating and carving and redefining what my "me" time looks like every day. With all the stresses I've been facing over the last 6 months, I just keep feeling like I need to get away.
And what does "get away" look like in the middle of a pandemic? In the middle of getting two master's degrees? In the middle of trying to figure out how to heal a whole lot of trauma? The best question is, how do I continually give love to myself when everything around me makes it so hard? There's so many other things that need my attention. It all feels too much. It often leads me questioning how to prioritize things? Where to devote my time and how much energy I should spend or save per day? Let's note, I am only available to verbalize these things now because I gave myself space to do so.
Last week, during a particularly hard day, I decided to seek out a temple near me. I needed a piece of India. I needed a piece of ToD... I needed that space where I could release. Where I could feel in the presence of community with no expectation, rules, or judgement of how to do so. That is what led me into the arms of our local Gudwara. The essence of power flowing through everything around me. That yearning for knowing that always presents itself in spectacular, unexpected times.
I spent 6 hours at the temple this Sunday. I was filled with nerves and had no idea what to really expect... but as soon as I arrived, I felt peace. Due to COVID the crowd was very small but intimate enough I was able to connect with some of the amazing people there. During Langar, I got to speak with one of the Sikhs who helped establish the temple here in Kentucky. With my base knowledge of Sikhism from reading and observing, this opportunity literally felt like it opened so many doors for my knowing. I felt seen and heard by someone so genuine in their approach to share their mission. It was one of the most beautiful moments of my life. I have unknowingly believed so many things that align with the path of Sikhism. As he communicated, it doesn't matter the road you've been taking when you're ultimately going to the same destination. Some may be faster than others. Some may be more fun than others. But there is freedom in how you get there, and the principles to understand are truly quiet simple. I feel ready to devote myself to this ritual. This path to embodying the actions and wisdom I can gain through practicing Sikhism. I have searched so long for a place to store and explore and express my faith.
I do believe there is one God who is formless, genderless, and universal. I do believe in equality of human kind. There is no need to fight over whose God is the real God because they are all the same. That is what I can confidently say right now. I look so forward to my journey with Sikhism. As my outpouring of thoughts have tried to convey, I have never truly connected to my honest beliefs of religion. And while 2020 has been a hellacious year, I know this path presented itself to me as an alternative to utter confusion and distrust. I feel a spiritual connection beyond what I ever imagined I could.
I am so very grateful.
Sikh translates to "learner" and I look forward to growing in this every day of my life.
It begins with me, myself, and I. My heart is open.