Taking God Out of “God”: A Crash Course in Semantics

by Kyle McDonald

As Ananda-trained yoga and meditation teachers, many of us find ourselves teaching in environments where our language skills are put to test, particularly in replacing or avoiding the word “God.” This year, I had the opportunity to work in two very different environments, one secular and one non-secular. Semantics proved helpful in one situation and harmful in the other.

The first was in the Rhode Island Public schools, where I taught yoga and mindfulness. The second was in the chapel at Rhode Island Hospital, where I co-led a weekly healing circle with the rabbi on staff. In both environments, regardless of my attempt to mince words, or verbally mask the transcendent effect that yoga and meditation have on the human spirit, God would inevitably shine through.

A public school classroom

Last January, I was offered a job with a non-profit organization whose mission is to teach yoga and mindfulness in the Rhode Island public schools.

Although we were teaching kids to meditate, we were cautioned against using that particular word, as the term “mindfulness” is less prone to elicit a reaction from families who may associate meditation with a particular religion. The Board of Directors was aware of a very high-profile lawsuit in Encinitas, CA, brought by a family who believed that the school district’s yoga and meditation program was inherently religious and in violation of America’s constitutional separation between church and state.

The term “mindfulness” has been accepted and embraced across the nation, even though it is a translation of the Pali term sati (meditative awareness) and is at the core of Buddhist tradition. Mindfulness practices have been assimilated in churches, synagogues, and temples as well as corporate boardrooms, healthcare environments, and in most cases, public education. Perhaps it is Buddhism’s lack of personification in the form of a Supreme Being which makes mindfulness palatable to a wide audience. In any case, it has become the popular linguistic choice in secular environments, favored over the term “meditation.”

I met with 3rd and 4th grade students twice a week. As I prepared the lessons I would teach, I would go through a mental checklist of words and gestures to be avoided. “Yoga, to join body, mind and spirit” became “Yoga, to join body, breath and movement.” The focus was on the physical movements of yoga, to help kids become aware of and gain control over the body so that when their teacher told them to “sit still and pay attention,” they would have an example to refer to. “Spirit” was off limits, and we were cautioned against using the word “energy” to describe an internal state or feeling, as it could be misconstrued as spiritual or worse yet, religious.

“Namaste” was verboten, as was Anjali Mudra: palms together in front of the heart was replaced with closed fists, knuckles touching. Interestingly, without modeling hand gestures, most of the students would spontaneously bring the palms together in front of the heart.

Generic affirmations, such as “I can do this”, or “I am so strong”, were encouraged in the curriculum. I happily used this as an opportunity to introduce the Ananda Yoga® affirmations where applicable. Many of these wonderful affirmations do not need to be changed, and those that do reference God can, in most cases, work just fine when “God” is replaced by variations on the word “universe.” I also introduced Swami Kriyananda’s Superconscious Living Exercises under the guise of “motivational” exercises. They were loved and embraced by the kids as well as the class teachers, who used them outside of the yoga program to help energize fatigued students throughout the school week and as a welcome break during standardized testing. We ended each class with Yoganada’s Peace and Harmony Prayer, although I called it an affirmation.

During the mindfulness portion of our class we practiced breath awareness. I would instruct the kids to lift the eyes, behind closed eyelids, bringing their attention to front and center of the forehead. I knew that this was safe language because we had introduced brain science as part of the curriculum. The kids were taught basic brain anatomy and knew that the prefrontal lobes could be used to quiet and calm the limbic part of the brain, which was described as sometimes becoming very loud, mad and emotional. Without saying “spiritual eye,” the students were focusing their attention at the agya chakra. In almost every class; one or more of them would eagerly raise a hand to share an experience. Typical comments ranged from “I felt like I was in heaven” or “I felt like I was with God,” to, as one boy described, “I felt like I was visiting the place where my soul lives.” I would smile and nod my head, unable to comment, but humbled at the thought that no matter how diligent we were in keeping God out of the classroom, the students were having their own pure and direct experience of the divine energy within.

A hospital healing circle

In contrast to this experience, I was asked to co-lead a weekly healing circle with the rabbi at Rhode Island Hospital, where I work. My role was to lead participants into meditation before healing intentions were heard. Those in attendance were scared, grieving family and loved ones of patients, as well as over-stressed caregivers and staff. My assumption was that I would be able to use the language that came naturally to me in this environment: a beautifully uplifting, stained-glass-clad, multi-faith chapel.

I was mistaken. At the conclusion of our first healing circle, the rabbi cautioned me against using the word “God,” so as not to offend anyone. After the second week, I was told that I shouldn’t use the word “prayer” either, because people might feel uncomfortable. By the third week, the words “Spirit,” “divine,” and “sacred” were all called out and dissected one by one. By the fourth week, I felt paralyzed with fear that my word choice would accidently offend the people in attendance, who, I knew by now, had come to the healing circle to pray. As we fumbled around the language needed to communicate what we were trying to say and offer in the chapel, those in attendance often seemed baffled and confused.

When I have time, I use the chapel on my lunch hour to meditate. Most weeks I share the space with a fellow employee who is a devout Muslim and another who is a devout Catholic. My Muslim friend spreads his prayer rug in the corner facing Mecca and quietly conducts his daily spiritual practice. My Catholic friend quietly recites the rosary while I meditate and practice Kriya Yoga. In these moments, although we are all engaged in separate practices, praying with different words, God’s presence is tangible; an undeniable energy that all three of us have experienced together, due to our combined devotion in this shared sacred space.

It is the rabbi’s job, as part of the spiritual counseling staff, to be inclusive to all persons looking for spiritual comfort and guidance. Her intentions were coming from a place of love and compassion for all, but in an attempt at political correctness, and not to offend, we had diluted the essence of what we were offering to the people who came to us looking for relief during times of emotional stress. By tiptoeing around the words that best describe the sacred and divine, we had taken a beautiful, devotional environment, a haven from the storm, and made it sterile: the very quality families and staff were trying to escape from, found in such abundance elsewhere in the hospital rooms and hallways.

After careful thought, I spoke to the rabbi about my concerns, and asked if I could conduct the meditation portion of the service with the inclusive language that I had been trained to use as an Ananda teacher. She agreed, and the healing circle began to blossom into a more cohesive and devotional container for those seeking solace. We became increasingly comfortable and relaxed, and God was brought back into the dialogue in a way that allowed individuals their personal interpretation of that energy. Eventually, we were able to laugh together at the thought of offending people who came to pray in a chapel by using the words which best describe that action.

It’s beyond words

Both of these experiences gave me the opportunity to grow as an instructor. I became aware of the power of language to inspire or repel. I learned that “God” is just a word used to describe that which cannot be defined or described, only experienced, yet it is a word that wields equal power to unite and divide. Editing our language is helpful in situations where we dare not offend, yet by over-editing our speech, we risk diluting the essence of the message we are trying to deliver.

In hindsight, I see the past year as a perfect example of ascending Dwapara Yuga, the Age of Energy. Ancient language is being rejected and called into question as we struggle to define infinite energy, which cannot be distilled into a handful of over-used words or pat phrases. As we move into the dawn of higher consciousness, we may begin to intuit subtle truth without the burden of language. Until then, we are left with our linguistic creativity to inspire others and deliver the essence of our teachings in sacred spaces as well as secular and non-traditional environments.

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Comments:

  1. Mary says:

    Lovely, Thank you!

  2. Doug Andrews says:

    Kyle, this was an absolutely wonderful article. Thank you so much for sharing these two teaching experiences. Would you mind if I republished it some time in the future? There are 8 or 10 other yoga teachers who would benefit from what you shared. Joy and Blessings!

  3. Tracy says:

    Thank you for sharing Kyle! It is amazing how universal the experience of our Higher Self/Spirit/God/Divine Mother/Universe is, especially when we give and listen with the heart.

  4. Melody says:

    What a beautiful article Kyle. How touching. Thanks so much for sharing and for doing this service.

  5. Erica says:

    Thank you, Kyle. I loved reading this article and especially hearing more about your experience in the school. It was treat to connect with you briefly over the summer.
    ~Erica

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