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.”

Love Jesus and Yoga?

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Recently, a Jesus-following friend expressed deep concern about my yoga practice. She believes I am in grave danger and felt compelled to warn me.

Isn’t that an amazing kindness?

For some of you, living in busy urban areas where yoga studios and coffee shops are equal in number, that’s crazy talk, but I live in the Bible belt where a lot of people consider yoga demonic.

I don’t. Let’s talk about it.

I am hardly the first to weigh in. In fact, if you Google Can Christians … “do yoga” autocompletes fourth after drink, eat pork and get tattoos. Opinions vary, but one article said by practicing yoga you’re unconsciously offering worship to Hindu gods.

Wait, what? Unconscious worship?

Maybe I don’t understand the meaning of those words, but I think that phrase is an oxymoron at best, fear mongering at worst. So I had an imaginary conversation with the writer.

Anti-Yoga Writer – “I don’t believe yoga can be separated from Buddhism, Hinduism and/or the occult. I think you’re wandering around in idol worshipping territory.”

Me – “Do you meditate?”

AYW – “Yes. The Bible tells us to meditate on scripture.”

Me – “Did you know Hindus meditate too?”

AYW – “Of course, but I don’t meditate on Hindu texts.”

Me – “So when you meditate, you choose the object of your focus, and meditation is the vehicle?”

AYW – “Basically.”

Me – “Interesting.”

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Survival is her focus right now. Photo: Robert Bejil


Yoga As Vehicle

A lot of yogis try to calm the fears of their Christian students by insisting yoga is nothing more than exercise, but that just isn’t true. We rob it of its power by promoting that. Oh oh. Yoga has power?

It does.

Yoga’s secret sauce lies in its ability to cultivate a calm, working relationship between our bodies and our minds. There is nothing in Western culture I know of that does that more efficiently than this 5,000 year-old Indian practice with its Hindu roots. Perhaps that’s why it is prescribed for sexual abuse survivors, traumatized refugee populations and soldiers with PTSD.

Done well, in good sequence, the poses demand a singular focus on breath and movement, which is why after a well-taught class you’ll be sweaty, breathing deeply, with a calm, quiet mind.

When was the last time you experienced those three things at once?


On Focus

I can spot the moment in my classes when people really start to focus.

Are they focusing on Buddha, Jesus, Hanuman, Shiva, nail polish on their toes? I have no idea. Their thoughts are their own, and how absurd would it be for me, a non-Hindu, to encourage some sort of Hindu observance? Asking them for long spines, soft hamstrings, quads on the edge, a level sacrum, and ujjayi breathing, while standing on one foot is plenty.

Yoga

“Ok but what about the giant Buddha on the wall,” says anti-yoga writer.

I know people will disagree with me here, but I’m open to that.

Thought #1 I feel about Buddha or Shiva statues exactly as I do about pink flamingoes in your yard. You like them, but they are meaningless to me. I love to shop at Pier 1 and there are a thousand Buddhas in there. Should I avoid that store? Am I really that suggestible? Do people follow Jesus because they saw a cross once? Come now.

I think the average Pier 1 shopper, (certainly not all, but many) who buy Buddha statues, exhibit the same dedication to Buddhism they do to Christianity – observing the easy parts, and ignoring the hard ones. I know some committed Buddhists, and they are remarkably disciplined. Spiritual devotion will cost you deeply. Statues at Pier 1 will cost you $12.95.

Photo: Ann Harkness

This costs something. Photo: Ann Harkness

Thought #2 –  My goal is to be so filled with the light and love of Jesus that you won’t see me anymore, you’ll only see him – certainly a lifelong and costly endeavor. Therefore, when I walk into a yoga studio, a medium security prison full of maximum security offenders, or down the street in Santa Cruz California, a town known for it’s tolerance of every possible spiritual practice, my aim is to be as light there as I am anywhere else. Same person. Different place.

So do I teach “Christian yoga?” No. I teach yoga. Square your hips, engage your locks, drop your tailbone and hold for five breaths. Modify if you like, but dismiss the voices saying you can’t. And if you can hold hanumanasana and smile – rock on!

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Hanumanasana

The funny thing is, I work for a Christian NGO that sends me to Africa a couple times a year. Often, my yoga students, who may or may not be Christians, ask me about that, and I happily tell them about my job and my Jesus.

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 1Peter 3:15

These conversations happen under a big picture of a silent Buddha. I have nothing against Buddha, in fact, my childhood nickname is Booda, but I follow Jesus because I need God to tell me, in real time, when to open my mouth and when to shut it, and that he loves me.

Jesus does that regularly.

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Who is she worshipping? Maybe no one. Maybe she’s just holding Warrior I.

There are countless out of shape, stressed out, pharma-dependent Christians, whom yoga could help, but I think many are afraid to show up in a random class in case someone is bowing to Shiva, which they sometimes do.

But millions of Indians bow to Shiva every day, does that mean you should never go to India? What a pity. The Taj Mahal is awesome. Devotion is an act of will, into which nobody can trick or force you. Use your holy discernment.

For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love and self-discipline.

II Timothy 1:7

Your polite, thoughtful comments are most welcome.

*As ever, my thoughts are my own, not those of my employer.