yoga philosophy meets modern spirituality in Unitarian Universalism

yoga-philosophy-unitarian-universalism Earlier this month, I had the privilege of delivering the sermon at my church, the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville, where I spoke on the parallels between yoga philosophy and the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism. If you're not familiar with UU, you'll learn a little about it if you read or listen to this talk.

If you're brand new to UU, I'll give you a few facts here that may be helpful to know before you listen: We do not have our own religious text (unless you count the hymnal) or specific dogma or creed that all members are supposed to "believe." Walk into a UU congregation, and you may find folks who, in addition to UU, identify as Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Pagan, Humanist, Agnostic, Atheist, and so on. Rather than a unified set of religious beliefs, we share seven basic principles that we strive to live by, and pull from a variety of religious, spiritual, and secular sources and teachings to help us live out our values and nurture our spiritual growth as individuals and as communities.

You can listen to the sermon here (right-click if you want to download), and I've also pasted the text below. If you enjoy it, I encourage you to check out a UU church near you, and to reach out to me! I'd love to talk more about yoga and Unitarian Universalism, and am expanding my coaching into spiritual coaching — if you're interested, drop me a note. 

 

Sermon Transcript

I have a confession: I am not the zen, warm, mantra-chanting, pretzel-bending, patchouli-scented yogi.

I have great respect and admiration for these people, but that’s just not me. I can’t even hold crow pose for more than five seconds without falling, usually awkwardly, with less than graceful language.

And let me take the opportunity here to say that if you have a conception that you’re too _________ to do yoga (too old, too big, too inflexible, too injured, too out of shape, too different) — I want to tell you that I understand your fear, but yoga is truly for everyone.

If you can’t ever do lunges or backbends or arm balances because of arthritis, an injury, a wheelchair, or any reason— any instructor worth her salt can help you find modifications that are just right for your body. And as my teacher says, “you don’t get a prize for doing the headstand, so just do what feels right.”

As I started writing this sermon, I realized that I had to be honest about my relationship with yoga, and the best way I know how to do that is to share an excerpt from Anne Lamott’s book Traveling Mercies where she describes her reluctant conversion to Christianity. (Even as someone who doesn’t identify as a Christian, I loved the book and highly recommend it.) She writes,

...Everywhere I went, I had the feeling that a little cat was following me, wanting me to reach down and pick it up, wanting me to open the door and let it in. But I knew what would happen: you let a cat in one time, give it a little milk, and then it stays forever. So I tried to keep one step ahead of it, slamming my house door whenever I entered or left.

And one week later, when I went back to church, I was so hungover that I couldn’t stand up for the songs, and this time I stayed for the sermon, which I thought was so ridiculous, like someone trying to convince me of the existence of extraterrestrials, but the last song was so deep and raw and pure that I could not escape. It was as if the people were singing in between the notes, weeping and joyful at the same time, and I felt like their voices or something was rocking me in its bosom, holding me like a scared kid, and I opened up to that feeling – and it washed over me.

I began to cry and left before the benediction, and I raced home and felt the little cat running along me heels, and I walked down the dock past dozens of potted flowers, under a sky as blue as one of God’s own dreams, and I opened the door to my house, and I stood there a minute, and then I hung my head and said, “[Okay,]. I quit.” I took a long deep breath and said out loud, “All right. You can come in.

So, I’ve practiced yoga on and off over the past decade, and to be honest, it was definitely not love at first sun salutation. If anyone here is a fan of the Enneagram, I’m a classic type seven, which basically means I’m constantly searching for new experiences, easily bored, and never want to slow down. My internal monologue during a yoga class was usually something like, “Another downward dog, seriously? … ok what’s with the whole ‘corpse pose’ thing? I’m not dead and in fact I’ve got places to be so can I quietly roll up my mat now if we’re done here? If I’m going to meditate it needs to be a solid 10 minutes so I can check it off on my habits app later.”

Yeah. You might be saying to yourself, “well THAT sounds like someone who could really USE some yoga…” and you’d be right.

Despite my lack of excitement about yoga, I have always loved movement. I’ve been doing exercise videos since I joined my Mom for Body Electric on PBS in the late 80s. Even before I was old enough to understand endorphins, I knew I loved how moving my body felt.

Fast forward to the past five years as I’ve been finding my footing as a clinical social worker, doing individual and group therapy at a treatment center 50 miles down the road in Hickman County. (Yeah, I’ve listened to a LOT of audiobooks on that commute.) Most of my time there has been spent working with women in recovery from eating disorders, trauma, substance abuse, and mood and anxiety disorders.

Almost everything I know at this point about healing, I have learned from the hundreds of women that I’ve worked with, and from my own recovery from an eating disorder. Grad school was mostly reading a lot of scanned articles that went in one ear and out the other, memorizing the DSM, and pounding into our heads the importance of self-care, boundaries, and not sleeping with your clients.

Anyway, the more experience I got, the clearer it became to me that healing is not a cognitive process. Treatment of the whole person requires an integration of mind and body. Our emotions reside not in our heads, but in our bodies -- and in this culture, many of us are more like a head dragging around a body, and we get lost in the constant stream of thoughts and forget what it’s like to really feel until we get kicked in the gut by bad news.

Last year, I worked with Gail on a service about trauma, right after I had finished reading an incredible book by psychiatrist and researcher Dr. Bessel van der Kolk called The Body Keeps the Score. In the book, he builds a solid case for the importance of treating trauma through what he calls “bottom-up” methods that regulate the nervous system starting with the body, instead of just “top down” cognitive-based methods that try to impact or change thinking about the trauma.

Research is bearing out these findings, too, like one recent randomized controlled trial studying women with a history of complex trauma which revealed that trauma-sensitive yoga was more effective than traditional psychotherapy for decreasing depressive symptoms and unhealthy coping behaviors. Given that trauma of various types is often what underlies behavioral issues like eating disorders, substance abuse, sexual acting out and self-harm, the implications of these findings are significant.

And if yoga is so effective with these clinical problems, it’s no surprise that it’s also highly effective for treating the sub-clinical issues facing your average over-stressed, under-rested, “always on” person of our culture today.

In my work, I’ve seen first-hand the powerful healing that can happen through experiential and somatic or body-based therapies. Though yoga is far from the only such modality, one thing I came to appreciate about it, compared with other somatic therapies, is the inclusion of spirituality.

Over the past six or seven years, and especially in the past four years since I’ve been attending this church, spirituality has become an increasingly important part of my life.

Unitarian Universalism has given me the freedom to create my own understanding of spirituality, and has actually made a church-goer of me — something I never would have imagined as a disillusioned teenager, angry with the Methodist church for mistreating and firing my mother, a victim of ministerial misconduct, and disheartened by the fact that I couldn’t seem to make myself believe what I was supposed to.

So here I am, trying to navigate my personal philosophy as a healing professional , recognizing that my true passion is an approach that integrates mind, body, and spirit, and what do I have staring me in the face? Of course: YOGA.

Yep. It was the little cat that wouldn’t stop creeping around until I finally gave in. So last year, I decided it was time to fork over the $3000 and invest in yoga teacher training.

Over a six month period from last October until this April, I completed a 200-hour yoga teacher training program, which in the yoga world is considered “basic training.” Now that I’ve completed it and jumped through various other hoops, I’m considered “RYT-200” with Yoga Alliance, the field’s most widely accepted credentialing body, and could get a gig teaching a studio class or down the street at YMCA. Of course, most newbie yoga teachers like me are lucky to get paid $25 for the Saturday seven a.m. class slot, which, I’m not too fired up about doing.

Instead, I’m doing exactly what I’d hoped: I’m teaching two yoga classes a week to my clients at The Ranch, and although some people opt not to participate, it’s all worth it at the end of the class when I hear someone say, “that was my first time doing yoga and it was awesome,” or, “that really helped me connect with my body which is something I’ve been trying to work on.” In addition to teaching me how to be a safe and effective instructor, the training also required me to learn more about the spirituality and philosophy of yoga, which I’m very grateful for.

According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, an ancient text on the foundation of yoga philosophy compiled around the year 200 AD, yoga consists of an eight-fold path or eight limbs (sidebar, “ashtanga” in Sanskrit translates to “eight limbs,” though in modern terms ashtanga tends to refer to a particular style of yoga practice.) “Asana,” the third limb, is what most of us think of as yoga: the postures or physical practice.

However, initially the point of doing asanas was seen as simply preparing the body for meditation, which is the seventh limb. Other limbs relate to breathing techniques, concentration, withdrawal of the senses, union with the divine, and — the two I will go into more in depth — the yamas and the niyamas.

The first limb, called the Yamas, is a set of five guidelines on how we should interact with others and the world around us. These include ahimsa (non-violence or non-harming), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), bramacharya (non-excess), and aparigraha (non-possessiveness). The second limb, the Niyamas, is another set of five guidelines, this time pertaining to personal behavior, or how we take care of ourselves. These include saucha (purity), santosha (contentment), tapas (self-discipline), svadhyaya (self- study), and Ishvara Pranidhana (spiritual surrender).

As I was preparing for this, I came across these words of the 19th century Unitarian theologian William Ellery Channing. He wrote,

To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion; to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich; to listen to stars and birds, babes and sages, with open heart; to study hard; to think quietly, act frankly, talk gently, await occasions, hurry never; in a word, to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common — this is my symphony.

I can hear at least six of the yamas and niyamas in just those few sentences — and as I learned more about this aspect of yoga, I started to appreciate the parallels between our UU principles and yoga philosophy.

Let me say this, too: I love the UU principles.

I’m honestly surprised that I don’t carry around bookmarks of the seven principles to hand out to random people (though now that I’ve had the thought, maybe I’ll make some). When I first learned the principles, I had thoughts like, “I had no idea something like this existed — more people need to know about this! Maybe all religion isn’t judgmental after all.”

I find so much comfort in the fact that all of us are encouraged to search for our own truth, believe what we want to believe, and to always question what we think we know, while agreeing that we’re all essentially on board with these core principles to guide our living and our faith — even if we struggle with them at times, and don’t live them perfectly.

I think the yamas and niyamas are the same way — never a destination that I can reach and check off my list, but rather, a compass I can use to steer my ship, notice when I veer off course, and hopefully, steer back in the direction of my values.

Just like with our UU principles, the yamas and niyamas can be taken at face value, but also understood and practiced in many deeper, nuanced ways. Ahimsa, or nonviolence, connects with the second principle of justice, equity and compassion in our human relations, as wells as the sixth principle about the goal of world community, with peace, love, and justice for all.

No wonder Nonviolent Communication is so popular in UU circles (And in fact, not shockingly, NVC creator Marshall Rosenberg’s initial goal with the model was to develop a practical process for interaction, with oneself and others, rooted in the principle of ahimsa.) I’ll admit, I used to scoff a little at the name “Nonviolent Communication”, thinking — “it’s really more assertive, compassionate communication; all communication that doesn’t involve name-calling or fists is non-violent, right?” But of course, it is more nuanced than that, and learning about ahimsa helped me to understand it better.

Yoga instructor and author Deborah Adele writes about ahimsa,

Thinking we know what is better for others becomes a subtle way we do violence. When we take it upon ourselves to ‘help’ the other we whittle away at their sense of autonomy. Nonviolence asks us to trust the other’s ability to find the answer they are seeking. It asks us to have faith in the other, not feel sorry for them.

The violence we do to others by thinking we know what is best for them is dramatically illustrated in a story from India. It seems a passerby witnessed a monkey in a tree with a fish. The monkey was saying to the fish, ‘But I saved you from drowning!’ The monkey, thinking it had saved the fish, had taken the fish to a place that couldn’t meet any of the fish’s needs for survival or growth. We can’t save people, or fix them. All we can do is model, and that points the finger back at us.

The yama called “asteya,” or non-stealing, is another that, on the surface might seem pretty obvious: no five-finger discounts. But of course, this principle also goes much deeper. We steal from each other in many ways, we steal from the earth, and we even steal from ourselves.

Beyond the more overt form of stealing from others  — here’s looking at you, lunchroom sandwich thieves — even the simple act of one-upping someone else sharing about the vacation they just went on is a form of stealing;  hijacking their excitement and making it about you. Though I try to be sensitive to this, I shudder thinking of all the times I may have done it without realizing.

As far as stealing from the earth, which relates to our seventh principle of respect for the interdependent web of all existence, I think I’m preaching to the choir on this one, but I have to admit I have a long way to go personally.  I find so much joy in the offerings of Mother Earth, and though I try to conserve resources and recycle when it’s convenient, I am embarrassed about my lack of giving to the earth. Thinking about this reminded me of a question I heard on an episode of “On Being” a few months ago that still haunts me:

Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer, an Environmental Science professor, writer, and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, says in the interview,

In talking with my environment students, they wholeheartedly agree that they love the earth. But when I ask them the question of does the earth love you back, there’s a great deal of hesitation and reluctance and eyes cast down, like, oh, gosh, I don’t know. Are we even allowed to talk about that? That would mean that the earth had agency and that I was not an anonymous little blip on the landscape, that I was known by my home place. It’s a really liberating idea to think that the earth could love us back, but it also opens the notion of reciprocity that with that love and regard from the earth comes a deep responsibility.

I have also become more aware of how I steal from myself, especially my  precious resources of time and attention. Interruption is a huge culprit of this time of stealing, as research has shown it can take over 23 minutes to get back to the task you were working on before you were interrupted. This can occur both with external interruptions (like someone coming to ask you about a project unrelated to what you’re working on at the time), and self-interruptions (abruptly stopping work an outline for a presentation to suddenly check email for no apparent reason).

Research has also found that when external interruptions cease, we actually create more self-interruptions. I view self-interruption, distraction, and multitasking as huge “time thieves” that can dramatically affect my productivity and self-efficacy — if I’m not vigilant, I can look up and realize I have 12 browser tabs open, have checked email 17 times in the past hour, and haven’t actually checked anything off my task list.

Or check Facebook before going to sleep, only to look up 30 minutes later and realize I’ve just robbed myself of perfectly good sleep, and with the only real payoff of one good cat video.

Check. Check. Check.

As for the niyamas, or more individually-focused guidelines, I can hear svadhyaya, or self-study, in our 4th principle — a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Svadhyaya means, literally, “to recollect (to remember, to contemplate, to meditate on) the Self.”

If we do not make this effort to truly know ourselves, how can our search for truth and meaning be responsible or free? We cannot search responsibly if we are so protective of our fragile egos that we refuse to consider possibilities that challenge our limited scope of experience or worldview. If we don’t believe we have permission to say “I was wrong.” And we cannot search freely if we remain stubbornly tethered to the values and beliefs we were raised with at the expense of looking inward and truly asking ourselves which parts fit and which parts we may be growing out of.

Deborah Adele writes,

We suffer, the yogis tell us, because we forget who we are. We think we are the boxes we are wrapped in and forget that we are really the Divine ‘hiding’ inside. Svadhyaya is about knowing our true identity as Divine and understanding the boxes we are wrapped in. We can find clues about our boxes by watching our projections, by the process of tracing our reactions back to a belief, and by courageously looking at life as it is. This process of knowing ourselves, and the boxes that adorn us, creates a pathway to freedom. The ability to shift our identification from our ego self (our ‘boxes’), to the witness, and finally to our true identity as Divinity itself, is the joy of this jewel of self-study.

Though what I’ve shared is only skimming the surface of the yamas and niyamas, my hope is simply to spark curiosity about yoga philosophy, its application in everyday life, and its points of connection with our Unitarian Universalist principles.

I know that yoga both on and off the mat has helped me to become a more introspective person, a better clinician, a more loving partner, and more deeply connected with the wisdom my body holds. These days, I actually look forward to savasana, or “corpse pose” at the end of class, because I now realize the power it holds not just for relaxation, but for integration of what my body has just done on the mat with my mind and my spirit.

If it wasn’t clear in my introduction, I can be a little high-strung. Racing thoughts and anxiety are no strangers to me.

But my slow process of surrendering to yoga has helped me build the strength and confidence to know I can make it through difficult physical, emotional, and spiritual challenges. It’s so easy to get caught up in the grind and lose perspective on what matters and what works.

Taking good care of myself through yoga asana, meditation, introspective journaling, and other grounding activities is how I come home to myself. And coming home to myself is what gives me the ability to share my inner little light with the people I love, my immediate community, and the wider community of this interdependent web.

May it be so.

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Valerie Martin

Valerie Martin, LMSW, is a Primary Therapist at The Ranch residential treatment center, where she works with eating disorders, addiction, trauma, and co-occurring mental health issues. Valerie focuses on a holistic treatment approach of mind + body integration, using Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT), somatic and bioenergetic therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), psychodrama, 12-step, and shame resilience. She is also a Certified Sexual Addiction Therapist (CSAT) Candidate. Valerie received her Bachelor of Science degree in Communications and Master of Science degree in Clinical Social Work at the University of Texas in Austin. She is an active member of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville, and emphasizes spiritual exploration in her work with clients.