What images pop into your mind when someone tells you they are trying to “get in shape?” When I think about getting in shape physically, replays of Gatorade commercials where athletes sweat out blue liquid fill my brain. You might also think about long runs, lifting weights, or late-night gym workouts. Brute strength, defined muscles, trim waistlines, and feats of endurance generally take center stage in constructs around physical fitness.
Images of meditating in a park with deep, slow, methodical breathing probably won’t make your top ten. Neither would stillness, balance, flexibility, or lengthening. We don’t think about yoga as a fitness plan.
In a similar way, when people want to grow in their spiritual lives, they expect to measure spiritual maturity by hours spent in Bible study, fasting from social media and caffeine, large donations of time or money, and righteous behavior. They are, therefore, often taken aback when encouraged to practice silence, contemplation, and stillness. As a spiritual director, I invite people to practice these very things to deepen their spiritual lives and grow in their self-awareness. These ancient practices are like yoga for the soul.
Silence is as basic to the mature spiritual life as downward dog is to a yoga flow. Learning to listen beyond the constant noise of our phones and the chatter of our own minds opens a soul to release the allure of ego just as yoga releases tight muscles. In the surrendered-ness of silence, our timid and shy souls reach up toward the surface to bask in the light of God’s presence and let go of the ego-boosting work that occupies so much of our days.
Learning to practice contemplation builds a core strength of mind to hold on to a single thought focused outside of ourselves. Contemplation invites us to lightly hold an idea about God in our minds so that it can stretch and grow in God’s good time. This expansion of the soul toward union with God requires stable flexibility just as the balance required in yoga requires the core muscles to be stabilized.
Learning to trust stillness as spiritual practice allows the work we have been doing to come to rest in our bodies, minds, hearts, and souls so it can make itself at home. Stillness invites the new lengths our souls have stretched toward to align again with what we have known and felt in communion with God. Stillness is integral to spiritual growth as a new status quo finds equilibrium. Every yoga session ends in “corpse pose” which invites the yogi to lay still and flat on their mat as all the stretching finds its way to a new normal.
My perception of physical fitness has become about what can be seen on the outside, what can be achieved, what can be shaped and controlled. But true physical fitness is actually about what can’t be seen: bone density, organ function, muscle length and composition.
Many hold a perception of a spiritually mature person as one who acts according to a strict moral code, controls the most knowledge, and maintains rigid boundaries around religious inclusion. But true spiritual maturity is about surrendering ourselves to God, holding complex tensions, and opening up toward a greater recognition of humanity as God’s beloved. Thomas Keating described it this way: “The primary purpose of religion is to help us move beyond the separate-self sense to union with God.”
On this path of radical transformation and freedom, yoga for the soul is the only mode of transportation. A spiritual director is very much like a yoga instructor; she will offer you a way to stretch and encourage you as you try. But ultimately, you have to decide how much you are willing to release.