Bright shining as the sun,
We've no less days to sing God's praise
Then when we'd first begun."
Amazing Grace by John Newton, Verse 4
My beloved mother died from cancer in the living room of our Victorian farm house surrounded by her family, having been taken out of the hospital to die at home. In the minutes after her death I fled to the fields behind our barn, unable to stay in the same room with her lifeless body and my family members’ cries. My sister followed me. Stunned with grief I squatted next to my sister, my gaze fixed on the dirt, the detritus of the harvested row crop, stretching before us. How long we were there, I don’t remember, but long enough for my attention to be caught by the airy movement of a small yellow butterfly nearby. As I mindlessly watched the little insect flit around me, I noticed that it wasn’t going away. As I raised my head I noticed another butterfly, and then another, and another, until my vision widened and I saw a company of butterflies, seeming to dance around my sister and me. I found myself softly smiling with recognition, ‘Hey Mom’, I thought, and KNEW that she was well.
Whenever I’m gardening now, if a butterfly flits around me, I can’t help but smile and say quietly aloud, ‘Hey Mom’, once again filled by a moment of comfort and solace that I first felt in that field with my sister over twenty-five years ago: all is well, and all things shall be well. I now know that what I experienced after my mother died was a gift of divine love. Or as my priest pointed out after I recounted the story to him, it was an experience of grace-- amazing grace.
Samadhi, the final step of yoga’s eight steps of spiritual growth is sometimes described as contemplation, union with the divine. Sometimes it's taught as thoughtless awareness—but that explanation always strikes me as a huge understatement. Samadhi is nothing short of God’s all-encompassing grace. So how do you achieve Samadhi? You might as well ask how do you achieve grace? One thing’s certain, you can’t reach it through your own efforts. But there are conditions, my priest said, that he noticed contributed to an environment where we are more attuned to God's grace: surrendering our ego-oriented will to a greater good, affirming life within and around us, and being open to God's presence. Then he smiled and said, ‘And sometimes you just get lucky.’
There’s a jokey tee-shirt that makes me and my fellow yoga teachers smile because its so true—its’s printed with these words about yoga: “I came for the exercise, I stay for savasana.” That’s sort of like me and Patanjali's eight limbs of yoga that I'v been writing about in these blog posts: frankly, I’m in it for the grace. I have found in the eight limbs of yoga a technology for spiritual growth that affirms my Christian faith and creates additional space for God to be present in my every-day life, heightening my awareness of God's ever-present grace.
Here's a brief summary of the lessons that I've learned from this practice. Starting with the foundations of yoga, the yamas and niyamas, I found in ahimsa, the ethic to do no harm, a connection with Jesus' reordering of the commandments to first love God and then love my neighbor, urging me to work towards peace and reconciliation. I found in the yoga observances of studying sacred text and devotion (svadhyaya and ishvara prandihana, respectively) the call to praise and worship. Through asana I increased the health of my body, while honoring the incarnate Lord in embodied prayer. In pranayama I learned to draw upon the energy of the Holy Spirit to calm myself when upset or if drained, revive my energy for the tasks at hand. In pratyahara I learned to control the bombardment of the outside world by setting aside time for rest and the refreshment of Holy Sabbath. Through the practices of dharana I learned that full, undivided attention is a great gift that I can give to myself and those around me, enriching all of our lives. And in dhyana, particularly in Centering Prayer meditation, I found the safety net needed to surrender my will and relinquish the driving wheel to God. All along the way these yoga techniques, these limbs, have enriched and supported my spiritual journey, helping me to grow in faith and belief in the Divine Love that is greater than my human knowing.
As to the top of the yoga tree, samadhi, this is what I’ve learned from my faith-based yoga practice: GRACE HAPPENS. You can’t strive towards it, you don’t earn it. All you can do is open your heart to receive it. Grace can happen when we witness the last breath of the dying as well as when we are cradling a newborn baby in our arms. Grace can happen when our breath is caught by immense beauty, or when we are getting dirty pulling weeds in the garden. Grace is shared when we feed the hungry, comfort the sick, and welcome the stranger. And grace can happen on a yoga mat when we take time to be present to our bodies, breath, and spirit. Grace is not in our control, but our great gift is that God's grace is present every day, flowing through us and surrounding us—whether we are aware of it or not. And that is amazing.