God at Your Back

Yoga reverse prayer

In an impromptu yoga session recently, our leader, Ann, urged us to become aware of our back-bodies. We usually focus attention on our front-bodies, Ann said. It is the side of ourselves we present to the world, the side we examine closely in mirrors, the side we make sure is well put-together. But our back-bodies, Ann said, is a side we don’t often dwell on. As such, it is an entry-point into the unknown.

What do our back-bodies know that our front-bodies don’t? Well, for one, we can’t see from behind. In front, we keep a vigilant lookout on the world. But our backsides are vulnerable, unguarded, an open door to things unseen. Maybe that’s why we can sense things with our back-bodies that our front-bodies can’t. We feel the stares of others drilling into the backs of our heads. The hairs on the backs of our necks stand up on end when we sense danger.  We feel a tingle down our spines in the presence of beings from the spiritual realm. In short, our back-bodies have a keen sense of things unknown and unseen.

Maybe, as Ann suggested to us, our back-bodies are a place where we can find God – the unknown, unseen whisper of a God who showed himself to Elijah not in wind, earthquake or fire, but in “a sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19). How does one hear “sheer silence”? Perhaps Elijah did not hear God’s presence with his ears. Perhaps he heard God in the nape of his neck, in his shoulder blades, in the liquid spaces between his vertebrae.

As I was lying on the yoga mat, bringing my awareness into my back-body, feeling myself being held in the palm of the ground, I recalled Psalm 139. The psalmist says to God, “You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.” The knowledge of being hemmed in by God, behind and before, was something beyond the psalmist’s grasp. Yet perhaps he knew it in his back-body as he was lying on the earth, feeling his weight being supported by the God who laid the earth’s foundations.

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.

Just Breathe

My friend Kari has been on a journey with her breath, and she has graciously allowed me to share some of our recent conversation about this journey. As a result of practicing yoga and going through massage therapy school, Kari has become more aware of her own breathing.

Breathing is unique among the bodily functions – it is both an involuntary and voluntary action. Without thinking about it, you can go on breathing, yet, if you think about it, you can change how you breathe, or stop breathing altogether.

Kari started noticing times when she was involuntarily holding her breath, and, as she remained attentive to this, she realized it happened when she was anxious or fearful about something. As she named her emotions and intentionally resumed breathing when she realized she had stopped, something else started to happen. She began finding it harder to breathe during the rest of her day. It was as if holding her breath had been her unconscious way of compartmentalizing her fear and anxiety into little segments. Now that she was overcoming that compartmentalizing tendency, those emotions were released into the rest of her life, affecting how she breathed overall.

Kari’s journey is such a powerful witness to how, if we attend to our bodies – even to something so mundane as breathing –, we can begin to recognize patterns and tap into a deeper flow of signals that reveal glimpses of our true state of being. We can also begin to work in the other direction – working through our bodies to affect change at those deeper levels.

As Kari’s story shows, breathing intentionally is a powerful way to do this. In yoga, which I taught for a period, I reminded people to keep breathing during challenging poses. The tendency to hold our breath when things get difficult seems to be universal. Ironically, it makes us less capable of handling the challenge, because we are not nourishing the body with the oxygen it needs.

Yoga instructors also teach people to take deep, full breaths through the nostrils and slow exhalations from the very pit of the lungs. When pressing deeper into a stretch, I told people to release the stretch slightly during an inhale and then go in a little deeper during the exhale. By working in tandem with the breath, we are able to access places – physically and perhaps also emotionally – that were previously inaccessible.

I never quite understood how this worked on a physical level until recently, when getting acupuncture at a local clinic. The acupuncturist asked me if I wanted to “work with my breath” while getting needled (weird phrase, I know!). She explained to me that for a split second during an exhale, your muscles release. If you insert during that involuntary release, it can ease any pain from the needle.

As Kari and I talked about the breath, we struck upon an interesting little paradox. The word “spirit” originates from the Latin word spiritus (soul, courage, vigor, breath) and spirare (to breathe).[1] Thus, our definition of the spirit is very much rooted in the embodied action of breathing. You can see this more clearly in the book of Genesis, where God breathes into Adam’s and Eve’s bodies of dust to in-spire them with life. C.S. Lewis also takes up this imagery in The Chronicles of Narnia. When Aslan, the majestic lion, breathes onto the children in those sharp, short moments of encounter, they somehow feel stronger, braver, more themselves. The impartation of life, in both cases, comes through the very physical, very bodily medium of the breath.

Yet, in contemporary thought, we usually think of the spirit as dis-embodied. The connection between body and spirit has somehow been severed.

Perhaps we need to re-attend to our breath and our bodies in order to gain a fuller understanding of our spirit. I love what a teacher of mine, Fr. Stephen Gauthier, repeats to us faithfully, “Your every breath is a testament to God’s confidence in you. Whenever you feel discouraged and purposeless, remember that you are still breathing. It means God still has a reason for you being on earth.”

(To hear a lovely song about breathing, get a free download of Bonnie and Trevor McMaken’s worship song “Breathing with Both Lungs Open” from their album In Wilderness and Glory.)  

 


[1] Online Etymological Dictionary, http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=spirit