The Peace of Christ and the Yoga Sutras

This is a self-portrait from 2004. I placed the camera on the dirt, hit the self-timer, and ran for two seconds, then slowed to a peaceful walk. Click.

Tambo self-portrait. 2004.
Tambo self-portrait. 2004.

In the photo, I am walking into the sunset on the airstrip of a small boarding school in the middle of the Andean foothills. Walking away from everything I had known before graduating from college, walking into everything adult and unknown: a new culture, a new community, a lifetime of teaching.

In the bottom left-hand corner, I wrote with Photoshop: “Art is walking with the King, fingers intertwined.” Of course, there is no king in the photo, no beach with only one set of footprints, no companionship. Just a girl walking into a cactus-lined sunset. But God is invisibly walking beside me. When I wasn’t playing with photography, I walked the airstrip and talked to God.

In the top right corner, I wrote a slightly-altered verse from Isaiah, the same verse from Tuesday’s photograph, which is from the same era of my life: “You will keep her in perfect peace / Whose mind is stayed on You / Because she trusts you.”

These photographs were the desktop on my computer for a very very long time.

I needed the verse. I needed God’s peace.

As I grew accustomed to my new teaching position, my students, my colleagues, the culture of the school, the culture of the country, and the many many changes that occurred that year, I was not at peace. I remember crying – a lot – in the elementary storage room, on my bathroom floor, and in the house of a friend. I know now that the crying wasn’t from the teaching; it was from some deeply unhappy place inside me.

I had been a Christian for my whole life, and I loved God desperately, but I did not feel God’s peace. The lack of peace wasn’t from a lack of faith, and it wasn’t from a lack of trying (that old faith vs. works debate). God was my focus: over breakfast, I would pray for my classes and my students individually. I had Bible verses written on colored paper all over my house. Most of my journal entries – typed or handwritten – were addressed to God. All of my classes began by saying the Hebrew Shema: “Shema Israel, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Echad. Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind.” I altered the Shema slightly to have “mind” be at the end, to drive home to my students that we were learning to grow our minds so that God would be honored in and by our minds.

I read the Bible. I studied the Bible. I prayed.

I felt no peace.

I created art, like these photos, to remind me of God’s promise of peace.

When I look at this verse from Isaiah, what strikes me is the “Whose mind is stayed on You” part. At the time, I was doing everything I knew to do in order to keep my mind stayed on God. Everything. But it didn’t work.

What strikes me about this verse is that the practice of yoga gives a how to keep the mind stayed on God. At the boarding school I wasn’t practicing centering prayer, meditation, or breathing; I was praying with words, trying to talk my way into peace.

The boarding school closed in 2004, and I moved away. In January 2007, I first felt the peace I was looking for in this self-portrait, and I found it in a yoga class. And I knew the peace was from Jesus.

There’s nothing magical about centering prayer, meditation, breathing, or yoga. It’s more of a how-to guide to resting in Jesus (Mt. 11:28), abiding in Jesus (Jn. 15:1-11).

The Yoga Sutras make it very clear that yoga is not about the life of the inner self. Yoga is about inner peace. These next three sutras in my study sum up yoga as a how-to practice rather well:

1.32: “If one can select an appropriate means to steady the mind and practice this, whatever the provocations, the interruptions cannot take root.” (Desikachar)

1.33: “Undisturbed calmness of mind is attained by cultivating friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and indifference toward the wicked.” (P&I)

1.34: “The practice of breathing exercises involving extended exhalation might be helpful.” (Desikachar)

These sutras connect inner calm and outer behavior: practicing calming the mind will produce the kinds of behaviors Jesus urged us to have while loving our neighbors. (A whole essay could be written exploring the Bible and the phrase “indifference toward the wicked.”) Then there’s the how-to: make the exhale longer than the inhale (a calming breath).

In some ways, it’s useless to ask “what if?” What if I had known the practice of a centering breath prayer during that first year teaching? If I had sat in my living room, breathing and reciting the Shema? I know the practice has helped me since then, so my guess is that it would have helped me then, too.

This is why I study yoga: yoga gives me a tangible method for resting in the peace of Christ, for staying my mind on God. I practice yoga and meditation because I trust God.

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