Spiritual But Not Religious? What is Spirit?
Three years ago I went through a yoga teacher training program to become a certified yoga instructor. I had been practicing yoga for approximately fifteen years at that point. One of the things I love the most about yoga is that it always begins with breath work. In yoga there are various kinds of breathing techniques. All of the stress and distractions you might feel when you enter the yoga studio quickly disappear when you focus solely on your breathing, in, then out.
Was I surprised to discover that in Sanskrit, the mother language of Hinduism and thus also of yoga, the word for breath is “Prana.” In fact, the school of yoga in which I became certified is called Prana Flow. (See Link in side bar.) Prana means “breath, wind, and…drum roll…Spirit.”
“Prana” can be understood with a lower case “p” in the sense of the human spirit/breath/wind; or, with a capital “P” it can be understood as The Spirit of Life, the Great Wind, the Breath of Heaven!
I discovered, in fact, that in every language I know, in every faith tradition I know, the same word for “Spirit” also means wind or breath! Every faith tradition I have studied, in fact, includes some form of prayer or meditation, where we focus simply on every breath we take, knowing that we breathe in the Spirit, to empower us for the living of our lives, then we breathe out the Spirit, praying that the Spirit will transform our world.
In my own Judeo-Christian tradition, in the Hebrew Bible, the word for Spirit is Ruach. In Genesis 1, the Hebrew Bible begins with Ruach, often translated as “Wind,” sweeping over the waters, and all creation coming to Life! It is Ruach which breathes into the prophets and inspires (which literally means “to fill with spirit or breath”) them to preach of God’s justice for all the earth.
In one of my favorite texts, Ezekiel 37, Ruach blows through the desert during Israel’s time of exile in Babylon, and brings new life into a valley filled with dry bones. In Hebrew Ruach is feminine; the Spirit is a She!
In the Greek of the New Testament, the word for the Holy Spirit is “pneuma,” from which we get “pneumonia,” which has to do with the lungs, and our breath. Pneuma is a neuter word in Greek, but a feminine concept. This past Sunday, in Christian churches throughout the world, we celebrated Pentecost, which for Christians is the day when the Holy Spirit came upon those from every nation gathered in Jerusalem, and blew like a violent wind, filling the apostles with tongues of fire, through which they spoke a language which everyone understood as though it were their own language! (See Link to my sermon from Pentecost Sunday, which is all about the Holy Spirit, in Sidebar) In Christianity the Festival of Pentecost is one of our three greatest Holy Days, besides Christmas and Easter. Our Bishop, Rev. James Hazelwood, said it is the only Festival which has not been co-opted by Hallmark cards! This is because the Spirit is something wild and free, and beyond our control!
In other words, the Spirit can be as powerful as a mighty wind which we witness in hurricanes, tempests, and whirlwinds, or it can be as gentle as a cool, calming breeze. Jesus said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Samaria and Judea, and to the ends of the earth!” (Acts, Chapter 1) In other words, if you feel too small, too weak to tackle something in your life which feels overwhelming, remember that the same power which we see on the news moving trees and houses and stirring the oceans, lives in you and me to empower us for the living of our lives!
The Spirit is also not beyond us, but within us, as close to us in fact as our very next breath. We have a women’s spiritual support group at our church. One time we had a whole session on the Spirit, where we focused on the common expression people often say to each other during the most stressful situations, “Stop! Take a deep breath!” We realized that that expression is in fact one of the best things we can say to someone, because it literally means, “Stop! Breathe in the power that blows through the cosmos, the limitless power of creation, which lives and breathes also in you, and is available to you this very moment.”