I breathe in. My arms extend to the sky, my back slightly arched, then I swan-dive into forward fold, or as close as I can get to it. I raise my back up for half-forward fold, then back down. Breathe in, breathe out. I feel the stretch in my hamstrings, and then I step back into plank. I lower myself down to my mat, my shoulders burning, and push up into cobra. I pull and push and bend into downward dog, my favorite transition, and hold for a moment – breathe in, breathe out – then reeeeeeach with my foot to step back up to my hands. Half-forward fold, forward fold, then I’m diving upward, reaching toward the heavens. I lower my hands into standing prayer pose as I exhale one last time, and I breathe gratitude for my body.
I first learned how to do a sun salutation thirty-two days ago in my pastor’s family’s living room before church. Three days after that first lesson with Angela, I attended my first yoga class, a free one offered at Woodlawn UMC, taught by Angela’s good friend Mollie. An hour and a half with Mollie and I was falling, hook, line, and sinker.
That night before we began, Emily, the pastor of Woodlawn, introduced Mollie and said that yoga feels very much to her like how God wants us to take care of our bodies, to honor them. After having done yoga almost every day for a month now, I can’t say she’s wrong.
I love everything about yoga. I love the mindset, I love the pace, I love the poses. I love my body when I’m doing yoga.
I haven’t always loved my body. I’ve had to practice that, just like yoga. I’ve had to combat the Western tradition of hating my body, of pushing my body, of nit-picking my body to death. I’ve had to combat a distorted body image and learn to see myself just like the people who love me best see me. I’ve had to stop frowning at cellulite (yes, even skinny people have that sometimes), to stop critiquing my profile, to stop begrudging my body for all the things it can’t do.
Yoga, instead, celebrates all the things my body can do.
When I stretch into downward dog, my heels don’t touch the ground. That, as Mollie would say, is beautiful. My heels may never touch the ground. And if they don’t, it will still be beautiful.
The first time I ever tried boat pose, I held it for as long as Mollie did, even as my legs shook as I suspended them above the ground. That was beautiful. Eventually, they will hopefully stop shaking. That will be beautiful, too.
When I try to bend into forward fold, I’m not very folded. My hamstrings are impossibly tight, and my knees won’t stay straight. And all of that, my bent knees and my half-folded fold, is beautiful. Even if I can’t ever straighten my legs with my palms flat on the floor, even if my head never ever touches my knees, it will still be beautiful.
When I stand in Warrior 2, I feel an incredible amount of strength and energy coursing through my arms, even as they grow heavy from holding them out in front of and behind me. That strength is beautiful.
No matter what, folding or half-folding, hands on the ground or on my knees, legs bent or straight, boat held or collapsed, warrior strong or not quite so much, my body is a beautiful vessel, a gift from God, given so that I may walk through this life and experience the wonders God has made. That is beautiful.
To mark the coming of summer solstice – the miracle of the day with more sunlight than we’ve seen or will see for the rest of the whole year – I met with some fellow yoga-lovers to do 108 of the sun salutations I’ve grown to love. That’s quite the challenge for someone who’s only been doing yoga for about three weeks, and admittedly, I didn’t do all 108 – I maybe did 90-ish; I wasn’t counting because that wasn’t the point. The point was to mark the season, to celebrate with people who also love their bodies, to gather with friends in the park in my neighborhood that I love. It was beautiful. After, I joined some friends for dinner in a pub, a sweaty mess still in my yoga clothes, and that was beautiful. My arms burned the next three days, so badly that I had to get Mark to put my stand mixer in the cabinet for me because I couldn’t physically lift it, and that was also beautiful.
Yoga, right now, is exactly what I need.
For a while, I was going to the gym and trying to do some (not very heavy) weightlifting. I’ve had some unfortunate back problems that come when you’re a nurse, even when you’re a nurse to tiny babies. Our cribs don’t always allow for the best body mechanics, and I am small and my back is not strong. My goal was to strengthen my back and my arms, to start running again, and for a while it was great. I loved the gym, it was a super-positive atmosphere, no judgment, with helpful trainers. I would put my earbuds in and blare music that I’m sure will eventually cause me hearing loss, because I can’t run any distance at all if I can hear myself breathing or hear my feet hitting the treadmill or the ground. But then I started to walk the dogs more because it was good for them and for me, and I just didn’t have the time for a workout with running and weightlifting and dog-walking.
But I don’t need a gym for yoga. I can get up in the morning and roll my mat out in the sitting room in front of the windows and literally say hello to the sun as it rises.
What yoga gives me, and what I need, is space. Quiet. Peace. I work in an exhausting, stressful job where my whole goal is to leave everyone I take care of in a better place than they were when I arrived, to get all my work done by the end of the day, and also to hopefully leave on time. Sometimes the babies cooperate and that happens. Sometimes they don’t, and it doesn’t. Either way, I stay busy. I stand, I walk, I run, I think, I reason, I rush, I push, I bag, I beg. And it’s not just hospitals that work like that; our entire culture is wrapped up in a rush-rush-rush, go-go-go, push-push-push, get-it-done-5-minutes-ago mentality. I finally decided that I don’t want my exercise to be like that too.
Yoga doesn’t push or rush. It stretches. It bends. It is forgiving. It never yells, only speaks in a quiet, calm voice that encourages you that where you are right now is where you are supposed to be. “No pain, no gain,” never steps onto a yoga mat.
Some mornings I do three sun salutations and then I’m done because it’s time for work. That’s beautiful. Some mornings I stretch through a thirty-minute you-tube video. That’s beautiful. One day I stopped after five minutes of a video a little too advanced for me, and even that was beautiful, because I was listening to my body.
Some people argue that yoga is a gateway into Eastern religion or the New Age movement, and that Christians shouldn’t participate. I disagree – I actually feel closer to God when I’m doing yoga. It makes me stop for a moment, short or long, makes the thoughts scurrying through my head hold still, and fills me with gratitude. The psalmist writes, “He says, ‘Be still and know that I am God,'” and I do. I stand in the presence of God in warrior pose, grateful for my two strong legs that make my foundation, that anchor me to this world. I lie in awe at the inner workings of our complex spines as I twist my body left and right into belly twist, then sit up for half lord of the fishes. I learn to forgive myself over and over again when I stumble, or can’t quite balance on one leg, or when my legs or arms shake, or when my poses don’t look much like the YouTube instructors’. And at the end, I settle into child’s pose and find that it’s one of the easiest places I’ve ever prayed.
That spirit of gratitude is one of the best things yoga has shored up in me. That’s how I think God wants us to live our lives. Grateful for ourselves, for the miracle of life abundant, for the miracle of a body that will stretch and bend and not break. Grateful for the beauty of a sunrise, grateful for the sweat that pours down our foreheads and our necks as we do our stretching outside because it means we are very much alive. Grateful for a sitting room sized just right to fit a purple mat right in front of a window. Grateful for the ability to forgive imperfection, to celebrate it, even.
Let us go and live in such a spirit of gratitude, both for our own vessels and everyone else’s.
Our bodies, our vessels, are such wonderful creations, miracles, really. When we were doing sun salutations in the park, I watched in fascination at the way everyone moved and bent. We didn’t all bend in the same way, or step in the same way, or stretch in the same way. But we were bending and stepping and stretching together, all of us made wonderfully different in the perfect image of God. And that, my friends, is maybe the most beautiful thing of all.