December 8, 2014 / Praxis
Karen Swallow Prior meditates on the slow marriage of North and South.
Where I’m from, it’s not unheard of to live for weeks without a glimpse of sun. Despite cloudless days, life feels like that lately—God feels like that lately. I know she must be there, but too many dreary days have passed since I’ve experienced warmth on my skin, since I’ve seen a ray of sunhope to spark serotonin certainty in my cerebrum.
In desperation, I purchase a copy of the Book of Common Prayer. The first few days I read from it regularly—morning, midday, evening. I tell myself to stick with it, to wait for the rhythm of words to clear the clouds. Soon it becomes a twice-a-day habit, then once a day, and finally I accept that it isn’t helpful for me, and I stop forcing it.
I look more closely at those clouds, and I realize they aren’t made of vapor. They have mass. Their darkness is a locust swarm of ink smudges, wasp words buzzing, moths teeming toward the light. They are the accumulation of words around God, years of words from pastors, thoroughly studied scriptures, and devotionals handed to me by well-meaning relatives. The prayer book is just the most recent layer, each page another shadowy obstruction. I need to move beyond words. I need devoted silence. In silence, there is room for me, and room is made for others. Mental clutter is cleared away and space is made for the Divine to enter in. Silence is capacious.
My yoga mat is waiting for me in the corner of my closet. I first felt God through yoga—I wouldn’t call myself a Christian today if it hadn’t been for the practice—but following my move to Seattle, finding a new studio felt like a low priority. I had tried to practice on my own but never felt revitalized by the asanas. No number of solitary sun salutations could part the inky clouds. There’s something to be said for a faith community, for a leader in liturgy. I’ve known for the last year that I needed to find a studio of good people with whom I could practice, but I kept putting it off. It is only through desperation that I arrive one Sunday night at a studio and find the temple hidden on my yoga mat, held within my body.
Yoga studios are safe spaces for weary travelers. They offer a couple hours in which no one expects me to speak, no one asks for wisdom. I am never asked to volunteer, host, lead, or give of myself—as though self is a sweater I can shrug off at will. And yet, in this generous silence, in this room of faces whose names and stories I don’t know, there is an immediate sense of unity.
In the first few moments, we align our breathing. I welcome cool air into my body, warm it, and then allow it to depart as space is made for another benevolent breath. I make tiny breath prayers with my pneuma, my breath, my spirit. I picture the Hebrew four-character name of God, the unspeakable name that some say is unpronounceable for no other reason than that it is the sound of breathe itself. My breathe is prayer, every sigh an utterance of the name of God, and as I use my inhales to lengthen my spine and my exhales to bend deeply, the theory feels true.
As with other spiritual practices, it is the community that sustains me. There are times when I, on my own, wouldn’t hold a pose so long. But from my inverted perspective I look around at the others in their practice, spine arches on a ceiling, and I persevere. We breathe together. I borrow their energy; I lend them mine. We’re all in this together, I think. We all falter. We all hurt. Keep going.
My thoughts drift away as I relax into shavasana, as my mind begins to realize how beautiful this corpse pose is, how stunning that I, who can barely relax my muscles even in comfortable solitude, choose to let go of all tension and awareness while surrounded by strangers. I am vulnerable and entirely exposed, and my eyes are shut. I am thinking this, without anxiety, when I feel the warm palms and thin fingers of my instructor encapsulate my ankles. My inhale catches in my throat and ocean drops roll down my temple and God is with us, between us, in us. The same vulnerability that could be death opens to such warm, unexpected, and tender kindness. I am undone.
We end our practice as dusk is deepening and the golden hour makes the room shine warmly. Together, we inhale, and together, we exhale an om. It is powerful—a sound so large, warm, and round that it echoes not only through my vocal chords but through my lungs, my body, my very being. My deep contralto grounds the higher notes, joins the interweaving of resonance that is more than the sum of our parts. I choke on a sob, the om not the same without me but going on nonetheless. My participation isn’t vital, but it is wanted. And when I can’t participate, the community sustains me. I have never attended a church as openly and calmly supportive.
I don’t think my spiritual dry spell is over. I’m not naive enough to believe that the occasional practice is enough to clear away the swarm and destroy the nests. Still, this feels like a move in the right direction, a place to be supported, to be sustained, to listen for where God is calling me next. Yoga, like all prayers, is a practice of becoming. We each must be ever moving toward the self we were created to become, the person we already are and have merely forgotten to be.
Kate Rae Davis
Kate Rae Davis is a writer and MDiv student at The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology. Her literature degrees allow her to pretentiously cite poetry in thick-framed glasses; she gains street cred from theologically heavy tattoos. In rare breaks from reading and writing, Davis can be found practicing yoga, making Star Trek references, or chopping vegetables in the kitchen. Originally from West Michigan, Kate lives in Seattle with her husband, their dog, and two elephant teapots.