Category Archives: Yogic Lent 2012
In 2012, I practiced a traditional Christian Lent…with a yogic twist. This series of blog posts details the Christian observance of Lent while developing a daily yoga practice for the first time. It was a wonderful experience, and I hope my transformation is as meaningful for you to read as it was for me to live. Namaste!
This final week of Lent, I have checked my observances of fasting and almsgiving with the intentions I had when I began this journey. Now it’s time to talk about prayer. I’ve already expressed my struggle with prayer here during Yogic Lent, but part of that struggle is due to a problem with how I defined prayer.
I have traditionally understood prayer to be a verbal expression to God, whether audibly or via thought. That kind of prayer just doesn’t work for me anymore because I can’t seem to find the words, and I don’t think I have an audience. That’s right, the writer has hit a block when trying to converse with God. Even more challenging is the thought that God, as I have known it, is nothing more than a cultural construct. In light (or darkness) of these obstacles, I think I’ve found ways to use yoga, breathing, and walking to express myself in such a way that can make my whole life a prayer—of sorts.
When I’m practicing yoga, sometimes I have these rare moments of clarity, coordination, and connection. It’s usually dependent on synchronizing my breath with either movements or holds, and it works with an asana practice as well as a stationary meditative practice. In those moments, I feel like my whole existence is in tune to something (maybe everything??). My mind is focused solely on being in the pose and breathing; my body is feeling the pose fully while breathing; and my heart and soul feel energized.
Despite feeling unbelievably connected in my yoga practice, it wasn’t until I attended a prayer labyrinth at COS on Friday that I actually saw how my yoga practice could be prayerful. The “service” started with six people, shoes off, sitting in a circle. We each read a verse of Psalm 22 and included “O God, do not be faraway” in responsive sections. Psalm 22 was selected intentionally to help us reflect on the suffering of Christ on Good Friday. We stopped at verse 24, and said the following prayer communally before entering the labyrinth:
“Be with me now, O God, as I seek to follow Jesus of Nazareth on the path of joyful service and prophetic love. Amen.”
On the journey inward, I hung my head in shame as I walked, struggling to keep my feet steady on the narrow path. I was ashamed that in some of my most forsaken and forlorn times, I had more faith in God than I do at this point in my life. I repeated the prayer, “O God, do not be faraway” as I kept walking to the center.
There in the center of the labyrinth, stood my beloved. He waited for me, and as I stood next to him, my head lifted. Filled with gratitude for his presence there with me, I cried a bit as I stood with my eyes closed, especially when he kissed me on each of my cheeks. In all my disbelief, I cling to rituals like keeping Lent, but Dan, with his unshakeable faith, has no need of the rituals, and he typically feels awkward doing them. But he was there without any spiritual need or motivation; he was there just for me. Though he probably didn’t intend for his kisses to be kisses of peace, I felt the peace of Christ fully nonetheless. I realized then, as I have before, that Dan is my great gift from the universe. He makes up for my lacking faith with his overabundance, and his whole life is an outpouring of love for me.
I opened my eyes and walked out of the labyrinth the same way I came in. Though it is literally the same journey I took on my way in, I felt transformed. I couldn’t get the song, “God Will Lift up Your Head” off mental repeat, and I walked back with my head and heart most definitely lifted, full of gratitude.
When we returned to our seats, we finished Psalm 22 and said the following communal prayer:
“Fill me, O God, with the same love, the same courage, and the same mind that were embodied in the life of Jesus. Amen.”
Then we shared how we felt about the experience with one another. I love how the Pastor referred to it as similar to a dance when other people do it together because there were definitely times on my way back that I noticed just how gracefully we flowed around one another on our various winding paths. I am also grateful for having done the labyrinth with other people. Regardless of how different the labyrinth journey was for each of us, we were all on the same journey, and we were all doing it together. That is life.
Even more than the momentary golden nuggets of peace and connection during the prayer labyrinth, I am grateful for understanding that prayer is not limited to verbal expression. Sometimes words don’t work. Sometimes action is necessary. It can be as simple as walking along a path painted on canvas. It can also be a yoga pose or a breathing meditation, and I’m grateful for knowing how to access that kind of expression when words fall short.
When I wake up tomorrow, my Yogic Lenten Season will be complete. Oh yes, there’s a post for that, too. I hope you come back for it.
Thank you for reading! As a reward, here’s a picture of me in the center of the labyrinth.
What’s that? Day 43? What about Lent being 40 days? Well, Lent is practiced for 40 days, but because the Sundays of Lent are days to “break fast,” it actually totals between 46-47 days, depending on the year. So yes, it’s beyond 40 days, and I’m still going strong. Well…maybe not so strong. In anticipation of returning to three meals a day on Sunday, I have been thinking about food all week. I feel bad for my office mate who has endured listening to my tummy grumble, and whenever he talks about all the yummy food he makes, I have to hold back from drooling. I was discussing my plan to nibble on trail mix throughout my days next week to slowly introduce more food back into my diet with another colleague, and she bought me the MOST amazing trail mix this weekend. Between the two of them, I’m finding this last week to be one of the most difficult when it comes to conquering my physical hunger, but I’m ever-grateful for the sustenance of their friendship. My last post detailed the fasting portion of my Yogic Lenten journey, but there are still two other parts to a traditional Lenten observance: almsgiving and prayer, and today I will discuss almsgiving.
In my first post of this series, I defined almsgiving as being translated from “merciful giving,” and I explained that it was a commitment to social justice that transcends Christianity. Whereas the fasting practice in Lent is an individual one, and the prayer element straddles the individual/communal spheres, almsgiving is solely a communal practice. And yet, despite the focus on service to others, it is actually an outward reflection and action of an inner understanding of receiving grace. In practicing almsgiving we are required to fill the gap of need for others, whatever that need may be, with our loving service, and Maundy Thursday is probably the best example of true almsgiving.
Maundy Thursday, as is so beautifully explained by Mr. Andrew Ford on his blog, A Red State Mystic, originates from the Latin mandatum (mandate). Christ commanded (mandated) his disciples to “love one another as I have loved you.” (John 13:34). And Christ loved his disciples with everything. Everything he did was an act of service and love for all creation without restriction.
At this point in Jesus’ ministry, he was about to be betrayed and arrested by one of those disciples. He had just broken bread and drank wine with them, and he taught them (and us) to associate that bread and wine with his sacrificed body and blood, respectively. But he also sacrificed his lordship, too. After the Eucharist, Christ, who was then declared and has since been worshiped as the divine son of God, got down on his hands and knees, and he washed the feet of his disciples. In this act, Christ took on the muck and filth of the world and made his disciples clean. This had nothing to do with how great he was; it was to set the example of how his followers were expected to love and serve others.
Since I’ve been attending Church of the Savior (COS), I have witnessed so many of Christ’s disciples living in this way. They are committed to loving without restriction as well as serving the local and larger community. I have been encouraged and inspired that, aside from doctrine, or translations, or anything else that gets in the way (for me), love is the focus. It is out of this love that so many social justice groups have grown out of the church itself or out of its members.
When I’m not working, doing yoga, or writing, I’ve been meeting with the Peacebuilding Institute of East Tennessee (PIET), the local and founding affiliate of the worldwide Peacebuilding Institute. The Peacebuilding Institute was founded by Reverend Jim Foster, a current COS member, in 1988 as a non-profit organization committed to maintaining a network of peace workers all over the world. The Peacebuilding Institute, now an online network, is a group of independent organizations from many nations which have chosen to affiliate with one another for the purpose of mutual support and encouragement in our worldwide quest for peace. Each affiliate has its own program and governance and chooses when and how to work in concert with others in ways that are mutually beneficial and which advance the cause of global peace.
I had discussed taking a leadership role in PIET with the founder in February, and after the announcement in March, I began work as the director of both the Peacebuilding Institute as well as PIET. Though it began as a non-profit organization, the group has since lost its 501c-3 status, becoming a 100% volunteer organization. While I love volunteering, I can’t realistically expect everyone who provides services for the group to volunteer also, so it is my goal this year to work on regaining the non-profit classification.
I have been most encouraged by PIET members here in Knoxville and Oak Ridge who have volunteered their time, skills, and loving service to revitalizing the Peacebuilding Institute since the beginning of March. Due to their efforts, I am proud to announce the updated website, found at www.peacebuildinginstitute.org. I will be adding a page for the Peacebuilding Institute here on my blog, as well as on Facebook, and I encourage you to like our page to stay updated on current peace events!
In addition to lots and lots of website content development, we have worked tirelessly to bring Knoxville the Second Annual Conference on Violence. Last year’s conference was held in the summer, and it was a specific goal this year to draw in the local student crowd, so the conference will be held Saturday, May 5 from 9:00-3:00pm at Church of the Savior. I’m thrilled that we get to offer the following workshops:
The Economy of Violence, led by COS member, Bob Rundle
Violence in Schools, led by COS member, Ed Sullivan
Domestic Violence in Knoxville, led by the Executive Director of Knoxville Family Justice Center, Amy Dilworth
The Long-term Effects of Violence and Recovery, led by yours truly
If you’re interested in attending the conference, please send me an email at email@example.com and make sure to indicate which workshops you would like to attend. Also, it would be great if you could share this blog post with all the people you think may be interested.
That we’ve completed most of this work in the last six weeks astounds me. And though I can’t quite equate the work I’ve been doing with this group as almsgiving because I directly benefit from developing peace in my own life, I know that I have been transformed by my diligent work and especially the diligence and support of the other PIET members. Connecting with this group has been both life changing and affirming to me, and I look forward to sharing my own peace journey with them. I hardly identify with the servitude of Christ washing the disciples’ feet, but I hope to work towards becoming that kind of servant for peace.
Yet again, I must express my gratitude for participating in the Yogic Lenten Season. Without the perspective I’ve gained from practicing yoga, I could never work full time, do yoga every day, volunteer, write, and fast all at the same time. I should be dead from exhaustion, but I’m not. I should be having a nervous breakdown from all the stress, but I’m not. I have learned to never underestimate the sustaining power of good, deep breaths and precise, coordinated movement.
Thank you so much for reading, and come back tomorrow for my post on prayer!
Holy week is upon us. Anyone unfamiliar with the traditions of the Church would be best served reading this blog post. I doubt its author knows just how grateful I am for his having written it; it saved a lot of time and effort for me this week.
My chief source of happiness at this point is that I can now see the end of Yogic Lenten Season. I only have to make it through this week, and I will have been successful. Though I am anxious and trying not to think about what daily life will look like without this commitment, I’m ecstatic to see a project of this magnitude come to a close. Consequently, now seems to be the appropriate time for a goal check. In the first post, I explained that my goal with this project was “to let the discipline of yoga and practice of meditation focus my willpower so that I can commit fully to the practice of Lent,” and, I explained that Lent was traditionally the collective observance of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. Today I will focus on and share my fasting observance throughout this process.
I have learned a lot about my body chemistry through fasting, and when Lent is finished, I plan to introduce multiple daily meals back into my diet using the foods in the Paleo diet. I think Lent’s fasting has set a good stage for developing the self control I’ll need for making wise, healthy food choices for the rest of my life, and though there were some challenges (and rewards) with my biochemical responses to food, I found the practice of fasting to be relatively unremarkable.
Then Friday before yoga class, I read a passage from Thomas Merton’s The Way of Chuang Tzu. “Fasting of the Heart” tells the story of a young Confucian disciple who, noticing the state of political unrest in Wei, felt called to go there and provide relief to the people. Confucius tells him,
You do not realize what you are doing. You will bring disaster upon yourself. Tao has no need of your eagerness, and you will only waste your energy in your misguided efforts. Wasting your energy you will become confused and then anxious. Once anxious, you will no longer be able to help yourself.
The young disciple suggests a possible alternative reasoning to support the same decision, and Confucius explains the flaws in that argument as well. This repeats a third time, and Confucius chides the disciple for having too many plans of action. He then tells the student that he must fast. “Do you know what I mean by fasting? It is not easy. But easy ways do not come from God,” Confucius told the disciple.
I knew the purpose of fasting in Lent was to become more dependent on God as I practice self-denial, and I set that as a sort of goal for this traditional Lenten observance. But I felt that fasting was easy, and reading this, I will agree that the practice did not feel inspired by God; nor did it bring me closer to God.
The Confucian disciple felt the same way about fasting. He told Confucius, “I am used to fasting! At home we were poor. We went for months without wine or meat. That is fasting, is it not?” Confucius conceded that though it was observing a fast, it was not a “fast of the heart.” Confucius explained:
The goal of fasting is inner unity. This means hearing, but not with the ear; hearing, but not with the understanding; hearing with the spirit, with your whole being. The hearing that is only in the ears is one thing. The hearing of the understanding is another. But the hearing of the spirit is not limited to any one faculty, to the ear, or to the mind. Hence it demands the emptiness of all the faculties. And when the faculties are empty, then the whole being listens. There is then a direct grasp of what is right there before you that can never be heard with the ear or understood with the mind. Fasting of the heart empties the faculties, frees you from limitation and from preoccupation. Fasting of the heart begets unity and freedom.
Though I did not have Confucius’ understanding of fasting when I set out on this journey, I feel this is what has actually happened to me; I just thought it had more to do with the daily discipline of yoga practice. I wasn’t struggling as much with fasting, so I perceived a diminished transforming effect in comparison with yoga. But to compare my goals with what Confucius stated above, these were my goals on day one of Yogic Lenten Season:
I hope to have more self-control. I hope to be present in and grateful of each moment. I hope to be more patient with myself and with others. Mostly, I hope to lose: to lose the toxins in my physical body as well as the plagues of my mind and spirit. I hope that, in my strict adherence to the disciplines of what I put into my body, what I do with my body, and how I think in my mind, I will find liberation from both my body and my mind
I think fasting has definitely helped my self control, and it has been an important factor of gaining and maintaining a physical purity that thereby allows for greater mental clarity and focus. I also feel that fasting has had a liberating effect on me. I feel physically lighter, of course because I’m putting less in, but also because what I eat gets to serve its purpose of sustaining me without sticking around long enough to actually damage my body. I also feel more energetic because of my wisely chosen sustenance. This energy allows me to stay disciplined and devoted, and I am learning that daily discipline is what creates true change. In this way, fasting and observing a Yogic Lenten season has created a ritual for my focus and fostered more discipline in my actions.
With a greater sense of self control, and with clear, focused energy, I think fasting has been more transforming than I ever expected, and I am grateful for noticing the changes. I’m also excited to see yet another connection between how my physical, tangible actions can have mental or intangible reactions–a yoking of my body and mind, which is a fundamental goal of Raja yoga. To observe energy manifesting itself in this way encourages me to be even more devoted. I am also encouraged when Patanjali says this in the Yoga Sutras, “Practice is the effort to secure steadiness. This practice becomes well grounded when continued with reverent devotion and without interruption over a long period of time.” I hardly think 38 days is a significant amount of time or energy to classify as true devotion, but that’s because I compare the energy exchanged over this speck of time to the previous 14 some odd billion years of energy’s existence, so everything feels insignificant. But being present in this moment and with this understanding, I am aware of the minutia, and I do see an increased steadiness (or maybe steadfastness) as a result of my devotion these last 38 days.
When it comes to the fasting observance of this Yogic Lenten season, I am grateful to have gained this perspective, even if only in the last few days, and I’m encouraged to see that I was more successful than I thought I had been. As this holy week continues, I plan to focus my next Yogic Lenten Season post with a discussion of my observance of prayer and almsgiving. Please check back this week for another update.
Thank you, always, for reading. I am amazed every day I get a new subscriber or see that my blog has been read some random place like Moldova. We are connected by the ideas that are shared here, and I am beyond grateful for you and for that connection.
I came across this picture just now, and it made me chuckle. I know I’ve thought as much to myself both in class and practicing at home at various points throughout my practice.
Though most of the Yogic Lenten Season has been positive, introspective, and even philosophical, this picture made me sardonically think of the poses that I hate. There aren’t many, and they all have the same thing in common. Pretty much I think they’re just wrong for my body type right now, and this is me trying to have a sense of humor about the whole situation.
Hate is a strong word, so I’ll start with the ones I know I don’t actually hate and instead say I have a vehement loathing of anything seated and forward-bending. Those poses just plain suck for me. I have a feeling it’s just my own body getting in the way, which doesn’t do anything positive for my body image or confidence. Either it’s my thighs, or my belly, or the combination of trying to get the two so close to one another, despite the fact that they’re touching already! Though my first thought is that my body is part of a maligned plot to make even the simplest of yoga poses troublesome for me, deep down I really know that those poses just do not work for me at this stage of my practice. I still do them secretly (now not so secretly) hoping that one day all those bits of me will actually turn into bits instead of their present condition as masses of lumpy cellulite. For now, the only thing about those poses that I am grateful for is that everyone else is looking down and not forward.
But the pose I actually hate and think of how much I hate every single god-forsaken time I’m in it…is…child’s pose. I thought of this even more today because Yoga Journal linked this article on Facebook. As soon as I saw the title of the article, I cringed. I actually have to stop myself from silently screaming expletives in my own head when I’m in this pose. I’m sure a large part of my hatred of child’s pose is also the thighs, stomach, breast issue of just having too much. Cramming all that body into such a small space does not “release compression on my lower back.” It makes it hard to breathe, and it makes me feel like there’s something deeply psychologically wrong with me that I have such an aversion to something that’s “supposed” to be a place of calm and rest.
Maybe it’s the resemblance to fetal position that bothers me. I don’t feel particularly nurtured while I’m in it, and I’m certain that being a 100% unwelcome presence as a fetus probably has something to do with that. I will admit that a lack of bonding and/or positive interactions with my egg and sperm donors early in life definitely took its toll on my ability and/or desire to connect with people as life has moved forward. In fact, the only people I let physically close enough to me to get near even the approximation of a fetal position are my husband and my dog, Moose (Yes, I classify him as a “people.” You would too, if you met him and saw him respond to complex sentences.) But even then, I don’t like to be crowded, and I’ve never sought out the fetal position in times of distress like most people do. Yet, I still do the pose because hopefully one day I will find comfort in it, that and what other “recovery” poses are there? Down-dog? I’ve done that one so long my hands and arms have fallen asleep. Something in me thinks that’s not the intent for that pose. Savasana? Please see this post for why that’s not good for me right now either.
I wish I could do more vinyasa or bikram yoga. If I stayed active and moving, then maybe I wouldn’t have to “get in touch with my inner child,” and I wouldn’t hold any pose long enough for anything to fall asleep. But I don’t control my breath enough (yet) to keep up with a vinyasa, and something about excessive heat/humidity turns me into an instant bitch, which I think may be an impediment to reducing stress and anxiety.
So that’s my vehement loathing/hate relationship with my most despised yoga poses. I know, I know, it’s a process. I’ll get there. Change doesn’t happen overnight. Yadda, yadda, yadda. I get it. Don’t try to tell me any of that when I’m in child’s pose. I may actually let one of my silent expletives escape. If you do yoga, what poses do you struggle with? And if you mention a pose from fourth series Ashtanga or higher, I’ll give you the evil eye via the Internet. You’ve been forewarned.
Thanks for reading. I’ll try to have a less sardonic post next time. Life (and yoga) isn’t always a mat of roses.