A few years ago, I pulled a leg muscle playing squash and ended up in physiotherapy. During one of my sessions, I asked the therapist what I could do to increase my flexibility. Her answer was immediate and authoritative: yoga.
Yoga? I thought to myself. That’s a weird meditation program. What does it have to do with my leg and my squash game? Tired of being stiff, I decided to give it a try. Like Paul’s Damascus road experience, I was converted. Yoga has changed my life — body, mind and soul.
The first thing I noticed is that yoga is similar to what happens in Sunday worship. We begin with an opening chant. Like a call to worship, it welcomes us, whoever we are, wherever we are at.
As we bend, fold, stretch, breathe and awaken our bodies, we are reminded that different parts of ourselves connect to each other and each has value. It reminds me of Paul, writing about the different parts of the body, each important, each fulfilling a different function, each connected to the whole. A beautiful symmetry of parts, unified by the breath.
The language of yoga is also brilliantly theological. For one thing, yoga is called a “practice.” I like to think that’s what Sunday worship is: practising what we believe, so that we can live more fully.
Throughout the yoga practice, we are instructed to “pay attention” — another theological reminder to experience the sacred now.
We are further encouraged to “let go” and breathe away negativity. These phrases could also describe the practice of confession and repentance, allowing us to embrace the future unencumbered by baggage.
The foundation of yoga practice is breathing. We are called to use the breath — in church terms, the Spirit — to expand our reach, to open our hearts and to enliven our bodies. We are reminded to breathe throughout the week, when sitting in traffic jams, when parenting our children or while working on difficult projects. I found that focusing on my breath instead of on the burning in my legs helped me climb difficult hills on my bike with relative ease.
One significant way a yoga class differs from Sunday worship is that I don’t go to yoga to make friends or develop a community. I’m there to stretch, to work out, to meditate. I unroll my mat in the same spot each week, and I don’t seek eye contact with others. But at the end of the practice, we press our hands together in prayer formation and greet each other with the word namaste, meaning, “The Spirit in me greets the Spirit in you.” It is another word for shalom.
There are days when I’m hesitant to go to class, when I’m feeling tired or lazy. But I persist. And as soon as I get into the flow of the movements, I feel strangely at home. I feel embraced in a gratitude for life. I feel like my body, mind and spirit are one. I forget my inadequacies and my worries; I focus on a deeper stretch, and a grace flows in the unconditional love expressed by the instructor. With every reminder to let go of negativity or awaken our hearts, I feel present to the moment and glad to be alive.
Both yoga and a good worship service invite us to honour ourselves and to love others and the Spirit. Maybe that’s what “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, and your neighbour as yourself” really means when it is practised in the studio, in the sanctuary and in the world.
Rev. John Pentland is a minister at Hillhurst United in Calgary.
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