More than a decade ago, when the Scorpion was a far easier pose for me than it is today, I was certified as a yoga instructor. While I never achieved my fame and fortune as a yogini, let alone perfected those ultra-advanced postures, my ambition was rather a modest one. I wanted to end up in the same place I had begun: the church basement, that sacred ground beneath my yoga mat.
My very first class at the St. Mark’s Yoga Center was free of charge, which suited my budget nicely. By my late 20s, I had grown weary of some ailments that had plagued me since my teens, and I had hoped that yoga would bring me some relief. It did, almost immediately, and the yoga teacher there refused to believe that this was indeed my inaugural class. It turned out that I was a yoga adept. Certain characteristics that could elsewhere be liabilities – my being slightly built, for instance, and simultaneously hypermobile and overextended – made for a model Locust.
Yet the part of the yoga practice that proved my favorite was the stretch at the end, when we stopped our contorting and lay perfectly still. We rested on our backs, eyes closed, settling our bodies down into Corpse pose. At St. Mark’s, though, it was not quiet as the grave. Not at all. The choir was rehearsing overhead, groups of children traipsed in and out, and despite receiving explicit directions to the contrary, some students fell asleep and even snored – loudly. There was an older woman situated in the back whom I could routinely hear sniffling; I was convinced that she came to class to cry a while in the company of others. Who could begrudge her the privilege? Every one of us came to that class a bit broken. Our shared hope was to leave it a bit mended.
Since my stint at St. Mark’s, I have wound my way through various yoga studios, Vedanta centers, retreat facilities, and ashrams both north and south. The people I encountered had more and more sophisticated practices, so they led highly advanced classes. None of them was able to capture the generous spirit of that class that originally captured my heart as well as my mind-body. Honestly, I probably would have stayed in that bargain-basement class at the church had I not moved several cities away.
In the years since my yoga teacher certification, I have taught a few friends, school children, and women in transition. I didn’t charge any of them a cent; as far as I was concerned, I was repaying a debt. When I approached the minister at a local Presbyterian church and asked her if I could offer a yoga class to the women in her outreach program, she exclaimed: “Oh, God does answer prayers!” We could both agree on that.
The women in my yoga class were all going through or coming through something; either they were escaping domestic violence, maintaining their newfound sobriety, or reclaiming their children from the foster care system. They did not own the sort of breathable clothing one is asked to wear to yoga class, so I decided not to bother asking for it. From the start, it was clear that I would need to modify the basic class I was trained to teach, and modify it considerably. Gone were the Sun Salutations, bending sequences, and balancing poses. Mostly we would be doing neck rolls, eye exercises, and slightly deeper breathing.
The only place everybody could fit into a class formation was in a side expanse of the church sanctuary were the pews had been removed, I guess to create room for handicapped seating. What I saw there – quite starkly – is how these women who had had their spirits gravely injured suffered so plainly in the body, almost to the point of paralysis. Severe trauma tends to have that effect on people. The women found it hard to stand tall; they found it hard to bend back or over; they found it hard to lead to one side or the other. Sometimes it seemed as if they were just barely breathing.
At the end of each class, when the students settled into Corpse pose, I resisted calling by that name – that name would be too fraught for the women I taught. Instead, I referred to it as Final Relaxation. Each woman reclining on her yoga mat stayed stiff as a board, rigid and tense from head to toe. Not even the gentlest of guided visualizations could lull them into an authentic posture of repose. So with their permission, I started tapping the women’s feet. With a soft touch, I would try to sway their feet side to side while they tried heroically to relax a few of the muscle groups in their legs. At times, the women appeared stricken with rigor mortis. After a while, though, their feet would start to swing a little from side to side. They rejoiced in the smallest degree of movement, and I rejoiced along with them.
Over the chancel of that echoing Presbyterian church scrolled this selection from scripture: “We preach Christ crucified and risen.” When I spied it during our first class, I felt dispirited. Why lead with that gory passage? I wondered. I didn’t want the women to get overwhelmed by doctrinal formulations. I just wanted them to know some rest. As the class progressed, though, the scripture verse felt strangely on point.
Over time, I witnessed a gradual transformation in all the women – call it resuscitation, call it renewal, call it resurrection; I won’t insist in any particular label. Lying in Corpse pose week after week, the women in my class eventually breathed into the possibility of a new life for themselves. At the tail end of the class came the salute the women considered the highlight. Seated on our sticky mats in prayer posture, we would bow to one another, saying “Namaste!” This I translated into English as “My soul salutes your soul.” Clearly, their spirits had begun to rise.
The time we had together was lamentably limited, and I sensed the futility of trying improve on that specialized brand of church yoga, so several years ago, I just stopped trying. Now I busy myself in other ways at different churches, sometimes in the sanctuary, sometimes in the basement, sometimes in the classrooms. But my identity as a yoga teacher has receded with the years. Curiously, the women I know who taught more rigorous forms of yoga have since retired: one broke her foot, the other hurt her back. They no longer practice yoga, and in the process, each lost her primary spiritual community. I grieve for them both.
What I admire about bargain-basement church yoga is that it is clearly intended for the maimed and afflicted. It is the proud practice of all us infirm. There’s nothing to prove, no myth of perfectibility for us to promulgate, no vanity left us. Instead, we practice a rooted connection with incarnational living and its costs – its human costs and occasional comforts. I’ve known such comforts myself, found them among memorably restorative moments spent in some posture of surrender, soothed by the unmistakable stirrings of soul felt most profoundly in those fumbling, bumbling, and gloriously humbling attempts at stillness.