In his book American Veda, Philip Goldberg talks about many American luminaries who were influenced by the teachings of India. Among them were Carl Jung, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, the latter two whom Goldberg views as America’s founding SBNRs. That’s shorthand for the Spiritual But Not Religious folks, the fastest growing segment of our population in surveys of religious attitudes and beliefs.
Pew Research Center confirms that approximately one in five Americans are SBNR, and 37 percent of unaffiliated Americans self-identify as being Spiritual But Not Religious. Almost one in three of those who are unaffiliated, say they believe in yoga as a spiritual practice.
In our Western society, most people’s paths to the eight branches of yoga begin at a hatha class at the gym. Or, as was the case for Goldberg (and me), meditation. Dilip Sarkar, MD, president of the International Association of Yoga Therapists, says, “A person starts yoga for the physical, and stays for spiritual.”
So, with 20 million people practicing the physical side of yoga in the U.S., it shouldn’t be surprising that there is also a surge in spirituality.
Goldberg, an interfaith minister, lecturer and author of several books, has been on his own spiritual path for decades. He was one of those that explored Eastern philosophy and yoga in the 60s. Although he was entrenched in the Hindu culture and practices, he recognized that it was the universal spirituality of that tradition rather than the everyday religion practiced by most Indians that absorbed him and a tidal wave of others.
“The Spiritual But Not Religious have all been influenced by the maha (great) lineage, whether they know it or not…which makes them yogis. They’re all seeking integration of their minds, bodies and spirits. Even most of those embedded in a deep yogic lineage, fit in this category,” he says. “They don’t consider themselves Hindu. They don’t think of themselves as part of any religious tradition. All of this has radically transformed American life.”
Goldberg believes one of the reasons for the SBNR trend is that, “Conventional religion turns many people off because they find much of the dogma irrational, hypocritical, or socially divisive.”
One of the best known kirtan (devotional music) artists, Krishna Das, spoke about this in a workshop last month at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center. “I think we have this block in our hearts because of organized religion. Judgements destroy love, and there’s a lot of that (judgement) in organized religion. I think dis-organized religion is the best,” he joked.
Dis-organized spiritual paths may fill a void in our modern lives.
- There’s a sense of individuality, among community with spirituality, which rides well with Americans.
- There’s a sense of self-improvement.
- There’s a sense of escape, a release of attachments that can drag you down.
- There’s a constant sense of learning on the pathless path.
“I started to see the same patterns in all my spiritual comrades who were on a spiritual path, regardless of the specific path they followed,” says Goldberg. “One of the things I found was we all face similar dilemmas and the degree to which we adapt successfully, and resolve our challenges gracefully, would make our spiritual path smoother, and therefore our physical health better.”
The intersection of health and spirituality is tightly woven among many ancient traditions.
“A few years ago, I was doing research on religious involvement and how it correlates with health outcomes. For a long time, it was understood that religious people had lower risk of heart attacks, greater longevity, faster recovery from illness, less anxiety and depression and a stronger immune system,” Goldberg explains. “Then, someone fine tuned these studies and found ways of distinguishing between negative and positive religious coping. Sure enough, people engaged in religious struggles, had a higher mortality rate. People with a healthy religious life had healthier outcomes.”
Among 595 hospital patients, those with a positive sense of religion fared better. Goldberg has several hypotheses and he extrapolates the wellbeing for those that are SBNR.
One can be the need to be a part of community. Goldberg points out that those who are ill need community even more. Association with positive, clean, like minded individuals is a credo among many yogis. This is called sangha.
“There’s a reason why one of the three gems of Buddhism is the sangha. And yet, people resist it, because organization can be a mess. If you value your independence, any involvement with a spiritual organization is going to carry some pressure to conform. There will be some degree of it. And if you can be yourself and express your doubts, then that might be a healthy community.”
Goldberg, who has used yoga therapy for his own physical well being, talks about the other health benefits of a yogic spiritual life.
“A well rounded sadhana (practice) will make anyone healthier,” he says, referring to the eight branches of yoga. “In 1969, I sat in a cubicle at Harvard Medical School with a blood pressure cuff on as they studied meditation. Now, after more than 40 years of research, scientists are realizing that different forms of meditation have different results, but they all promote better health.”
Effortless forms of meditation are more likely to produce deeper states of relaxation. “There’s a relinquishing of attention. A deeper state of non-activity that might have a deeper healing effect. Effortless styles are easier for people to do at home,” he notes.
Different types of meditation are better suited to improve insomnia, stress, addictions, eating disorders or pain management, just to name a few of the topics that researchers have studied.
Goldberg, published his first story (on TM for SEVENTEEN) in the 1970s. Today, he’s a frequent contributor to Huffington Post. Last year, he wrote in HuffPost.com, “It’s important for interested parties to understand that there are differences among the techniques we’ve imported from the Hindu and Buddhist repertoires (and make no mistake, that’s where they come from, no matter how much they’re secularized), and that differences in practice lead to differences in outcome.”
In closing, Paramahansa Yogananda, one of the luminaries that brought yoga to the Western world said, “The more you meditate, the more helpful you can be to others, and the more deeply you will be in tune with God.”