Transformation through Yoga
by Cantor Lisa Levine
I was lying on my back supported by a bolster, arms spread to the side and my feet together with knees floating apart in supported supine butterfly pose. My eyes were closed, and I was trying to quiet my mind from the hundred things on my to do list. The voice of my yoga teacher floated around me, reminding me that the opening of my heart and slowing of my breath would promote the release of stress, judgments, grief, and other emotions or burdens that might be troubling me. As I began to release and let go of all the chatter inside my head, I had a profound realization.
Humans are, in many ways, like butterflies. We are transformed: by birth, by death, by stress and illness, by hope and by triumph. We watch our children transform into adults, our parents transform into children. It is through these life stages that we ourselves change, morph and transform into mature adults.
Also like the caterpillar, sometimes we form a hard exterior to cocoon, or protect us from all the things in life that are difficult for us to accept. Our mind takes over our body and convinces us that we are protecting ourselves for our own good. Only when we begin listening to our bodies and our spirits, will the cocoon we’ve woven so lightly around us break apart and the truths that preside within us emerge.
How do we listen to our bodies and spirits? For me, one path is yoga, a practice that strives to connect us with ourselves. “Yoga” means “union,” and through the practice of breathing and assana, postures often named for animals and insects in nature, we strive to create space in our bodies for truth.
Truths can be hard to accept. When the harsh realities of life present themselves we have no choice but to accept what we have no control over. Of course our natural instinct is to want to control everything, but we all know that is not possible – so going to a yoga class can create an opportunity to reframe our realities so that they seem possible to accept.
The ancient practice of yoga and meditation helps to release negative energy in the body and bring healing and light into places that may be holding grief, regret, or sensory memory. Through deeper breathing, through Yoga Flow and held postures (sometimes called Yin Yoga), we release toxins and negative energy that has settled into the deepest places of our bodies. This deep practice of breathing, flowing, stretching, and meditation is what ultimately helped me to heal, to grieve, to release, and to accept the inevitability of death and illness in my own life.
Try this: Sit in a chair and place your feet flat on the ground. Take a deep breath in through your nose to the count of three. Feel your ribs expand and your belly round. Now exhale to the count of three keeping the light of your heart shining strong, your spine lifted. Inhale again, and notice the coolness of your breath fill your body and as you exhale notice the warmth of your breath as you release carbon dioxide. Continue this three part breath two more times. Inhale, expanding your lungs with cool air and energy, exhale and releasing warm air and stress. You should already be feeling calmer and more centered!
Of course, there are other ways we can open our bodies to change and truth: Acupuncture, exercise, meditation, Tai Chi, Pilates, massage therapy, prayer, even hiking in the woods! The most important thing is to make the time to devote to ourselves and to our wellbeing. Time is money, they say, and in our busy lives tending to all the stuff that gets stuck and stuffed deep inside ourselves is time well spent.
In whatever way you choose to do it, these practices can lead us to positive transformation in our lives. When we discover we can cope and come through life’s challenges stronger, like the caterpillar we shed our outer skin and discover our true wings. We fly.
I didn’t think through all this while I was supposed to be restoring myself in supine butterfly pose.
What I did do was use that time to clear my mind and fill my body with renewing oxygen and hidden truths. Afterward, I was able to focus clearly on what I needed to do to help others on their journey of self-discovery. It is like putting on our oxygen mask first then tending to those around us. I think that is what yoga, prayer, and healing are all about.
Cantor Lisa Levine is the cantor of Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, MD, and the author of Yoga Shalom, an empowering Yoga embodiment worship practice for mind, body and spirit published by URJ Press.