Sacred Yoga

No yoga experience required

In the middle of her recovery from breast cancer, my wife participated in a yoga group offered at the Benson Cancer Center. In the photo above you can look over her shoulder to see the instructors as the class stretched. From those fifth floor windows they could see out to the Mississippi river. They did the practical kind of yoga stretches which are good for cancer survivors, and then finished with a period of relaxation accompanied by peaceful music.

A group of contemplatives gather at my church to practice sacred yoga each week. Some are religious and come from various church backgrounds. Others are spiritual but not religious. We all file into the room, one by one, and stretch out on our mats. Most people lie in a prone position on their backs. Some of us kneel or sit. We listen to relaxing music and settle into our beings.

Our minds do the usual wandering at first. Random thoughts keep popping up for momentary attention. Then they fade away and the next thoughts emerge. We are patient. We are not there to think. We have come to be. We wait for thoughts to settle down, listen to the music, and attune ourselves to being in the present moment with as much of our awareness as possible.

I speak to briefly remind us all of our intention: “We let go of our doing, and practice being. We enter into awareness of the oneness of our mind-body-spirit. We use our breath to center ourselves in the here and now. We remember we are one with a sacred Presence, and so we practice reverence.”

One week we stay on the floor for our postures. The following week we use standing postures. We use practical stretches that involve concentration, balance, strength, and limbering movements, much like the yoga classes at the cancer center. But we seek more than that.

We take yoga literally as meaning the yoking of the mind-body-spirit. The spirit part is at the center of our practice. The Spirit lives within us. So our sacred yoga is about opening our hearts to the Presence we need, within us and all around us. We seek the ground of our beings. And once we find that inner country we want to stay a while.

Imagine you are in the class with us. We are resting on our backs. The music relaxes us. We stretch our arms straight above our heads for several slow breaths. Then we stretch our arms straight out from our hearts to the right and left, forming a kind of cross. We are in no hurry. We draw in at least two or three slow breaths with each posture.

Then we raise our knees in the air with our feet flat on the floor. On the in-breath we raise our hips in the air. On the out-breath we lower our hips to the floor. We do this three times. Then we draw our knees up over our bellies and hold them there with our hands clasped around our knees. Then we roll onto our right sides with our right knees on the floor and our left knees resting on top of the right. Then we do the same to the left side. Finally we roll onto our backs, draw our knees over our bellies, clasp our arms around our knees, and bring our head and shoulders up off the mat to face our knees. After three breaths we release the posture, and stretch out on the mat on our backs.

Releasing a posture is an important moment. I remind the class that these moments of release are practice in letting go. Half of the time in life we need to take hold of something, and the other half we need to let go. Our moves into and out of postures are great practice of both taking hold and letting go.

Next we stretch just the right knee over the belly and complete the same routine we did with both knees. Then we do the same with the left knee.

We then stay on our backs and rest the soles of our feet on the floor with our knees arched in the air. We raise the right leg straight up toward the ceiling and support the leg with our hands around our right thighs. Then we raise our heads and shoulders in the air to face our right knees for three breaths. After releasing the posture we repeat the same movements for the left leg.

Then we roll onto our right sides and stretch out with the left leg resting on the right. We support our heads on our hands with our right elbows on the floor. Then we stretch our left legs up in the air as far towards the ceiling as they will go. We support our left legs with our left hands and move the toes and ankles around in a small stretch. After lowering the left leg back onto the right, we roll across our backs and do the same movements with our right legs in the air.

Next we roll onto our bellies, with our arms resting beside us. We place our chins or one cheek of our faces on the mat. There we rest in stillness, breathing, being, allowing the body to rejuvenate itself. We hear the music. We notice wandering thoughts and bring our attention gently back into the present moment.

After several minutes there we raise our heads off the mats to look forward, and bring our legs together to raise them off the mats behind us, arching our low backs. Then we let go and settle back onto the mats. In a moment we bring our hands onto the mats near our shoulders and push up onto hands and knees.

From there we bring our heads up and arch the low back so that our bellies push down toward the mats. Then we reverse that posture and let our heads dangle down as we raise our shoulders up in the air. We do those moves with several in-breaths and out-breaths.

For our final posture we balance again on hands and knees. We stretch our right arm straight out in front of us, peering forward off our fingertips. We stretch our left leg straight out behind us, forming a kind of arrow. We balance there for three breaths. Then we reverse that move and do the same with left arm forward and right leg behind us.

Sacred yoga is closed with four bows. So we move from there into a kneeling position, sitting on our feet. The upper body is upright with a sense of dignity. We bring our hands together over the heart in a prayer posture. I invite us all to bow our heads in a bow of reverence. We embrace the attitude of heart in which we remember to revere all of life, our individual lives, and the Creator of life who is breathing that life in and out of us.

After several moments there, tuning into the music, we are called into a bow of surrender. We stretch our arms in front of us and lean forward until our foreheads touch the mat, with arms stretched out on the mat above us. We are still on our knees in a half-prostration. This bow of surrender makes it hard to be arrogant, to believe we are running our own lives. I invite us into the attitude of surrender: “We make a decision to turn our lives and our wills over to the care of God, however we understand God.”

Then we return to a sitting posture, with legs folded in front of us to the best of our ability. We sit with a sense of dignity. We rest our hands on our knees with our palms facing upward. I invite us to bow our heads in a bow of openness. Here we open ourselves to encounter the divine in whatever way that might happen this day. We do not try to control our own spiritual awakening. But we do practice opening ourselves to the Presence, to let ourselves be found.

We close our bows by resting our hands in our laps, one hand resting in the other. We touch our thumb-tips to form a circle with our hands, as a symbol of our wholeness beneath all brokenness. I invite us all to rest in stillness, breathing in the moment. We bow to simply be the beings we are, just as we are. We remember that we are all the children of God, made in God’s image.

After several moments in that stillness, I say, “Amen.” With that we close our sacred yoga hour. Sometimes we also silently bow to each other in the familiar way that says, “God in me bows to God in you.”

We are not done there practicing yoga. We hope to keep practicing sacred yoga throughout our days. We intend to keep retuning to the oneness of our mind-body-spirit whenever we can. We know we will forget, and we hope the practice of the morning will help us return to the oneness during our days. We intend to practice our moves at home. We will also return to practice together each week, for we do well to practice oneness in each other’s good company.

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About soulcare4u

I am the author of Monks in the World: Seeking God in a Frantic World, published by Wipf & Stock and available through Amazon.com; and of a blog on Wordpress.com, "A Contemplative Path." I serve as the founding spiritual director of The School for Contemplative Living (www.thescl.net), adjunct faculty of Loyola University, and as a pastoral counselor and spiritual director in private practice.
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