Last night, I hopped a cab after teaching my weekly yoga class at Quiet Mind, a sweet community-focused yoga studio in Columbia Heights.  My high school buddy Marc Fields of the Compleat Sculptor was getting an award from the National Sculpture Society at the Arts Club of Washington, just a few blocks from GW Hospital and the Center for Integrative Medicine, where I spent my afternoon in a palliative care meeting, and doing two hands-on treatments.

My cab driver was Ethiopian, originally from the Orthodox Church, but now Evangelical.  We got to talking about the yoga class I just taught.  (As in: I will talk with anyone, in any line or waiting room or public vehicle — but there’s a special intimacy that comes from sitting in someone’s back seat, one that requires you to, at the least, be polite and apologize if you have to use your cell, and at the most, listen attentively to the wisdom coming from the front seat.  I’ve had the best conversations about international development, economic and environmental policy, and spirituality/theology sitting in the back seats of the excellently educated cabbies driving around DC.  Come to think of it, I dated an cab driver for about a year; for several years after, I swear, anywhere I walked in the city, I would have cabs pull up, introduce themselves, and offer to take me wherever I was heading for free.  A generous lot!)

My driver was super curious and engaging.  He peppered me with many excellent questions about the purpose of yoga:  Is it just physical or are there other aspects?  How does it help? Where did it originate?  What’s the philosophy?  Do you find yourself drifting into it as a religion?

I did my best to respond simply but without smoothing over the subtleties and diversity that exists.  When you go to a yoga class, I explained, you’re mainly doing breathing techniques, physical postures and some meditation, but there are many other aspects to yoga.  It’s a philosophy and a science more than a religion, like Buddhism.  For me, one of my favorite parts has been to learn to temper my response to stress, so I can place my inner drama queen on hiatus.

I told him that my people have a saying: “two Jews, three views.”  In other words there’s no Grand Jewish Poobah who gets the last word.  Yoga, I explained, is kind of like that:  a big tent with many styles and beliefs and interpretations.  I shared that I’m not so into the chanting, for instance, and the devotional aspects that mention deities because that feels more pantheistic than I care to go.   (Though as I write this, I’m reminded of Gandhi’s excellent “The Way to God” in which he writes:  “I dispute the description that Hindus believe in many gods and are idolaters…..The whole mischief is created by the English rendering of the word deva or devata for which you have not found a better term than ‘god.’ But God is Ishwara, Devadhideva, god of gods.  So you see it is the word ‘god’  used to describe different divine beings that has given rise to such confusion.”  Big tent indeed.)

“You have journeyed such a long way in your lifetime,” remarked my driver. “You can maintain a connection to your history and culture and people and incorporate ways of thinking from all parts of the world.”

“And so have you– across oceans of water and beliefs,” I replied.

“You are right.  And I have been completely mistaken about yoga.  You should launch a yoga literacy campaign so the average person isn’t scared that it will require them to change how they are and what they believe.”

Yoga, like Reiki, is rooted in particular geographies and philosophies.  Yet, like any other aspect of culture, they’re also living and dynamic, rather than fossilized and dogmatic.  Mikao Usui, the founder of Reiki, for instance, was shaped by Shintoism, Buddhism, his experiences in business and working for a politician, and being a Japanese man born in the certain time, among other identities.  But we can assume that he was also influenced by the wider world in which he lived, the people he met, his other practices (such as qigong and the Chinese philosophy that birthed it), and who knows what else.  (I know I’ve  been influenced by my aforementioned Iranian cab driver, as well as a host of other interesting characters from six continents that I’ve befriended and/or dated and/or read their books or looked at their art or engaged with in some other way:  who am I to think Mikao Usui was not similarly influenced? Well, perhaps excluding the dating part….)

Usui’s way of practicing Reiki involved not just the still touch that is most commonly used today but also blowing and massaging and gazing and working with specific points in the body.  There is much debate about what his original teachings were, how he practiced Reiki, what symbols and mantras he used and when, and what the place is of the many newer forms of Reiki that have emerged, particularly in the past 20 years.

Maybe this tension — between respecting and maintaining teachings as they were originally taught versus a more intuitive and improvisational approach — is a bit like the breadth-depth/specialization-generalist divide that I’ve heard likened along gender lines and fishing:

  • Men go deep fishing and catch an enormous fish.  “It was as big as from here to that tree, I swear to G-d! Fed us all ’til we were stuffed!”
  • Women cast wide nets closer to shore.  They bring in many small fish, from which a scrumptious dinner is prepared.

I love to see unanticipated connections between things, figure out how systems operate, learn the issues and even the language of different communities.   I’m doing that with this fellowship, hearing for instance how a group of doctors and social workers and art therapists and nutritionists and chaplains and Reiki masters figure out the most effective and ethical way of reducing suffering, of dealing with family conflict or the lack of family that affect a patient’s prognosis or treatment options or where she might live upon release.

Life is anything but simple, yet we can often condense a substance down to its purest essence.

Like yoga, Reiki is much more than what happens when you’re on the mat or the table.    For me, it’s all a part of touching into what it means to be human, with ourselves, and with each other. It’s seeing what is, as opposed to what was, what you think you should see, or what you’re afraid or preemptively pissed at what you expect you will see.

Thanks to my driver for taking me not just to my destination last night, but to this place today.  I wasn’t expecting him — maybe because he self-identified as being an Evangelical — to be so open.  But he was beyond that; he took in what I said and in a 15 minute ride changed a perception.  Sometimes teachers arrive in vehicles that don’t look like sacred chariots.

Namaste & Shabbat Shalom,

Yael