Memoir 2.1

****Dr. Schultz: I am SO sorry this is so late, but I had another paper due last Tuesday, and I was so busy at home that I wasn’t able to do justice to the book. I hope that is ok, because I really enjoyed this book and wanted to do it justice.****

For this portion of the memoir, I will focus on Matthew Sanford’s memoir Waking, Part 1.

In the introduction to his memoir Waking, Sanford opens with this statement: “There is a difference between seeking and looking for answers. I am not looking for answers. Rather, I seek to appreciate and believe in my experience” (xv). At first, I didn’t understand what the difference between seeking and looking was, since at first they seem like the same thing. Then I started thinking about the essence of what both of those words mean, and realized that there actually is a great difference between them. Looking requires no movement, it is a passive action. Seeking does require motion, however: there is an active movement towards discovery and experience that, while it contains the action of looking, goes beyond mere observation. Recognizing this distinction, Matthew Sanford’s experience and his ultimately life long lesson of mind-body relationship becomes clearer. He is not looking for answers such as “Why did this happen to me?” but rather he is seeking to understand his experience in a fuller sense. As he seeks, he not only asks the question “why?” but also “how,” “what,” and “if this, then what?” It is the difference, I think, between walking a mountain path for the sole purpose of reaching your destination, and walking the same path with the same destination but taking time to observe the scene around you; the feel of the path beneath your feet, the chill of the breeze on your skin, the light on the trees, the sound of leaves rustling. The difference between the two is that when you reach your destination, in the first you have gained nothing but the destination, but in the second you arrive with a fuller sense of who you are and your place in the world. Although it took some time to flesh out his distinction, it is an important one throughout Sanford’s memoir.

Sanford calls Part One of his novel “Trauma and Separation,” and in it he describes his agonizing physical healing process after the car accident that leaves him paralyzed when he is thirteen. Sanford is an incredibly gifted storyteller; throughout the whole story I felt like I was experiencing all that he had. Perhaps the most striking thing about Sanford’s style is the honesty of it. He does not sensationalize or discount any part of his experience. He illustrates his virtues and his vices, his painful experiences and his hopeful experiences, with the same candid lens. The realness of his memoir struck me more than anything else, and for that reason I felt connected to him and couldn’t put the book down.

What I found especially interesting about this memoir is that yoga does not appear until the last two-thirds of the novel, and it is not given nearly as much space as the first part of the novel is. The reason behind this is that his yoga experience is founded on the trauma and separation that occurred in his accident and subsequent healing process. He writes, “Healing trauma requires opening one’s life to interpretation, creating a personal mythology to guide perception, and forging a set of healing stories that create or maintain a sense of identity.” (40) Experiences like the agonizing endurance required by the Foster frame, the incredibly painful body cast operation, and drinking gin and tonics with his mother and mother’s friend, are all experience that ultimately shaped his yoga practice and his worldview in general. He learned that change and healing occurs over a long period of time, that the mind can escape from the body, and that growing up is not marked by a singular initiation, but rather is shaped like sandstone, gradually and over time.

I wish I could delve deeper into all of Sanford’s various healing stories in this book, but there is not space or time. I’d like to end with his final statements at the end of this section, because they aptly summarize his experience:

“My story is not simple. As I write this, I am both heartbroken and desperately in love. Living thus far has taken quit a toll. And yet, I would trade nothing. The richness and possibilities I can feel come directly from what I have experienced. I stand in awe of the transformative potential embodied by our consciousness.” (88).

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Memoir 1

When I first saw the title My Body Is A Temple by Christina Sell on the list of possible memoir books, it intrigued me. I thought of Paul’s claim that our bodies are temples of the living God, and thought that this book would be an exploration of yoga and Christianity. Even though I realized right away that it was not a book about yoga and Christianity, many of Sell’s ideas are interesting and applicable to a Christian’s spiritual growth through the practice of yoga. One of the beautiful things about the yogic and Indian traditions is their ability to adapt and mold themselves to fit any faith tradition. From the inner life to the outward practice, Sell describes how one can make one’s life a full and meaningful glorification of the Divine through the practice of yoga.

She divides My Body Is a Temple into six sections: 1) Building Plans: Put the Highest First, 2) Laying the Foundation, 3) Scaffolding: Erecting and Maintaining Walls of Support, 4) The Sanctuary: Expanding the Inner Life of the Temple, 5) Worship: Life at the Shrine of the Heart, and 6) Outreach Ministry: Celebration Through Service. I will examine some of Sell’s major ideas, particularly focusing on their compatibility/incompatibility with the Christian worldview, with the overall go of demonstrating how Sell’s ideas and how yoga itself can help Christians create a temple for Christ in our bodies and our lives.

In the first chapter, she discusses how creating a temple of the body begins like most things in life do: with an intention. She writes, “Many people come to yoga practice with an ordinary inspiration such as ‘I want to be more flexible’ or ‘I need to calm down’ or even ‘I want to get fit.’ Others come for the more ‘spiritual’ promises like inner peace, greater compassion and expanding one’s consciousness. And while the exterior reasons vary a bit from person to person, most of the reasons boil down to, ‘I have a longing to know myself more fully. I want to experience a greater freedom and live from that knowledge. I think yoga can help me somehow’ ”(4). I was one of the people who was drawn to yoga for the physical benefits alone. I’ve never been flexible, and I wanted to stretch my body and keep it healthy. I thought I could divorce yoga from the spiritual or mental aspects and just treat it as an exercise, like running or lifting weights. But as I’ve been taking this class, and as I read this book, I realized that while it is possible to do so, eliminating the mental and spiritual aspect from yoga is like climbing a mountain blindfolded. There is a physical benefit, but you miss the beauty and richness of the view.

This section focuses on the plan and central foundation for a temple body. Almost all temples are set up to glorify or house a deity. Sell alternatively calls it “the Highest,” “God,” “Supreme Consciousness, grace, Spirit, or the Divine” (7). She argues that the Highest is the ultimate and all-pervasive essence of reality, which is intrinsically good. She further claims that yoga is not so much a seeking out of the Highest from an outside source, but a recognition and discovery of it within us and within everything. In a later section of the book, she calls it “a great game of hide and seek, the one energy of the Divine hides from itself in various ways for the sheer thrill of rediscovering itself and enjoying the reunion” (118). By establishing a practice of yoga with a goal of putting the Highest (its pursuit, discovery, and realization) first in our lives, Sell claims we can begin laying the foundations for our temple of the body.

While I found this section very thought provoking, some of Sell’s ideas conflict with my understanding of the Christian worldview. The major conflict I had was the idea that people are essentially good. I’ve been wrestling with the concept of sin, total depravity, and the nature of evil in Christian theology for a while now, and theologians frequently discuss these problems, but I think most Christian theologians would agree that humans are not, in their essential nature, good. Although when God created human beings he declared us good, sin and human rebellion against God warped our nature. I guess the main problem I find with Sell’s ideas of intrinsic goodness and yoga as a cultivation and discovery of that goodness is my belief that humans, in our fallen state, cannot make ourselves good on our own. There is so much evil and suffering in the world, and so many times that suffering is caused by human beings who think they are making the world a better place, who think that through their own ingenuity and strength they can make themselves and the world good. But I believe that if we are good, we are only good by the grace of God. The power of God, and God within us, is what makes us capable of returning to the original state of goodness. While this sounds similar to Sell’s ideas, they differ in subtle but important ways. Human beings are not a manifestation of an all-pervasive, good spiritual reality, but rather vessels and tools of a living God if they allow God into their lives.

Even though these differences are important to notice and emphasize, many of Sells ideas in the rest of the book about cultivating a spiritual practice are very applicable to Christians. I love the idea she presents of practice as an act of love; loving yourself and loving those around you. She writes “Many people fail to see practice as a loving act and to see themselves as worthy of such love. The longer I practice yoga, the more obvious it becomes to me that what sustains me in practice, and what has helped me implement any positive change over time, is love…Sitting still and quiet in meditation is an act of great love in a culture of stress, rushing, and distraction. Cultivating compassion, discernment, and the ability to see beauty are some of the nicest things I could do for myself” (31). As a Christian, this idea deeply resonates with me. Sometimes it is easy to forget that God loves me, and that caring for myself and loving myself for the way God made me is an act of worship and love towards God. The practice and discipline of yoga in this sense is a great tool for growing closer to God, caring for His creation, and learning to clearly see how we are to love our neighbor.

Another aspect of this book that I really liked was the holistic emphasis of personhood. Sell emphasizes that the body, mind, emotions, and spirit are all intimately connected, and that the health (or lack thereof) of one aspect of self influences the health of the other aspects. As Christians we sometimes have the tendency to demonize the body and the flesh as a source of sin and corruption. But God created our physical bodies with the same love as he created our minds and souls. Initially, our bodies were supposed to last forever. Sometimes we forget that sin not only corrupted our body, but our minds and souls as well. But when Christ redeemed us, he redeemed all of us, and we can and should worship him with our physical body as much as our minds and hearts.

One aspect of this interconnectedness of body and spirit can be seen in the practice of pranayama. Sell talks about the powerful influence that breath can have on our emotional and mental state. Personally, I have always been fascinated with the idea of breath. In Genesis, God forms man out of dust and then breathes into his nostrils, transforming him into a living being. God speaks in whispers, or breaths, and the word numa can be translated as either breath or spirit. Sell quotes John Friend expressing a similar sentiment:

“The breath is the movement of the Goddess. She exhales into us when we are born and inhales Herself completely out of us when we die. We are actually being breathed by a greater power. . . . If we follow in harmony with the natural movements of the breath, we can participate in the creation of a magical and wondrous dance with her. Breathing should be considered a sacred and divine honor. . . . There are four main points to remember while we dance and breathe with The Goddess: –Open to Grace. –Ultimately, we are not in control. –The movement of prana inside us is the Grace of the Goddess. She wants to enter us, so we simply have to open ourselves up to receive Her. She waits for us until we can cultivate enough trust and courage to open up freely to Her greater power. –Instead of trying to pull Her into your lungs on inhalation, simply open the ribs and lungs and welcome Her.” (169-170)

If you replaced the word “Goddess” with “Christ,” I think many Christians would wholeheartedly accept this idea (and even if you didn’t, it would still fit the Christian worldview, since technically God is genderless). By simply observing our breath in yoga class, we can learn so much about the nature of God, and experience the humbling, joyful life that has been breathed into us. The truth is that God is the ultimate giver of life, and our life is the abundance of His grace. The practice of yoga is one way that we can honor God by honoring the life he has given to us.

Even though it was the shortest section of the book, I found the final section to be very powerful. By enabling us to love and seek God, and to love ourselves for who He made us to be and continue to become, we can become a tool to help Him spread His love to those around us. Sell points out, “Not to be confused with martyrdom, co-dependency, obligation, or a lack of self-regard in which we put others first because we feel unworthy, true service is about allowing ourselves to be used as an agent of the Highest in the world. … We erected our temple, we cultivated our body of practice, not for our own ends but so that we could be God’s hands in the world.” (191). This is an incredibly important point for me as a Christian, because I often mistake humility with low self-esteem, denigrating myself, and even erasing my own identity in favor of another’s. But the practice of yoga can help me find a balance of loving myself as much (not more or less) as I love others. Cultivating physical, spiritual, emotional, and mental health in myself is critical for me to effectively serve others in the way Christ wants me to serve.

Although My Body is a Temple is not a Christian book, some of its ideas mirror the Christian worldview, and Sell offers thoughts and advice that can potentially aid a Christian tremendously in their walk with Christ. I enjoyed the book overall, and learned a great deal. I’d like to end with the same prayer Sell leaves her readers with:

“May the temple that we call our body, and the body of practice that we call our life, be a place of refuge, sanctuary and inspiration for ourselves and all who are in need.” (194)

Sell, Christina. My Body is a Temple. Prescott, AZ: Hohm Press, 2011.

 

The Eight Limbs of Yoga: Posture

One of the reasons I joined a yoga class was because I wanted to improve my posture. I have a constant knot in between my shoulder blades from not sitting up straight or rolling my shoulders back.

Patanjali says that “Posture should be steady and comfortable.” My current posture certainly is not either of those things. I noticed that Patanjali emphasizes correct posture because it helps enable the other limbs of yoga. It provides steadiness and comfort, allowing the mind to meditate or concentrate on other things. I like this limb because it highlights the intimate connection between the body and the mind. Health, comfort, and stability in the body allow the mind to focus on correcting or dwelling in other important matters, particularly the divine.

I was particularly interested in II. 47: “[Such posture should be attained] by the relaxation of effort and by absorption in the infinite.” Relaxation of effort is difficult for me. I am always striving to improve and put forth enormous amounts of effort in my tasks. I tend to confuse relaxation of effort with laziness. It is probably a fine line. I really like the phrase absorption of the infinite, because it has a sense of the infinite invading and pervading me rather than my pulling the infinite into myself through my own effort. This sutra reminded me of the verse, “Be still and know that I am God.” As I work on my postures in my practice, I’ll try to remember to relax my efforts and allow God to work within me.

Upside down, we’ll find the things they say just can’t be found

Even though I sadly had to miss Thursday’s practice, I really enjoyed Tuesday’s inversion practice. I’ve been doing shoulder stand since I was a kid, and never knew it was actually a yoga pose!

This may sound odd, but I have always liked being upside down. As a kid I loved hanging upside down on the monkey bars, and even today I will sit on my couch or bed upside down. There is an exhilarating feeling that comes when I turn upside down and the blood rushes to my head, followed by a very calm feeling. But I think my favorite part is the different perspective. Things that I see everyday look different upside down.

It’s important to remember that there is always more than one way of looking at things, particularly situations in life. I fall into the trap of only looking at the problems in my life from only one perspective: mine. Sometimes in order to learn about myself, I need to turn my life upside down and look at it from another angle. Changing perspective is also important for discovering who I am as an individual. I learn new things about myself and how I think every time I stretch myself to look at things from a different point of view.

Here’s a little perspective moment of zen: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U91Wl2YpkD8 (I adore this movie) 🙂

 

How Yoga Works: Overall Impressions

Something that particularly strikes me about the end of How Yoga Works is the idea that practicing yoga not only influences your life, but that of everyone around you. As we journey through the book, we see the Captain’s yoga practice move from physical, to mental, to spiritual and communal. By the end of the story, he has taken steps to help the people around him, and has the opportunity to go and teach yoga in the King’s palace, thereby spreading the healing influence of yoga to the whole kingdom. Miss Friday tells him in their last lesson, “And then later we made this thought bigger; we imagined helping countless people, in countless worlds, all at the same time: we made the thought infinite. And we talked about having the thought even as you practice the yoga poses–for it is the very goal of the poses.” (405) Miss Friday was able to transform a distressing situation (being arrested) into one that blessed everyone she came in contact with, because she shared yoga with them out of kindness and love.

I’ve never thought of how practicing yoga could be just as communally beneficial as it is individually beneficial. So much of it requires introspection and focus on my own body and mind. But through reading this book and practicing yoga this semester, I can see how reforming myself and the way I think an act is not an isolated action. No man is an island. We come into contact with so many people in our lives, people that we can either help or hurt. The more we know and understand ourselves, and especially of who God is in us, the better we can understand how to help the people around us for the better. Even if it is something small like a smile, like taking joy in the ordinary beauty of life and embracing the way God made us, has the power to do tremendous good.

Up Dog, Down Dog

Something I’ve been trying to focus on this past week, both in class and at home, is downward facing dog. The first time I ever did this pose, my yoga instructor told me it was supposed to be relaxing. But as pushed myself into the pose I thought it was anything BUT relaxing. My arms, shoulders, and wrists were in agony, my legs were shaking, and at any second I was sure that I would collapse face first to the floor. And to my dread, this “relaxing” pose was interspersed throughout the practice.

As I practice the pose this semester, I’ve been focusing more on doing the pose correctly, and it has made a huge difference in my perspective. The more I work on the proper technique, the more relaxing the pose becomes. I actually look forward to down dog now, because I know it will give my shoulders, back, and legs a good, refreshing stretch. I still have many millimeters to go before my heels touch the floor, but the I plant the seeds of down dog in my body, the more I enjoy it.

To make the “up dog” part of the title make sense, this past Thursday I particularly enjoyed the combination of up dog and down dog. Doing these poses one after another brings a fluidity, and a harmony to the poses that is a great combination of challenging and rejuvenating. It made the poses seem like two halves of a whole, and left me feeling balanced and energized.

Kleshas and How Yoga Works

The sutra that particularly stuck out to me today was 2.5: “Ignorance is the notion that takes the self, which is joyful, pure, and eternal, to be the nonself, which is painful, unclean, and temporary.” This sutra came to mind as I was reading chapter 34 “Worldview” in How Yoga Works. Miss Friday talks to the Captain about how people, cultures, and civilizations take things that can be very harmful, like alcohol, and by repeating them and passing them down begin to accept them as good simply because others before them said so. As a result, people take things that are painful, unclean, and temporary to be the true nature of the world, or themselves, which is ignorance.

Miss Friday explains: “Most of our viewpoints about harming other beings are not something that we in any way came up with on our own. Almost everything we do, and almost everything we believe in, we do or believe in for one reason, and for one reason only: it is what our parents taught us; it is what we learned from an older brother or sister; it is what teachers in school said when we were very small; it is–it is what everyone else does. It is what everyone else believes. AND THEY ARE ONLY DOING OR BELIEVING IN IT BECAUSE SOMEONE ELSE DID BEFORE THEM, and for no better reason.” (225)

This happens so often in our world, and especially in my life. It is so easy to take what is culturally traditional; like sex or alcohol abuse or obsession with success, and believe that it is what is normal and natural, when in reality the cultural “norms” are destructive to the true sense of self, and rob us of the joy and purity of who we are truly meant to be.

At first, there seemed to be a tension to me between the Christian worldview and this sutra. In Christianity, doctrines like original sin seem to point towards the self being painful, unclean, and temporary. However, the way God originally created human beings was to be joyful, pure, and eternal; to live in relationship with Him. And although sin crept in and corrupted human beings, although we battle the nonself daily, as Christians we still strive to return to that original sense of self; a renewed relationship with God. It reminds me of Paul talking about taking off the “old self” (the nonself) and putting on the “new self” (the self), which is found in Christ. The ignorance that our true self is painful, unclean, and temporary can then be a hindrance to accepting grace: if we believe that our essential self is unclean and temporary it is difficult to believe that God can redeem us from it.

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