Yoga is a quiet practice.
In the beginning, yoga was about quiet for me. My life at the time, cohabitating with three kids ages 1, 3 and 5, and a rambunctious puppy, was decidedly not quiet. My weekly yoga class felt like an escape into another world – a world where people spoke, if they spoke at all, in mellow, hushed voices so as not to disturb the meditation of those around them.
Within a matter of months, the nature of the quiet I experienced during yoga changed rather dramatically. While the world around me in class was still blissfully quiet, I found the quiet I was now relishing was different. It was internal. It was a quieting of my incessant, churning thoughts and a quieting of my turbulent feelings.
Yoga’s quietness is a form of prayer.
Within another few months I began to sense that my practice was a time of prayer. I didn’t have words or experience to explain why it felt like prayer. Certainly it didn’t look like any form of prayer that I had ever seen or heard about. Nevertheless, as I ended my yoga practices I felt as if I’d spent some time with God. I felt small, yet meaningful. I felt intimately connected to the world around me. I felt loved and loving.
In an interview with Krista Tippet on the podcast On Being (about 26 minutes in, if you’d like to listen yourself), Marilyn Nelson, a poet, professor and contemplative, gives me words to describe my experience of prayer. She tells a story of a friend who is a minister who attended a retreat. The schedule at the retreat was full of talking – lectures and discussions about prayer. On breaks, the attendees would return to their rooms to pray.
During these prayer periods, her friend continued talking – only now he was talking to God. At one point during his long talks to God, he heard a voice say, “SHUT UP AND LET ME LOVE YOU.” After a laugh with Tippet and the audience (me included), Nelson goes on to say, “That for me is what it is to be quiet enough to feel held. To feel the embrace of the Divine. To realize that I am part of something vaster than vast. To feel thankful for it.”
Silence is not necessary to be quiet.
There is a misconception that in the quiet that can be found while practicing yoga one’s thoughts cease. While I can recall a few practices when I sat up and realized that I hadn’t had a thought in almost an hour, I can count those practices on one hand and have fingers to spare. In reality (at least my reality), thoughts keep happening. After all, it’s the mind’s job to think thoughts. To try to force it to stop doing its job is typically an exercise in (great) frustration.
A contemplative practice such as yoga provides quiet, respite from the stream of thoughts created by our mind by teaching us two skills. The first is the power to notice our thoughts. This awareness, in turn, gives us the power to disengage from them. In the quiet of my practice, it often seems as if my thoughts are bubbling away at the far away surface of my awareness while I’m peacefully resting in a deeper place where my thoughts are not at all important. This space from my mental chatter is, in essence, me shutting up and allowing myself to be loved.
This type of prayer is an ancient practice of balancing spirituality and “real” life.
Richard Rohr, a globally recognized ecumenical teacher of mysticism and contemplation, takes my experience of contemplative prayer one step further. In teaching about the prayer- and life-style of St. Francis of Assisi, he suggests that we can connect to the love all around us “in solitude, silence and some form of contemplative prayer, all of which quiet the monkey mind and teach us emotional sobriety and psychological freedom from our addictions and attachments.” While this excellent, but somewhat academically-toned explanation, echoes my experiences on my yoga mat, his following thought summed up the power of contemplative practice. “Francis [was not] solely a contemplative, nor [was he] only active in ministry. He [went] back and forth between the two.”
Yoga’s quiet is meant to support us in our not-so-quiet lives.
This graceful fluidity between quiet (a.k.a. shutting up) and regularly scheduled life is at the heart how yoga can change my life and yours. Yoga is not meant to take us away from life. Yes, we step out of our busy, hectic, not-so-quiet lives for an hour or so. But this quiet time is meant to support us in everything we do for the rest of that day – whether it is caring for three small children and a puppy, or managing a team of 100 people at work, or arguing cases before a judge, or whatever it is you do. We are meant to go back and forth between prayer and life.
With practice, we begin to do this so fluidly that we carry a little of this powerful quiet with us into every interaction we have during our busy, hectic days. That’s a pretty good reason to “shut up” at least for a little while, isn’t it?
If you’re looking for a little quiet in your not-so-quiet life, come visit Yoga With Spirit. Our yoga classes (at our studio or online) and spiritual direction sessions can help you develop the skills to be quiet and feel loved and connected.