Practicing Yoga

The first time I walked into a yoga studio, I looked around and did what the others were doing — got a mat, sat down cross-legged, and quietly waited for instruction. I hadn’t done any research, had no idea what I was getting into, and struggled to mimic the poses that were being demonstrated at the front of the class. I was a distance runner at the time, so I was in great shape for running, but I had little to no upper body strength, a poorly-developed core, and little to no flexibility — physical or mental. I ended the class feeling frustrated and nauseous and didn’t try yoga again for a long time.

When chronic pain and fatigue ended my running career, I joined a gym. My regular routine included thirty minutes on an elliptical trainer, light weight lifting, and then some restorative movement in the warm saltwater therapy pool. Once in a while, I joined a pilates class. I stayed in that rhythm for a year or so, and then my daughter gave me a month-long membership at a yoga studio. I decided to give yoga another try.

Since I had only had one previous experience with yoga, and that had ended badly, I asked my friend to go with me. I’m so glad I did. Without her, I was the only ‘mature’ woman in a room filled with college students. The instructor was a young man whose body reminded me of the bendable figures our oldest son used to take with him on long car trips — I’d never seen such a strong and limber human. To make matters worse, it was an advanced vinyasa flow class. If you know what that means, you know that I was in the wrong room at the wrong time. I tried to keep up, but I didn’t know the poses, or the vocabulary, and I still had neither the strength nor the flexibility for much more than child’s pose.

Child’s Pose


Sure, my inner soldier made a valiant attempt. I tried to move through a vinyasa, even though the word was brand new to me. I tried to be any kind of warrior — I would’ve settled for one, two, or three. I pretended to be a mountain, but what that class taught me was that I needed to take the posture of a child — physically, mentally, and emotionally — and start to become comfortable with learning a new way.

Lesson #1: You don’t learn a new way over night.

That class was a few years ago. Since then, I’ve been practicing yoga. I’ve been learning how to breathe. I’ve been building core strength. I’ve developed some vocabulary and even some flexibility.

I often say, “God is always preparing you for what’s next.” In school, we first learn letters and sounds so that we will be prepared to read words. Once we have some vocabulary, we can begin to read sentences. Sentences lead to paragraphs which lead to stories which lead to all the ways that print can open up the world for us.

Menial jobs like babysitting or lawn mowing provide opportunities to learn the basic practices of showing up on time and finishing a task. They build experience, or muscle, that enables us to take on more difficult jobs such as food service or sales. These jobs teach us about working in teams and being able to adapt under pressure — they teach us flexibility.

All of life is preparing us for what’s next. When, as children, we learn how to line up and take turns, we are learning the basics of how to function with others. When, in adolescence, someone says something unfriendly about us, we feel the pain that reminds us to treat others with kindness. When we experience our first heartbreak and someone listens to us as we cry, we learn how important it is to be compassionate. When we face the many challenges of juggling finances and deadlines and friends and work, our core strength is being established. All of life is practice — practice for what’s next.

In advance of my soldiering years, I had several experiences that built up my stamina and developed a fearlessness that allowed me to step into responsibility and to manage difficult situations. God had given me what I needed; He knew what was coming. When those years were over, He provided an opportunity for me to learn a new way, but first He had to teach me how to be still. He had to remind me to breathe.

When I first started practicing yoga, I thought it was weird that the first 5-10 minutes and the last 5-10 minutes of the practice focused on stillness and breath. How could I get stronger by being still? How could bringing my attention to my breath have any lasting impact on my physical body? In my mind, exercise was about exertion, pushing the body, and burning the calories. These messages — remnants of the soldiering years — had to be put aside. Although the way of yoga seemed strange to me, I moved into child’s pose and began to learn to listen to the sound of my own breath, to watch the rise and fall of my body, and to pay attention to how I feel physically.

This way is new to me. I have long walked/trudged/powered through life giving attention to my body only when it cried out in pain or shut down in illness. Then I have patched it up as quickly as possible and resumed my forward motion. And my body has suffered, but not just my body. I have also ignored my emotions. And my spirit. I have put myself on a course with the goal of finishing. Period.

But in this chapter, I find myself over and over again in the posture of a child, often helpless and crying, needing to learn a new way. And, as my pastor said this morning, new ways are “not something we arrive at, but something that we practice”.

So I’ll continue to practice — yoga, yes, but also returning to my spiritual practices of prayer, Scripture, worship, and community. These are the practices that have been re-shaping me, re-wiring me, re-pairing me, and pre-paring me for whatever comes next.

 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 1For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.

2 Corinthians 4: 15-16
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The Essential

I rushed into yoga this morning, grabbed my mat, found a place on the already crowded floor, and assumed the position — lying  flat on my back.  The instructor likes us to start supine. We spend several moments listening to our breath and quieting our minds.

I noticed right away that my mind was a little extra frantic this morning. I heard her voice in the background saying, “Quiet your mind….Connect to the breath…” but I heard my mind saying, “But…but…but…what about the bills that need to be paid? What about the fact that I did such a mediocre job teaching yesterday? What about the election? What about our children?”

“Connect to the breath.  If it’s helpful, repeat to yourself, ‘inhale, exhale’.”

Sometimes while we are in this stage of the yoga class, the instructor will say, “Set a purpose for your practice today.  What is your intention?  What would you like to focus on?” I typically pick a prayer that I want to repeat over and over again.  Usually it is something like “Thank you.” or “Heal me.”  I repeat this phrase over and over again while I breathe.  It’s my attempt — albeit often feeble — to turn my focus away from myself — my body, my pain, my worries, my agenda — and aim it in the direction of God.

Today, when I noticed that extra layer of anxiety, I asked myself, “What is going on? Why are you so amped up?”

“Hmmm,” I answered. “Could it be that you have made yourself so busy that you haven’t been spending time in prayer and Bible study? Again?”

“Mmm-hmmm.”

I was totally busted.  As much as I ‘set my intention’ for life — my intention to be balanced, my intention to take time for self-care, my intention to put God first — I get caught in the immediate and forget the Essential.

The immediate screams out for me — the email from the student, the phone call from the husband, the laundry, the grading, the projects.  And, you know, the essential sits quietly on the sofa, sipping tea, waiting for me to realize that it’s sitting right there, waiting for me.

The immediate whines and begs, grabbing onto my arm and dragging me down.  The essential says, “You know, you always feel better after we spend time together. I feed you. I listen.  I care. I nurture.”

Yes, You do. You were patient enough today to wait for me while I did my yoga, went to the chiropractor, prepared for tomorrow’s class, and made myself some lunch.  And then, when I finally sat next to You on the couch and picked up the book You’ve been holding out to me, the first chapter said, “The Sabbath is a basic unit of Christian time, a day the Church, too, tries to devote to reverence of God and rest from toil.”  It’s like You couldn’t wait to blurt it out — You had to speak while you had my attention. I chuckled to myself, put that book aside and opened my devotion to the page that said, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” Yes, yes.  It is Yours, is it not?  It is not mine to worry about.  I don’t have to be frantic.  I can take the time to ‘devote reverence to [You] and rest from toil’.  I can. I must. It’s essential.

Mark 6:31

“Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”