Sunday, January 15, 2012

Embodied Spiritual Practice: Yielding to the Flow of Grace

It has been two years since I started attending Mary-Ann Mastreani's yoga classes in Irvington, NY. Mary-Ann has greatly inspired me with the example of her embodied spiritual practice.  After one class, I overheard another student telling her something that I have often thought: "I love coming to your classes.  I listen to what you say, but your message flows through your movement, and even the sound of your voice is healing."

My church pastor, Anthony Stephens, recently wrote to our congregation about embodied spiritual practice.  Living out our faith is holistic, empowering and transformational;  we have to jump in, mind, body and soul.  What good is disembodied spirituality in a material world?  When we connect to Spirit on a deep level, we power up our minds and bodies.  As we grow spiritually, the light of God will shine through our eyes, our skin, our speech, our voice, our physical movements.  We will step into our power as new creatures.  Christians refer to this transformation as a "new birth."  A Jewish friend once said to me about a Christian woman we know, "When she smiles, I see the light of Christ in her face."  That's a powerful testimony.  

When I think about embodied spirituality, my teacher Mary-Ann definitely comes to mind.  As I see her, she is a spiritual warrior.  She spoke freely to our class about her 10 day silent meditation retreat in 2011.  She has shared with us the fruits of her vipassana meditation practice as she helps herself and others to defeat our maras.  Her dharma talks and the readings she chooses always tie into the asana practice she demonstrates.  Her practice is characteristically strong and graceful.  The substance of each of her lessons is expressed through movement, and this, for me, is a new way of approaching my spiritual practice.

My pastor has also exemplified an embodied spiritual practice through participating in marathons, triathlons, karate and more recently, yoga.  I have heard him and other runners I know speak about running as a meditative practice.

My husband Jamie is a lifelong swimmer, and has told me that swimming is similar to yoga for him, in that it calms and restrains the mind.  

To keep my spiritual practice embodied, I now set physical goals that link up to my spiritual goals.  I have recently worked on opening my heart.  In the Bible, there are many references to the "hardness of [our] hearts;" yogis speak often of healing and opening through the heart.  Spiritually, we can open our hearts through prayer, heart-to-heart communication with God and with others, laughing and crying (allowing emotion to flow), singing and chanting.  As my heart opens, my asana practice changes; the heart based poses start opening up to me.  This is an ongoing process.  When I first came to yoga, I had a back injury.  Back-bending was not happening for me.  Over the course of several years, I am finding great relief and release through camel (ustrasana), wheel (urdhva dhanurasana), locust (shalabhasana) and bow pose (dhanurasana). 

For 2012, my spiritual goals are boldness and confidence.  "Be strong, be bold, don't be afraid or frightened of them, for ADONAI your God is going with you. He will neither fail you nor abandon you" (Deuteronomy 31:6).  I pray this year for the strength and courage to walk my path upright, without fear.  In my asana practice, this will translate into stronger inversions and arm balances.  Because of fear, I still do my headstand practice (sirsasana) next to a wall, but my goal is to practice it unsupported going forward.   I also hope to overcome my fear of arm balances which is holding back my practice.  

A woman in my church congregation has recently opened up about her struggle with cancer, and how she has been sustained through spiritual practice and the support of other believers.  She says she is now stronger than ever, in mind, body and spirit.  I know that others in her church and yoga communities are inspired by her example.  She is now opening up to the new possibilities born of emerging from illness.  

Following my prolonged illness with Lyme disease diagnosed in late stages, and  having suffered from the resulting nerve damage on the left side of my body, I can relate very much to a feeling of mental, physical and spiritual transformation.  I am not who I was before.  But neither are any of us.  No matter how static our lives may appear to us, and no matter how well we think we know ourselves... we must be reminded that the only constant is change.  We are constantly being transformed, whether we like it or not.  We have the power to decide if we want that transformation to occur in accordance with our Higher Selves.  Ultimately our bodies will succumb to decay, but we can always grow in spirit, reaching ever new heights.  In closing, please find below the song lyrics that Mary-Ann Mastreani read to our class last Wednesday.  I thought of these words today when I heard my pastor speak about finding a new calling in life, and then saw what another parishioner wrote about finding a new purpose following illness.  This is a recurring theme everywhere I go!

The only constant is change. The only constant is change. Go...

The human heart is born without legs, sliding back and forth,
And never once does it truly rest, unless accompanied by death... Sliding back and forth.

Even the strongest remnants of history, they have begun to crumble against time.
Sliding back and forth.

The only constant is change. Nothing remains the same.
The only constant is change. There's only growth or decay.

Let's go... Unvarying scenes only found in pictures can never breathe life.
For nowhere else does level ground exist, unless it has been captured by a flash of steady light.

Sliding back and forth,
The only constant is change. Uncertainty awaits.
The only constant is change. There's only growth or decay...
The only constant is change.

There is nothing that stays the same, from the foundation of our lives.
There is nothing that stays the same. There is nothing to erase time.

The only constant is change. Nothing remains the same.
The only constant is change. There's only growth or decay...
The only constant is change. The only constant is change.

(Lyrics from the song, The Only Constant is Change, by the band: As I Lay Dying)

(Image by Bethany Webb,

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