The Body in Stillness (and why I'm very bad at it)
Updated: Sep 15, 2020
It happens every single time. My mom drags me to her weekly Vinyasa Flow, or one of my friends has a coupon for a free class. I lumber my way through the poses, peek at other people for notes, realize that’s a huge mistake since they’re all practically levitating past me, and quickly return to figuring out what “legs shoulder-width apart” means.
Finally, we all lay down. The instructor begins guiding us through the cool-down, saying things like “Consciously relax every individual muscle in your body” and “Let your emotions flow over you, and pass on.” They dim the lights, maybe distribute some cool towels or sandalwood oil. Everyone else is either vibing out, or just asleep. And I’m busy sobbing.
I’ve cried during the cool-down part of every single yoga class I’ve ever taken. I dread yoga, to the point where I once rode with my mom to a class at her gym, but nearly had a panic attack just waiting for it to start. I had to run back out before it even began. My mom stared at me while I stuffed my mat back into the cubby, grabbed my shoes, yelled, “I’ll meet you back here!” and high-tailed it out of that deep-breathing nightmare.
I’ve only recently begun reflecting on why.
I’m often impatient, even unkind, towards my body. In college, I worked two part-time jobs while taking classes, one of which was a lot of night shifts. I worked until 2am some nights, stumbling home with just enough energy to wash my face and change into pajamas before I passed out. Later, when I graduated college and got a full-time job with better hours, I stopped sleeping, staying up as late as 4am some nights – I was so used to falling into bed at night that I had no idea how to fall asleep in a normal way.
I drag my body behind me from place to place. I avoid confrontation with it, like a phone call with a doctor or a bill I can’t afford. When I finally run out of energy, or am forced to slow down for some reason, all the alarm bells begin sounding off: my knees hurt, my back hurts, I’m dehydrated, that bruise from that one fall still hasn’t quite healed yet. The inbox floods, my heart sinks, the tears begin.
My relationship with God, meanwhile, has never really relied on my body. I’ve always been more comfortable with words, and I’ve felt God the most in words. I’ve written, sung, whispered and screeched to God. I gather a stream of names, praises, regrets and endearments, throw all those words towards God in one fastball pitch, then immediately move on. The body is an afterthought, a creature that can barely contain the energy of the Word. Prayer isn’t a relaxing time for me – I’m too busy reaching for those alchemical words, that explicit expression of what I want to tell God.
The body in quiet stillness is the most common image of prayer, and I almost never pray that way. I mostly pray by chatting – I’ll walk around my neighborhood, or the city, for hours, keeping up a stream of chatter, talking to God until I run out of things to talk about. I’ll do the same when I’m cooking or driving, all my ways of putting the body into cruise-control while we chat. But when I slow down or stop, finally allowing my body to enter that prayer-space as well, I’ve put it off for too long. I am overcome by the waves of long-ignored hurt, and can barely hold still until I can move on.
This method of prayer has, in some ways, stunted my relationship with God – I talk at God a lot, but am still hazy on who God is to me. It’s not helpful that I grew up vaguely viewing God as part alien, part cop, part ghost, who also happens to be my dad. I’m uncomfortable around God, and so I do all the talking.
Rachel Parsons of Fratres Dei Spiritual Direction and Ministries once sat me down on a dock in Dewey Beach, Delaware, overlooking the water, and led me through a 30-minute HeartSync session. Before we began, she told me, “It doesn’t matter if you hear or see God during this time, or receive a message from God in a traditional way – the point of HeartSync is simply to enter and stay in a space with God. That’s prayer.”
She led me through a series of grounding exercises that bring the body into stillness – first some deep breaths, then a full-body scan. Then, she asked me to visualize parts of my spiritual self interacting with God. And of course, I cried. A lot.
Yoga, among many meditative practices, encourages finding, acknowledging and even maintaining discomfort within the body. Discomfort is a space wherein we can observe our limitations, and find new ways to learn and grow. God encourages us to find, acknowledge and maintain those similar spaces within our hearts. The challenge is to remain in that space for longer than the body, and the spirit, may prefer.
I’m learning that my own discomfort lies in remaining in the same room as God, body and soul, for more than a few minutes. So I’m leaning into that discomfort by reminding myself that whenever I pray, I take my body with me. I now meditate regularly, and attend an Episcopalian church, where the High Mass services offer a structured routine that prepares the body, as well as the spirit, for focused prayer. Some evenings, I find myself back in Quaker services, which I used to attend with my family when I was younger – there, I find the space and freedom to practice setting intention for prayer, and keeping the body still in long moments of silence.
And, yes, sometimes I attend the occasional yoga class. I still cry every time, but at the moment, I’m leaning into the crying part.
Want to see what HeartSync and embodied prayer is all about? Schedule a FREE session with Rachel here. Video chat, in-person, and outdoor sessions available.
July 24, 2019 | Denver, Colorado