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[mk_blockquote style=”quote-style” font_family=”none” text_size=”18″ align=”left”]And so I give this spark of what is light to me, to guide you through the dark, not to tell you what to see. – Unknown[/mk_blockquote]
This Wednesday began the season of Lent. For Christians, this is a very holy time set aside to prepare inwardly for the celebration of Easter. What does it mean to prepare inwardly? Some people give up things they enjoy for Lent – like coffee or chocolate. These sacrifices are not about being healthier or losing weight or even breaking bad habits. Their intention is to prompt us to pause and think of God every time we experience a desire or craving. Some people assume a Lenten discipline – adding in a practice such as daily spiritual reading, volunteering weekly at a homeless shelter, attending a class at church or writing a thank you note each day to someone who makes their life a little brighter. Like Lenten sacrifices, these disciplines are intended to help draw faith into daily life.
If that rings a bell, it’s for good reason. The physical practice of yoga that we share is also a tool to help draw God into our daily lives. Our ancient yoga teachers do not define God by creed or religion. They simply ask us to surrender to a higher power. I have found that the practice can be a powerful addition to any faith – helping us to draw God beyond regular worship services and religious holidays and into our day to day lives. In the same way, yoga also can add a spiritual dimension to lives lived without formal religion – offering us a regular time to tune into our spirit, to pay attention to our conscience, to drop down beneath our intelligence to tap into the wisdom of our heart, and to be quiet and attentive enough to sense our connectedness to the world around us. As a yoga teacher, Lent has become a season when I re-focus my teaching and my own practice on the spiritual aspects of yoga.
Yoga is a multi-layered practice. It touches us on all levels – body, mind and spirit. There will be times when it speaks mainly to our bodies. During these periods, we may be hard at work on a new posture or healing an injury or developing the strength required to practice more often or for longer. During these times our awareness of the impact that our yoga practice is having on us physically is heightened. We feel it changing us and these changes to our body draw us back to our mats over and over again for more.
There will be other times when yoga is more mental. During these periods, we might be very stressed at work, or navigating a life change such as retirement or a new baby, or we might be juggling more projects or tasks than is comfortable. During these times, we are very aware of yoga’s calming, centering effects. We step onto our mats frazzled and distracted. We sit up out of savasana focused and with clearer priorities. In these stages, we come to our mats even when we may not really have the time because we crave the energized, yet balanced, state of mind we find there.
And there are still other times when yoga is more spiritual. During these periods, we may feel lost, alone, purposeless or insignificant. We may simply feel flat – the sense of meaning faded a little from our lives. During these times, the opposite may also be true. We may have had a spiritual awakening of some sort or we may feel ebullient and uber-connected to God. Or we may just feel a deep yearning for “more” that we can’t quite put our finger on. As we practice during stages like this, we are very aware of our connectedness to the world around us and to “something greater” that yoga helps us feel. We may find ourselves taking an extra moment to set an intention at the start of practice to turn toward the Divine, or expressing prayers of heart-felt gratitude at the close of practice. We might find that our rests in savasana are extra-deep and -rich.
The hustle and bustle that surround most of us most of the time is not all that conducive to living a spiritually focused life. In fact, I have found that the periods of time when yoga is naturally spiritually-centered for me and for my students can be wildly outnumbered by the periods when yoga tends more toward the physical or mental. For this reason, setting aside a “season” each year to be mindful of and deliberate about the spiritual nature of yoga is very important.
These seasons are not a time for abandoning the physical. After all, the movement and effort of the practice teach us to be still – still enough to sense and feel our spirit. Nor are they times for abandoning the mental. After all, the concentration and focus of the practice create an awareness of the almost constant activity of our thoughts. This awareness is the first step toward recognizing that there is more to us than our chatty, busy mind. Once this awareness solidifies, we are better able to drop beneath our thoughts into the quiet of our heart and soul.
To set aside a season to focus on the spiritual side of yoga gives us a defined time to stretch beyond the aspects of the practice that may come to us more naturally. This can be a season for exploring the quieter, stiller portions of the practice that may slip by without capturing our full attention. These include the time centering yourself before beginning to move, the chanting, the breath work, the time traditionally set aside for meditation after savasana. This can be a season of remembering the real reason we practice – to draw closer to God every single day in every single thing we do.
Whether you consider yourself religious or not, I invite you to spend the season of Lent shining the light of your spirit onto your yoga practice. If you practice more for the rich physical or mental gifts, search for ways to allow your practice to root itself into your heart the way it has rooted into your body and your mind. If yoga is already feeding your spirit, search for ways to add a new spiritual element to your practice. Perhaps you could open practice by reading a poem or a piece of scripture. Perhaps you could spend an extra 10 minutes in prayer or meditation after sitting up from your rest. Perhaps you could spend a minute or two before moving and breathing on your mat to center yourself on God and Creation and the very special, vitally important role that you play here in this life.
In the end, this is what it’s all about. Yoga helps us recognize, honor and live into the people we were created to be. Yoga helps us find the presence of God all around us and in every person in our life. Opening to these gifts of the practice has the power to transform your entire life. Why not spend forty days or so giving it your all?