December 20, 2021
Day 23: Yoga
From time to time when I pray, I think of the words of Henri Nouwen: “To pray means to open your hands before God.” In his little book With Open Hands he begins with the image of clenched fists. “When we are invited to pray we are asked to open our tightly clenched fists….You find yourself saying, ‘I would like it to be different, but it can’t be now. That’s just the way it is.”
I have practiced prayer (quite imperfectly) for several decades. I appreciate Fr. Nouwen’s telling image of coming to God with closed fists. Another way I think about it is coming to God with head lowered, arms clutched angrily across my chest. (like a stubborn, unwilling child) Because, that is precisely how I am and how I feel when I come before God in prayer. Sometimes.
When I started to attend the yoga classes at my local YMCA, I knew very little about yoga. Yes, I had a basic understanding that traditional yoga involved spiritual practices like meditation, and releasing the mind from anything worldly or centered in this modern world. However, I also knew the very beginnings of a physical component to yoga, beneficial for stretching and exercising the body.
So, it was with this open, questioning mind and some expectation that I began yoga, once a week. I would also do cardio and weight training, but I added yoga to my routine.
As I became more accustomed to the moves and positions of my wonderful teacher Ina, over the months I began to still the mind, to keep a mindful awareness yet still, calmness as I moved through the various positions and moves called for by my instructor. (Did I mention that I just love my yoga instructor? A retired hospice nurse, and so knowledgeable about the physical body.)
I slowly came to sense myself calming as I began yoga practice. As I wondered about it, and thoughts about what yoga practice was doing for my body, my muscles, my tendons, and my general flexibility, I realized that this mindful awareness that I was learning to practice was very similar to the contemplative practice that several of the wonderful teachers on prayer and meditation told me to try to accomplish.
As Fr. Nouwen and others have said, I find my mind, heart and spirit unclench – when I practice yoga. I not only feel these beneficial effects upon my physical body, but I am also aware of the freeing nature of this contemplative mindset that yoga encourages me to practice.
And one last thing. Yes, I am aware of the spiritual and religious (non-Christian) nature of certain kinds of yoga practice. No, I do not practice these ancient philosophical or religious traditions. Just as certain groups of people from other places in the world practice various kinds of meditation or contemplation does not mean that I follow them lock, stock and barrel, as well. However, I believe God is pleased with the mindful, prayerful awareness and contemplation that I have begun to practice when I practice yoga at the same time.
Many blessings to you as you practice mindful, prayerful awareness and contemplation, too.
Thanks to the website www.contemplativemind.org for their excellent image the Tree of Contemplative Practices.
 Nouwen, Henri J.M., With Open Hands (Ballantine Books: New York, 1972), 4.