It was the word the yoga instructor asked us to think about moments before starting our 90 minute practice on Thanksgiving morning. It was the 12th annual Thanksgiving morning practice at my favorite yoga studio. The class is free, but donations are accepted to benefit a nonprofit organization and this year it was Yoga Behind Bar. It’s a charity that teaches yoga and meditation to an incarcerated population. A representative spoke on their behalf about the amazing work they do and how teenage girls in particular are benefiting the most from their efforts.
I sat in the back of a police car twice when I was teenage girl. The first was for under-aged drinking and the second was for trespassing. Not my finest moments, but neither was most of my teenage years. The years from 14 to 19 are my “lost years.” Back then I struggled mightily with depression, anxiety and impulsive, reckless behavior. I spent all those years hating myself for no particular reason, and then spent at least that many more hating myself for the things I did while I was hating myself.
How I wish someone taught me yoga as a teenager.
The word Grace, it unfurled in my mind like my mat under my feet. The first thing I thought was Redemption, followed closely by Forgiveness. But for the Grace of God go I.
I met God for the first time when I was 16. In my early life, religion was a concept that no one told me I should seek, and yet, I found it anyway. Perhaps more accurately, it found me. I started going to Wednesday night youth group at a local Presbyterian church when I was nine not because of my parents, but because my best friend who was going. For four years the two of us attended weekly classes, sang in the children’s choir once a month, and went to week-long camps in the summer. But a Christian, I was not.
In high school I attended Christian-based Young Life meetings. I even hosted one at my parent’s house. This had less to do with Jesus and more to do with socializing. When I was 16 I raised money to attend a week-long, overnight, YL camp in Colorado; also for the socializing. It was at this camp, perched on a roof top high above a blacked out canyon and under a Colorado starry sky, where I met God for the first time.
Per my modus operandi, being where the party was, was objective numero uno in my life; so were the fun activities listed on the brochure such as repelling, rafting and horseback riding. That’s the deal with these things. They attract you with fun and then slip in the Jesus-talk at the end for which you must sit quietly and tolerate.
Each night after dinner we came together and the main preacher dude stood up to tell us all we needed to know about being saved. I was skeptical, but also superstitious and naive so I listened, restlessly. At 16 I hadn’t made up my mind on all things existential and I had yet to find proof of a God. However, if you asked me then I would have said OF COURSE Jesus is my personal savior… you know, just in case the rapture was coming anytime soon or I be perceived as a social opportunist with no intention of saving my soul from eternal damnation.
One night the preacher dude said something that penetrated deep into the thick self-righteousness of my adolescent brain. He said (paraphrased), “The only thing you have to do to have a relationship with God is ask. It’s that simple. Ask and thou shalt receive.” Oh really?!? replied my snarky, skeptical, brooding 16-year-old-self. I took his bold assertion and made it my personal test of God. That night I’d ask. I ask as honestly and bravely as I knew how. I’d ask just like the preacher dude said I should ask and God had better bring it or I’m taking one step closer toward eternal damnation. At least that’s what I remember thinking.
Each night after the Jesus talk was over we were sent out into the darkened camp to find a quiet place to reflect and/or pray on what we heard. I usually headed for the small concrete slab in the middle of camp designated for the under-aged smokers; us sinners on the accelerated path to hell. But on that particular night, I chose to climb on top of a building that sat on the edge of a cliff side. The cliff dropped off into a large gulch with mountains stretching up either side like sentinels to a cave. The stars dusted the sky like perfectly spilt glitter. I looked down into this deep, black v-shaped gulch and up into this bright, celestial sky and I asked, quietly. Then I listened, openly.
My whole body responded in a way that I have never forgotten. An abnormal peace washed over me–abnormal because at that time in my life peaceful feelings were rare if not completely unknown. It felt like a tuning fork struck the deepest part of me and resonated with a pitch-perfect sound of Universal Truth. I understood, without thinking, that this feeling was real, and it was a hint of the Truth I’ve been seeking my whole, young life. I also understood, without thinking, that on a deep, intuitive level I was loved; that I would always be loved and watched over; that even in my darkest hours, I would never be alone.
What I felt in that moment is what I call God.
It is only in hindsight that I can interpret what happened that night. Now, I can see that the divine combination of the intention of my question, the stillness of Earth and mind along with the openness of my listening heart is what allowed me to not only hear God speak–but to understand what God was saying. I sobbed. I knew I was changed forever. It would take years before I truly understood how, and years before I would feel it again.
I feel it now each time I go to yoga.
In this special Thanksgiving Day class we sang Amazing Grace. Grace. The one thing I have been offered so many times no matter how much I have failed. That thought and the cacophony of our voices together in that yoga studio overwhelmed me. The tears, just two of them, came so quick they did not linger on my lashes, but leapt from each eye and fell straight to my mat. My mat. My church. My holy place. My rooftop perched high on a cliff side below a starry sky.
It has taken years to realize that I have been given, and forgiven, so much in my life not because I asked for it–but because I learned to open up and listen. I have come to realize that the answers to all my questions lie in the silence of my open heart. It is that voice that I am still learning to follow.
Silence: how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.