Yoga as Sabbath

Once upon a time, in a land filled with lakes, I worked as a lifeguard at a Christian camp during my college summers. I loved spending all day in the sun, knew exactly when to apply sunscreen to avoid burning, and learned how to care for pools—testing pH levels and vacuuming dirt.

We worked long 14-hour days, minding kids of all ages and performing other, icky upkeep chores like cleaning the bathrooms. We had a saying for doing things we didn’t want to do: “Cleaning the toilets for Jesus!” “Filling water balloons for Jesus!” “Diving in murky water for Jesus!”

During my second summer, I was the head lifeguard, practicing servant leadership, which meant I often chose the worst chores for myself instead of making my minions do them. One day, we needed to find anchors at the bottom of the lake. We had lost the ropes tied to them, but we knew approximately were they were.

So I dove into murky water, stretching my hands into the silty bottom, searching for a steel loop embedded in concrete. I imagined leeches latching onto my fingers, stayed until my lungs nearly popped, and then flew back up to the surface. I shook my hands above the water, trying to clean them with air, inspecting them for leeches. No leeches. Then my partner said from the canoe, “I just saw a snapping turtle surface over there.”

Diving with snapping turtles for Jesus.

I had no boundaries. I pushed myself, carrying my 14-hour lifeguard days into the classroom, spending 14 hours a day preparing, grading, and teaching. I burned out within three years.

And then I found yoga.

Naturally, during my first class we practiced a seated forward fold—the pose where your legs are straight and you try to touch your toes. I couldn’t touch my toes, but I strained to do it. “Touch your toes for Jesus!”

My instructor told me to respect the limits of my hamstrings and let my hands rest on my legs at whatever point felt comfortable. At a point where my hamstrings were stretching, but my legs stayed on the mat and my back wasn’t hyper-extending.

Oh.

Permission to stay within my range of movement felt like someone had replaced my muscles with chocolate pudding: delicious.

In that moment, yoga mesmerized me. I knew instinctively that if my physical body had limits like this, then so did my spiritual body. I knew yoga had something to teach my faith.

I now understand that yogis respect the limitations of the body so as to not break the body. By respecting the limitations and “playing the edge,” as Erich Schiffmann says, the body grows stronger and increases its range of motion.

When you over-extend your edge, you tear the muscle, and then it has to reknit—usually tighter than when it began. 

This knowledge is only practical if it becomes lived knowledge off the mat, too, where all of life is yoga. 

I know I tore my faith--over and over again. It healed, becoming tighter, restricting, more choking with each tear. To heal it, I had to curl my faith up, be as gentle with it as I would a rescued animal. Stretch it little-by-little. 

In the process, I have grown much better at noticing and acknowledging the more intangible boundaries in my life.

In studying yoga, I rediscovered the Biblical practice of Sabbath. Sabbath teaches that each week has a rhythm of work and rest. Taking a day a week is a little bit like savasana, restoration pose, at the end of a yoga class: move and work 6/7s of the class, rest for 1/7. Work for six days, rest for one. Work the land for six years, rest the land for one (Leviticus 25). 

"Come to me, all who are weary," Jesus says, "and I will give you rest." 

The practice of Sabbath is the practice of respecting one's limitations. This past Sunday, I really really wanted to work, to prepare for a big day on Monday, to worry away my time by preparing to work. But I didn't. I focused on being present with my family instead, trusting that practicing Sabbath would help me protect my spiritual and mental hamstrings. 

Sabbath does more than protecting us: practicing Sabbath helps us to stay connected to God, to remember that we do not have to do it all--because Jesus already did. 

Practicing yoga as a spiritual discipline takes a taste of Sabbath rest into our every day lives.