Lenten Yoga, Bickram Yoga
Cambridge, MA. It is sort of springtime in New England (some sun, rain, snow flurries, 30 degrees, or 60), we are on spring break (so as to watch Harvard lose in the NIT last night), and it is a week into Lent. Like many a reader of this blog, I am sure, I am still pondering how best to observe these 40 days. One basic instinct of mine is that Lent should NOT be a Catholic version of New Year’s resolutions, as if it were a 40-period for moral improvement, weight loss, re-balancing of the body’s sugars, learning to find time for a few virtuous deeds that, in the best of outcomes, might then become good habits. Life is long, and we will always be simultaneously sinners and saints, so no point in trying to resolve that fact of life this Lent. So I am asking myself what mix of doing-more and doing-less is appropriate, disciplining the body or being gentle with it, in the delicate physical-psychological-mental-spiritual chemistry of learning to die with Christ, so as to rise with him, and finding my way on this not at age 20 or 40, but 60.
So, by my interreligious logic, I was intrigued to read, in the Style section of this past Sunday’s New York Times (a must-read if you are interested in the mostly-secular spirituality of trend-setting New Yorkers…), an essay by Jeanne Heaton entitled, “Teacher: Experience Needed.” It recounts the author’s struggle to reverse the downward spiral of her life, from aspiring actress to heroin addict living on the streets of New York and then, by an unexpected grace, responding to an inner voice: “Get help.” But even in recovery, in care, she found herself in a situation where the body was controlled, ruled, but not healed: “But traditional recovery ignores the physical body, ignores the power of exercise to heal. My body was completely broken. At Samaritan, there was no focus on the constant pain, no focus on how a daily addiction to opiates kept me from stretching, yawning and even sneezing for more than 10 years. My Hepatitis C count was through the roof. The only solution for my physical condition was the vicious chemotherapy drug interferon and a “safe” regimen of antidepressants.”
A teacher buys her a 90-day trial period of Bikram Yoga: “It is a 90-minute class, practiced in a room heated to 105 degrees, with the same series of 26 postures patented by Bikram Choudhury.” The discipline, 90 minutes a day (I think) for 90 days, is both easy and a challenge: “The postures are accessible to anyone, in any shape, but challenging for everyone, in any shape. The front mirrors force you to face the truth and the reality of your life. Slowly, I found a sliver of hope that I could change. I learned to allow my sadness, my anger, my discomfort, my fight-or-flight drama to just be.” In the end, struggling through those days in front of the all-revealing mirrors, Jeanne finds, if not redemption, a path to being-alive again. At the end, she meets Mr Choudhury himself, who missions her to share what she has learned, and so she concludes, “I am a teacher now. I graduated last Nov. 21 and teach every chance I get. I share my story with students, proof that all of us can build an honest, useful and productive life of love and service, no matter how bad, old, tired or sick we feel. Just get in the room.” But read it for yourself...
Why do I recount this small essay at such length? I find it a helpful reminder, early in Lent, of how important it is that we meet Lent’s 40 days at just the right entry point. Thinking is not the key, nor is multiplying words in prayer (as if: 40 minutes a day for 40 days); abstinence and fasting are good, but less so if we see them simply as penances, acts of "giving up." Volunteer work is a very good thing, being with the poor and needy, the gift too of sharing the life experiences of those whose needs are more obvious than ours. But as activity, this too is not the key. Rather: the challenge for each of us, mortal individuals in God’s presence in this world of 2011, is to find a way this Lent to reconnect with God, self, world, putting back together the wholeness of life that probably has come apart. Most things we can do may help and be righteous, the moral and religious count for something, but much of it may be superfluous at Lenten practice: indeed, as Jesus said, just one thing is necessary, for ourselves actually to die and rise with him.
The readings of Lent of course help us to know this. Think just of this Lent’s Sunday Gospels: uncovering and facing our deepest temptations; ascending the mountain, to dwell in the light of the transfigured, manifest Jesus; being that Samaritan woman at the well whose life is changed by a chance encounter with Jesus, or the blind man who, unlike the officials of his religion, knows the difference between being blind and seeing; being dead, like Lazarus, lost even to Jesus, yet then alive again: tempted, transfigured, alienated, blind, dead — and then alive again.
Again, it is here that yoga — Jeanne Heaton’s Bikram Yoga, or any of the many other practices available, or simple the simplest clarifications and stillings of the ancient Yoga Sutras — may help us. Let us avoid the sometimes tiresome debates — can yoga be a Christian practice? who needs yoga when we have a rich Catholic tradition? isn’t yoga self-help and not God-help? — and listen, more simply, to the simpler point: the Lenten practice we need, our personal yoga, is what succeeds in making us one again. It is about cleaning the mirror, in which simply, finally, we can once more see. Live again. And then teach.