By Lisa Silvestri
I developed a yoga habit about five years ago. Today I both teach and practice yoga. I should start by recognizing that “yoga” means a lot of different things to many different people. To me, yoga means moving through the world authentically both on and off of the mat. When I am practicing yoga, I am in dialogue with the divine.
From Sanskrit, the word “yoga” translates as “to join,” or “to yoke.” I am reminded of Matthew 11:28: “Come to me, all of you who are weary and find life burdensome; I will refresh you. Take my yoke on your shoulders and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of Heart. You shall find rest because my yoke is easy and my burden light.”
I wonder if the sentiment of needing refreshment from the daily grind resonates with you, as it did me. I often find myself overwrought, busily trying to fill my little cup and saucer with the water of the world. But when I take a moment to pause, to feel my feet on the ground, “to yoke” with the infinite, I catch a glimpse of an internal ocean, stretched out and smiling in repose. And I find myself sipping from my saucer, as my cup has overflowed.
Practicing yoga reminds me to be aware of my body, to notice how it moves and interacts with the world around it. Sometimes it’s easy to forget the role our bodies play in our faith. As Christians we are urged to pray, fast, repent, confess, give alms, and participate in the life and liturgy of the Church. Indeed, our bodies are inextricably linked to our spiritual acuity. For me, acknowledging my bodily presence affirms my spiritual presence.
Settling onto my yoga mat is kind of like the silent church before service begins. I take a few purposeful breaths to fully arrive in the present moment. It’s not easy to pull yourself, even momentarily, from the tyranny of the particular in order to connect to the magnitude of the infinite. Our egos are rigid, attached to names, titles, places, reputations and to-do lists. By contrast, our spirits are fluid, expansive and detached, animated by the recognition that a law higher than our will regulates events.
When I teach yoga, one of my favorite cues to students is to “let go of struggle.” If you feel resistance during a transition into a pose, ask yourself whether it’s based in fear or intuition. How we approach transitions in yoga can reveal much about how we approach those undefined, ambiguous areas in our lives. Do we embrace the process and experience a smooth transition to the bigger picture or do we muddle through hoping to reach the end result without experiencing the messiness of the process?
We may think we don’t need to pay attention to the moments leading into and out of the poses. We either rush through the transitions or tune them out completely. One reason we do this is because transitions are nowhere near as rewarding to the ego as the glory of a full pose. So, just as we do in life, we often avoid the less comfortable or attractive places in our yoga practice in order to arrive at the final posture.
Transitions in yoga, as in life, are hard. When the body is well aligned in a pose, there’s often a sense of ease, as the bones absorb much of your body weight and the muscles support and stabilize you. But during transitions, your brain has to figure out the actions, and your muscles have to move your weight from one plane to another. Moving slowly through transitions is mentally and physically demanding. If you always rely on momentum to take you into the next pose, you’ll never build the strength you need to carry you through.
Both on and off of our mats we are always in a state of transition, a state of becoming. This realization can be rather uncomfortable. The phrase, “growing pains,” comes to mind. Yet, I encourage you to do as I do on my yoga mat. Be patient with yourself. Don’t rush or resist. Sit with the discomfort. Breathe deeply. Trust and acquiesce. Intuition will sound when you are headed somewhere your body is not ready to be.
Perhaps more than anything else, yoga has taught me to attend to the circumstance of the moment. With every bend, twist, lunge, and stretch, new sensations arise and dissipate. I greet each one as I would a welcomed guest in my home, with acceptance and curiosity.
When I get into a rhythm on my mat, each movement feels like the natural thing to do. I’m listening intently as my mind, body, and spirit negotiate where to go and what to do. I find that this is true off of the mat as well. If I allow myself the space to be easy, simple, and spontaneous, I feel strong and connected to a divine circuitry. Like a ship on a river with barriers on every side but one, it becomes hard not to do “the right thing.” As soon as I stop resisting, I can feel myself soften as if my soul were letting out a long sigh.
Practicing yoga reminds me to get out of my own way, and not to interfere with the optimism of nature. Each of us struggles every day to define and defend our sense of purpose and integrity, to justify our existence on the planet, and to understand, if only within our own hearts, who we are and what we believe in. To paraphrase Emerson, it’s easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion. Just like it’s easy in solitude to live after your own. The real test comes when you are able to live in the midst of a crowd and maintain with perfect sweetness, a sovereignty of self. As I often tell my yoga students, “Notice your neighbors’ breath, but ride the wave of your own.”
Dr. Lisa Silvestri is Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Gonzaga University. Her work engages most deeply with the ethical and moral dimensions of digital culture and the problem of war. She is also a Registered Yoga Teacher and enjoys teaching private classes in the home, at the park, and even in the Church.
image: Mantras carved into rock in Tibet, Photo by Nathan Freitas