When I first started doing yoga about 16 years ago, I took a series of classes led by a friend who rented space in a children’s dance school two blocks from my house. It was a way of getting a little time to myself, away from the demands of two children under the age of four. I loved everything about those classes. Well, everything except the “om” that was chanted at the beginning and end of class. The woman who led the class was a classically trained singer with a beautiful voice. As much as I admired her voice – even felt a pang of envy – I found the whole thing slightly horrifying. Sometimes she would chant other things in Sanskrit and I would literally cringe on my mat. I felt slightly embarrassed for her, as if she was doing something that everyone in the room knew was just a little inappropriate except her.
The same thing happened when I went to the Zen temple where I started to practice meditation a few years later. Each Sunday morning, I would show up, stand near the back and mouth the chants in the sutra book that I received. I loved the words of the sutras – they touched me on a very deep level – but to say those words aloud? No. The whole situation was almost unbearable but the power of the words kept me coming back. I remember barely chanting the meal gatha before lunch one day when I had come to the Temple to do some sewing for them. I was standing next to the Abbott so I felt extra self-conscious and was even quieter as a result. Afterwards, he looked at me and said, “Cat got your tongue?”
It was probably around then that I realized that this chanting business was an important point of practice for me. Did my voice deserve to be heard? Could I bear to hear it myself? What does it mean to take up that much space – because being heard is essentially equivalent to taking up space, aural or otherwise. I remember one of my yoga teachers giving a group of us a tip that has really stayed with me – sit up straight and chant with conviction. It is better to chant incorrectly but with enthusiasm than to mumble the chant correctly but half-heartedly. I am pretty sure this is good advice about just about any activity.
Over time, I have become a little louder and moved towards the front of the meditation hall, literally and metaphorically. I have sat up straighter and chanted with more confidence, even through my mistakes. This past Sunday, I was the liturgist for the Sunday service at the Temple. Yep – the one who couldn’t even say the words aloud was now leading the service, chanting dedications solo in a room of 75 people.
What brings this to mind is a client of mine who is young but has some fairly severe health issues. The implications of those serious physical issues have spilled outward into other aspects of her life and she has lost more than just certain physical capacities. Yet, when I look at her and think about her, I keep thinking that she is very brave and very strong. She is brave and strong but she doesn’t realize it yet. She is the woman at the back of the zendo afraid to hear her own voice. My job, as her yoga therapist, is to help create experiences for her that will cultivate that voice so that she can hear it – in whatever form that takes. For me, it was chanting but for her, it may take a multitude of other forms. Those experiences will help reveal her strength and courage to her – strength and courage that she needs to become familiar with as she navigates these serious health concerns.
I suspect most of us have some version of the scared person cowering at the back of the room, even those who seem confident and loud. The tools of yoga – working with our breath, body and mind – can help tap into our genuine strength. Real strength comes from deep inside us and moves outward so we can sit up straight and understand our mistakes for what they really are: simple. human mistakes, not a referendum on our worthiness. Real strength steadies our spine but allows us to bend when the circumstances call for flexibility. The tools of yoga are simple but they affect us on every level of our being and they can reveal this truth about each of us – you are brave and strong.
In the midst of an imperfect world, where bad things happen and circumstances seem unfair, you are brave and strong. In the midst of love and beauty, you are brave and strong. In the midst of it all – the whole catastrophe – you are brave and strong.
It’s who we are.