I was a bit apprehensive, hoping I wouldn’t collapse, but also quietly confident about what I would experience. One year ago, December 8, 2013 I was in a very hot room in Hawaii. My path to Bikram Yoga surprised me…but there I was.
My journey to yoga didn’t come without doubt; nor did I engage it without openness to enlightenment. My story, in part, is one of adherence to and departure from orthodoxy; I served as a Lutheran pastor for 14 years, but I’ve moved beyond that framework and am no longer a practicing Christian.
With no formal background, and limited knowledge of yoga, I jumped in. My conscious goal one year ago was to attend for as many days out of 30 that I could handle. I thought a 30-day intensive yoga treatment would either make or break my back and the experiment would be over. I was wrong. My experiment exceeded expectations. My will galvanized, I continued practicing.
During this last year, I took notes after each of my 141 visits to the studio. I felt it was important to track and reflect on my experience. After 30 days, my conclusions were quite simple and clear. I asked this question: “Feel good, convinced yoga is the way to go for healing back and other health issues. It’s so simple, why don’t more people do it?”
I decided to keep attending because I had also learned that dedication to this disciplined and intense practice of asana in a heated room would benefit me in other ways. I was eager to discover how.
Since leaving the church body, I’ve swallowed medicine that has at times been difficult: heaping tablespoons of risk, displacement, grief, deep travel and relinquishment. Out of this, a periphery has become center and provided me a new way to reclaim an old orthodoxy.
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In 1997, while living in Michigan, I fell from a roof and landed on a metal ladder. The resulting injury stayed with me – often compromising my ability to lift or sit. Back pain was a frequent, unwelcome companion. But after moving to Hawaii in 2012, seeing and hearing numerous advertisements for yoga and its claims to heal, I decided to try it.
I’d never tried yoga, knew little about it, but had seen it practiced in 1979 when traveling to India. At the time, I couldn’t figure out what people were doing. They appeared to be in pain. I thought it was an unfortunate expression of bad growth or a malevolent bone contortion. I didn’t realize they were bending in extreme ways on purpose. I had much to learn.
Following that first trip to India, I began studying Eastern Religions, the work of Carl Jung, process and mystic Christian theologians. This lead to my seminary education and a 14-year career as clergy. I was conscious of St. Paul’s behest that the body is a temple of the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 6:19-20), but also aware of the void in most Christian history for establishing a healthy link between spiritual and bodily health.
During the 70s and 80s, I continued studying, my academic goals culminating with MA’s in Divinity, English, and a Doctorate in Ministry. In all those years, I cannot recall a single class or discussion – EVER – on yoga. In my experience, attention to physical health and Oriental thought was a blind spot in my education.
Over this last year, I’ve been surprised by what I’ve learned about yoga by reading, but also by what I’ve learned in my practice and reflections. First, my dream-life changed. Figures that had been part of my dreams for years have been altered in their relationship with me. I believe it reflects that something deep in my psyche has changed too. Recently, while dreaming, a real person that’s been in my dreams for 40-years spoke to me saying, “Something has changed.” This phrase has become, for now, my mantra.
In another surprise, I stopped drinking alcohol. This happened without planning or foresight, but simply came about as I thought about how hard I was physically pushing myself to be healthy. After I drank alcohol, I started asking myself why I was doing something that seemed to be antithetical to the excruciating work I was doing in the yoga room. It seemed stolid of me to drink or eat anything that made my practice harder. It was already very hard. One day I decided not to drink alcohol because I planned on practicing the next day. The pattern simply continued.
It may be the luck of having hearty parents, but I’ve always been eager to take on physical challenges. I’ve done Triathlons, was a lifelong weightlifter, runner and I played college baseball; but in each of those situations, the confrontation was diluted by use of a ball, opponent, time, track, weighted bar or weight machines.
Yoga is much different; it’s a 90-minute confrontation with self and what lies within. Its equipment consists of a mat and a towel. My decision to give up alcohol was made simple; I wanted to give this self-confrontation the best effort I had. To do so, I thought I needed to put myself in a completely uncompromised position with all my faculties fully available.
When it comes to focus, concentration and keeping relaxed in stressful situations, that too has changed. I notice it every day but especially when driving my motorcycle or playing music. When job interviewing, I’ve carried a calm energy that has transformed a potentially stressful situation into a pleasant conversation; this has happened four times in the last 10 months.
My yoga teachers say yoga in a hot room puts us in a stressful situation so that we learn to relax mind and body in the midst of stress. It works by the combined alchemy of bodily stretching, compression and extension all done in a hot room. As for physical benefits, there are many.
Bikram yoga challenges practitioners with a series of three poses that are together called the “spine-strengthening series.” Each of the three is extremely hard to do, but centimeter by centimeter, each posture has flexed and strengthened my spine.
Now when I get up in the morning, I no longer have a sore back. I bend easily and fluidly. This is a big change from the days when I felt I had to watch every little step or back bend so that I didn’t injure my back. I remember the days of pain when reaching for cream on a lower shelf in the refrigerator. I’m grateful it’s only a memory.
The truth I’ve reclaimed though, through yoga, is that I never really liked drinking in the first place. Oh I did it. I did plenty. But I was never comfortable with the diminishment of my faculties that alcohol brought. So why did I drink alcohol for 40-years? I suppose it was to fit in, or to feel the slight euphoria as the first physiological response to alcohol.
But now that I’ve stopped, I feel as though I’m back to my future, reclaiming my truth. “Something is different.” I don’t expect anyone else to do what I did. I’m only sharing what I’ve claimed, which has become my satyagraha (truth force).
While I’m not part of the church anymore, it was a large part of my life and identity for many years. Some of this was very good and I honor it. I still bless my mentor who taught me the wisdom of inclusivity and the depth of SHALOM. I still appreciate the Christian emphasis on keeping your word. I appreciate and miss my peers and the ways they shaped and challenged me. I honor the notion of forgiveness, and appreciate the tradition’s attempt to grapple with evil, but I make no claims about it. I’m only trying to live into the meaning of practical righteousness.
Seminary education taught me that righteousness is not correctly seen as a haughty attitude born of pride for keeping the commandments; but righteousness (dikaiosune) is that which is fulfilled when a person lives in faithfulness to his/her deepest calling. This kind of righteousness is inclusive, it can embolden anyone. In that sense, it’s even possible that practicing yoga is my righteousness. I believe time will tell.
But perhaps the deeper emotional note is a new embodiment of an old idea in my theology and story. I was always moved by the liturgical exchange over bread and wine. In it, the leader chants or speaks these words to the people, “Lift up your hearts.”
The people respond, “We lift them to the Lord.”
For many years, I led that portion of the exchange, lifting my arms while chanting those words. It was always meaningful for me when we offered up to God, in a symbolic way, the heart from our bodies. Physically, the offering was simple. We stood, we sang. Each person gave their spiritual offering in their own way. It was their work, and I never questioned what others did or didn’t do.
Recently, Bikram Yoga in Kona brought a senior teacher named Lucas Miles to our studio; he conducted a highly skilled and informative three-hour workshop for about 30 people. In addition to practicing most of the 24 asanas specific to the Bikram style, Miles provided updates on the physiological benefits of such work and technical adjustments for each of the postures. But it was in the posture known as Camel Pose (Ustrasana) where his teaching lead to new awareness and embodiment.
Ustrasana is the deepest backbend in the series; it creates maximum compression of the spine. It’s written that improvements from doing this pose include: stimulation of the nervous system, flexibility of the neck and spine, relief from constipation and stimulation for throat, thyroid and parathyroid glands.
All of this is true, and my teachers always say that it is an emotional posture. Sometimes people come out of it in tears or in laughter. In class, we are reminded that an emotive reaction to the camel pose is normal and okay.
In workshopping Camel pose, Miles clearly pointed to the heart as the organ which should be at the highest level during this deep backbend. He may have even said, “Lift up your hearts.” I don’t remember exactly how he said it when stressing the importance of making one’s heart the highest point of the body in that pose, but what I heard was my own voice chanting, “Lift up your hearts.”
Into the full backward bend, from my knees, I pushed forward with my torso; at the same time, I dropped my head back, lifted my chest and heart upward. From a deep place, the grief and celebration of my past hit me hard and fast: I heard the plaintive notes of an organ; I was at an altar in Michigan, Ohio or Wisconsin; I envisioned Abraham lifting the body of his son, poised to strike his heart. I was sweating in a hot room in Hawaii.
In that bend, I felt tears come to my eyes and roll down the side of my face. I forced my gaze to the back wall, eyeballs rolling up in their sockets … adrenaline pumping… back stressed … hurting … remembering… then I heard the gospel, “Change.” It’s the teacher’s clue for release from posture. I would have felt self-conscious if anyone had noticed my tears, but since I was already dripping in sweat, they were completely camouflaged. I was doing liturgy: on my knees, on my mat, heart lifted, change fully embodied.
Bikram Yoga is not perfect. The founder, Bikram Choudhury, seems to be much in need of an ethical compass, but that’s his issue; I don’t intend to make it mine. His teaching dialogue, with its many malapropisms repeated in nearly every session, can be maddening to an English teacher like me.
For example, the dialogue instructs: “Grasp your heels with your hands, all five fingers under your heel, pinkie fingers touching. Put your arms behind your knees, if you can, you must. Pull down from your lower spine toward the floor as hard as you can placing your chest on your knees and your face to your shins, eventually your face will reach your toes. Pull hard until you feel a pain sensation in the back of your legs, pulling is the object of stretching.”
No! I protest silently. Flexibility is the object of stretching; pulling is the method by which flexibility is achieved. But I’m retired from teaching now, so each day I let it go and I work on letting go all which does not serve me.
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There are Christians raging against yoga, painting it as a stealthy form of Hinduism, cleverly positioning itself to poison Western youth with an odious polytheism. Others see yoga as humanism, an apostasy equally repulsive but from the other side of the coin. I understand both Hinduism and humanism; neither of them, in my experience, has anything to do with my yoga practice. My practice as just that, it’s my practice, a concentrated mind-body effort toward a holistic embodiment of awareness and health.
As for metaphysical affects, I think my practice has deepened an awareness of my attempts to walk in the Navajo way. I understand that red road as a compelling invite, directing me to walk this journey with beauty before, beauty after, beauty above, beauty below and beauty within. Attempting to walk in beauty and awareness has the potential to make every step profoundly enlightening. In this short lifetime, I’m willing to pay for anything that gets me going in that direction. After all, what’s so scary about that?
As a yoga student, I’m just getting started. It’s my kneeling liturgy, a new embodiment of an old prayer. But there is something different in this prayer. And although I think I’ve just scratched the surface, I honor a newness rising from my new medicine, a healing elixir of pain, sweat, tears, and satyagraha.