Life & Culture

Shul never gave me this peace


Touching palm to palm, I bow my head to my hands in quiet contemplation.

The sun has not yet risen, but here in India the night air feels muggy and thick. I breathe it in - rhythmically, purposefully - and am surprised to feel that it cools me from the inside out.

Sounds are faint and muffled, while nature stirs from slumber. The only noises I hear are the quiet inhalations and exhalations of the 30 other people meditating around me.

But my focus fixes inwards. I seal my eyes shut, and encourage my other sense organs to follow suit. They obey as best as they can.

I feel grounded, stable, yet strangely weightless as I sit cross-legged on the floor. I feel singular, whole, yet also attached to something greater.

Far away from home - 5,000 miles, more or less - free from the trappings of everyday London life, living under the smouldering heat of the Indian sun, I feel a sense of reverence that I have never quite felt before. For the first time ever, I feel pious. And it has nothing to do with my religion.

Spirituality is the name we give to this feeling, the sensation or acknowledgment of something greater than us - although in my experience it remains an elusive and shape-shifting label.

Home, in north London, my Judaism is buoyed by heritage and herring, with minimal emphasis on worship. At school, I eschewed alternative Jewish assemblies or clubs, unable (or perhaps unwilling) to find any real sense of purpose or belonging. This disengagement only deepened at university and so on into my twenties.

On the rare occasions that I went to synagogue, threading my arm through my grandmother's to find support in an unfamiliar setting, I failed to connect to the holiness of the occasion. Respect and reverence, of course; but worship? Not so much.

I felt a smidgen of envy for those who did connect to something higher, those who found peace and satisfaction through rituals and community worship. But the pang was only fleeting.

Spirituality is highly personal and subjective. For some, it is solid and unyielding, a constant way of life. For others, it is more flimsy and tenuous, as though focusing on it too much will make it disappear.

I have friends and family who find it in synagogues, churches and temples; and others, anywhere but. My mum says she finds spirituality when walking on Hampstead Heath; for my dad, there is no greater connection to a higher power than during a penalty kick at Old Trafford.

Home in London, I close my eyes and desperately try to re-summon that spiritual plain. I imagine I am back there, sitting on the mud-stained white flooring of our classroom-come-yoga studio in central Goa.

My spiritual awakening came from taking a long, hard look at myself; or rather, looking within myself.

Sunrise meditations - at first, laborious and uncomfortable - soon paved the path for introspection, aiming towards a sort of "no-think" state of awareness.

Hours upon hours of physical practice, philosophy and anatomy classes, and I had a month of total immersion. We had come together from across the world, more than 30 men and women, all very different, but sharing a common desire, to study and teach the yogic way of life which goes far beyond the postures performed by elastic practitioners.

It stretches to every aspect of life, encouraging values, such as truthfulness, and personal habits,such as cleanliness (in mind and body), and deep, deep concentration.

For me, this process has nothing to do with God. It is instead about acknowledging the micro and the macro, and coming to terms with our place in both; it is understanding that we are at once at the centre of our own universes but also mere specks of grains of sand in a limitless desert.

It is about finding solace wherever we can, however we can. By breathing it all in, and feeling - for a moment - weightless, exalted.

I sit, touching palm to palm, hands raised to my chest; and on an exhale, I bow my head.

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