The Jungle Physician: How (and WHY) I needed Christ in my practice
In this series of introductory posts, each writer is asked to answer “Why Christian? Why yoga?” Deeply moved and inspired by the late Rachel Held Evans and her ideas on the Power of Testimony, we hope to share our own stories with you. Please share your stories in the comments.
When I started practicing yoga—and eventually training as a teacher—it never occurred to me that yoga was a spiritual path, possibly at odds with my Catholic faith traditions. Yoga was a fun way to exercise. I was strong and flexible. I was getting pretty good at it, so teacher training seemed like a logical next step.
At the time, I was in the throes of creating my life. I was raising three young children and working part-time while my husband worked well beyond full-time to build his career and care for our future. A few of those years he worked out of state during the week. It was a hectic life. By my mid-thirties I’d had three miscarried pregnancies and I’d buried both my parents. Our busy life left little time to lick my wounds. I was fine, really. Irish Catholics are strong. I told myself things like “God will take care of those babies” even though I secretly worried that I wasn’t doing everything right for those poor little souls. “I’m so grateful I have my sisters!” was a common mantra though I deeply missed the safety of my parents. There were many more mantras like this. You get the idea. I wasn’t faking wholeness. I believed I was handling my life like a self-reliant champ.
Except for those times when I’d wake up alone in bed in the middle of the night full of complete and utter terror. Fear of death. Fear of falling into an abyss of complete nothingness. For. Ever. It’s indescribable but so real. I’d pull the covers up and shove that panic down while waiting for daylight, never telling a soul. The Irish Catholic ego abhors weakness.
I might have turned to the church for spiritual direction, but I didn’t trust her. My husband and I attended a “liberal” Catholic church that we loved, but it couldn’t answer for what I saw as the sins of the larger body of the church. I was constantly at odds with any practices that seemed to exclude or harm anyone, and they were numerous.
I did not have a firm hold on my faith. I didn’t know how to pray, beyond asking God for something or proclaiming beliefs which weren’t really mine. While my sisters prayed for my mom to recover from her cancer, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t test “ask and you shall receive.” Better not to ask at all.
Yet, the church held so much power over me. I was well trained. She was THE authority, especially on the matter of eternity. She had the power to make me feel safe in one context, angry, sad and lost in another. When I needed her comfort after my miscarriages, needed to trust they were OK, her dogma missed the mark. Three tiny bodies with no funeral, no burial, no baptism. I believe in my gut that Jesus holds and cares for them, but the church offered only loopholes to the rules. Cold comfort. Her love seemed to come with conditions.
Yoga never preached, never judged, never told me what to think. It healed people of all backgrounds, no questions asked. It craved diversity. It softened my edges. It smiled and laughed. It offered me the challenging Ashtanga primary series, leaving me breathless, sweaty and blissful. This was the only way for me to get quiet without falling apart.
Yoga offered an image of the divine as not “out there”, but inside each of us, accessed through the practice. Yoga said, “Trust yourself.” Experiencing the divine in me was my birth rite, not achieved by right beliefs or dogma.
The light-filled studio in Columbus, Ohio, became my sacred space, anointed with the sweat of all the yogis who’d ever practiced there, the silent tears of their savasana. The air carried the whispered mantra of each inhale and exhale, each receiving and giving back. The sanskrit chants echoed in the silence. This studio had become my altar.
And all was well! Actually, no, I was still terrified. Piece by piece, I understood that yoga’s worldview, its metaphors, its teaching on the nature of reality were just different enough to confuse me and shock me out of complacency. Energy, pure witness consciousness, anatta (or no-self). I wasn’t sure my heart could grab hold of it. I loved yoga and it was helpful—but I couldn’t imagine leaving my faith origins behind for it. Still, it seemed foolish to take either path halfway.
I started to quiet down and pray a little, and take this discernment seriously. I visited my chapel at breaks during weekend workshops, popped out after Savasana for a mass. Finally, passing under my church’s “All Are Welcome” banner and sitting in the empty, light-filled chapel after a practice one afternoon, I decided that my church was not so different from the studio. There were enough good people (very good people!), enough good theology, enough good practice. It wasn’t perfect, but maybe I could do more good inside than out. Yoga was undoing me, softening me just enough to allow my faith to start speaking to me again.
I resolved to trust my gut and “dance with the one that brung ya,” which was both Catholicism and yoga. Not sure how to integrate the two, I decided to start with meditation. I bought a book on Centering Prayer, to stay faithful to my Catholic roots while practicing the asana (postural yoga) and pranayama (breath) that had renewed that faith. I would find a quiet place to meditate after practice, sometimes in the studio, sometimes my car, sometimes at a park. I tried meditating at home, after a brief home asana practice. It was a little lonely and quite a bit disjointed, but allowed me to stay true to my gut, my nature and my own particular path.
I eventually discovered Fr. Tom’s Prayer of the Heart and Body, and it was a joyful turning point in my quest. Reading this book while on a silent retreat, I found my mantra (Jesus, Mercy) and closing prayer (Prayer of Ignatius of Loyola), still two vital tools of my practice. But more importantly, I finally knew I was not alone.
I have come to realize, in hindsight, that I was pulled by Grace to the familiar image of Jesus revealing the nature of God. I needed the loving, human face of an incarnate God to face the darkness in myself. Recognizing the divine light inside, well, that was easy enough. But darkness needs a brave and compassionate companion. I don’t believe Jesus is the only way, but this was the way gifted to me from birth, an inheritance from my parents. And it’s a very good path. I had the power and permission to access God deep within myself. No authority required. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, home was here in myself all along.
I am now more free to recognize Christ in the teachings of yoga. I see Christ in even the most “foreign” sounding teachings, like the Ashtanga Opening Invocation. When I first learned the meaning of the Sanskrit words, they baffled me. I didn’t understand them, but loved how they sounded. The invocation offers thanks for the practice, which we liken to “Jangalikayamane”, or “the Jungle Physician.” Who is Christ in this practice if not a jungle physician, lovingly placing Himself in the wilds right along side us, using whatever is at hand, even those things that almost kill us, to cure us. He’s funny like that.
This is my story. What’s yours? Why do you include Christ in your yoga practice?
Prayer of Ignatius of Loyola
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding, and my entire will,
all that I have and call my own.
You have given it all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.
Everything is yours;
do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace.
That is enough for me.