"Our bodies are apt to be our autobiographies." -Frank Gillette Burgess
"And the Word became flesh and lived among us….From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace." - John 1:14,16
I love thinking of these two quotes together. There is the idea that our bodies are the best medium for telling our life stories and the notion of a God who takes on flesh and invites us to conform our bodies as an ever-expanding dwelling for the holy. Such a coupling of thought seems to spread a wide prayer mat upon which we can prostrate ourselves in countless postures and cultivate a sort of prayerful storytelling with our flesh and bone.
I recently started Afro-Cuban salsa dance and yoga. I am not exceptionally good at either of these practices, mainly because I have spent most of my life cultivating the steady and active voice of my mind, and very little time attending to my bodily expressions. Boyfriends and therapists alike have accused me of thinking too much. In many ways I love and treasure the fact that I have a thriving and endlessly hungry intellect. But lately I've been intuiting what feels deeply like a spiritual invitation to learn a new language, a more incarnate way of engaging and narrating both the sacred and the mundane.
Speaking into the world with my body is essentially a new form of prayer for me. And like breath, prayer can come from different internal spaces that usher embedded emotional, intellectual, and spiritual assumptions to the surface and beckon your body to acknowledge and deal with these new insights.
So far, in yoga my prayerful storytelling is being cultivated through soft, gentle, incremental movements of my body that are adding up and stretching out into deeper self-awareness and widening possibility..
I am learning to practice rooting my feet into the earth, attending to present sensations and releasing the habitual but unnecessary ways I hold tension and tightness in other parts of my body.
I am learning to listen to small aches and to sit with them till the pain or discomfort subsides.
Savor the warmth of a crackling fire on a cold, gray day. Pay attention to the birds outside your window. Listen for the giggles of a child. Walk in the moonlight. Acknowledge the countless blessings of everyday life.
I am learning that if I am quiet and attentive enough to eavesdrop on the conversation my body is trying to have with me then there will be moments when transformative energy seems to sweetly and seductively seep out of my organs, cleansing and healing and empowering all at once.
Using Dance, Yoga to Pray
With dance, it is a different kind of bodily prayer. It is not comforting and enveloping like yoga. Learning to dance Afro Cuban salsa is at times like playfully swinging my hips around the prayer mat, delighting in being made flesh and paying homage to a God who created us as sensual, sexual beings. But honestly, right now, most times it is simply about trying to attend to what's before me through my body, through feeling, intuition and perception more than through my head. This is very hard for me, hard on the dance floor and hard because it is revealing things to me about how I have chosen to and made habit of existing in the world.
When I am struggling to follow my lead, to relinquish control and to intuit my partner's presence and movements so that I can move in a way that honors our partnership and the dance itself it can summon unexpected tears and unsolicited insights into my ability to partner well and to remain open to the present moment. At such times, my body elicits prayers of trust of others and of myself, and of continued openness to growth and learning in relationship and in life. Dance is also a lesson in humility for me. It is practice starting from scratch and attempting to learn something where the potential for looking foolish and inadequate is multiplied 100x. There is no room for pride when learning to dance. Well, maybe there's room but it seems to defeat the purpose.
I cannot help but make the analogies to other areas of my life. It has taken me a while to really grasp that the ways I inhabit my body has profound effects on the way I open or close myself to life and how I encounter God in myself and in others. In this learning I am trying to be patient and respectful with the insights my body is fumbling to teach me.
Salsa and Yoga as prayerful storytelling? Yes, because what we do with our bodies affects our spirits and therefore nurtures or hinders our spiritual lives. And whatever we do that opens us up to engaging all the ways we are made in the image of God has to be some sort of prayer. The image is that of a God who breathes new life into existence, who challenges us to growth, who heals with both pain and pleasure, who creates with passion, who celebrates our sexuality and fills the earth with colors and creatures that evoke our deepest sense as sensual beings.
Here's to finding ever-new bodily postures on that wide prayer mat.
Enuma Okoro currently writes about faith and Christianity. She holds a masters from Duke University Divinity School. To find out more about her click here