The Monastic Life

Guiding Theme | Issue #124

When I returned from serving three years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi, I wanted to become a naturopathic doctor. In the process of researching schools and taking prerequisite courses, I was advised by my twin brother to check out the YogaLife Institute, then in Wayne, Pennsylvania. There, in 2003, I discovered my first spiritual teacher*. I felt a sense of home I had never felt before and an excitement to learn from a wondrous and ancient tradition of wisdom, health and union with the Divine. Soon enough, a greater interest in the science of the spirit revealed itself, and thus I altered my course. 

On this spiritual path, at one point I declared to my Yoga teacher, “I think I will become a nun”! He intuitively replied, “I don’t think that is your path”. Sure enough, that same year I met the man who is now my husband of 16 years. My desire to live a monastic life was initially fulfilled by Yoga’s “Householder Path”, a lineage that began at the oldest yoga school in India, where my teacher was trained*. Recognizing that we can not all be monks living in mountain ashrams, this path emphasizes a way to live a life of the spirit while living in the world. 

Also called Karma Yoga, and one of Yoga’s Five Branches, this path teaches mindfulness in all tasks, from cleaning the toilet to managing an organization*. Like any spiritual practice, we never perfect this but instead return to the practice again and again, drawn back by the rewards it reaps. When we wash each dish with gratitude for all that we have, we awaken and feed ourselves with that heart warming energy. In this way, the Karma Yoga path returns us to our divine quality, our natural state, and helps us bring that into our next action. 

Karma Yoga’s path of “selfless service” sustained me for many years as I cared for a business and a family, including two children who are now 9 and 12 and more recently my mother. All the while, many of my students became aware that I was most powerfully drawn toward the Bhakti Path, the branch of Yoga related to love, devotion, prayer, and union with God. This year I found myself thinking, yet again, “I think I will become a nun!”. In response to my recent dive into the mystical Christianity of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, many have said they “saw it coming”. 

As a Yoga Teacher I prefer not to share my religious preferences, nor my political leanings. After all, Yoga is neither of these things, but rather an effort to bring the otherwise ruling “belief” of the mind into a more balanced union with the spirit and body, resulting in an experience of the heart, one steeped in peace and unconditional love. This emphasis on training the mind, quieting our egoic nature, and cultivating humility is a common priority of Yoga as well as Orthodoxy, which we discussed in last month’s material.  

As I continue to explore the ancient mysticism of the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition, I have been pleasantly surprised at the kinship between its deep and powerful wisdom and that of Yoga’s Five Branches. Unfortunately I’ve witnessed in many (but not all) Christian believers a suspicion of Yoga, and the Orthodox are no exception. Likewise, I have students who have been equally triggered and turned off by much of the surface of Orthodoxy. 

Here is perhaps the key. At the very least we can avoid drawing conclusions about something we don’t have first hand experience with. Even better, we could learn from the monks, nuns, sages and saints of both traditions, who ultimately lose the capacity to judge at all. No tradition is perfect, no person is perfect, and this is entirely due to the ego. Gratefully, the wise and holy elders of Yoga as well as Orthodoxy help us see that what we have in common is a lot more powerful than what divides us.     

While I am unsure of the possibility of uniting all religions, I have been blessed by a large propensity toward optimism and, as my mother would attest to, perseverance. Maybe because I often felt “misunderstood” as a child, like I didn’t quite belong (despite the outward appearance of happiness, popularity and success in most of my endeavors). My deepest yearning may, in fact, be to heal misunderstanding. I believe we so often deeply and truly misunderstand one another, especially due to the limitations of language but also because we do not know ourselves and therefore project our wounds and weaknesses onto others.  

In November I will share more about the lives of monks, nuns and saints within the Orthodox tradition, as well as how it translates to daily life for lay people like us. Fantastically, for those looking to live more like the monastics, the Orthodox provide a path for ceaseless prayer. Though self-admittedly rigorous by the Orthodox themselves, one can admire the ultimate desire to glorify their source of love, beauty and life itself, and to do so without pause. To the Orthodox this ceaseless devotion and prayer, modeled by the angels, saints and monastics, is not to perfect, but to continuously strive to be more like God.  

Next week I will offer a video, which can deliver a more personal transmission of this material (as do the monthly community calls). In the third week, I will share the role nature plays in the monastic world and how it calls us all to become stewards of the earth. In our final week, I will offer practices that can give us a taste of the spiritual rewards of the monastic life. Community calls this month occur at 10:30-11:30am on both Thursday, November 18, and Saturday, November 27.

Join me at “the monastery” this month!  

With Great Love,

*Robert Butera, PhD, continues to direct the YogaLife Institute, alongside his wife Kristen. They currently provide online yoga classes, teacher training and yoga therapy training from their new home in Costa Rica.

**Robert Butera studied at the Yoga Institute of Mumbai, founded over 100 years ago.

To learn more about Karma Yoga:

Content related to this months theme:

Guiding Theme | Issue #124 | The Monastic Life
Yoga Philosophy
 | Issue #125 | Mind of the Heart
Our Yoga Nature
| Issue #126 | Our Mystical Nature
Yoga Therapy Practice
| Issue #127 | Prayer Matters

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