Yoga: Bringing Mind into Body

Sometimes I live completely in my mind. It is as if my mind said sayonara to my body and hopped on a high-speed train to zip around my fidgety world of problems and ideas (which all seem monumental, of course). Suddenly I realize that I have no idea what’s happening around me. I am not at all present in my physical body. This is why yoga can be so difficult, but at the same time so needed.

Corpse Pose

Practicing yoga encourages us to come home to our bodies. Yesterday, as I was lying in “corpse” pose, my instructor guided me to “bring my mind down into my body.” Become aware of the places where your body meets the ground, she said, where parts of your body touch each other.  Feel the earth supporting your body. Attune yourself to the here and how. Listen to your breath, feel your breath flowing in and out. Take note of the temperature.

As I did what she suggested, my bodily senses came into clear focus and all the monkeys jumping around in my head started to quiet down. I started to move my awareness away from the world of problems and plans in my mind and down into my arms, my blood, my legs, my breath. It’s hard to describe, but it’s as if the zippy problem train came to a slow crawl and then released my consciousness into the gentle river of my breath and pulse.

This practice of bringing mind into body reminds me of something my mom used to tell me to do when I couldn’t fall asleep as a kid. “Think about your stomach,” she urged at my bedside. Okay…so what? But now I see her point. Thinking about my stomach (or any body part, for that matter) forces me to disconnect from the other thoughts that are pulling me away from the here and now. And often those other thoughts are what keep me from giving in to my weariness in order to drift asleep. You’ve probably had moments too when you can’t turn your mind off even though your body is dead tired. Trying taking my mom’s advice :-). It’s a good excuse for navel-gazing, anyway.

Yoga is only one avenue for bringing the mind into the body.  Some forms of meditative prayer also serve the same calming, centering purpose. The Jesus Prayer, for example, focuses on repeating one simple phrase on each inhale and exhale, over and over again: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me. Another form of contemplative prayer involves bringing the mind “down into the heart.”  While prayer can often seem disembodied, having nothing to do with our physical existence, there are ways to bring our bodies into prayer, or, better said, to allow our bodies to bring us into prayer.

Whatever works for you to bring your mind into your body and become fully present, take a while to do this today.

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A Woman’s Lent

Gymnopedies:Lent et DouloureuxWhat does Lent, the annual Church season of fasting, repentance, almsgiving, and prayer which we enter today, have in common with a woman’s monthly cycle? It seems an incongruous analogy, but as I was pondering a post on menstruation (and I hope that by talking more about it, it becomes less “icky” and more meaningful), the similarities between it and Lent became striking.

As I understand it, Lent is a season of slowing down, of detaching ourselves from the frantic rhythms of high-speed internet and media spin and tuning in our senses to the deeper, all-encompassing pulse of God’s life in the world.  A woman’s period, I think, is also an invitation to slow down and recalibrate our sense of time not to man-made rhythms but to the creaturely cycle of life and death.

As I wrote in my last post, the pain and discomfort our bodies experience in illness can be a wake-up call, reminding us that we don’t have the unlimited resources of God. Likewise, for women, when our insides cramp and bleed each month, and we feel the need to curl up and sleep more, we can welcome this time as the body’s invitation to slow down and remember our vulnerability in light of God’s sufficiency.

In Anita Diamant’s novel The Red Tent, she paints an imaginative picture of how Jacob’s wives embraced their cycles. I’m not sure how this worked or if it’s at all realistic, but in the book, all the women in Jacob’s tribe got their periods at the same time. In the red tent, they leave their everyday duties and come together as women, using the time of their periods to rest, tell stories, and deepen their sisterhood. Okay, so we don’t have instituted “period” time off as contemporary women, and I somehow doubt that Jacob and his sons would have been very happy with all the womenfolk taking a three- to four-day break from cooking and cleaning each month. But I do think there are ways to embrace and celebrate menstruation instead of wishing it were over faster and feeling gross during it, and Diamant’s story points us in the right direction.

I also love how women’s cycles, like Lent, hint at something more important – new life. Month after month, the womb sheds its lining (which to women who are hoping to conceive, can seem like a disappointing “not-life”) and prepares again for the possibility of nurturing another life within. It’s almost sacramental, this bodily ritual that parallels the Church’s annual custom of inhabiting Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

Though foreshadowing the resurrection, Lent is a somber season. We ponder our brokenness and the world’s suffering as a way to prepare our hearts to truly receive God’s gift of life through the resurrection. We practice the spiritual discipline of fasting during Lent as a way to embody our repentance. One of my pastors reflected beautifully on the role of fasting in the spiritual life. The voluntary hunger that we go through during a fast, he said, serves to alert us to a deeper spiritual hunger. These pangs become not a distraction from the spiritual, but rather a physical means to enter into larger spiritual realities.  Our bodily sensations bring home in marrow and blood what it means “hunger and thirst for righteousness.”

A college roommate told me once about how she was letting the bodily sensations of her period usher her into deeper spiritual awareness. As she pressed into the pain and discomfort she experienced each month, it became a way to connect with the pain and suffering of others. She made her period a regular time to step back and reflect on life. Her physical cycles led her to a greater emotional and spiritual receptivity and expanded her ability to “suffer with” (the root meaning of com-passion).

Does it seem crude to liken the messy, bloody experience women go through each month with the holy, sacred season of Lent? I don’t think so. The dictionary defines sacrament as “a Christian rite…that is held to be a means of divine grace or to be a sign or symbol of a spiritual reality.” While I would never say that menstruation is a sacrament by any means, it does have sacred qualities. If we are open to it, our cycles can point us to holy rhythms of life and death, remind us of our humble, creaturely origins, and lead us to a new level of compassion with those who suffer. That’s quite a divine grace, if you ask me.