Photo Courtesy of Lululemon Athletica
Yoga Off the Mat
Yoga off the mat. I had heard this before in my yoga teacher training, but didn’t really understand what it meant until I had experienced it. After months of adjustments and realignments, as well as deconstructing many a pose until I understood exactly how the pose best fit my body (or how my body best fit the pose), I realized that this idea of adjusting and adapting had magically seeped into my life—in a good way.
I have always considered myself a very spiritual person, but not a religious person. I am highly suspicious of anything that purports to be the “truth,” as well as anything that thrives on making people feel guilty for simply existing. Therefore, I generally stay away from organized religion—especially the Christian brand of religion. It might also be that I have never taken kindly to someone telling me how to think or feel. Also, nothing positive can come from making someone feel guilty for past “sins” when the past is just that: the past.
Maybe my general discomfort with church services also stems from not feeling quite at ease with being a part of the communal choir consisting of virtual strangers (without being intoxicated, like at a rock concert). Ironically, chanting in yoga classes helped me break free of this discomfort. Chanting starts from the inside and works its way outward. Maybe this is why I never felt uncomfortable chanting in a yoga class, whereas singing in a church service always left me feeling a little… off.
So, I have had many experiences in churches, and none of them have been very positive. Churches and church services always seem so hard and cold, and I often feel like I’m being judged, even though I’m pretty much morally unblemished. Spirituality, to me, has always been an internal phenomenon. However, maybe my body taught my mind and spirit that I was just not as quick to change and adapt to situations as I needed to be. Clearly, my mind and spirit needed to evolve and adapt as my body had so easily done.
I finally realized what yoga had done for me ‘off the mat,’ when I recently agreed to attend the begrudged Christmas Eve service that my mother-in-law likes to attend. In the past, I had purposely avoided being around the in-laws on Christmas Eve, knowing that the question would come up about us attending the service. In the past, I would become so bored and tuned-out that I would rather fall asleep, or think about how I could be watching A Christmas Carol or drinking eggnog like other “non-believers” do on Christmas Eve.
The service was pretty much meaningless to me. I would focus on how hard and stone-cold the seats were and assume this was part of the “guilt” factor that seemed to permeate Christian religions; or how morbid it was to “symbolically” consume the body and blood of Jesus. Why is this even necessary, I would think. Being “non-baptized” gave me a free ticket to not partake in communion. I felt so… lucky. I have never been one to accept guilt as a valid reason for doing the right thing, and I’ve always hated dwelling on the past. Then, afterwards—feeling rather on edge and uncomfortable— I would just wonder why I had attended the service in the first place, when I clearly didn’t get anything out of it but a lungful of frankincense. I would ask: Did I do this for me, or was this for the mother-in-law?
Recently, after a consistent yoga practice that also involved cultivating and facing my true spiritual being, I was confronted with another opportunity to attend the Christmas Eve service at an Episcopalian Church. I accepted the fact that I should attend (as it was something that was important to my mother-in-law), and instead of resisting based on my impression of services past, I embraced it. Or, at least my higher self embraced it. I realized that I wasn’t just doing this for her, I was doing it for myself as an adjustment to life, just like I had been adjusting my body in asanas for months on end—aligning my hips, my arms, my shoulders, my breath, my gaze—for optimum energy flow. I had adapted and changed to the situation, just like I had been doing on the mat.
The next day, she asked: “What got into you? Did you go to church for me?” I answered: “Yes,” because it was Christmas, and I really didn’t want any conflict. But inside, I knew that I did it more for myself.
No: Jesus Christ isn’t my savior, and I don’t celebrate his birth more than any other human (in my mind, he was just another human like you or me—maybe even the first hippy), but I do celebrate the birth of light, the birth of energy, the birth of the world and the birth of humanity. So, as the priest and everyone else went through the service, I turned my inner eye even more inward and replaced every idea that didn’t align with my own spiritual beliefs with something that made more sense to me. And as most everyone around me celebrated the birth of baby Jesus (or felt guilty for their sins), I thought about how I celebrate the birth of the entire world and every atom that it contains—guilt-free.
Yes, it was a silent night, and a holy night, for everyone has their own interpretation of “holy.” For me, I saw the light and the energy contained within. I saw this reflected within myself and the eyes of my own child. And the most beautiful part was: there wasn’t any guilt for sins that I didn’t even commit. I felt at peace and even at one with the world and everything that it contains. Maybe this is the true meaning of Christmas, after all.
Janice Armstrong has been practicing yoga for seven years and is currently finishing her 200 hour teaching training certification at Inner Vision Yoga in Tempe, Arizona. She received her MFA in Creative Writing in July of 2010 and teaches writing and composition at several online universities. In particular, she is interested in the unique marriage of yoga and creative writing, especially journaling. She lives in the Phoenix area with her husband, three-year-old daughter and four cats. When she is not teaching or practicing yoga, she enjoys cooking vegetarian meals that will also impress her carnivorous husband, reading, writing (especially reading and writing about yoga) and just being in the present moment.