“Find your way onto the belly.”
These are my favorite words spoken at my weekly yoga class. It’s a transition into Viparita Shalabhasana (or Superman pose), where you arch your back, balance on your belly, stretch your arms and legs long, and open your heart. It’s excellent for your spine and learning how to breath through discomfort.
And I never, ever, ever do it.
Finding Your Flow
I started practicing yoga in 2006 flipping through an issue of Yoga Journal I had checked out from the library. Trying a few poses in the pages, I liked the flow and care that went along with yoga practice. I kept picking up the new issue of the magazine, and started to create a habit of weekly yoga.
Come college, I practiced a lot, even starting a yoga club on campus. During this time, yoga was more about checking out others in class and trying hard balances or twists. I practiced a lot because it was easy and eventually earned a teaching certification as well.
Once out of school, I found a class through my sister at the local YMCA. The teacher was an older male, short with a tubby belly. He played a soft cello soundtrack in a dimly lit, small room, and my sister and I practiced in harmony tucked in the front corner. It was bliss.
When you find a teacher you really like, it changes everything. With his gentle reminders to make the practice my own, or that it was yoga practice not performance, he broke down a preconception that I had to show off my flexibility or do the hardest poses just because I could. It unearthed a new goal for my yoga practice, as I learned to calm down and focus on my own mat.
So five years later, when he calls us to lay on our bellies to transition into superman, I lay on my cheek instead. Nothing feels better for my body in that moment than taking the moments to breathe.
Traditional Yoga & Prayer
Through a series of religious studies classes and my own investigating, I came to realize yoga was more than just a way to stay flexible and catch your breath (duh, but I forget this). What I learned was that the ancient practice of yoga was a religious ritual to build tapas, or inner fire, in the present moment. It encompasses all of your physical being (movement, breath, discomfort, etc.) to come closer to God or Nirvana.*
The more I learned about yoga from a religious history lens, the more contradiction I felt. Should I be practicing yoga in this way if I’m using another’s tradition? Does this jive with my religious beliefs? Or, more frank, What would Buddha say? What would Jesus say?!
An experience that helped me figure this out occurred in college. While participating in a stay-retreat (where you pretend you’re retreating, but really you’re still in town), I was paired with Sister Laura, a nun from our local Catholic community, who would work with me through the week. She knew yoga was important to me and suggested I try a devoted practice. She explained the two can coexist (Catholicism and yoga practice), and that I should try devoting a yoga session to God. She also introduced me to meditative prayer, a form of praying where you don’t ‘talk’ to God, yet spend focused time in His presence. I found both practices very interesting and decided to try them.
I enjoyed both immensely. Something about the simplicity of ‘sitting with God’ in meditative prayer was very refreshing. I didn’t need to worry about what to say, instead focused on being with God… which is a refreshing and wholesome feeling. For the yoga practice, it took on a new energy. Again I felt connected to something bigger than me, and refreshed after the focus was through.
And while devoting a yoga session and practicing meditative prayer starts to tap into my religious practices and beliefs, I did love how they deepened my appreciation for yoga. What I’ve learned through my yogic journey, is the practice is always evolving. Jim was right when he reminded our class that day that it is practice not performance. What started as a curious way to stretch and try crazy poses, evolved into a spiritual and relaxing routine for me. Combining movement in the present moment to honor a greater being is powerful, but it could only happen when I was ready for it. Today, I’m in another phase, trying to build tapas and hold all my downward dogs through class.
Yoga is for whatever stage you are in, and you should adjust as needed. Today you may need a devotional session, tomorrow you might need to work on a headstand. Other days, you’ll just want to lay on your cheek.
*This is my super-simplified explanation.
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This post is 15/52 in the project 52 Musings On Life This Far. Thanks for following along on the journey!
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