March 11, 2011

Yoga as a Lenten Practice.

Working within our yoga practices is a great way to add a spiritual discipline into our lives during Lent.

In church on Sunday morning, as the lector read us the story of Moses spending 40 days on the mountain with God, my 9 year-old elbowed me. “What is UP with the number 40, Mommy? It’s all over the place!”

She has a point. The number 40 is all over the place in the Bible. The flood raged for 40 days and 40 nights while Noah floated in his ark. And, then, the poor guy had to wait another 40 days to come out of the ark after the rain finally stopped! Moses didn’t just spend 40 days up on the mountain top within the cloud of God – he did it twice. The Israelites spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness before crossing into the Promised Land. After his baptism, Jesus spent 40 days being tempted in the wilderness.

I’m sure there are more. In fact, we’re staring a big one in the face as I write. The 40 days of Lent.

Lent is a Christian season designed to help us remember the sacrifice made to save us from our sins. It can be a time to practice sacrifice ourselves in the form of self-denial. The idea is something like this: If you simply cannot live without your morning cup of coffee, then the little bit of suffering that comes from skipping it can be a daily reminder of the unimaginable suffering of Christ on the cross or of God watching His son die. To get personal, we can imagine that our Lenten “suffering” is a very pale reflection of the pain God feels when we fail to live up to our own potential.

It’s this notion of not living up to my potential, I think, that annually has me considering a twist on the tradition of giving something up during Lent. Instead, I often add a discipline to my days – something geared to draw me into a closer relationship with God. Interestingly, over the years, these additional “somethings” have lasted far longer than the 40 days of Lent. One year, I decided to read the Bible each morning and this is still part of my morning routine. Last year, I committed to practicing yoga every day during Lent. While I did not continue to practice seven days a week, those 40 days of yoga changed my practice deeply. I still feel incomplete if I don’t get on my mat five or six days a week.

Why do these Lenten additions “stick?” I think it has something to do with the duration of the commitment. I think it has something to do with practicing for 40 days.

It turns out that the structured period of Lent – 40 days – is an ideal length of time to break and to make habits. In other words, with the right mindset, 40 days is enough time to create lasting change in our lives. A friend once shared me with me some wisdom from her yoga teacher. She teaches (as her did teachers before her) that “a 40-day commitment to change can provide the shift needed to develop a life-promoting habit or to drop a destructive habit. A first step in experiencing the glorious satisfaction of lasting change is to commit to 40 consecutive days of practice.”

40 days is a long time. There is no doubt about it. It’s hard work to do something for 40 days – even something you love. Yet, it’s not so long that it feels interminable. Even in the first week of our discipline, we can glimpse the end of our commitment glimmering in our future. These glimpses of “making it” keep us going, keep us focused, keep us committed to seeing it through.

Physically, 40 days is long enough to see real change. In that time, our body can adjust to a caffeine-free existence. Our bodies can visibly change – trimming down or bulking up. We can noticeably shed weight or tone muscles. In 40 days, we can develop the strength and endurance to do things we could not even imagine doing when we started our practice. All of these changes reveal our potential for growth and change. They affirm our hopes of living up to our potential.

During Lent, what we choose as our discipline doesn’t really matter. What is important is our intention to grow spiritually, to draw a little closer to God each day when we do it. That said, for those of us who do yoga, working within our practices can be a great way to add a spiritual discipline into our lives during Lent. Here are a few ideas:

+ If we practice primarily in group classes, perhaps during Lent we could dedicate ourselves to developing a personal practice by practicing at home once a week, say. This can draw us closer to our inner teacher and our spirit.

+ If we are yoga teachers, perhaps during Lent we could dedicate our energy to finding balance between our own practices and our teaching. We can only give of ourselves fully in our studios when we’re taking time to nourish ourselves. Time on our mats for our minds, bodies and spirits is critically important to enabling us to do the work we’ve been given to do.

+ If we practice asana regularly, but meditate only in savasana, perhaps we could set aside 5-10 minutes a day to meditate. All the movement of yoga is, after all, designed to lead us into stillness – physical, mental and spiritual. It is in this stillness that we can tune into the tugs at our spirit that are often God’s way of communicating with us.

+ If we have fallen in love with asana, but have not explored yoga’s other limbs, perhaps during Lent we can dedicate ourselves to reading yoga texts that take us beyond our mats (a little svadhyaya). Yoga is so much more than the wonderful work we do on our mats. Why not dedicate the next 40 days to exploring and perhaps affirming that this physical tool is actually a spiritual tool that can change our lives? (Click here for a list of some of my favorite books.)

The bottom line is that deeper yoga practices lead to a deeper understanding of the spiritual nature of life. All yoga, from meditation and asana to breathing and philosophy, is designed to draw us closer to God — however we define the Infinite Creator of Life. Yoga is designed to help us bring our spirituality into our daily lives. How better to honor the 40 days of Lent this year than by deepening our yoga practices?

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