The Sacred Breath

Guest post by Terry Kelly, RYT

For the past 16 years, a group of dedicated yoga students have gathered on Tuesday evenings in the tiny hamlet of Farmingdale, NJ, to breathe and practice yoga together. Over those 16 years the venue has changed several times, but a core group of 8 to 13 yogis have managed to come together to practice. We formed friendships, shared experiences, marriages, births, the challenges of taking care of aging parents, the loss of pets, of spouses, of children, of loved ones, but never the loss of one of us. 

That all changed when a dedicated yoga student lost her life in a tragic accident at the age of 60. Patty was sweet--she actually owned a bee farm and most of her clients knew her as "the honey lady." She was a dedicated yoga student who had been with me since our days in the basement at the chapel of our local Catholic church. As the teacher of this tight knit group, I felt it was important to notify everyone. I  telephoned the students to tell them the tragic news, and one-by-one, I heard it take their breath away.  Death is never something easy to deal with; it affects people on different levels, sometimes even shattering their faith.

As a Christian yoga teacher, I always have tried to teach a compassionate yoga class, to focus on breath and movement as a prayer. When I began to take yoga classes, my very first yoga teacher used an affirmation while we were in Child's Pose that resonated with me: "I am a child of God, I bow to the wisdom of my higher self." While resting in Child's Pose I thought, This is what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God. It was something I had heard all my life, but it never made sense to me before that moment. I understood the "higher self" to mean the Holy Spirit dwelling in me. 1 Corinthians 3:16 would explain it best: " Do you not know that you are a temple of God and the Spirit of God dwells in you." To me that indwelling Spirit is the higher self. 

This affirmation linked yoga and Christianity for me in a way that to this day affects the way I teach. I often begin classes by suggesting to the students, "Make your yoga a prayer--move sweetly, compassionately, with love and surrender through the difficult poses; it will help yousurrender with the difficulties of life."  

But now, faced with the death of one of my students, I wondered, could I surrender to what had happened--could I accept the loss of not only a student, but a dear friend? My heart was aching, and while I wanted to honor the place that Patty held with this group, I knew it was important to give people room to grieve, to cry, and to express their emotions over losing someone who was such an integral part of this yoga community. I prayed that I would be led to a solution.

One-by-one the students filed in that evening and took their space on the floor, rolled out their yoga mats and just sat and stared blindly into space. There was barely a word spoken, no friendly greetings, no quiet conversations about the previous week. I noticed one more thing: no one was breathing. We were all clinging to our yoga mats like life rafts, but we couldn't move, we couldn't speak, we couldn't breathe. One of us was no longer physically here, and the loss was unthinkable, almost unbearable.

Class began, and I addressed the loss again, to acknowledge the fact that Patty's space on the floor was empty. That even though it made us all feel lost and our hearts were breaking, we needed to breathe. So that is where we began, on our backs, just trying to focus on our breath, to let our bellies rise and fall each time we groped to find that breath again. The sacred breath that was our anchor that brought us together all those years, and brought us to this present moment. The breath that one person breathed in and another received, this sacred breath that would once again lift us up.

Ever so slowly and ever so slightly I could hear the breath deepen, beginning to stir our bodies. We moved through a compassionate practice of yoga, taking our time, allowing our bodies to receive the deepened sacred breath, the slow movements, the calming effects of a yoga practice that had brought us together for 16 years, and as we moved into Child's Pose, I repeated those same words my first yoga teacher said to me: "You are a child of God, bow to the wisdom of your higher self."   

It was yoga practice that I thought might offer some healing. While this terrible accident had tested our faith, it again brought us back to the words, "Thy will be done." We had no answers as to why this happened, and we still felt a bit shell shocked, but after 75 minutes of yoga, we again cried and hugged and valued each other all the more as we left our space to go out into the world and live what we have been practicing together without our dear friend, Patty.

Although Patty was physically gone, she would always be part of this group in spirit.  Every time we begin class, and we again find our breath, through sorrow, through heartache, through happiness and joy, I feel Patty's breath energy with us, that breath that unites us with each other with all of nature and with the Divine.

Life is impermanence, life is change. Sometimes it's change that no one expects or wants, but it happens nonetheless and somehow we navigate that change. We begin again, differently, maybe a bit hesitant at first, but we struggle and we cry and we breathe: that deep, loving, sacred breath that connects us all and we practice again.

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