I’ve been going to yoga on Mondays. It is working wonders for my back. Katie, the instructor with curly hair, gives me modified poses that don’t send searing pains down my right leg. My wife had been encouraging me to try yoga for years. She knew it would help my back. But the ratio of women to men scared me off. So did the spandex, the soundscapes of babbling brooks, and the rigid fundamentalism of some yogis that I had met. (Sounds like church!)
Yoga is incredibly difficult, but the first 15 minutes start off easy. In these opening moments, the exercises are doable. Katie calmly calls out different instructions: “Lay on your back. Feet flat on the floor with knees bent. Breathe. On your inhale, lift your hips. Breathe. Exhale and bring your body back to the ground. Let your weight press into the floor. Sink into the ground.”
On March 18, 2009, I woke up with pain shooting down my right leg. I remember the day. Almost a decade later, that pain still comes and goes. I figure it probably will for the rest of my life. Chiropractors have helped. A physical therapist helped. A binder full of stretches and exercises help. Yoga has been helping, too.
The first fifteen minutes is no-bake-cookies-simple. I am holding all the poses. I am feeling good about having gone to yoga. I feel a stretch in my back that I know will pay dividends.
Two things make the next 30 minutes difficult.
The first is physical. Yoga is a frustrating blend of endurance, stretching, and balance. Soon, the stretches I felt good about are burning through muscle fibers like cheap cigarettes. The poses are so simple that it feels silly when I drop to my knees exhausted. I am in shock when Katie says that we are going to do one more set of a stretch that I fear will risk the use of my legs for the rest of the day. She looks nice, but don’t be deceived. Katie will rip your heart out.
The second thing that is incredibly difficult is the patience of yoga. It is a mental juggernaut. Nearly everyone that I have met who refuses to go back to yoga complains that it is boring. It is. The silence and patience of yoga are almost violent if you are not used to it. Thirty minutes into a sixty-minute class, you begin thinking of all the things you should be doing. You have crossed exercise off your to-do list and you begin thinking about the next thing. I glance at the clock. Thirty minutes left! I focus on my breathing. I wonder about the man in front of me. I try to convince myself that I should get up and leave a bit early. People will think I’m busy, and busy is important. If I leave, I am important.
Katie has us stand up. I focus on balancing on one leg, the other leg extended behind me. This takes my mental energy. We lay back on the ground and breathe slowly before getting the next set of instructions. I’m bored. My mind is restless. I begin to get anxious.
On January 16, 2015, I woke up in a sweat of panic. I remember the night. Years later, the anxiety still comes and goes. I figure it probably will for the rest of my life. A therapist helped. Talking with friends who had gone through the same thing helped. A binder full of coping mechanisms and breathing routines has helped. Creating space for silence and quiet has helped. Yoga has been helping, too.
Sometimes I get anxious when I only have my thoughts to entertain me. Usually, I can turn the TV on, or pull out my phone. But not during these 60 minutes of yoga. “Do not be anxious about anything,” I say to myself over and over again. “I wouldn’t be anxious if I wasn’t lying here with my knees held to my chest,” I think.
It was my back pain that got me in the yoga studio, but it is the Psalmist who keeps me coming back. “Be still and know that I am God,” he writes. Yoga forces the backhanded gift of silence which sifts our souls until flecks of fear and dirt are all that remain. In those moments of stillness and silence, I am able to know with specific clarity and comfort that God is God.
Be still. Inhale
And know. Exhale.
That I. Inhale.
Am God. Exhale.
In the first fifteen minutes, I am crossing something off my list.
In the next thirty, I am distracted, impatient, and anxious.
In those last fifteen, I pray.
It takes me the entire hour to get to the prayer. I have to go through the stage of accomplishment, boredom, and anxiety before I arrive at the place of stillness where I am finally free to pray.
Yoga, of course, is not for everyone. People will find stillness in a variety of things. Gardening or biking or bird watching, perhaps. Right now, I need help finding it. I need parameters, blinders that focus me. Maybe it is surprising that God would use something like yoga to help me find stillness. Some might even object to the idea of a borrowed practice like yoga being used toward any Christian end.
Yoga has been working wonders for my back and my anxiety. It creates that uncomfortable space for me to be silent, to be still, to breathe and fall back into my union with Christ.
In All Things, right? I guess so.