June 15, 2012
The parish that I serve has a second story with many rooms. Some are used for Sunday school, others for storage, and some for worship. In one of these rooms, three times a week, people sit cross-legged on the floor and face a large window with a cross built into its design. We breathe quietly. The room is silent save for the creaks and cranks of the old building. I invite everyone to draw the thumb and forefinger together on each hand. I say to them, “This is a simple reminder that as we have drawn near to God during this practice, God has drawn near to us.” A few more moments of silence pass before I dismiss them to go forth. It’s in the quiet of these moments after the yoga classes that I often hear five words:
I don’t want to leave.
This is a statement that a pastor longs to hear about the parish she or he serves. The words indicate that people feel so at ease that they want to stay indefinitely. I would like to believe that people feel this way after every worship service, program, and meeting. I would like to believe that the presence of God is so palpable in each part of a congregation’s life that with the psalmist we desire one thing of the Lord: to dwell forever in God’s house. Many would call what I want to believe idealistic and unattainable. But participants of the church’s yoga classes have shown that the psalmist’s desire is a reality in this parish. The people who come do not want to leave the church; they want to stay.
It was not until I began teaching yoga in that upper room that I heard people voice this desire to remain beyond class time. When I first arrived at the church, the last thing I envisioned was filling a joint role of pastor and yoga instructor. Having practiced yoga for years, I joined a local gym and attended the classes that they offered. Two months later, the instructor moved out of town. My classmates nominated me to teach because as a preacher, I “was used to speaking in public anyway.” For the two years that I taught at the gym, the practice was purely physical. Stretch, strengthen, balance, and relax. Yoga was a secular practice for the body.
When my schedule became such that I needed to change venues, congregants approved the idea that we offer classes at the church. In the spiritual setting, I felt free to incorporate Scripture in the closing meditation and to invite everyone to focus on Christ in the centering postures. More short sentences emerged after classes with more power than any sermon might punch:
I feel close to God.
I can’t describe this feeling.
I feel like I’ve just been to a church service.
I’m getting better at this.
My husband says yoga makes me a nicer person.
Over the nearly three years that I’ve taught in the church, there have been testimonies of spiritual, physical, and emotional progress. Sore backs are not as sore. Caretakers have seen the classes as opportunities to take care of themselves. Those grieving a loss have had spaces to cry and pray while also exercising. These are stories that were rarely heard in the secular setting of yoga but are regular occurrences in the quiet of the church.
In the busyness of parish life, a physical exercise that slows people down might seem out-of-place. But I’ve discovered that yoga is a venue that can heal the hurting body as well as the hurting soul. The only things that a parish needs to offer this service are a certified instructor and a room. Cost of the classes should be reasonable so that people feel that they can afford to attend. For this parish, making room for yoga offered room for God to move in a new way in an old building.
Darian Duckworth is Pastor at St. Luke United Methodist Church in Cleveland, Mississippi.