April 18, 2012

“Heroic” Sacrifice: A Christian Yoga Perspective. ~ Stewart J. Lawrence

This Week’s “Yoga” Hero? Newark Mayor Cory Booker.

Joseph Campbell, an admirer of Eastern religions, once spoke of the “hero with a thousand faces,” which explains how in each culture there exist archetypes of “heroism” that set standards for personal courage and leave powerful examples to follow.

Last week, one of the shining faces of heroism in America was Newark’s 42-year old mayor, Cory Booker. Booker was returning from a local television interview and noticed that his neighbor’s house was ablaze. Hearing a cry for help, he instinctively rushed in, ignoring the billowing flames and the blistering heat.

He emerged minutes later with his crying neighbor slung over his shoulder. Both were rushed to a nearby hospital. Booker was released after doctors treated him for smoke inhalation and severe burns to his hands.

His neighbor, 48-year old Zina Hodges, remains hospitalized, but will live. Reached by reporters, she said: “Cory saved my life. I wouldn’t be here except for him.”

Woman describes being saved by Cory Booker: MyFoxNY.com

In today’s yoga, we hear so much about the need to “cherish” and to “celebrate” the body. But how often do we hear about bodily “sacrifice?” Almost never.

For many yogis, the idea of “sacrificing” the body is an abhorrent and antiquated concept associated with Christian dogma. It implies that the body is somehow “less than” the rest of us. Rather than “denying” the body, we should “affirm” it, they say.

Douglas Keller has stated the case for yoga body celebration poignantly as follows:

“In yoga, spirituality involves sacrifice—but not sacrifice in the sense of a painful relinquishment or penance. In yoga, sacrifice is not martyrdom. The body is not meant to suffer for the aspirations of the spirit, for the body is not only the offering; it is the altar, the holy ground upon which we approach the Lord. It is in and through this body that we rise higher, not apart from it. What is the offering, the sacrifice we make? We sacrifice the sense that we are separate from God. The body is not the gulf that separates us from God; it is the bridge over which we must pass to meet Him.”

As a Catholic who also practices yoga, I would like to propose a third alternative: there is a time for celebration of the body and there is a time for acceptance of complete sacrifice. A fulfilled and heroic life requires not just one or the other, but both.

“Sacrifice without celebration” can reflect low self-esteem, and unhealthy self-blame. It can lead to punishment of the body or its neglect, damaging one’s emotional and spiritual well-being.

But “celebration without sacrifice” can also lead us astray. It can lead to worshiping the body over all else. In yoga there is a zeal for perfecting a “pose” rather than acquiring acceptance and living from within.  It is an unhealthy narcissism that is a poor substitute for genuine self-love.

Down this latter path we may lead ourselves away from, not toward, the cultivation of true personal heroism. We need to widen our capacity to respond and be present for others, more than ourselves, based on the circumstances that actually present themselves, and beyond any rational calculus of self-interest, or even bodily self-preservation.

Cory Booker didn’t want to die last Thursday, though for a few moments inside that burning house, when he couldn’t find his neighbor, and the room was pitch black, he strongly suspected that he might. “I was terrified,” he said. He could easily have rationalized his desire to stay on the sidelines, to preserve his body—and life.

Even after rushing in, he could have fled. No one would have blamed him. After all, isn’t serving as the mayor of a troubled city sacrifice enough? His bodyguards, who pleaded with Booker not to go in, and nearly prevented him from doing so by force, surely thought so.

Booker threw caution to the wind, and put his entire body on the line. He didn’t just “perform” the Warrior’s Pose, he actually “walked” it.

After the rescue, Booker saw no cause for praise, but the man clearly has something inside him that so many of us clinging to our lives—and to our bodies, more tightly than ever, these days—surely do not.

Celebrate the body’s beauty and wonder? As long as we’re here, and embodied—why not!

But let’s remember: “This, too, shall pass.” Our bodies will fade and crumble. They don’t actually belong to us, and they may be needed—tomorrow, next week, next year—when and where we least expect it.

In the end, our complete willingness to sacrifice our bodies—with gestures large and small—may just be the greatest “celebration” of all.


Stewart J. Lawrence is a lifelong snoop, sneak, critic and scribe. He credits his Sephardic Jewish father for his affinity for the Spanish-speaking world, his poetic sensibilities, and his unflinching desire to speak truth to power. His mother, who largely raised him, did her best to endow her son with common sense, financial acumen, and a spirit of generosity toward his fellow man—largely to no avail.  Stewart formally renounced the small, dull, grubby world of the bourgeois householder at age 50—and has no intention of turning back; however, on the advice of his attorney, he has agreed to comply with all outstanding warrants and alimony requests. When not navel gazing alone in perfect bliss under a Banyan tree, he contributes regular articles on Latino affairs, immigration, presidential politics, and yes, yoga, to the Guardian, Counterpunch, Huffington Post, the World and I, and the Los Angeles Times. He is co-author, with John Barton, of Four More Years: the Overwhelming Case for President Obama’s Second Term (forthcoming, June 2012).

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Editors: Jennifer Cusano/Kate Bartolotta.

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