Strength is Paradoxical or My Day as a Trapeze Artist
It all began hanging 20 feet above a net. I was swinging from a trapeze bar after having jumped into the void holding onto nothing but an immensely heavy rod of wood attached to two ropes. I had no clue the trapeze would weigh that much nor that jumping would actually feel like relief. Since I was no longer standing on a small platform-35 feet in the air-with a woman-three times younger than me-who was dressed in wild leotards and a pink laminae halter top.
Being stuck 20 feet up in the air was the result of the diabolical planning of my wife. She wanted to celebrate her birthday at the Emerald City Trapeze School. All of our children, their spouses and significant others were in town and thrilled about this aerobatic adventure. I was terrified of the idea. I despise being more than two feet off the ground let alone 20. My fear of heights means mounting a ladder can require weeks of preparation. I have justified not putting in a new light bulb for ages, who doesn’t prefer the “romantic mood” that candlelight creates in the garage?
Climbing 35 feet up a narrow ladder to then maneuver my thick frame around the ropes to stand in the middle of a foot of aluminum seemed like a good plan- if my wife wanted to collect on my life insurance policy. Even now, I still think she had ill motives toward me, but I relented and somehow made my way through the terror. There I stood, naked and ashamed-or so it felt-before family and friends, ready to jump, in order to escape the Poe like beating heart that was vastly louder than my consort’s encouragement.
I jumped and my heart fluttered with enough energy to light up a city block but soon a calm came that shocked me. I was actually enjoying myself. And then in another twist of fate, I heard my trapeze boss shout to pull my legs through my hands and hook my knees to the bar. I made a furtive move to raise my legs and found that I could no more flip my legs up and through my arms than I could pass through the eye of needle. I was too tight.
After several futile attempts I didn’t have the arm strength to keep going and so I elected to eject and let gravity bring me back to sanity. My family, knowing my terror of heights, was proud of me, but I felt deflated and sad. I really wanted to swing into the arms of my catcher. But I am too tight.
It was then one of my daughter’s said, “you need to go to yoga with mom. You are tighter than a knot.” I grimaced at what I knew to be true. As I age I have lost muscle mass and replaced it with tense fat. Not only is it unattractive, but it insures I will never know the full joy of the trapeze. A few days later I unrolled my mat next to my wife in a Satanic den of lycra covered yogis and began the practice of yoga.
It is pointless to address the criticism of yoga as a concession to Hinduism or Buddhism even if much of the philosophical base of the practice evolved from a commitment to escape maya, or human suffering, by erasing desire. I find the same philosophical bent inhabiting almost all forms of Platonism and its ancient ancestors. I am not concerned to defend the practice or presume a defense is needed. Frankly, I find professional sports and the practice of sitting in a chair for hours watching others suffer and strive far darker. If there needs to be a defense of yoga or sports spectacles, it is the latter not the former.
1.) Strength is Paradoxical
If my wife and I were to have an arm wrestling contest, I would win. She still needs some assistance with her luggage. But when we move from the downward dog pose to the plank pose and then to our stomach for cobra pose and then push back to plank then finally to downward dog, I am slow and inefficient. I can not sustain the vinyasa flow and hold each pose as long as my wife. Eventually, I am kneeling on the mat, heaving air, and trying to gain my breath. She is effortlessly planted in her pose, strong and supple.
I often resent her, I need to look at her form as each transition is called out by our teacher. She is strength and beauty and I am corpulent -my best form comes in what is called “the corpse pose.” But with nearly two months of practice I am holding my poses longer and my wobbling legs and arms no longer look like Bambi when he first stood after birth. I look old, wooden, and slow–but I am seeing again what we all know to be true: strength is found again and again in weakness.
If there is any surprise it is why do I not know this deeply in my body and in my soul. It may be related to the sorrow that we have so few ways to encounter incarnation, death, resurrection and the ascension in our body.
2) The Incarnation Blesses Our Dust
The incarnation never stands alone as a fact or a theology without being linked to the work of redemption through the Cross. There is a lot of ‘incarnational’ theology which is a panentheistic move that blesses materiality with the presence of divinity rather than a marvel of the son’s eternal humbling to become flesh for the sake of bearing our sin and becoming the perfect Adam. I deeply believe in the importance of the creator-creature distinction.
The Lord’s table, taking humble bread and grape juice, signifies, symbolizes, introjects God into our bodies. We stand to hear the word. We sing and if we are Presbyterian sway-occasionally-an inch right to left. But that is about all we do with our bodies in the practice of our faith other than the rare person who prays on her knees or prostrate. Engagement with our body and faith is primarily a category of the negative: Don’t let your flesh/body drink or sex in a way contrary to what the Bible teaches. Yet somehow eating and food indulgence is fine. Or if not fine, at least it doesn’t bear the weight of other bodily sins.
I am hardly the first to say we are highly hypocritical and ambivalent about our bodies. And what is most distressing is that the narrative link between incarnation, cross, resurrection, ascension and Pentecost demands we see our body in a different light than mere Platonism. Somehow our bodies are meant to be part of the practice of our faith beyond merely being a metaphor of being a holy offering for his glory. It should call every believer to ponder not only how much they eat, but even more what they eat and why we so often use food not as fuel for praise, but as a drug for escape.
When I am asked to sit in a chair pose with my hands in the posture of prayer as I focus on my breathing I find there is nothing more satisfying than to take in the delight that Jesus kissed his life into me through his breath. Our life of faith must be more bound to our bodies health and growth and our sickness and dying. To not strengthen countless sinews that hold our faith and life together through practices that link breath and spirit is disheartening.
3) The Recreative God Loves Recreation
Anyone who knows me knows that I am a person of extremes. I am preternaturally unable to do anything with or in balance. My wife got us into fly fishing, sailing, running, and yoga. I now fly fish because I believe it is what I will be doing for eternity. I took her desire to own a boat to the extreme of wanting to sail the Atlantic. We started jogging and soon I was preparing for a half marathon. This will not happen with yoga. Even if I am radically dedicated and follow through on practice, I will never exceed the ability of my wife. I have limitations that cannot be conquered with mere enthusiasm, I had back fusion surgery over 25 years ago. I am an older man. I will never be good at yoga, but it doesn’t matter.
Eric Liddell supposedly said that he felt the pleasure of God when he ran. I could say the same but it is not true. I don’t feel his pleasure as much as I hear his laughter. Once during yoga we were told to try a pose that had our legs going in diametrically untenable directions and then put one hand over our back and the other under our leg and connect our fingers in prayer. Impossible I thought. Totally ridiculously impossible. Yet there was my wife was in the pose, contorted and elegant. And then our teacher told us to lower our bodies as we stood on our toes.
She might as well told me to save my own soul. It can’t be done. Out of a room of 50 only a few attempted and accomplished the pose. What rippled around the room was the guffaws and incredulity of impossibility. I didn’t feel irritated or pressured to perform. I was simply invited to the wonder at what the body can create. As well my body was captured by the wonder of impossibility.
Our Trinitarian God loves to create and recreate with and through the glory of three-in-one. The Father delights in the Son, the Son the Spirit, and the Spirit the Father. They love to recreate. Yoga can be a serious, hilarious, and humbling encounter with the living God.
What is calling you to move far beyond the vicissitudes of your comfortability to join the pleasure and laughter of God?
I will keep practicing yoga until I can bend my legs, hook my knees and take the posture of one about to swing into the arms of his catcher.