My spiritual life was nourished abundantly during my pregnancy, in part because of the natural turning inward that this time of life creates, but also because of the problems bodily changes can cause. I found it very difficult to sit still for prolonged periods—surely an obstacle to sitting in silence and waiting on the Spirit! The discomforts of pregnancy compelled me to return to yoga, a nourishing practice that had helped me in the past. This time, however, it bore surprising fruits: spiritual discipline and a deepened sense of gratitude.
Yoga is a nondenominational practice that was developed in India about 5,000 years ago. The physical practice, hatha yoga, consists of postures (asanas in Sanskrit, the language of yogic tradition) and breathing techniques. This is the aspect of yoga philosophy most commonly referred to in the west. The name is from the union of sun (ha) and moon (tha), aims to unify mind, body, and spirit, and was developed as a means to prepare for sit-ting meditation.
I first began a regular practice of yoga while in college. My college class was led by a woman who seemed to understand how packed our schedules were. I always felt restored and refreshed after class, and made a point of getting there despite my busyness. Many times, when we were lying on our backs for relaxation, I heard the noises of sleep, as my classmates took much needed rest.
Most yoga classes end with a period of relaxation, sometimes continuing with meditation afterwards. One day as I lay still, an image came to me. I saw a kitten curled up in the palm of a hand. I could feel the warmth of the body, the softness of the fur. The background of the image was multicolored waves of light. I was filled with calm. Then the image shifted, and it was myself curled up in the palm of my own hand, safe and supported by my own inner resources. I felt tears on my cheeks, and a kind of inward motion. Four years later, when I experienced worship in the manner of Friends, I would recall that inward motion, and feel a spiritual homecoming.
On days when I am having trouble settling for worship, the image of the kitten in my palm will often resurface. For me it is an example of grace—receiving gifts of the Spirit just when they are needed.
In pregnancy, when I returned to yoga, I immediately regretted my lapse in practice. Awareness is crucial to yoga, the main point; without it, one is merely doing calisthenics. Asanas, when performed with awareness of breath and posture, can become meditation in motion. The mind focuses on breath and is freed from the longings for past and planning for future with which we so often tire ourselves. This freedom is powerful and energizing. I received it as a necessary gift during pregnancy, and it continues to feed my commitment to yoga.
Focusing on my breath is not only a source of relaxation and freedom, but a connection with creation and wonder. I am amazed that the human body was created with this capacity to use the breath with intention, creating calm or energy. As I breathe I can think of the billions of other people who are also breathing. We might have nothing else in common, but we can feel our lungs expand and contract. We can all tune in to the incredible design of the body. This is such a simple way of paying attention to our connectedness.
At times I also experience a sense of transcending boundaries of time and geography. In the 5,000 years since yoga was developed, countless people have practiced before me—feeling wonder or gratitude, or simply participating in a practice that helps one turn inward. Acknowledging those who have come before leads me to gratitude for other spiritual teachers. I again marvel at our Creator, who placed in us this ability for a spiritual journey.
Since the basis of yoga is the breath, all people can engage in the awareness that focused breath can bring. We each have this wisdom tucked away inside our bodies. In this way, yoga helps me stay in touch with my potential for goodness and right action. We all have this potential—that of God in each of us.
Later in pregnancy, I often practiced yoga poses in preparation for walking meditation. Sitting still had become very uncomfortable, and I rarely attended meeting for worship. While I missed the community of Friends, walking meditation was a great experience. Yoga had helped me learn to keep a quiet, attentive mind while in motion. I walked along the creek by my house, and noted the changes in nature just as I might turn my ears to a spoken message in the meetinghouse. In the common, unconscious manner of pregnant women, I rubbed my hands over my belly as I walked. I offered prayers of thanks and petitions for the well being of my growing child.
Spending time on a practice that nourishes my body with increased strength, flexibility, and energy has also increased my awareness of a need to serve. I have a clearer sense that my body is a vessel through which I can do the work that Spirit calls me to do. By looking after my body, I help to ensure I am physically able to serve. I had never before been interested in notions of the body as a temple, but, in some manner, I think that resonates with me. If a temple is a place of worship, let me carry mine wherever I go.
On days when I feel grumpy, restless, or otherwise out of sorts, I try to ask myself my yoga queries: Did I spent time on my mat today, moving my body? How does my body feel? What is it telling me? Do I need an energizing sequence of poses, or a restorative practice? Have I taken the time for meditation? In this manner, my practice is not treated as an obligation, but recognized as an important and helpful tool for keeping my sense of balance.
No matter my starting point, I feel better after yoga. This is a terrific motivating force. Once I have practiced, my mind and body are ready to be quiet—a wonderful opportunity for meditation and prayer. How could I resist taking the time to turn inward, after such rewarding preparation? Yoga has given me discipline that feels not like work but like a blessing.
Yoga perfectly complements Quaker practice in the sense that it is a practice. There is no end point, no set destination. Yoga is about movement toward, and becoming. It recognizes a potential within each person—a potential that is too precious to label with a fixed destination.