Thursday, July 30, 2015

Bending and Breathing the Way St. Ignatius Did

This is neither at the YMCA, nor is it yoga... but I'm really
getting into climbing
This summer my wife, Amanda, and I have been trying new things together in terms of fitness and well-being. We've been going to the YMCA more often, taking yoga-based classes together as well as making use of the climbing wall more often. I think I've done more climbing in my life than Amanda has, but she's done more yoga in her life than I have, so I think we've successfully avoided any conditions by which we would be competing with each other (well, that's not entirely true, but I hope you understand what I mean... we're able to avoid taking any grudges home with us).

At the same time, I have been going through the Ignatian examen less and less. That's a confession, not an update that I'm happy to offer. But, that being said, the guys over at Pray As You Go are really awesome with their social media presence and it was through their Twitter feed that I found out they're doing this #31dayswithIgnatius in preparation for St. Ignatius' feast day on the 31st of July. So I went and checked out this page they've set up that gives you the rundown on the examen prayer.

I think it had been a suggestion put out by Pray As You Go via their Twitter account, but for whatever reason I listened to the audio file they've posted as an introduction to the examen (I would recommend it to you, too, if you're at all curious about the prayer... it's on the same page that I linked to just above). What I took away is that the Jesuits at Pray As You Go have framed the examen as a method of praying through the events of your day, not just simply reflecting on them. This phrasing may be obvious to some of you, dear readers, but it's an important emphasis for me, with everything that's been going on in my life lately.

For me, lately, reflecting on anything life-related in spiritual terms has been difficult and uncomfortable. I feel like my spiritual life is going in a direction that I did not want it to go and that I'm prevented from taking it in the way that I thought I was being called to take it (if you need context for this remark, read this post I made a couple weeks ago). So a method of prayer and review that actively invites God to show me divine movement in my life... I've been shying away from the examen because it is difficult for me and causes more discomfort. But lately, I've realized that this sensation is analogous to the way I feel doing yoga.

I'm sure that many of you, dear readers, are already yoga enthusiasts. I'm also sure that some of you have no interest in approaching a yoga class. But I'm new to the world of practicing yoga, so let me offer you my rudimentary understanding: when you look in on a yoga class, you usually see people bending themselves into strange shapes and balancing in precarious ways that seem almost impossible. From the outside, this really seems to be the point of the class; "let's see who can contort themselves in the craziest way possible." Of course, that is a misunderstanding of what goes on.

Yes, there is contorting that happens in the class. Yes, part of the purpose is to push yourself a little bit each time to become more and more flexible. But the point of the thing is to center on your breath and continue breathing throughout all the poses in a class.

This is the purpose of yoga: you maintain a center by breathing.

Some of the geekier among you, dear readers, probably already know where I'm going with this statement. Or you've already beaten me there. But I'll say it anyway: breath has a huge value in Christianity. In Greek, the words for breath and spirit are the same. The Holy Spirit is portrayed as a dove or a flame or breath.

Take this concept and go back to the Ignatian examen. The whole point is to reflect on the things that happen in your life, making sure to move through the events, and then allow your reflections to be directed by the instructions of the examen. You ask "Where is God moving in my life?" And what is the image of God's movement? I would argue that God's movement is most accurately described as breathing.

So to think through this again: both yoga and Ignatian contemplation ask the practitioner to lean into something potentially uncomfortable. Lean into it without resisting it or fighting it because it's not the discomfort that really matters; what matters is maintaining a center within yourself. Maintaining a center allows you to move through that discomfort without letting the discomfort itself direct your actions.

You must acknowledge discomfort, of course. You must be aware of it because if you ignore it, it might sneak up and overwhelm you. But by maintaining a distinct center, you can acknowledge the discomfort, notice it and name it, and then ultimately grow from experiencing it.

~ ~ ~

How do you maintain your center in what you experience? Have you learned anything through encountering discomfort? Are there any activities in your life that help you understand your center and your experiences? Please start the conversation in the comments below, or start a conversation on Twitter or Facebook.

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