Yoga and the Graceful Leader

yoga-1146277_1920A funny thing happened at yoga class today. Jesus and yoga got all mixed up together like a chocolate and peanut butter milkshake, and I love it when that happens because some people think that can’t happen.

The studio was packed when I arrived, with probably 30 people sitting on their mats and chatting. I was a student in this class and elated at the idea of 90 minutes of pure self-absorption.

Sizing up my floor options, the teacher, who is in her 50’s and has been practicing for 30+ years, sidled up and said,

“There’s room at the front.”

“I know,” I said with a laugh. “I’m kind of a back row Baptist.”

“Lucky for you this isn’t a Baptist church, but I like the back sometimes too,” she said smiling and sidled off.

Did I imagine a little antipathy in that comment? Or am I expecting it because of who I am? I am always standing with my feet planted in different worlds, I think it’s my gift actually. I thought of the Christians who’ve been snarky to me about yoga over the years, and smiled to note the yogis still get a few punches in too.

And that’s the way of humans isn’t it? We hunker down with people like us, and lob grenades over the walls we build. No devoted Christian or yogi would ever admit they like homogeneous exclusivity, but from time to time, it sure looks that way.

Anyway, at the front of the room in a sea of white, mostly female faces, I took a spot under a watery blue and green painting with the word joy written on it in gold letters. I thought about the gold cross dangling from my neck and considered how the crucifix sometimes looks weird in a yoga studio, but it’s not like I take it off. Then I wondered what assumptions the teacher made about me when she saw it, or if she even noticed.

It is possible I think too much. That’s why I do yoga.

Twenty minutes into class and breath three of a hard pose, I heard the door of the studio open behind us and heard the teacher say hello.

Do you know what the first rule of yoga is?

You do not arrive 20 minutes late to yoga. Ever. It’s JUST. NOT. DONE. And yet, a small conversation ensued in the back of the room, as I was shaking my way through breath six.

Do you know what the second rule of yoga is?  FIVE is the number of breaths, not six, because…tradition.

Soon enough, the teacher pulled us out of the hard pose and let us rest. Then she began making space for the latecomer, which was tricky because there wasn’t any.

She began gently instructing people to move their mats over and forward and back, like parallel parking in a crowded city.

When we started up again, I saw the newcomer for the first time. She was black, which increased the number of black people in the room by 100%.

Several poses later my teacher asked if today was anybody’s very first attempt at yoga. Guess who raised her hand?

Newcomer.

When it was all over, a number of people, including myself, asked the newcomer how she liked it. She was smiling and said she liked it a lot.

Now, imagine how different her experience would have been had my very wise and experienced yoga teacher chosen rules over relationship, smugly protecting yoga tradition and embarrassing someone who knows nothing about it.

I can promise you there were people in that studio, holding a hard pose and rolling their eyes at the breach in etiquette behind them. I know because if my teacher hadn’t offered grace, I wouldn’t have either. Had she offered sanctimony, I would have done the same.

And I can’t believe that about myself, but that’s why the world needs more graceful leaders.

My yoga teacher acted exactly like Jesus would have in the situation. Jesus didn’t punish people for things they don’t know, he just invited them in and taught them. In so doing, he showed his disciples, who weren’t always inclined toward grace, what graceful leadership looks like.

It’s ok guys, scoot your mats over, there’s enough room for everybody.

Jesus must roll his eyes a million times watching us crave and build exclusivity because we think separation makes us safe. It doesn’t, it makes us fearful. So when someone extends grace, it’s at once scandalous and awesome.

And Christlike.

I guess that’s why I don’t argue with people about yoga anymore. I guess that’s why I’ve quit describing myself as a follower of Jesus, and instead just say I’m a Child of God. The former says something about me and my ability, the latter says everything about God and his.

I don’t know if my yoga teacher follows Jesus or not, but she sure acts like it. She gave us a beautiful lesson in grace today, by just modeling what it looks like in action.

She ended the class by putting us in this pose.

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Photo Credit: Kukhahnyoga’s Blog

It is exactly as hard as it looks and most of us did not look graceful doing it. But I plan to practice it now, to remind myself that grace in action takes much practice.

When done well though, it’s something to behold.

The Lady I Want to Be

IMG_4994Sam and I went to a funeral this week for one of my best yoga students.

She died on Tuesday at age 98. So Sam and I hopped in the truck at dawn and drove back to windy West Texas where the mesquite and post oaks grow.

I met Aline Garrett when she was 92, after I decided to offer a “chair yoga” class to the ladies who live in the local senior apartments. I wrote about it in 2011. 

I had no idea what I was doing teaching yoga to people who may have been alive during World War I, so at our first class, as six slow-moving, Texas farm-wives gathered around, ready to learn yoga, I said,

“Does anybody have medical issues I should know about?”

They looked at each other and immediately I thought: Oh man what did I just say, we only have an hour.

92-year-old Aline, with her grey hair wound into a tiny bun atop her head, thought on it a minute, then held up her right index finger and said,

“My finger is crooked.” Then she giggled.

With that one comment Aline Garrett set the tone for the class forever. We met twice a week and she never missed one. Soon, I started calling her Ms. G and decided, if I get to be 98, I want to be just like her.

In fact, I want to be like her at 43.

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At the funeral home on Thursday, her family sat behind one screened in area, as a Bluegrass trio sang hymns from behind another.

Old-fashioned decorum is alive and well in West Texas farm towns, and it pleased me to think Ms. G was probably bluegrass before bluegrass was cool. I found myself nodding again and again as her 34-year-old Church of Christ pastor shared, with deep knowing, all the things that were great about her.

Without hyperbole or preacher theatrics, he compared her to the Apostle Paul.

I have learned to be content regardless of my circumstances. I know how to live humbly, and I know how to abound. I am accustomed to any and every situation—to being filled and being hungry, to having plenty and having need, and I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength. Philippians 4:11-13

Seriously, that is no small thing, but I think she would have just smiled and shook her head.

I remember sitting with Ms. G at her daughter Aletha’s house, which sat across a big coastal field from ours.

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This was probably a tornado, but that’s not the point.

We were shelling peas at the kitchen counter, when Ms. G began to talk about the Great Depression, and how for Christmas one year, she and her siblings each got an onion.

“Oh and we were happy to have it,” she said.

When she was in her 80’s she flew on an airplane for the first time. She said they gave her a bottle of champagne, announced it over the PA and let her see the cockpit. “Now that was high cotton,” she said clapping her hands and smiling.

Both events seemed to delight her equally.

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Norma (left) and Ms. G. in Warrior II.

In the few years I knew her, I never heard Ms. G say a negative thing about a person or event. Ever. If people were speaking negatively around her, she would look at her hands and sit quietly.

She also loved to read, but when we met she was going blind. Rather than mope and complain about that, she began to memorize long passages of scripture, so she would always have it, even if she couldn’t see it.

Some of her buddies, who were mine too from yoga class, came to the funeral. Although, I haven’t seen them in five years, they treated me like I’d only been on vacation. Bernice squeezed me for a very long time.

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Betty, me and Bernice

This is also how I want to be in the world. Because if you’ve ever mattered to me, you probably still do, despite space and time. Ms. G was like that. She never forgot anybody.

Later,  we gathered at Durwood and Aletha’s for coffee at 4 in the afternoon, just like we used to. There were a pile of new great-grandkids playing in the living room and people rocking in chairs.

Despite having lived in that old farmhouse across the field for only two years, I can think of few places where Sam and I are as woven into family and community as we are in Gorman, Texas. I didn’t realize how precious that is.

Aletha, who is her mother’s daughter to the bone, said to me through tears as we hugged goodbye, “Mother would have loved this, because this is the stuff that matters.”

Je Suis Nice

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Nice, France June 2013

It should be pretty clear by now, nobody knows what to do.

And I find myself asking, “Is this our new normal?” But I keep rejecting that, because God forbid I ever accept as normal, one suffering human taking down hundreds of strangers.

But how do I respond?

Author Anne Lamott has some pretty good thoughts here.  She says Cain is still killing Abel, just as he always has, but grace still bats last.

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Taken from the Promenade des Anglais Nice, France August 2011

My sister lives in Nice.

She was having dinner five blocks from the truck massacre. She and her friends were swept into waves of people running from what they didn’t know. They just knew they should run. The friend she was dining with wrote this in the Huff Post about the experience.

It prompted someone to say on her Facebook page, “that was a little too close.”

Let us not delude ourselves. We are all a little too close now. The idea that anyone can “keep us safe” from a guy driving a truck into a crowd, or the other terrors we imagine but don’t speak, is just foolish.

Unfortunately, this rage, this sickness, this despair is alive to some degree in all of us, and only in that space can a meaningful response begin.

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Castel Plage. Promenade des Anglais. Nice France. June 2013

Don’t believe me?

Pick a tragedy. Ataturk Airport Istanbul. Dallas PD. Bangladesh. Iraq. Orlando. Nice. Did you know there are pages-long lists of terrorist attacks organized by month on Wikipedia?

How did you react to the news of each? Rage? Invective? I alternate between that and sighing defeat, but what does that accomplish? Nothing. It just releases more anger, fear and despair in my orbit.

Maybe you’re not enraged by the carnage.

But how do you react when you see a Black Lives Matter rally? Do you murmur and grumble? Make surly comments? What about Trump and Hillary? I. Can’t. Even.

What comes out of your mouth then? What do you release into your orbit? Certainly, (hopefully) it’s different by degree, but not in nature.

It’s not what goes into a man that defiles him, Jesus said. It’s what comes out.

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Vieux Ville, Nice France. June 2013

Someone told me once, the key to victory in spiritual warfare (and don’t kid yourself, that is happening) is entering the battle bearing the opposite spirit. St. Francis explained it like this:

Where there is hatred let me sow love. Where there is injury, let me sow pardon, where there is despair, let me bring hope. We saw that this week in Dallas. Thank God.

But after Bastille Day, with our Nicoise brothers and sisters lying dead in the street, nothing could be more irrational and impossible. Nothing. Yet, Jesus said to do it, so it must be possible. But He never said it would be easy or cheap.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ He said.  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

To do such an impossible thing, we have to believe that Jesus is the God of impossible redemptions. Which I do.

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Overlooking the Promenade des Anglais

Kindness is the fruit of the spirit I most want to cultivate right now.  So when I find myself shouting expletives at my tv, I try to catch it and consider how unkind that is. It only poisons Sam and me and our home.

What I’m trying to do instead is stay within my circle of influence – controlling the things I can – like my mouth, my interaction with people I love, and my service to people around me.

So I’m choosing kindness when what I want to do is scream. I’m choosing quiet, unseen service to other humans when I want to be selfish and angry. I’m choosing to slow it down and respond carefully in conflict, rather than just reacting in my same old ways.

And I’m choosing to pray and fill this space with beautiful images from one of my favorite cities on earth. Nice. Mon coeur est brise´.

What else can I do?

Maybe this sounds naive in light of the shocking and seemingly relentless terror that plagues the world now. If I could do something about all that rage and violence, I would.

Maybe what I can do is deal with my own.

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#PrayingforNice