Yoga as Contemplative Prayer
What would my life and relationships be like if my intent were just to be present? What if I were not trying to be efficient, be productive, accomplish anything, learn anything, meet a goal, or “use” my time wisely? I notice the many ways that I distract myself and remove myself from the present moment. I dwell on the past, nurse an offense, anticipate the future, multi-task, judge, categorize, and condemn. What would life be like if instead of putting myself, other people, and events into neat little categories, I just experienced and accepted myself, other people, and events as they unfold in each moment? What if I didn’t have to name everything? What if I saw me and you with fresh eyes every time we appeared? What if I saw me and you as we are now, and not as I thought we were then? What if I relinquished the manipulation of time? What am I running toward? What am I running from? What if I would just be here now?
Yoga and contemplation are two terms for the same state of being, which is simple, unitive presence. Jesus proclaimed, “The kingdom of God is within you,” and Krishna declared, “There is one eternal reality that pervades everything and everyone. In the midst of the many, it is the indivisible oneness.”
The translation of the word yoga is union. So, when I am practicing yoga, I am opening myself to the awareness of the union that already exists between myself and the Beloved, between myself and everything. Alice Christensen, founder of the American Yoga Association, wrote, “The dynamic state of consciousness that results is described as realization, God consciousness, or in Sanskrit, samadhi. ‘Realization’ means that you now know your whole self; nothing is hidden or unknown. This state brings great peace and strength” (in Yoga of the Heart).
The definition of the word yoga is the control of the wanderings of the mind or as Sri Swami Satchidananda, yoga master, translated Sutra 1:2 of The Yoga Sutras, “The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga” (in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali). So, any practice that stops the mind-chatter and brings me into the present moment is the practice of yoga.
Contemplation is the western counterpart of yoga. Teresa of Avila, 16th century mystic, called contemplative prayer the prayer of quiet and contemplation, the prayer of union. She wrote, “The soul in this state of prayer dies to the world and emerges a little white butterfly. . . How magnificent that the soul, having been hidden in the greatness of God and so closely joined with him, is so transformed” (in The Interior Castle, Mirabai Starr, trans.). Thomas R. Kelly, Quaker missionary, echoed, “Life is meant to be lived from a Center, a divine Center. . . There is a divine Abyss within us all, a holy Infinite Center, A Heart, a Life who speaks in us and through us to the world” (in A Testament of Devotion).
Yoga/contemplation is the awareness of that Center to which Kelly referred. When I disengage from the running commentary in my mind, I become aware of something beyond feelings and definitions. I sense a non-dual presence that neither categorizes nor condemns, a presence which is pure awareness. From this state of presence, love arises. This love is a magnetic appreciation of life itself in all its myriad forms. Even when emotions flow through awareness, they do not define me and are beyond condemnation in this state where everything belongs, and all is welcome. Everything green and growing, everything wiggly and crawly is known as a manifestation of the glory of God. Even the small self is seen as an extension of the larger Self, and every person wears the face of God.
“Integral to people’s discovery of God at their center,” explained Fr. Thomas Ryan in Prayer of Heart & Body, “is the simultaneous discovery that the God they have discovered is love.” “We are in love, within love, as fish are in the sea and clouds are in the sky. It surrounds us, penetrates and perfuses us. In a very real sense, we are made of love. Love creates us, and we create love,” agreed Gerald May, M.D., modern-day theologian (in The Awakened Heart). May described contemplation as, “A conscious willingness to fully enter into life just as it is.” And John of the Cross, a contemporary of Teresa of Avila, called contemplation, “Nothing other than a secret, peaceful, loving inflow of God” (in Dark Night of the Soul, Mirabai Starr, trans.).
Yoga class is an exercise in contemplative prayer. The Eastern term for contemplative prayer is practice. Patanjali stated in sutra 1:13, “Effort toward steadiness of mind is practice.” Sharon Gannon and David Life, contemporary yoga masters, clarified,
“The various yoga practices are like the yoking mechanism: they put you on the path, and direct you as you walk toward God. They make you available for the possibility that you might experience a graceful dissolution of the yoke and the merger with the Divine called samadhi . . . This is the power of these practices: they show, rather than tell, us who we really are” (in Jivamukti Yoga).
Jesus invited, “Abide in me as I abide in you” and entreated, “Wake up . . . if you do not wake up, I will come upon you like a thief,” and, “Blessed is he who stays awake.” This moment is fecund, laden, pregnant, and filled with overflowing abundance. Through the contemplative prayer practices utilized during yoga class, I have the opportunity to wake up to the now and experience life in abundance. By practicing the prayer of quiet, I may reduce the times I echo Jacob’s declaration, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it,” and instead declare with the psalmist, “In Your presence is fullness of joy!” The kingdom of God is immanent. God is. I am. All that is left is to be here now.