Pose by Pose: Amen and Om
Over the years, my practice has waxed and waned, but inside me beats the heart of a Catholic yogi. When I recently returned to yoga class at my local YMCA, I was not on my sticky mat five minutes before I could feel myself smiling, my shoulders relaxing, and my heart singing. Different types of prayer methods work for different people and, for me, one thing is clear: Yoga is my entry into prayer, even in a sweaty, crowded YMCA studio.
Most people in this country don't do yoga as a spiritual practice. They do it because it helps their backs, or makes them more flexible. But I always hope for the daring YMCA teacher who inserts spiritual elements into a class. I don't do yoga to lose weight or get stronger, although those are surely side benefits. I do yoga to find that still, silent space at my center, where God can enter in.
Think of your own prayer life for a moment. Does kneeling help you enter more deeply into prayer? Does lying prostrate before an altar convey a sense of total surrender before God? In much the same way, yoga uses physical positions to help us reach spiritual heights, whatever our faith tradition.
As I stood on my mat last Sunday, listening to my teacher walk us through some difficult poses, he reminded us that we need to look at ourselves with compassion when we can't get something right, and he urged us to let that gentleness emanate outward when we left class. Yoga is about compassion.
My Monday night teacher, who belongs to my parish, starts each class by asking us to bow our heads and think about the "intention" we have for our practice. How beautiful and perfectly complementary to the intercessory prayer we practice as Christians. She always ends the class by saying: "Shanti (peace), shanti, shanti. Peace in our hearts, peace in our homes, peace on our planet." Yoga is about peace.
Finally, every yoga class ends the same way, with hands held in prayer position over the heart as we bow slightly to each other and say, "Namaste," which means, "the divinity (or light) in me bows to the divinity in you," not so dissimilar to the way Benedictine monastics have always bowed to "the Christ in each other" as they process in and out of choir. Having grown up believing that my body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, this practice echoes my own Catholic beliefs. In fact, I should take that posture and attitude toward more people in my life, not just those on the mat next door. Yoga is about recognizing the presence of God, in ourselves and in the world around us.
I think a lot of fear and confusion stem from the unknown. People don't know what to make of the strange Sanskrit words, the poses with animal names, the chanting. There is a sense that if you do yoga, you must be exploring Hinduism or at the very least looking for something outside Jesus Christ. But nothing could be further from the truth for faithful Christians who use Eastern traditions to strengthen our prayer lives. We are not there to be converted away from our faith but to grow stronger in it through methods that influence our Catholic spiritual lives in powerful ways.
Many traditional Catholic devotions don't work for me. I'm really not that good at saying the Rosary. I struggle with the Liturgy of the Hours, even though I continue to pray it as often as possible. But the physicality of yoga as a way to enter into meditation? That feels as natural to me as breathing. And as I breathe in and out and bring my body to a point of stillness, I can feel myself inching closer to God, pose by pose.
Mary DeTurris Poust is a Catholic blogger, author and columnist. Her most recent book is Walking Together: Discovering the Catholic Tradition of Spiritual Friendship (Ave Maria Press). Visit her blog at www.notstrictlyspiritual.blogspot.com.