Desperation and Chronic Pain Drove me to Yoga
In my thirties, I was in a serious car accident that laid me out for two grueling years. At the time, I was the mother of two young children. Vocationally, I had been a clinical social worker for over a decade. After the accident, chronic pain and depression were my constant companions for nearly two years. A weekend yoga teacher training – yes, one of those – changed everything. Three days after the training, I literally woke up as someone new. I was not in pain. I recognized myself again for the first time in two years. I was filled with awe and gratitude to God for the gift I received.
The gift kept on giving as I regularly practiced yoga. When I didn’t practice, I could barely get out of bed. Puzzles have never been my forte, but I managed to put the pieces together and saw the connection. Not being one to dither around - when I get it, I get it - I immediately enrolled in more yoga trainings and eventually opened a yoga studio long before there was a studio in every neighborhood.
I’ve always thought an important part of being a yoga teacher is to teach from what you know; in those early days, it wasn’t much. But I stayed with what I knew and, more importantly, what I had experienced. Even in my mid-thirties, practicing yoga was hard for me. This was a huge surprise. Pain and depression aside, I had been working very hard in physical therapy and doing my exercises religiously. So I saw myself as strong and fit (despite the pain). In fact, I nearly didn’t go back for the second day of that first yoga training, because I didn’t think my body could “hack” it. And the class was full of skinny, bendy women. Maybe I was strong, but not bendy. This almost makes me giggle now as I write this. Particularly because the slow, restorative yoga I teach now really doesn’t appear to be much exertion at all. But, I like to tell my students that, even if it may not look like much, and we may not be sweating (though some do), we are “working out” our nervous system. The best news about working out the nervous system is that no flexibility is required. But, the first yoga I learned seemed to attract the fit, bendy crowd, and it clearly helped me too. Now, I realize I’ve moved on to what yoga teacher and podcaster, J. Brown, explains as, “Gentle is the new advanced.” In a world that seems to move faster and faster, I offer myself as “the slow-movement maven.” Restorative yoga has rocked my world. The quiet, gentle practice I once scorned has, as the name suggests, restored me in mind, body, and spirit.
My faith, on the other hand, has always been part of my 55 years of life. I am grateful for my parents’ decision to baptize me as an infant. Despite a very chaotic upbringing, my mother took me to church every Sunday and, without realizing it, I was being steeped in a liturgy that was forming my hungry little soul. Unlike my siblings, I loved going to church, but I probably couldn’t have articulated the reason. Looking back, the beauty of the stained glass and the sacredness and predictability of the prayers were very attractive to me. My life had little predictability, but my church did. At the time, church even seemed a little boring. But I was drawn there. I felt the love, and I went at every opportunity offered to me.
I became more intentional about declaring my faith, and understanding it, when I was 14. In a Baptist church, I made a more public decision to follow Christ, in contrast to the quieter part of my faith at the Anglican church I was attending. I was encouraged to read my Bible and memorize Scripture, practices that I took to heart and that have stuck with me over the years. I am grateful for the different expressions of my Christian faith that God wove together to make me the woman of faith I am today. I am attracted to both the contemplative aspects of church - like silence and ancient prayers that have been prayed by believers for centuries - as well as communal reading of the Psalms, and the beauty of worshiping God with hymns of old. I find joy and peace in the structure of a liturgy that is embodied by actions such as standing, kneeling, bowing, making the sign of the cross, and the lifting of hands. Having a yoga practice has helped me to feel more free to em-"body” my faith.
I have discovered along the way that yoga practice has enriched my faith journey in ways I never thought possible. I thought that passages in Psalms - like Psalm 46:10 “Be still and know that I am God” - were somehow a poetic reference that fast-paced, hard-working, pedal-to-the-metal folks like me need not pay attention to, although I did not know why. In fact, I did not know how to pay attention to much of anything. Yoga has been a way for me to unwind my mind as well as my body. I have been able to focus long enough to earn a graduate degree in theology and begin writing a book. I never saw either of those events in my future, but now they are a reality. God created us, and he cares about what we do with our bodies. He cares so much about bodies that He sent us His Son in a body. This is the great “scandal” of our faith – God in a body – fully human, fully divine. Really?! Who does that? No one does that, except God did that. Practicing yoga has helped me live into this incarnational reality by allowing me to feel more connected to my body and not act as if I am a-brain-on-a-stick.
It turns out that the practice of yoga has a lot to say about how we care for our bodies and how we see and/or pay attention to our bodies. As a yoga therapist, I have simple tools to offer my clients, who range from elementary school-aged children in alternative school settings, to teenagers in inpatient psychiatric hospitals and juvenile justice centers (kid jail), to adults with mental illnesses, and veterans with PTSD. I’ve run yoga studios; I started a non-profit organization, Yoga in Schools; I’ve taught in churches, retreat centers, hospitals, veterans’ facilities, and even on street corners. Yoga helps us unite our breath and movement and integrate ourselves to live wholeheartedly. Jesuit priest and author, Joseph Tetlow, reminds me that when I am connected to myself, then I am present with Christ who dwells within me. Christians Practicing Yoga has been a formational part of both my faith journey and my yoga journey for the last eighteen years. I am so glad you made your way to us. Stay awhile, browse, and hang out. Take a long inhale, pause, now let it out. Repeat.