My family has chosen “Joy” as the theme of our last week of Advent (even though it really doesn’t matter). For years my intention in practicing Yoga was to find, manifest, exude, realize “my true nature,” Contentment. And then one day on my first silent retreat, which happened to fall into the virtual zoom world of the 2020 pandemic lockdown, I had a realization – maybe I should be going for Joy. Seems crazy, but in my efforts toward living a contented life, I had employed non-attachment to the degree that (maybe) I had (unwittingly) crossed joy off the list.
Joy Isn’t Bad
Not that I had already experienced enough joy and so I didn’t need to experience it anymore, but that it had become a thing I thought I didn’t need because I was content. (Such an interesting turn of events!) It’s possible that aspiring to a joyful life can seem indulgent, privileged, or naïve, so, not necessarily a “good thing.” However, during a period of journaling on that silent retreat, it occurred to me that perhaps I was selling myself short, barring myself from some real sweet moments. It was like – Hey, why not Joy?!
I think it’s in the striving that I get caught. When I effort after everything, that’s when I get tired. This includes the “good stuff,” like contentment, children laughing, time for rest and being together. When I allow life’s moments to come to me, and I experience them without judgement to the degree that I’m able, there’s a peacefulness present regardless of the negative or positive flavor of what’s happening. The peace is there because I’m not striving or “efforting,” willing everything to go the way I think I want it to go.
A Spectrum of Emotion
As an observation, I don’t strive toward despair or “alone-ness,” and yet these emotions come my way. I practice non-attachment for a little space between myself and them and as a way back toward balance. So, why don’t I let joy come the same way, and instead of using non-attachment to create separation, I use a little savoring to create union? As human beings we are able to experience a full range of emotions to varying degrees, so I might as well embrace the good ones and let them make a lasting imprint. I can choose when to employ non-attachment and when not to, right?
To round out this Advent season (though I feel myself wishing for just a few more days, just a few more days!), and to usher in a celebration of our divine-human nature, consider being “extravagant.” Here are some questions for self-inquiry. Use them if they seem supportive. Skip them if not!
What positive emotions seem elusive?
Which do you shy away from?
Has your focus been on contentment or somewhere else?
What are you tired of striving after?
The “Yoga” Practice Part
How does this show up in your yoga practice?
What are you tired of practicing?
Are there postures you don’t spend time in even though you’d love to savor them?
Are there breathing practices that really feel sweet but you don’t make them a priority?
Note what your inquiry reveals to you; then, instead of striving after whatever you’ve noticed, let it come to you with any amount of peacefulness.
Happy Practicing (a little, a lot, in new ways, and in old),
Yes, I admit it! I could give this post a million different titles, and I choose this one. I’m hoping somebody somewhere wants to read the next line:
Unless it does.
Truly Advent doesn’t matter. And truly it does. It depends.
It’s the circumstances and the details of our lives that decide it. I’ve written about Advent in the past, as have countless others over the centuries, because it’s such a valuable practice. It has a great capacity to hold us, nurture us, remind us, and strengthen us. It gives us guidance and rhythms just like Lent, and my personal favorite, Ordinary Time.
I’m admitting another thing now – I’ve been wanting to write and post for the last five months, and I didn’t . I felt like I couldn’t. I even had ideas and inspiration, notes, and time! And still, nothing. I wanted to write abut my favorite liturgical season and how it wasn’t in any way – by any stretch of the imagination – ordinary. Indeed, it had become extraordinary. And I was keenly aware of this, checking in with the calendar, marking the days – how many do I have left before Advent? How many days…??? And then it was Thanksgiving and I knew my time was up. The kids wanted “the tree!” and “the lights!” And I…I just wanted a little… more… “ordinary time…”. Ya know?
But, since I had discovered the advent wreath and acquired the appropriately colored candles, squished them into the holders with tin foil and found a church sanctioned guide, I stepped into Advent anyway, begrudgingly, unwillingly, miffed that I hadn’t the energy to put as much thought and visual aides into it for the kids as I had in past years. How will they practice if I don’t have a practice-thing set up for them?? I worried. You know, a practice-thing, like something tangible, something they can put their hands on, move around, something that is a touchable representation of how they are readying their hearts for the Christ child. (If you’re a teacher, you’re thinking, or shouting out, “Manipulative! You mean, manipulative!“)
Yes, a manipulative. But I went with memories instead. It’s all I had. So I sat at the table and lit the first candle, forgot to open that church sanctioned book and asked the kids, “Remember when we used to put the stars on the heart? At the old house?”
“Do you mean the ornaments on the tree?” the little one suggested.
“Oh, we’ve done that, too, here at this house, with a poster on our wall under the crucifix. But I was thinking about how we decorated our hearts for Jesus. Every time we did something kind we glued a gold star on the big heart by the kitchen. Remember?” (For your visualization, these are all cut out of 20-year-old-faded construction paper.)
I patted myself on the back at this point for not dropping into despair about how all my efforts were for not. I comforted myself with the knowledge that seeds had been planted, and started talking with them about love, faith, peace, joy, and how lots of people think of the candles and the weeks of Advent in a variety of ways.
Amid answering questions like “Why purple? Why’s only one pink? What’s Gaudete?” I asked them, “What would you like the theme of this week, the first week, to be?”
In the gap, my husband called out, “Hope. Hope.”
And so it was. We talked about ways we can be hopeful, which is hard, and we came around to creating a bit of positivity. We’re in the house together a lot now and sometimes things get pretty grim, so practicing a positive attitude seemed hopeful.
No need to wonder how it went because I can’t even remember last week. However, this week is Peace and it occurred to me to send two of my bickering children to “The Peace Stairs” and find peacefulness together. (This is one of the many gems I received from our short years in Montessori school.) It was successful.
Personally, I struggled with some pretty difficult emotions the last three days and instead of fighting them, ignoring them, or diving into them, I chose to let them be. Yeah, I gave those emotions some peace from my judgment and shame. I allowed them to be there, and I stopped telling myself I shouldn’t have them. Instead, I acknowledged that these challenging emotions were present, and I spoke these observations out loud to three other people, my husband and two oldest children, who noted that some days feel heavy and some light. There was a great peacefulness in this experience of being seen and seeing others. So, some more success.
I’m not sure, of course, how the rest of the week will play out, or the following weeks either. But it doesn’t matter. The whole aim of liturgical seasons like Lent and Advent is to develop positive habits that continue after the season has ended. There can be a lot of pressure wrapped up in figuring out what one is going to do or not do for times like these, but I’ve thankfully worked in room for transition time and ease and not really caring about what day we start on and when (or if!) we finish. We just keep trying, keeping pressing on, keep practicing. These positive habits are a Life Thing, not an Advent thing.
And beyond all of this, both can be true at the same time – Advent does, and does not matter, which is why I love Ordinary Time so much. We practice these things in ordinary time, too: Hope on Tuesday? Yep! Peace on Thursday night? You know it. Faith, Love, Patience? Wednesday at 4:16pm. Sometimes we succeed, and sometimes we fail, and the failures are successes when we look at then in the right light. So turn on the light!
Contemplate what you enjoy or appreciate about Advent, and also what you don’t.
Create your own Advent practices that resonate with your truest self or express your inner light – something that you want to stay with you throughout the year.
Drop the stuff that creates negative energy, which might be a particular perspective, not necessarily a tangible thing.
Remember that Advent is here to serve you. You are not here to serve Advent.
I am sitting by candle light in the early morning hours while I write. This isn’t typical, but I needed to get some words written before the household began stirring, and I needed something to off-set the glow of the computer screen. Now that it’s flickering in the corner of the living room, I realize it puts me in mind of the times I light a candle during my yoga practice and the times I have a candle close by when I sit with God in a formal, disciplined way. Now my writing time feels holy, which is a comfort I didn’t realize I needed. I’ve only just begun to type, and I hear my children whispering excitedly about what St. Nicholas has left them in their shoes. The three youngest ones are never awake this early, but with their shoes lined up at the front door holding chocolate gold coins, I guess it seems obvious that 6:30 is a good time to be awake.
St. Nicholas Day is celebrated on December 6th and this year appears during the first week of Advent. The word advent means both the coming and the arrival of a thing or person of great importance. In Christian tradition, the season of Advent evokes themes of eager anticipation, hope, and joy. It also holds space for patience, perseverance, and preparation. For the vast majority of Christain practice, Advent was as much a somber and penitential time as that of Lent, the time preceding the resurrection of Christ at Easter and includes prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Indeed, these are still mainstays of our Advent tradition, though in modern times, Advent can seem to be nothing but a swirl of festive activities, celebrations, and parties. Because of this, it is extremely challenging to create a sense of balance, intention, and purpose. Scripture can help guide us here. Readings for the first week of Advent speak of awareness and readiness, and both Paul and Jesus exhort us to notice that “now is the hour for you to be awake from sleep,” and “you also must be prepared” (Rom 13:11-14; Mt 24: 37-44).
In preparation for sharing my experience as a Christian who practices yoga, I spent the last weeks contemplating my relationship to Christianity and my love for the incarnation, the sanctifying act of Emmanuel, God With Us. And I’ve contemplated with equal intensity, my relationship to yoga practice and my gratitude for its impact in my life. Going to bed on St. Nicholas eve, I was absolutely determined to get something written the next day, because weeks (turning into months) is too long to wait for a good blog post to fall out of the sky. And I prayed for the strength to make this happen because, obviously, I wasn’t getting it done on my own. God is always my inspiration, whether through nature, through people, or through practice. I try not to fool myself into thinking I’m the one who comes up with great ideas or clever metaphors. I just try to keep persevering, keep praying, and keep preparing.
I opened my eyes this morning at six o’clock and thought about how great it would be if I got out of bed, took care of our energetic cocker spaniel-shar pei, and started writing. I thought about lighting that candle before I realized I would need it, for physical light but also for spiritual comfort — I don’t believe this was coincidence. I thought about the ways yoga brings me immediately to myself in the present moment, where life is, where God’s presence and action are visible within me, my breath and my heartbeat. In these present-moments I say hello to my body, hello to my awareness, and hello to God. And it was that last thought of the chain reaction, the ripple effect, body, breath, God, that got my feet to the floor. It was that last thought of God coming to me in and through my own body that got me out into the cold December morning with our soft and fuzzy dog by my side. That last realization gave me the energy I needed to leave my cozy bed so I could get here, to this computer, to write this down, to share with you, to not forget why yoga is so important to me: I choose yoga because it is relational; it puts me in relationship with myself and the three-person God I worship, the Trinity, the epitome of relationship.
My formal study of these relationships through yoga practice began in 1996 when I was nineteen. It was a hatha style class, outside in the grass and surrounded by trees, the uneven ground beneath us, the open sky above us. After just a few classes the practice of noticing my body on the yoga mat translated to a habit of noticing my body in other situations, most notably, standing in line. Tadasana (Mountain Pose, or, standing on two feet) was everywhere available to me. Instead of sinking into my hip, shifting my weight back and forth, or folding my arms over my chest, I would center myself over the four corner of my feet, relax my toes, find a neutral curve for my lower back, soften my shoulders and lift the crown of my head. (Are you finding yourself doing seated tadasana right now?) Before I knew it, I was practicing yoga everywhere. I loved how yoga practice got me to notice my body, then my breath, then the moment I was living, as reliably as clockwork. Standing in line became an opportunity for practice and presence rather than a chore or a burden. I was so intrigued I sought out deeper study, craving information and experience, knowledge and understanding. Hinduism and Buddhism became magnifying glasses for me as looked through their lenses and discovered my Christian theology in a more nuanced and detailed way.
I have kept studying and practicing, looking and noticing because there is no end to this journey. Whether it is Advent, Lent, or Ordinary Time, the exhortation to be awake is a constant. The practice of studying sacred texts and our sacred selves is deep, layered, complex, and fascinating, and keeps me staying awake. The practice of posture and prayer while seemingly limited in options is infinite in experience because each day our bodies and circumstances are different. The eight limbs of yoga are the toolkits out of which I learn to live this human life as a child of God, as a light-bearer of Christ, and as the hands and feet of Jesus.
I am sitting on the couch, awake, the dog, curled up by my hip after her meal and quick jaunt outside, is asleep. The candle I didn’t realize I would need still burns near me. In the midst of writing the beginning of this post, I’ve taken the pictures you see here. I’ve toasted waffles, drizzled syrup, poured coffee, tea, and chocolate milk, kissed, hugged, and blessed my family on their way out the door, cleaned the counters, ignored the floor, and settled myself in a different room because my laptop has battery and outlet accessibility issues. I brought candle I didn’t realize I’d need to my new space, and it still burns though the sun is well over the horizon line, the flame’s constant movement reminding me that life is happening now.
The yoga practice I began over twenty years ago, the one I didn’t realize I would need, is a part of me and reminds me that I am living my life right now, not yesterday and not tomorrow. When I find myself here, in the present moment, I whisper, “Good morning, God,” no matter if it is afternoon, evening, or in the middle of the night, no matter if I have just woken up or if it has been hours since I’ve crawled out of bed, no matter if I am walking contemplatively through the woods or if I am in the midst of a challenging and difficult set of circumstances with challenging and difficult people. It is always good morning, because to notice God’s presence and action is to be joyfully awake.
Suggestions for Practice
Noticing the Breath & the Body
My first yoga teacher liked to remind us that we are human beings, not human doings. This is very difficult to remember, especially if you notice that your sense of self-worth is tightly bound to productivity. If you’d like to practice being, which is very much like being awake, you might begin right now: pause in your reading and notice your breath. You could also try to notice your breath for a brief moment throughout the day; how about every time you sit down, whether on the couch, in the car, or at the table?
If watching the breath feels awkward, uncomfortable, or extremely unpleasant, you might begin practicing being by noticing sensations in your body, whether they are pleasant ones or irritating ones, right now: how do your feet feel, cool, warm, tired, neutral? If it’s difficult to tell, wiggling your toes or rolling your ankles can be helpful. You could do this each morning before getting out of bed, or after brushing your teeth. Even still, you could simply place the idea in your mind: today I will notice my feet. Then pay attention to see if it happens randomly throughout your daily activity.
Something I find immensely helpful is to offer a prayer about it. Ask God to help you notice what it’s like to simply be alive. This being alive is miraculous, and sometimes noticing it feels like a miracle, too!
Remembering Your Light
In the Catholic tradition, a candle is kept burning at all times near the tabernacle signaling that the Holy Eucharist is within; in other words, Christ is present here. Perhaps you could light a candle, before you think you need it, to remind yourself of God’s presence within you. Maybe set out several of the flameless kind that keep glowing at all hours. This way when you open your eyes in the morning, the light is there. When you walk into your home after work, the light is there. When your house is a mess, your children melting down, your partner in need, and when you are at a loss, the flame is there. Whether it is winter, spring, summer or autumn, the light will be there as a mirror, reflecting back to you your own flame, your divine spark, your Christ-light, because you, my friend, are a temple of God, a holy tabernacle, a home for Christ Jesus. This Advent your life can become His nativity scene, your home His stable and your Heart his manger.
Prayer & Power
Prayer and power go together. What would happen if you prayed for the ability to wake up and light your own way? How would God surprise you with comfort? How might you be nurtured simply because you took time and effort to do something a little different than your normal routine? Remember, prayer and yoga are practices, so be gentle with yourself, know that you don’t have to perform, just show up.
You might have a consistent time each day or week that you set aside to pray. Maybe you have a scheduled time that you book to practice yoga at home or in the studio or at the church. You might pray and practice yoga simultaneously, and also, you might not. It’s quite possible that your practices are spontaneous, surprising, and serendipitous moments that you scoop up whenever they present themselves; or perhaps you find yourself with a machete, chopping out chunks of time in desperation.
Either way, any time is a good time to be awake, and especially during Advent when we can be on the look-out for incarnation, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the sacredness of the ordinary, the divine spark within each of us. Have fun practicing. Yes, have fun. It is good and joyful to be awake and see what chocolate gold coins God has left us in the darkness, in the night, and in the shadows of our every day.