Praying to Jesus at Yoga (A Very Tardy Tribute To Jana Reiss)

Rebbie Brassfield, the author of this guest post, is a frequent guest-blogger at BCC and a copywriter living in Southern California. In 2012 she created the now-emeritus website Normons.com to try to prove how normal Mormons are (lol). Currently you’ll find her blogging here.     

Jana Reiss’s 2011 memoir Flunking Sainthood spawned a thousand imitation experiments on religion. Mine took me recently to yoga.  

I would never have gotten into yoga were it not for a friend from church. At first I thought she was nuts — she’d make comments in our Singles Ward Relief Society about how faith was like Aparigraha (roughly translated as the yogic principle of ‘letting go’) and I would cringe just a bit. Her comments were interesting, but it felt like the handbook might frown upon such pagan ideas being shared at church.

This friend dragged me to my first yoga class, and to my slight embarrassment I loved it. Six years of practice and two years of teaching later I’ve come to love the physical benefits of yoga, but I love what it does for my spirituality even more. 

That’s why when I recently re-read Flunking Sainthood, I recognized Jana’s chapter on Centering Prayer for what it was: yoga. I am aware there are those who insist Centering Prayer is not meditation, but show this to any yogi and see if it feels familiar:

Switch out “Lord” for “universe” and this is Meditation 101. 
In Jana’s experiment on Centering Prayer, she uses the “Jesus Prayer” as her sacred word. This prayer is a single-line stunner that goes thus: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. 

Jana breaks it down beautifully: how in this one line we come to understand Christ’s relationship to God and our relationship to him. But what really caught my eye was when she mentioned that some recite the Jesus Prayer in connection with their breath.

Inhale: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,
Exhale: have mercy on me, a sinner.
Finally! My chance to do a Flunking Sainthood experiment of my own.

The Experiment
I picked a class format called Hot Power Fusion, where the temperature is 102 degrees Fahrenheit and the room’s humidity is set at 40%. I picked it because it is such a challenge — unless you’re really breathing at HPF, the class is little more than an hour of torture. 

My Epiphanies

1. The Body As A Spiritual Instrument

People often describe yoga as a “moving mediation” but until my experiment I had not realized how many poses look like prayer.  

Take, for example, Child’s Pose:

Or Anjali Mudra:

Or this set of poses from the sun salutation: 1) tadasana and 2) forward fold, where often your hands pass through Anjali Mudra on the way down.

An easy way to remember which yoga pose is connected to an inhale and which to an exhale, is that on inhales your chest expands, on exhale it contracts. For example: inhale tadasana, exhale forward fold. 

Inhale: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,
Exhale: have mercy on me, a sinner.
Inhale: my heart reaches heavenward as I approach the throne of God.
Exhale: I bow in humility, begging forgiveness and grace.

It took exactly one flow through this movement before I felt a rush of the spirit. This was a bit unsettling, as although I’ve felt lots of good things at yoga, I do not often feel the Holy Ghost. It was sort of like seeing your math teacher at the mall — a what are you doing here moment that left me oddly embarrassed. I found myself looking around, worried someone would discover me for the Jesus freak that I am. 

Once I calmed back down, the principle that came to mind was consecration. I am no stranger to prayer, but I do not typically devote my entire mind and body to its act. I thought of the temple where we are asked to give all we have to the cause of heaven, at which point I always start squirming because I hate this idea very much. If I give all of myself to God, what happens to me? 

Taking the Jesus Prayer to yoga reaffirmed the reality of my body as a spiritual instrument. The physical actions I take with my body can indicate my level of commitment to God. I can’t imagine when else I would give so full-bodied a prayer, but it showed me a glimpse of what consecration might be all about — the more you give, the more spirit you will receive. 

2. The Power of Repetition
Hot Power Fusion has a set sequence, which means it consists of the same poses every time. New people mistake this to mean it’s a boring class, but repetition is sort of the point in yoga, as it is only after enough familiarity with a pose that you finally are able to explore its depth. The Jesus Prayer was no different. 

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. 

I’ll admit that at first I felt a bit creepy thinking this phrase over and over. My years repeating Sanskrit mantras have not yet erased the scary-movie stigma around chanting.

It also took about fifteen minutes for me to stop being offended at the idea of myself as a sinner. But I’m trying so hard! I resisted. With enough repetition, I began to accept that even though it galls my perfectionist self, I am in fact a sinner like the rest of the humans. In time the word became less about self-deprecation, more about recognizing my position before God. 

With repetition I was able to snuggle into the depths of the Jesus Prayer. Where could I use more of God’s mercy? What does it really mean for Jesus to be the son of God? If I am a sinner, why does he listen to me directly? I felt new spiritual muscles activating as I pushed past the prayer’s surface and into its deeper meaning. 

Jana mentions that Mormonism’s aversion to repeated prayers is perhaps at times unfounded, and I agree with her on that point. There is a difference between rote phrases and intentional repetition. It was enlightening to experience that difference.

3. Peace In Surrender
The concept of surrender is all the rage at yoga. We talk about surrendering to the heat, to the limits of your body. Some teachers use ‘surrender your heart forward’ as a cue to bow forward at the end of class. 

The second half of the Jesus Prayer seems to me like the surrender part (have mercy on me, a sinner), which I thought was interesting given that the exhale is also when you release a pose. 

But here’s the rub – sometimes you have to hold a pose through several inhales and exhales before earning the final release. Sometimes my exhales of the Jesus Prayer were less spiritual and more desperate. For example: have mercy on my legs in chair pose because they are about to fall off. Or, have mercy on me for all the angry things I thought while holding reverse warrior.

In offering the Jesus Prayer, I was asking for deliverance both spiritual and physical, and upon begging mercy, found myself newly aware of my cardinal sin at yoga: struggling to surrender. It is so hard for me to surrender to my physical limits, to prioritize what is safe or right in my body over matching my neighbor. I need divine assistance to give myself mercy, and I felt that in this class more than ever. 

4. A Common Language
As my friend first taught me in Relief Society, there is so much overlap between spiritual languages. I love reading the yoga sutras and comparing them to scripture. In this class, I noticed a few key similarities:

  • At the end of class we bow forward to “seal” in our practice. I have never understood sealing as well as I would like to, but hearing it in a yoga setting made me think of a dedication or offering. Giving something earthly a higher purpose.
  • It seemed only fitting to take a ‘Centering Prayer’ to yoga, where the aim is to develop core strength and flexibility: a prayer and a practice to help keep you centered.
  • Saying ‘Namaste’ at the end of class has always felt like an ‘amen’ to me. We come to close our moving meditation by acknowledging the spiritual time we have experienced together. My light recognizes your light; I say a word and you reflect it back. 

My Conclusions
I don’t know that I will make this a consistent part of my yoga practice. To be honest there were times it was difficult to both listen to the teacher and concentrate on my Jesus Prayer. I did try the experiment once more at a purely meditational yoga class, which proved too sacred an experience to write about. I am aware I may sound nuts, but am honestly a bit proud of myself for finding a way to freak out both my yoga friends and my church friends! 

Praise be to Jana for inspiring my Flunking Sainthood experiment, even though it came 8 years late. If you’re at all into yoga or meditation, I invite you to try incorporating the Jesus Prayer. Feel a whole lot of the spirit. Freak all your friends out. Try praying to Jesus at yoga.

Comments

  1. Last Lemming says:

    Two weeks ago, we had a sacrament meeting with the theme of President Nelson’s talk We Can Do Better and Be Better. In that talk, RMN stated “Thus, when Jesus asks you and me to ‘repent,’ He is inviting us to change our mind, our knowledge, our spirit—even the way we breathe.” To the extent that the “way we breathe” part entered my consciousness at all, I interpreted it metaphorically. The main speaker, however, took it quite literally and gave an excellent talk much like your post on meditation techniques without ever using the words meditation, mantra, or yoga. One of his more fascinating points is summarized in the first paragraph of this article.

  2. “I can’t imagine when else I would give so full-bodied a prayer”

    Delivering a baby. Which this post very much reminded me of.

  3. I’ve had a very similar experience of yoga over the years, but one of the things that has been most useful to me has been surrendering my thinking to the movement, so whist I think yoga it’s self is a consecrating practice if we choose it to be, repetition of prayer and meditating upon it’s meaning during my yoga practice would be remaining in my head, which is my problem.
    Yoga has helped me realise that I can’t think my own way into heaven and to become more accepting of the concept of grace. Thankyou for sharing this, there is so much to learn as embodied spirits.

  4. I’ve often wondered, if you’re a Christian doing yoga, why wouldn’t the Most High be the mantra, but I’ve never tried it. I came of age during the Bruce R. McConkie vs. Glenn Pace battle years, when praying to Jesus was frowned on, but thankfully we’re past that, so I’m going to try this. I think this is a perfect example of acceptable cultural appropriation. Thanks for sharing what you could.

  5. That’s so interesting, Last Lemming! Wish I could have heard that talk. Thanks for sharing.

    And Em F, I’m actually having a baby in December! Did not at all think of that when writing this, but I love that parallel. Am gonna have to get on my baby breathing asap.

  6. This is a really interesting post, Rebbie. Thanks for sharing it.

  7. New Iconoclast says:

    I am of the age where I roll my eyes when yoga is mentioned, but I really liked this post. I’m trying to literally clear my mind of the cultural and other encumbrances that the notion of yoga raises in me, because as I age, I think that anything I can do to reduce anxiety and increase flexibility will be beneficial.

    I love your phrase “single-line stunner.” I took a moment or two to soak in how true and profound it is that “in this one line we come to understand Christ’s relationship to God and our relationship to him.” I used to run cross-country (mile-plus distances) in junior high and high school, and although I wasn’t a practicing Christian at the time, still had a little phrase that I repeated in my head to time my breathing and my steps as I ran. It would benefit me immensely to re-adopt such a practice, as I’m one of those people who finds himself holding his breath during exertion or concentration. Thank you for this.

  8. @New Iconoclast Haha I also used to roll my eyes at any mention of yoga! There is so much hype and it doesn’t help that I’m a born cynic. I have actually felt at times that one of the reasons yoga is good for me is to help counteract my tendency toward cynicism. People there are just so genuinely good and sincere and into it and when I can resist the urge to think they are nuts, it’s a really nice space to be in.

    Also hadn’t thought about how important breath might be as a runner! Thanks for that insight.

  9. Heidi Naylor says:

    Thank you for this post! I’ve been sort of a guilty yoga practitioner–“I’m not doing this right” and “sheesh, who’s got the patience” … but I’ve kept at it, mostly because when I go a few days without, I notice a drop in flexibility, serenity, stamina, and strength.

    Your post has helped me see that this is not unlike me at temple worship or even serving in a calling. Persisting and repeating are key to ultimately embracing and accepting … and finally to the deliverance I need. I’d not made the connection before.

    As for the single-line stunner. Love, love, love…..

  10. Phil McLemore’s stuff on the Yoga of Christ may be interesting to those who like this post:

    https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/pdf/146_30-45.pdf

  11. I love the idea of a “meditation in motion” because that’s how I feel doing Tai-Chi. Body prayers are real, since people are encouraged to pray in the fields, why not on a yoga mat or at the gym?

  12. Practicing yoga always centers me in my relationship to our Heavenly Parents. How that makes me feel is a gift of love from Them. Thank you so much for this post.