02/18/2013 01:08 am ET Updated Apr 19, 2013

Practicing Lent Off the Mat

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I am studying for the ministry at the Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. I am also a yoga teacher.

Perhaps as a result of those two pursuits, I spend a lot of time thinking about ways in which we can connect with God when we are not in church -- and many of the techniques I'm drawn to come from outside the Christian tradition. Yoga poses and breath control, for example, migrated to the US from India. Practices of penance, abstinence and reflection are hallowed in the Old Testament and followed today in the Jewish tradition.

I've discovered that periods of time that are set aside as holy are especially powerful means of coming closer to God. Lent is such a time, and for a little over a month we may be called to daily renunciation or service to others, or simply to opening up a poem each morning -- all acts of connecting with the divine in ways most of us don't do during the rest of the year.

People sometimes tell me they find observance of Lent to be empty or old-fashioned. Or they just don't like being given one more set of rules they are supposed to follow. When I was a child, my parents considered Christian rituals like fish on Fridays or self-denial at Lent to be quaintly anachronistic. Friday evenings when I was 11 or 12, my dad was more likely to smoke pot and my mom was more likely to turn up the radio and dance in her purple jumpsuit than to meditate or pray.

Mom and Dad didn't understand that Lent done right is not a pair of handcuffs or set of empty rituals, but a spiritual dance.

Lent means more to me now that I practice yoga. The ancient Eastern practices gave me new insight into the Western traditions. Yoga is about doing poses, but it is also about separating yourself from the frantic business of every day life. It is about discovering a moment of stillness while on your mat.

Practicing yoga is also about how you live your life. I tell my students to live their yoga not just in the studio but also "off the mat." They practice breathing exercises in elevators and chant Om in the car.

Lent provides an opportunity to practice our religion -- our Christianity -- off the mat; we take our church "state-of-mind" home for the entire month. In living with our God off the mat we make our relationship with God our own. We begin to feel the sacred in the every day.

In the past I have tried to fast during Lent by avoiding meat. Jesus prayed and fasted for 40 days in the desert before his crucifixion. I wanted to suffer to a small degree the sting of sacrifice experienced by Jesus. I found that I was likely to be stopped dead in my tracks by desire when I smelled someone else's food -- say a co-worker's warm ham panini. During these few seconds of longing I knew myself better -- I could sniff out my human desires and connect to Jesus' torment. Lent stopped being a restraint. It was an opening, because my hunger reminded me to refocus and connect with God.

Last year for Lent I gave up watching Hulu. Watching Hulu, the online-TV service, is my favorite bad habit. I snuggle up to my iPad under the bed covers and watch TV shows until late at night. Watching hours of TV on my iPad keeps me from God. My energy shifts to the Hulu-addled nerve cells of my brain.

For 40 days I was miserable. From Ash Wednesday to Easter my mind was like a dog on the scent of a rabbit. I thought about Hulu as soon as I woke up in the morning and when I went to bed at night. I calculated the number of days until the next installment of Modern Family--and sighed at missing the Dunphys family as if the characters themselves had kicked me out. One night I had a glass of wine and turned on Hulu. I hid in the bathroom, scrolled the menu of available TV shows and let my finger hover over the Modern Family icon. But then I turned Hulu back off.

Yoga has given me a better handle on Lent because it teaches me to still my mind. I quiet my mind through the practice of physical poses and by releasing my attachment to things like episodes of Modern Family. I also pray each morning. I sit on my bed and try to come into a place of stillness. There are many techniques for achieving stillness one might try, such as meditation, walking or painting. Yoga and prayer have worked especially well for me.

The Anglican poet T.S. Eliot believed that yoga's still point is also the place of Christian grace. He wrote:

"At the still point, there the dance is,
.... Neither movement from nor towards
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance." (Four Quartets)

Eliot reminds us that union with God is a dance. The mind's stillness is the dance floor. Lent provides the dance partner, who for me is the suffering Christ, but for you might be another form of the Holy. In the still point, connection with God is an ecstasy. It is a fission of the soul -- formed and directed by prayer. The discipline of prayer draws me into contact with the divine.

In that still point, something wonderful occurs. When I pray in the morning and when I give up my attachments to things like Hulu, I become aware of a humble craving for God. This is the gift of Lent. On the other side of desire, in the point of stillness, is where God waits for you. He has your dance card.

This Lent put on your purple jumpsuit. Pray madly. Practice your religion off the mat.

--From a talk given at the Sugarloaf Congregation of Unitarian Universalists, 2.17.2013