Opening to the Spirit
Today’s word: Yoga
) I was raised in the heart of the Midwest and can't recall when the word yoga entered my vocabulary. It filtered into awareness slowly, perhaps with all the exploration and openness to alternative cultures of the 70s and 80s. It was vaguely exotic, associated with mysterious Eastern religions, something to do with relaxation, rhythmic breathing, chakras, mantras, focus and mindfulness. Images of torturous poses only trained Olympic acrobats could achieve without bodily injury were intimidating.
Friends in seminary extolled the calming effects of yoga and taught me a few exercises to overcome nervousness and loosen up before approaching the pulpit. Nonetheless, I passed up opportunities to join them for classes, all the while wondering whether or how, in my most anxious moments, yoga or something like it might actually help. I'd known since my teens how to meditate. After all, I reasoned - though convinced of all the benefits, I still found little enough time to actually DO it. As the saying goes, if you're too busy for a tenminute meditation, you should schedule at least an hour.
Fast forward a few decades, and I now have a daughter who's become a certified yoga teacher. I own more than one singing bowl and a mat and cushion. I attend courses online. I do not do exaggerated asanas. My mantras are poetry fragments. I'm learning to be exquisitely gentle with myself: simply stretch and hold, breathe and relax, clear the mind. On any given day as random thoughts persist, I've learned to acknowledge them, letting worries pass through, come and go like visitors. As the teaching goes, welcome them at the front door of the brain and let them out the back door, resisting any temptation to invite them for tea. By now it's become a survival technique.
Yoga, meaning yoke, is an ancient way of bringing oneself into presence, connecting body, mind and spirit. We Western novices can hardly grasp its depth or richness, but I am grateful for even a naïve understanding of this infinite gift from another culture. As for maintaining a beginner's mind, I have no choice. My daughter has become my teacher. It's the perfect pose for me.
) One of my passions is spending time at church camps with young people. Planning activities can be tricky because interests have changed so much since I was a teenager. Three years ago we had a program called “Away Team” that was designed for young people not interested in becoming counselors, who were too old to be seniors but still wanted to be at camp. We spirited them away to a cabin by a lake for four days where we bonded as a group. We climbed the Pinnacle, went fishing at a nearby pond, played frisbee golf, cooked our own meals, and roasted marshmallows over a campfire to make s'mores.
A new activity for many of them was Yoga. My sister-in-law is an instructor. She brought mats to the church hall and taught the teenagers some basic moves. I must confess that I was a bit skeptical and worried that they might become bored. To my total surprise they were quite engrossed with yoga, both the philosophy and the exercises. At week's end one of them even rated it as their favourite activity. I had never taken yoga before, and I am usually the person in a crowd who can't stop moving. Still, there was something mystical, appealing and even healing about this yoga experience.
Perhaps some of you reading this are skeptical like I was. But before you dismiss yoga, I urge you to try it. You may find yourself surprised, challenged, and inspired.
) It might be an exaggeration to say that yoga saved my life. Or maybe not.
There was a time when I had left the church, become agnostic and was caught up in building a career and buying all the accoutrements of an up and coming yuppie life. Suddenly my world was upended by a failed relationship. I didn’t know where to turn for help, nor was seeking out therapy or confiding in a friend a part of my coping skills.
I was floundering when I spotted a simple sign for yoga classes. They offered relaxation techniques and a way to unwind after a busy workday. I went for the unwinding, but I got much more. Yoga brought me back to the basics.
Breathe in, breathe out - get through the next moment. Breathe in, breathe out - let all your muscles relax. Breathe in, breathe out - let go of everything you are holding onto so tightly. By the time I arrived home after that first class, I was happier in my skin than I had been in a long while.
Over time I came to realize the spiritual aspects of yoga. Without referring to spirit in any way yoga can build a bridge between body and soul, leading us to a greater appreciation of the miracle of the human body, nurturing our broken parts, and bringing us a sense of well-being. Yoga practice reminds us that no matter the crisis we are going through, our lives are of great value. We are precious. Breathe in, breathe out know your worth.
One word, three voices this time and now, it's your turn to reflect: Do you practice yoga? If so, what does it do for you?
Rev. Mead Baldwin pastors the Waterville & North Hatley pastoral charge; Rev. Lynn Dillabough is now Rector of St. Paul's in Brockville ON. She continues to write for this column as a dedicated colleague with the Eastern Townships clergy writing team; Rev. Lee Ann Hogle ministers to the Ayer’s Cliff, Magog & Georgeville United Churches; Rev. Carole Martignacco is Consulting Minister to UU Estrie-unitarian Universalists in North Hatley.