Yoga is hot. It wasn't always hot. There was a time when it was weird. "What the hell are you doing in here?" asked the librarian who had found me in the depths of the archives of the university library, where I had been alone for the last hour, practicing yoga. The carpet was comfortable for yoga. The solitude of the spot, hidden among the rolling stacks in the sub-sub-basement, was perfect. I'd had a week of practice, by myself, in this wonder of seclusion. "What the hell are you doing here?" he repeated. It was 1983 and I'd been practicing yoga for three years.
At first, it was difficult to answer the librarian. His shock was understandable. I was dressed in a black leotard top and bright purple, baggy, all-cotton yoga pants, and I was standing on my head, or my forearms and forehead actually. My toes were pointed to the heavens. My eyes were pointed to the doors, so I could see his shoes and cuffed trousers as he came at me. I dropped to the floor and sat on my knees for a moment to gain my head, while he continued to berate my desecration and inappropriate behavior, and then he threw me out.
It wasn't the first, or the last place I've been thrown out (but enough about that). I grabbed my book pack, put on my sweater, slipped on my Birkenstocks and headed out right quick.
The first thing I'd learned from my first yoga teacher in college and from practice itself was that most people consider yoga as weird. It was way out of the mainstream in those days, as was meditation. I practiced both, sometimes, and often at the same time. A religion teacher in my Catholic prep school taught our class a practice of meditation that he had learned in the nearby Trappist Abbey. I was hooked from day one.
At UMass, my pantomime teacher was a yogi. We practiced yoga to limber up for class. The yoga stuck. The mime is long gone.
Thirty plus years of yoga, meditation and chanting have taught me that yoga is, first and foremost, always prayer. All the rest, the asana -- the postures, the breath, the pain, the focus, the chant, are all about prayer, or meditation, about God. Yoga prayer by its nature connects me, you, any body to the prana, the universal life force energy, or the chi, the vital force in Taoism. Christians call it soul. It's the life force energy in all of us. Soul.
Yoga, as you may know, means to yoke. But yoke to what? The body? The brain? The breath? The form? The movement? The chant? Yes, all of that, and one more -- to yoke to God. The practice of yoga leads to God, precisely because yoga is about the yoking of body, mind, breath as one. This, so it seems to me, is prayer and has for me opened an inner channel to God. The best thing about yoga is that it is easy and everybody is doing it. Add a chant aimed at the Divine, and the inner door will begin to open. Yoga means unite, to be in union with God.
My chant? It is the Jesus Prayer. "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner." I chant it with every breath, in and out during my yoga practice. It's my prayer. My chant. It's probably not yours. But it's easy and it works for me. This has been my chant since I started deep prayer. The chant is burned in to the back of my mind running in and endless tape loop (remember magnetic tape?). In yoga, my silent chant focuses me and helps me find my way to the inner door that opens to Light.
Call God whatever you want. Human lips cannot speak the True name of God, but God can and does touch the soul, my soul, your soul, every soul in every body. The deep and long practice of yoga reveals that God is real and available, beautiful and troubling.
I practice yoga alone and have for decades, driven not by fitness (although I love that my body is spry for my age), but by my thirst for God. Yoga is prayer. Practicing yoga can change the practitioner, can lead you into the Divine, and can open a channel inside of you for God's Light to enter in.
Be careful, young yogini, I warned a woman one day in our YMCA's co-ed sauna. She was in her first year of yoga classes and had a question, and had heard I was the one to ask. I answered her question and left her with the warning I leave with any yogi or yogini who learns to ask -- beware of yoga: it is prayer, it will light your soul afire, and God is all consuming.
Follow Rev. Peter Baldwin Panagore on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pbpanagore