How Reverse Culture Shock Led me to Google “Atheist Yoga”

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I came ‘home’ last week to a surprise bout of reverse-culture shock; as soon I stepped off the plane in Toronto, a profound feeling of depaysement hit me like an unexpected rainstorm on a sunny day. My flawless Canadian accent and manners seemed but tools in an espionage operation designed to infiltrate Canadian society, not a natural part of my identity.

I’ve felt out of place before, of course. I feel out of place each time I re-enter Turkey after an extended bout in Canada. Still, Istanbul, with all its charms and flaws, begins to feel like home after a while. And, as I learned as I walked through the Toronto airport, Canada begins to feel like a foreign country after a while too.

In the lineup to go through passport control, Canadians stood with metre-wide spaces between them and complained about nothing. My inner monologue started working overtime, like a jaded old person who thinks age grants a license to say anything, no matter how mean or unconstructive.

For example: Shut up two guys with nice clothes complaining about Winnipeg. You don’t understand what it’s like to have problems. I can’t believe you guys can’t even appreciate Winnipeg. Seriously, Istanbul is so much harder than Winnipeg. People from Winnipeg can’t even imagine how much harder life is in Istanbul than it is in Winnipeg.

Complaining about Istanbul is an unpleasant sort of municipal sport of Istanbulites, a habit I had unconsciously embraced as a confirmation of my belonging to the city.

An officious woman of Caribbean stock was in charge of making people line up properly for passport control. She bustled her way up and down the lineup of empty spaces like a pacman, opening barriers and zipping them shut, yelling rude things at travellers, which as a recently transplant from Istanbul, I found strangely comforting.

“You need to keep moving,” she bawled across the line full of empty spaces. “Don’t stop, keep walkin’. And don’t cut in line like dis idiaht heyaah.”

Over the next few days I felt foreign. I knew people couldn’t possibly because I lived in Istanbul. My inner monologue stayed nasty. To the smiley guy at my local coffee shop, my inner monologue sniffed, “You’ve never been to Istanbul have you? You don’t understand.” To some girls I heard complaining about some love interest, my inner monologue sneered “You are so vacuous and people in Istanbul have harder lives. Shut up.” To the squirrels at the park across the street from me my inner monologue mused, “These squirrels don’t know how lucky they are to have all this green space. Istanbul doesn’t have any places for squirrels. Also, I wonder what they taste like? I bet they’re delicious.”

The unchecked condescension of my inner monologue was worst at my yoga classes. I have never depended on yoga for anything but exercise, but I was always easygoing and patient when it came to listening to the spiritual teachings of the instructors and unscientific statements they came up with about our bodies. But after Istanbul, I suddenly felt less tolerant.

Teacher: When we feel stress, tension lands in our hips.

Inner monologue: YOU KNOW WHAT ACTUALLY LANDS IN OUR HIPS? SITTING DOWN.

Teacher: We have to remember that it’s love that binds the world together, that amidst the darkness there’s so much light and you can shine that light out onto the world.

Inner monologue: First of all, that is just a glib thing to say. Second of all, you’re paraphrasing Jesus with that light of the world stuff and not citing your sources. Third, this spirituality is like pablum masquerading as fusion food (Canadian water! Rice from countries that actually grow rice!), a bland mix of West and East cobbled together to create the illusion of effortless self-actualization. Fourth, we all know that most of us are too occupied with our lives to do any major light-shining or contributions to making the world a better place. Our fancy yoga clothes are stitched by children in Bangladesh and that’s just the most immediately obvious problem with our lavish lifestyles.

Teacher: We come together to take some time for ourselves in this spiritual practice of yoga…

Inner monologue: CUT THE CRAP WE’RE JUST A BUNCH OF BOUGIES GETTING SOME EXERCISE

Meditating was impossible; concentrating on the asanas was difficult. Even just showing up at the studio made me feel guilty for the ease of my life in Canada. Everything about the place – the candles, the slick wood floors, the Better Homes and Yoga Studios decorations, the prodigious expense of taking classes – contrasted with the difficulties I encountered every day in Istanbul. These aren’t my own difficulties though (those are fairly minor), but the difficulties of those around me. In Istanbul, I get to see people whose purchasing power is half of that of a Canadian making minimum wage struggle to make ends meet all the time! There are Syrian refugee children begging in the street! Women are treated as second-class citizens! The government likes to arrest anybody they feel is critical of them! It’s a bouquet of daily difficulties that, somehow, made me feel somewhat less guilty about having a comparatively easy life.

To add to these feelings that nobody understood what I’d been through, I began to feel uncomfortable with the fact that I’d allowed the world’s (and specifically, Istanbul’s) problems to determine some of my feelings of worth. Cognitively I understood that no Canadians were at fault for being born in Canada, that the insignificance of the problems they experience is directly related to being from Canada. I also understood that I shouldn’t feel self-righteous or good about myself for living in a place with problems or for doing things to solve those problems. My own and others’ problems do not exist to make me feel better about myself, and living in a place with relatively few problems like Canada shouldn’t and doesn’t mean that I, and other Canadians, can’t carve out a meaningful existence. Not only are those feelings of self-righteousness and annoyance presumptive, they also exploit the lives of those with major problems for my own gain.

What a cornucopia of contradictory feelings!

Another problem: It wasn’t until I came back to Canada that I fully appreciated the worry that my friends and family felt during a Turkish summer that was objectively terrifying. The worst moment, I think, was the airport bombing at Ataturk International Airport. That day, I was flying to Istanbul and I’d mentioned it to lots of people. What those people didn’t know was my flight time and that I was flying to a different airport. While I was waiting for the baggage counter to open, my phone died. Only a few minutes later, the bombs went off in Istanbul. It wasn’t until two hours after the bombing that I was able to get messages out that I was okay. The bombing was hugely upsetting for me, but it wasn’t until I came back that I truly understood how horrible it was for my family and friends, since at least I’d enjoyed the privilege of being aware that I hadn’t died the whole time. And so coming home, which entailed being sucked into a whirlpool of condescending feelings, also entailed feeling hammered by guilt about the decisions I’ve made to live in Istanbul and to have a Turkish partner.

I’ve been back a week and a half now, and many of the feelings have softened as I’ve readjusted to the ease of living in Canada, but they haven’t disappeared. I still feel guilt about my decisions to put myself in danger that I could just as easily avoid. And I’m still challenged by feelings of condescension for the ease of Canadian life.

The feeling that has persisted the strongest, oddly, is an utter contempt for yoga spirituality. The other day I found myself thinking of ways to tackle this problem – should I quit yoga and take a different exercise class? Should I look for a dance tradition that’s heavy on stretching? Should I just try to find yoga teachers that are more into the exercise aspects of the practice?

It culminated in a late-night googling session where I googled many things including, “Non-spiritual yoga,” “yoga for people who just want to exercise,” and “yoga for athiests.” Unfortunately, all I found were the musings of a few angry bloggers about the culturally appropriative and classist aspects of yoga, which was cool because I agreed with them but not that cool because no studio anywhere seems to have embraced a yoga without daytime television-esque spiritual pretensions.

In conclusion, Turkey and Istanbul have changed me in ways I did not expect. Canada feels like a home again, but a slightly more ill-fitting one. And I might hate yoga now.

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