Last week, I attended a traditional Presbyterian church service. In the Call to Worship, the pastor used the words “calm our hearts,” a phrase sandwiched in the middle of a lot of words. Buried, really. Our hearts were supposed to calm while we listened to a verbal flood.
I’m a word person. My heart does not calm while I’m analyzing the words being said, the concepts being addressed, the theology being presented. Too much thinking, analyzing, intellectualizing, wondering. Not calming.
Deep within me, I wanted to stop the service. To stand and lead the congregation in alternate nostril breathing in order to experience calming our hearts with our bodies and silence. Calm our hearts – for real, and then worship God.
In the midst of strict pews, hymnals, organs, suits, ties, and Sunday hats, however, it didn’t seem appropriate.
Nor was it something we did in the churches I grew up in. My first experience noticing the use of the body and silence in church was in a Catholic Mass at Notre Dame, when I was 25 years old. After attending churches with 45 minute sermons by one person, I found Mass to be a mystery with its complicated pattern of singing, talking, standing, singing, kneeling, talking…
Then, in the middle of a prayer, everything stopped. We sat. I placed my hands on my knees and closed my eyes. We hadn’t been instructed to take this time of silence and think, to confess our sins or pray for anything specific. We simply sat in the presence of God with a lot of other people. Not doing. Not singing. Just sitting.
I had never experienced a moment like this in a Protestant service. A silence. In the middle of it, I felt something inside me lift. It felt like… it felt like peace.
People always talk about this peace around Christmas time – “Joy to the world, Peace on earth, Goodwill toward men” kind of peace. I’d been looking for it for 25 years. In Philippians, the apostle Paul calls it “a peace which surpasses understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” For years, I’d been claiming Paul’s words and searching for this peace, but I never knew it.
And then there it was in the middle of Mass: the peace of God.
But then the silence would end with more liturgy and we would stand and pass the peace of Christ to each other via a handshake or a hug. As I stood, the peace inside disappeared. But I had felt it.
Within a few weeks after Mass, I felt the peace of Christ again in a yoga class. In breathing exercises. Alternate nostril breathing: Inhale through the right nostril, exhale through the left. Inhale through the left nostril, exhale through the right. Repeat. Hold space at the top of each inhale and exhale. Pause. Notice only the breath God gave me. Only the life-force of my body and what keeps me alive every day.
Yoga gives me a way to calm my heart in each moment: through the breath. I can be standing in line at the grocery store, noticing my breath, calming my heart, being in the presence of God.
In my current church, The Open Door, we often begin the Call to Worship or the sermon with deep, calming breathing. I don’t think we’ve ever taken alternate nostril breathing into the sanctuary, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility. Maybe I’ll do it next time I lead a body prayer. What’s important to me is that once a week, together as a church, we notice our life-giving breaths, physically calming our hearts before finding words that direct us toward God.
Sitting in that traditional service last week, analyzing the words “calm our hearts,” I realized just how much yoga has changed my ideas of worship and church and connecting with God. To me, the body is as integral to worship as the spirit.