20 December 2011

Making the Journey from the Head to the Heart

Last year around this time, I returned from 16 days of intense yoga training. It was an extraordinary experience. Even though I travel the world and find home in some of the roughest, most heart-breaking places on the planet, somehow going to this unfamiliar yoga institute nestled in an isolated beach front in Baja, Mexico, threatened nearly every comfort and security by which my life is shaped.

I’d never been to this place. I didn’t know anyone. I had very little idea of how the days would be structured; and I had to sleep in a tent out in the “wild.” I’m not sure why any of this mattered. The location was one of the most beautiful places on earth. The people were some of the kindest, most generously loving, accepting and supportive. I wasn’t in charge so why did I need to know the structure from day to day? And falling asleep to the sound of the roaring ocean and chirping creatures? What a dream! Nonetheless, the neatly arranged way from which I typically engage the world was disrupted. I was out of my comfort zone and it was challenging.

Surprising to some, we didn’t practice asanas or postures all day long every day—though we certainly did more of that in sixteen days than I’ve ever done in my life. The study was holistic—there was time and space for philosophy and meditation or prayer, as well as anatomy and physiology and group heart reflection. The most important thing I learned is that yoga is about the journey from the head to heart.

This is very similar to the Christian Eastern Orthodox wisdom of the Jesus Prayer. This ancient prayer invites the disciple to pray without ceasing by reciting “Jesus Son of David have mercy on me a sinner.” As the prayer is repeated over and over, it starts to be prayed from within the heart rather than the head.

In nearly all great religions there is a universal acceptance that the body is the temple of God. As Christians this belief is engrained in us—“The body is the temple of the Holy Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 6:19) Advent and Christmas prepares us for this mystery.

If our bodies contain the Divine, obviously we want to care for the dwelling place. Jesus invites us into deeper contemplation of the mystery of the Divine Indwelling by inviting us to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:31) What does it mean to “love yourself?” Most of us get these truths in our head—“God dwells within you” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But do we embody them?

A few years ago my husband Chris gifted me the journey of a lifetime. For thirty-three days we made the ancient pilgrimage, “El Camino de Santiago.” With nothing but the packs on our backs, we detached from our normal life and made the arduous hike across Spain. By making this kind of outward, physical feat we grew very acquainted with our body—its strength and weakness, endurance and limitations, and we learned to love it—from the tips of our toes to the crown of our head. We cultivated a deep gratitude for this carriage that was taking us to Santiago. But beyond the physical pilgrimage, with every step we were making the delightful and painful journey from our head to our heart—progressing from the external to the internal. The gift of pilgrimage taught us so much about embodying truth. Truths like: “I am fearfully and wonderfully made;” “There is Someone who transcends me and who is immanent—making home within me—leading me—guiding me;” and “I am not alone,” to name only a few.

Yoga, the Jesus Prayer (and other contemplative prayer practices) and Pilgrimage reflect back to us the season of Advent and Christmas—a season to actively wait and long for Truth to be revealed and embodied.

The longest journey you’ll ever make is from the head to the heart. And Advent invites us to make that journey. As we stay faithful to this daily pilgrimage, we will grow acquainted with our body—the temple of the Holy Spirit; we will grow to love that temple and the One who dwells there. Eventually we will learn to desire to surrender to the One who lives within us. And mysteriously, as we give ourselves to the surrender of Advent, the life of Christ will radiate through us and change the world.

Be well. Breathe deep.

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