Tag Archives: yoga

silence and selfhood

By the end of the first week of classes, I am in tears. Half of my conversations make it obvious that I am a woman in a man’s world, or at least a man’s program. The other half of my conversations make it clear that I am no longer fully a student; my peers expect me to be something more—the opinion of women everywhere, the voice of a movement, at once leader and sacrificial lamb. In my last class of the week, the professor is discussing issues of women’s initiative and agency. It is exactly what I have been attempting to bring out of the mostly-silent women of my cohort, the parts of myself I have been expending on the students’ behalf. I am exhausted.

I share this with the professor after class; she understands completely, even better than I do. “It’s very bad to be exhausted at the beginning,” she states. I nod and unsuccessfully try to keep even more tears from falling. “I wonder,” she begins, slowly, with care, “if the strength that is in you could be for you.” Earlier, I would have claimed that others needed my strength on their behalf more than I needed it for myself, but it’s too obvious that that is no longer true, if it ever was. When she suggests that I practice silence, something in me feels the unfamiliar pull of hope. From my first weeks in this building I had been deemed The Woman Who Speaks (or, more often spoken, The Girl Who Talks). Silence feels like a good practice, one in which I could learn other ways to be engaged with the material, where I could find space within myself for peace, where I could demand others to allow me the silence they maintain, all while inviting those unheard voices to fill the space I leave open.

Silence is capacious. In silence, there is room for me. In silence, room is made for others. I hope that silence would also allow space for God to encounter me. I know myself to be too tired to chase after God. Still, I could make room for the Divine to come in, I could be watchful for moments to welcome such a Being.

I adopt the practice of silence in every class, and often outside of it as well. Even in moments when I want to speak, I allow my silence to fill the room. I notice my breathing. In extended silences, lying in bed at night, or observing the descent of rain while the heat of my morning tea passes into my palms, I put tiny breath prayers with my pneuma, my breath, my spirit. Most often, my prayer is the characters of the Ineffable Name: inhale yod, exhale he, inhale vav, exhale he. In moments of frustration, I use another Hebrew word associated with breath, and more commonly linked with meaninglessness, the soon-vanishing vapor of expelled ether, hebel. Both Hebrew words are scripted over my rib cage, and I watch them rise and fall through the shower steam as I contemplate God within this broken body.  I focus on sensation, I practice mindfulness. I feel cool air welcomed into my body, warmed, allowed to leave as space is made for another benevolent breath. When I eat, I try to really taste. As I fold laundry, I touch the texture of each garment. I knit and notice the delicate softness of the wool as I tangle it into a big and beautiful knot.

Each Sunday evening I drag myself to my version of church: the yoga studio. It is a safe space, an hour and a half in which no one expects me to speak brilliantly, no one looks to me for wisdom nor guidance. Unlike traditional churches, no one asks me to volunteer, host, lead, or give of myself—as though self is something with which I can part, a sweater to shrug off. One week my thoughts drift away during shavasana, as they are wont to do, as my mind begins to realize how beautiful this corpse pose is, how stunning that I, who can barely relax my muscles around those with whom I am intimately involved, choose to let go of all tension and awareness while surrounded by strangers. I am vulnerable, entirely exposed, and my eyes are shut. Despite my years of martial arts training, if anyone wanted to kill me right now, they could. I am thinking this, without anxiety, when I feel the warm palms and thin fingers of my instructor encapsulate my ankles. My inhale catches in my throat and ocean drops roll down my temple and God is with us, between us, in us. The same vulnerability that could lead to my death also opened me up to such warm, unexpected, and tender kindness. I am undone.

In school, silence continues. Nearly halfway through the term, people start wondering about it. One student approaches me while I am working at the front desk and says, “I’ve been missing your voice in Theology,” where we had been discussing feminist theologies. I choose my words carefully to convey appreciation that I was noticed, but underneath I feel the tug of the rope around my neck, students leading me to slaughter. The next Theology class, the conversation turns towards feminism once again. A couple students talk about how to find space for women to speak, the professor rightly points out that creating space can’t just be something that happens out in other places, it needs to start in this classroom, between each of us. “How can we be with one another, make space and find space?” We’re about to go on break, the conversation will end here—as it always does, as if asking the question is enough. I tentatively start raising my hand, put it back down, start putting it up again, lower. The professor sees me and starts unpinning her own microphone in urgency to make room for me to speak; she, too, has been both aware and supportive of my silence.

When I take the microphone it feels heavy and suddenly unfamiliar. “I haven’t spoken yet in this class,” I say, and realize the semester is half over. My pulse races, my breath quickens. This is unlike me; I’m familiar with the amplification of my voice in this room. “I hope that those of you who are often silent feel my silence as an invitation,” I look around to some of those women’s faces; their eyes are in their laps. I persevere, “I hope you feel that space is being made for you. And those of you who often talk, who speak every thought you have,” I’m very selectively making eye contact with certain students, “I hope you hear my silence as an invitation to join me in making space.” I shakily turn off the mic, we go on break. The next week is a jumble of processing, outspoken men thanking me for confronting them, quiet women avoiding me and their boyfriends explaining that they feel like I’m forcing them to speak, others just thanking me for explaining—my silence had been tangible and unknown.

I’m processing, too, but it’s tiring and trying and needs to stop. It’s early and will probably rain any minute, but I lace up, throw on a hoodie, run along the canal. The trees shine against the layered grays of the sky, branches sway in front of the stable lines of the bridge. The occasional biker whirs by, the whisper of leaves cuddling against one another, occasionally huddling tightly enough to offer glimpses of the water. It’s quiet. I run until my breath overwhelms my aural space and the sensation in my lungs overtakes all. The leaves are getting brighter and invite me farther down the path.

Suddenly the trees open up and there is a clearing leading to the water. I turn, leave the trail, allow my pace to slow as I approach the waves. I stretch the tightness out of my hamstrings and watch the inky blue shallows carry leaves as though they’re golden treasures, unexpectedly inherited and loosely held. I don’t know where they’ll be carried, but they’re here right now, and they’re beautiful. The water falls towards its unknown destination; it does not care how many gold pieces join it. A half dozen ducks glide by, or appear to. I know they’re not really gliding; under the calm surface, they’re paddling like mad, just like the rest of us. I decide I’d rather be the water than the ducks, held by the firm steadiness of the rock riverbed, with effortless and natural direction. I wonder if a duck can choose to stop paddling, allow the water to carry it, and survive.

The images stay with me for days. When I try to explain to my husband the warm darkness of the water, the brilliance of the leaves, the rocks that hold the stream and give it direction without ever moving—I can’t find sufficient words. I choke up. He understands, I think, or at least he surrounds me with his arms, and that’s enough.

Perceptions of me are changing. Previously, my struggle, tears, sadnesses had been viewed with a kind of courageous vulnerability. One woman told me, that first semester, that she wanted to sit at my table to see when I cry, because that would signal to her that she should be feeling more than she is. When even my emotions, my falling-apart-ness, were viewed as leadership, I was always on display. When I pointed out that such pedestals are tall and shaky and easy to fall off, people thought that even the falling was beautiful and taught them about themselves, so I was never allowed to fully crash off the pedestal. When I cried that it’s lonely on a pedestal, people said they were there for me, but it was clear that they were there to keep me on the pedestal. Now, students are finally starting to see that my struggle is real and the cost is deep. They still come to me with problems and questions, but more quietly. Most no longer approach me as a rockstar sage, but come to me as a person. They ask how I’m doing, too.

Back in the large classroom for Theology, and the professor is teaching on sin. She summarizes a feminist understanding in which sin for women is not pride, but is essentially a lack, underdevelopment, or negation of self, a dependence on others for self-definition, a deficiency of a center. Not owning one’s self and agency can be an affront to God. And such a shortfall often manifests in service and silence. I recognize this sin in many of my classmates. Is this my silence, too? No: my silence is on the far side of self-hood, a practice in centering and developing my self in order to find my place within community. I recognize that this is not a sinful way of being, it is a spiritual and God-directed practice.

Still, it’s clear that soon I will need to continue to move forward, to allow the waterway to carry me beyond this clearing. Practices and prayers may fit for a time, but they should lead us to a new place, a new way of being. Prayers are a practice of becoming. We each must be ever-moving towards the self we were created to be, the forgotten person we already are.

This paper was written in Fall 2012 for Pat Loughery’s class “Prayer, Practice & Presence.” Students were asked to discuss their spiritual growth and process through the term. It has taken me a year to publish this because I still cry whenever I try to edit it.

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The Sun Salutation

For whatever reason, God has felt distant. I’m from West Michigan, where it’s not unheard of to go multiple weeks without a glimpse of sun. God feels like that lately: I know she must be there, but there have been too many dreary days since I’ve experienced warmth on my skin, since I’ve seen a ray of sunhope to spark serotonin-certainty in my cerebrum.

In an effort to clear the clouds and re-establish contact, I purchased a book of common prayer. The first few days I read from it regularly—morning, midday, and evening—telling myself that even though I didn’t feel anything beyond the words, I would if I could just stick with it. Soon it became a twice-a-day habit, then down to one. At that point, it seemed to have proven itself unhelpful to me, and I stopped attempting to force it.

It was then that I looked closely at those obscuring clouds blocking me from my Creator that I realized they weren’t made of vapor, at least not any less figuratively so than anything else under the sun. Their darkness is a locust swarm of ink smudges, wasp words buzzing, moths teeming toward the light. The mass is the accumulation of words around God, years of it from the Christian publishing industry, the words of many pastors, centuries of liturgies, manuscripts dating back millennia. The prayer book is just my most recent layer, each page creating moth-flies flocking toward the light. I needed to move beyond the words.

My yoga mat was waiting for me in the corner of my closet. I had tried to practice on my own since moving to Seattle, but never felt revitalized, couldn’t keep committed. There’s something to be said for a faith community, for a leader in liturgy. I’ve known for the last year that I needed to find a studio of good people with whom I could practice, but kept putting it off. Knowing this paper was due soon, I used it as an excuse to commit the time and money to reinvigorating my spiritual practice. Sunday night I arrived at a studio to find the temple hidden on my yoga mat, held within my body.

I didn’t know a single person in the studio, yet—as is often the case with yoga classes—there was an immediate sense of unity. In the first few moments, we align our breathing. I think of the tetragrammaton tattooed on my ribs and recite the Sh’ma in my head: Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Eḥad. The still-scabbed four-character name of God was inked the week prior, put on my skin as a reminder that every breath and sigh is an utterance of the name of God. As I use my inhales to lengthen my spine and exhales to bend deeper, it feels true.

As with other spiritual practices, the community sustained me. There are times when I, on my own, wouldn’t have held a pose so long, would have allowed the weakness in my thighs and biceps to win. But I look around at the others in their practice, spine-arches on a ceiling, from my inverted perspective, and I persevere. We breath together. I borrow their energy; I lend them mine. We’re all in this together, I think. We all suffer. Keep going.

We end our practice as dusk is deepening and the golden hour makes the room shine warmly.  Together, we inhale, and together, we exhale an ‘om’. It was powerful – a sound so large, warm, and round that it echoed not only through my vocal chords but my lungs, my body, my very being. My deep contralto grounded the higher notes, an interweaving between us that brought out resonances that were more than the sum of the parts. I choked on a sob, the ‘om’ not the same without me but going on nonetheless. My participation isn’t vital, but it is wanted. And when I can’t participate, the community sustains me. I have never attended a church as openly and calmly supportive.

I don’t think that my spiritual dry spell is over; I’m not naive enough to believe that one yoga class is enough to both clear away the swarm and destroy the nests. I think back to the time period of my conversion: it began with weekly yoga classes, grew to include running, and as I shaped my life around formative practices it exploded to include church service, krav maga, more regular yoga, a young adults group, strength training, becoming church leadership… . No, the problem isn’t solved, and I can’t re-trace the journey that’s behind me. Still, this feels like a move in the right direction, a place to be supported, sustained, and to listen for what God is calling me to next.

This piece was originally written for course called Prayer, Presence, & Practice, taught by Pat Loughery. Students were asked to reflect on their current spiritual practices as they are.

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discipleship: christian yogis, asana disciples

Dallas Willard notes that the church no longer makes disciples, but settles for making converts. The cost of nondiscipleship for the individual is, in short, “that abundance of life Jesus said he came to bring.” For the church as a whole, the cost of nondiscipleship is just as high. Church leaders discuss the problem of people leaving the church, yet I wonder if perhaps it’s more accurate to say that, by no longer offering programs of costly discipleship, the church is leaving people. The asanas, or postures, practiced in yoga could contribute to a discipline that, as Martin Copenhaver notes, helps practitioners to “experience the unity of body and spirit more fully than our [the church’s] current modes of worship do”  and thus support a Christian’s discipleship. Postural yoga offers a worthwhile practice for the spiritual formation of Christian disciples.

The physical, psychological, and spiritual benefits of yoga are well-documented, yet debates continue over whether or not the practice is beneficial or even acceptable for Christians. Andrea Jain writes with frustration of a yogi scholar who “mistakenly bifurcates religious (read authentic) from nonreligious (read inauthentic) yoga.” Yoga, Jain argues, is its own “cumulative tradition.” The practice we know today as yoga is the result of a dialogue between cultures and philosophies, and thus transcends the boundaries of religion as a spiritual practice fitting for anyone who wishes to become closer to God under any name.

Prayer sometimes looks like this.

Some Christians fear that yoga is inseparable from Hinduism and thus is idolatry. To forbid the practice on this basis, writes Sheveland, is to espouse a “container theory of religious identity” that builds walls around religion, shutting off interfaith dialogue before it begins through breeding fear and hatred. Sheveland adds that it is the most committed Christians who are “able to share in and learn from the practices of other traditions without fearing the loss of identity.” Yoga, then, can become a way to not only further a Christian individual’s discipleship of Christ, but also to aid in bridging gaps between faiths, perhaps even as a form of relational evangelism.

The idolatry that does exist in American yoga has little to do with Hinduism but, as Mary Hinkle Shore points out, much more so with “the glorification of beauty and youth … and trust in consumer goods” that we see throughout American culture. Any set of consumer goods that promise a perfect body and happy life has the set-up to become an idol, and this is true not only in yoga but also within the Christian tradition. Prosperity gospels in any form simply are not good news freely offered.

At the heart of the matter is the appropriateness and perhaps even necessity of redefining Christian living. The contemporary Church thinks of prayer as words directed toward God, but throughout the centuries we have seen creative alternatives. Ronald Rolheiser writes that “sometimes other words are used instead of the word prayer … but the essential idea is the same.” He notes that in order to pray always, we must learn to ponder in the biblical sense of “patiently holding [a situation or image] inside of one’s soul, complete with all the tension that brings.” The asanas offered in yoga provide a beautiful way to learn how to carry tension with dignity and peace, a work of the body that trains the soul, often without need for translation or additional effort.

Some Christians are suspect of the understanding or importance of the body in yoga. Losana Boyd writes that her experience of yoga practice lead her back to the Church because she found yoga to be lacking, largely dismissing the benefits. She writes that yoga “can release our attachment to the physical world … by first fully inhabiting the body,” whereas a Christian view of the body is that it has value simply because God created it. Boyd writes as though these two statements are mutually exclusive, but I see them as reflections of one another: the body is valuable (Christian view) and because of that we must fully inhabit it (a practice with which asanas can help). John Sheveland helpfully asks,

““Might asanas influence a Christian’s understanding of herself as a physical body created in the image and likeness of God and thus an object of unutterable dignity, held in being and redeemed by God?”

Such care and respect for one’s body can help Christians better understand what it means to be incarnate and lead us to a deeper understanding of the one-ness of body and spirit.

Another problematic area for some Christians is the definition of sacred. As Boyd “turned back to the Church, the idea of a yoga mat as sacred began to sound spiritually dangerous.” I had the opposite experience. A yoga mat is easily transportable; if anywhere I set it can become sacred, then on what holy ground am I treading without realizing it? Plenty of Christian texts support a paradigm shift of holiness. One of the most notable is Jacob upon awaking from his dream at Bethel. He exclaims, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it!” Nothing has changed in the landscape overnight, only Jacob’s perception of it. This is what a yoga mat can do for the disciple: a simple rectangle that can aid us in seeing any ground as holy, and provoke wonder at what else might be holy but overlooked in its familiarity.

Such re-orientation of a life toward God is the primary goal of discipleship. The discipline of postural yoga can be of aid to a Christian seeking to embody worship and beliefs, and should be accepted and encouraged as a discipleship for those who are called to it.

This piece originally written for Theology of Spiritual Formation with Chelle Stearns. Students were asked to write on discipleship.

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first published piece

For anyone who hasn’t seen me tweeting about this like crazy: The Other Journal recently published a piece of mine called The Sun and the Salutation. It’s on yoga as a prayer practice, and on my struggle to regain the practice during a season of darkness. It’s my first officially published piece, so I’m super excited about it. You can find it here!

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gnosticism and the body

In order to partake of any aspect of life, one must have a body. Eating, drinking, sleeping, even thinking, requires a face, a body, a brain. Just as the body is essential to life, awareness and healthy utilization of the body is essential in living a Christian life.

Within an individual, body and soul cannot be separated out like recyclables. The two are inherently intertwined: “soul and body are inseparably bound together.” Without a soul, the body is merely a corpse without identity. As Karl Barth summarizes, a man “is bodily soul, and he is also besouled body.” Such inherent intertwining is crucial in Christian living: what we do with our bodies carries importance.

I must believe that the God of Everything held this to be true in Her first acts of creation. I believe God is loving, continually birthing every aspect of creation and naming it good. If the physical were to be despised, such a name would not have been given; if it were unimportant, the act would not have been made. In Christianity specifically, belief in Jesus demands that the body be valued, for the divine would not have entered embodiment if it had no value. All is possible with God, and She would have found another way to dispense the information necessary for salvation if it were a mere matter of information. Williams writes, summarizing Irenaeus of Lyons, “the only history to be taken seriously is bodily history, and so the redemption of humanity must be located in bodily history.”  Although this statement is meant with regards to the big history of humanity, I hold the same to be true for individual lives. Our living happens in our bodies, and our bodies carry hurts that our mind may not articulate. Redemption, then, must also be enacted in our bodies, in new ways of living that honor our bodies. “Irenaeus insists upon the continuity of God’s activity,” and so do I, in both humanity’s history and individual stories. In the scale of a single human life, such continuity begins in the promise that comes with conception: God desires this life to exist. We are not abandoned upon exiting the womb, but God’s activity and creation is ongoing throughout the individual’s life.

Our lives as Christians should reflect our devotion to embodiment. Singing, the foundation of most worship services, is a beginning to doing so, moving our experience of self down from our mind and into our vocal chords, lungs, and if we’re paying attention, the vibration of sound through our bodies. To take embodiment seriously, the church should be engaging in more physical worship activities, from yoga to acts of creation, and even including the way we read and study. As Pereira states,

“we are not impartial readers; we are people with bodies, colour, sex, age; our body works, suffers and experiences pleasure, whether we like our body or not, whether others find pleasure in it or not.”

The way we live in our bodies effects the way we read, study, and interpret scripture, which in turn should effect the the way we live in our bodies.

Gnosticism, then, is antithetical to following Jesus Christ. By denying bodily work, gnostics also deny the healing and transformative power of Jesus’ acts. The gnostic teachings miss the significance of the narrative. By “longing to escape from the temporal and the fleshly,” gnostics refuse to live into their bodies and refuse to enter the narrative of Jesus Christ.

This was originally written as part of my final exam for Theology of Spiritual Formation with Chelle Stearns. Students were asked to answer 3 questions in two hours.

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