Although I’ve written about the significance of my yoga practice and Christian ministry for many years, this is the first in an occasional series I’m calling, “What Yoga Has Taught Me About Church.”
Inhale, raise your arms above your head;
Exhale, swan dive;
Inhale, extend your spine;
Exhale, fold forward, hands to the floor;
Inhale, jump or step back to plank;
Exhale, drop down to chaturanga;
Inhale, up dog;
Exhale, back to down dog;
And three breaths …
This flow of body and breath guided nearly 100 people with their mats packed inches apart at the Yoga on High Teacher Training Institute for 108 to Rehabilitate — a group meditation and fundraiser for the studio’s Foundation, which brings trauma-sensitive yoga classes into local prisons.
Teachers spoke of the profound effects of yoga on the inmates — the stories of PTSD sufferers having yoga and meditation diminish or eliminate flashbacks; the stories of how inmates now carried this practice with them while in prison and after release. The teachers’ stories reminded us what, as seasoned yogis, we already knew — that yoga profoundly alters your mind, body and spirit both on and off the mat. We need this practice just as much as the inmates. The only difference between us was our physical surroundings.
With sun peeking around clouds to light the airy rooms, studio co-owner and teacher Marcia Miller started our practice by giving us modifications. We were then left to do as many or as few of the 108 as we wanted. Surya Namaskara, or Sun Salutations, is one of the most basic (and usually first learned) series of poses in yoga.
The number 108 is considered a sacred number of completion or wholeness to Hinduism and yoga. You can find 108 beads on a mala — a strand of prayer beads that engages a practice similar to a Catholic rosary. This day we used our bodies to say the prayer. That body prayer took different outward forms on each person, while our shared breath linked and bound us into a powerful community with palpable, connective energy.
Because I am as much a church nerd as I am a yogi, during the practice my mind explored how like and unlike the practice was to Christian worship (and not just because we were gathered on a Sunday morning). The practice, like any good Christian worship or other religious experience, bring people together through a simple, shared, ritual experience. In this case, an opening chant, the repetitive sound of the teachers’ voices calling out the series of poses and the synced sound of our breathing was all that was necessary to bind strangers into intimate community.
Sweat dripped off my skin leaving trail of dark dots on my purple mat. Half moons of condensation formed on corners of windows that fogged as we increased the rooms’ heat and humidity as much as the energetic vibration. Nearly everyone took a break or modified during the practice at some point. For many, myself included, this practice pushed the boundaries of what I thought I could do.
This boundary-pushing also happens in the Protestant Christian worship I often attend. The element of yoga practice that I don’t always experience in the Mainline Protestant churches I visit is that of challenge. Though Surya Namaskara is considered one of the most basic series of poses in yoga, doing 108 of them over the course of an hour and a half challenges even a seasoned yogi.
Although my practice of Christian ministry has certainly challenged me to grow and change, it’s not usually because of the community’s intention. Too often, I hear church leaders reticent to make people uncomfortable, keeping with the same familiar rituals, practices and programs out of fear that people will give them ‘push back’ and simply quit coming to church if we change what we do.
Here’s the thing: Last Sunday morning, I witnessed an intergenerational group of people pack themselves into a yoga studio in order to be challenged, not only physically, but intellectually and spiritually as their consciousness grew to include often forgot prison inmates.
Over more than a decade of dedicated yoga practice, I have been challenged to do things that I never thought possible in my body. That challenge, coupled with always honoring where I am in the moment, has blown away my perception of myself and what I believe I can do in nearly all aspects of my life.
Although yogis may not name this as such, what I see as Christian grace flows through poses in every class or personal practice I’ve undertaken. Over and over again on my mat, grace reminds me that I am loved unconditionally by God, not so I can remain the same forever, but so that I can be challenged to grow into the human God has always intended for me to be. The community and the practice challenges and allows me to freely make mistakes, take rest and breath when necessary, and step out into new challenges that I never imagined for me or the people around me.
Maybe raising the bar isn’t a bad thing. A little more challenge might be good for the church.