The Joy of Yoga

I recently started a yoga class that should be described in the brochure as “death by planks.” The instructor initiates each class session with the statement:

“My goal is to make you all sore tomorrow. And I love planks.” Followed by a long, cackling laugh.

A plank, if you’re not familiar, is essentially the “up” position of a push-up – arms and toes extended against the floor, back straight, pain searing through the abs. Most instructors consider the plank to be a strenuous pose to hold for 30 seconds and then release. This instructor considers it a resting pose.

“Now come back to plank for a few resting breaths,” she’ll say. Or, “Rest in plank position for a moment while I change the music…. Hmmm. Where is that song?” (Long, cackling laugh.)

I did well for the first set of plank exercises. I was “pressing strong against the floor.” I was “feeling the heat rise within my center.” I was “toe tapping” and “stretching my intercostals” and “maintaining my shoulder position.”

By the second set I lost all will to continue and collapsed into face plant position.

“Remember to do what is comfortable for your body,” the instructor continued. “You can drop down one arm and thread the needle if you’d like a deeper pose…”

A deeper pose?

By the time we got to side planks, I had modified my pose to the twitching log. Across the room I saw another participant curled in the fetal position. This gave me hope. I was pretty sure the class would end only when we were all collapsed on our mats. I tried not to look at the lady across from me who was still soaring like a carnivorous bird on a magical updraft of hot yoga wind.

That is not normal.

Speaking of carnivorous birds, as a break from planks we entered into the eagle pose, which the instructor described like this:

“Stand on your right leg and wrap your left leg around your right leg about three times. Now slide your right arm under your left elbow and intertwine—“

At which point I went into the toppling tree pose. I also learned yelling “Timber!” in the middle of yoga class is not appropriate.

The peace and the light within me greets joyfully the peace and the light in you. It does not topple with a death crash onto the floor. Ever.

We continued with the chair pose, which makes me understand why chairs were invented. And the hoverboard position, which requires you to somehow scrunch up your abs enough to levitate your entire body off the mat. I can tell you there was lots of scrunching but very little levitating on my mat.

“Notice how your breathing may have changed,” the instructor said.

Yes, my breathing had changed. I think it had stopped altogether.

“Try to return to the same gentle flow you had at the beginning of class…”

Right. I returned to a modification of the twitching, gasping log pose.

“There is so much more we could do, but I’m sorry our hour has come to a close,” the instructor finally said.

There were general sighs of relief and one chirpy voice that suggested a two hour class sometime. “Wouldn’t that be fun?”

I hope my grimace looked like a smile.

I slowly rolled my mat and hobbled toward the door. I am so into this yoga thing.

What’s your new thing for 2017?

See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland (Isaiah 43:19).

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On the Road to Success

We were on the road to Success.

Literally, I mean. We were driving along route 62 East across Arkansas when we crossed a junction with a township sign pointing to Success. This prompted the conjecture you might expect: How many people do you suppose live in Success? How long does it take to get there, and is Success hard to find?

Before long, we had pulled a U-turn (legally, of course) and were on the road to Success.

Road Sign to Success
Turn here for Success! (Photo by Janet Beagle)

This prompted a great deal of conversation on – you guessed it – success.

“What’s your definition of success?” my friend asked.

“Well, my interview answer is to be in a position where I can constantly learn new things.”

“And your non-interview answer?”

“Probably the same thing,” I admitted.

“I don’t think we can ever really be successful. Success is like this perfect ideal we strive for but never really achieve,” my friend commented.

We talked about work and whether work-in-progress could be deemed successful or whether an event needed to be completed before it could be labelled. We talked about relationships and successful people. We talked about the difference between success and contentment or success and happiness. We concluded that success was not an easy word to define. Apart from being a very small town in Arkansas.

Despite our meandering conversation, it turned out Success was only a few minutes from where we had started. (And to think we almost missed it!) Very few people live in Success – only 180 according to the population sign. It seemed like a nice enough place, but for us, Success was fleeting. We had miles to go before we slept, so we captured a few photos on the edge of town, and then continued on our way. I wonder how often the Successians look out their windows to see crazy tourists snapping pictures of their population sign?

In the weeks since I’ve returned from our detour, I’ve often pondered the term. So often “success” is associated with fame, monetary wealth, prestige, or power. In today’s culture, it seems to be obtained in a winner-take-all rush for the top with little regard to the methods used to get there. Yet the Bible gives us a very different definition. “Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.” (Joshua 1:8) In God’s design, we become successful when we follow His commandments, not the whims of the world. Again and again the history of Israel shows us how generations who were obedient to God thrived, and how those who turned away from God were overthrown. In God’s design, success is not a location to drive through and snap pictures; it is a way of life walking in obedience with Him. It is a journey we take with Him securely at our side.

Town of Success Sign
You never know when God might take you on a detour through Success. (Photo by Janet Beagle)

I encountered my favorite definition of success just the other day embedded in one of those email forwards I usually delete. In it, a little girl asked her grandmother for her definition.

“Success,” she replied, “is when you look back at your life and the memories make you smile.”

What kind of memories are you building? Are they the kind that will bring a smile to both your and God’s face? It is a new day and a new opportunity to start your journey. Take the time to reach out to others, to work hard, to spend time with those you love. Listen to God’s guiding voice. He may just send you on a little detour through Success.

This blog was originally posted May 10, 2016 at http://www.inspireafire.com/on-the-road-to-success/. 

Think Light

I was reminded the other morning of a time when I was little and hiking through a meadow of snow with my mother. The snow was deep – at least a couple feet – but had formed a top crust hard enough to sometimes stay afloat. Especially for someone as little and quick as me.

“Think light!” I called as I ran ahead, giggling.

I didn’t stop to consider that my mother was twice my height, or that my boot print barely filled half of hers. I knew only that if I imagined I was as light as the wind and stretched my mittens far out from my sides then I could run across the top of the snow. But if I stamped my feet and hung my head and concentrated on being heavy, then I broke through with a satisfying crunch. The powdery snow underneath would swallow my legs until I was practically sitting in the snow, even though I was also still standing. I repeated my light and heavy game all the way across the meadow, calling to my mother who seemed, no matter how hard she tried, to repeatedly be sinking to her knees.

“Think light!” I encouraged her again.

And then (to my now adult amazement), she did. She rose up out of the snow with a giant leap and came running across the top. Two, three, four steps before the crust gave way and she sank back down, both of us laughing.

I was reminded of that time just recently as my dog and I made our way across the snow covered yard on our morning walk. The crust was just thick enough for her to bound along on top, while every one of my footfalls cracked through. She bowed and pirouetted and bounced back and forth, not understanding why I labored so slowly. She knew nothing of the fact that she was less than half my size. Or that her paw print barely filled half of my boot print. More importantly, she knew nothing of how weighed down I was with sleepiness, with the pile of work that awaited me, with the thoughts that ran incessantly through my head.  She knew only that the stars were still out and the air was crisp and quiet. She knew that if she jumped hard enough she could crash through the snow in a pillowy poof. Most importantly, she knew if she was light and quick on her feet, she could dance spinning circles around me, tongue hanging out and laughing eyes clearly coaxing me on. I could almost hear her say, “Think light!”

How easy it is for our foot steps to feel so heavy. And how much I needed the reminder that it is possible to raise up out of the wallow and run lightly on the surface. If I just start thinking a little lighter.

“Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” Jesus said. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

God promises that his burden is light, which means when it starts to feel heavy, I’m focusing in the wrong direction. Just like that crusty snow, as soon as I start looking down, I feel myself struggling through knee-deep mire. The good news is that it is possible to shift my attention outward and upward. Like the mittened hands of that little girl of my memories, I can feel myself being lifted up. I need only to remember to lift my head and my hands. To focus my attention outward. To call out to help another. And to think light.

You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. (Isaiah 26:3)

Only Writing

Only writing is writing.

I don’t recall now whether I read that in a book or heard it during a presentation. Either way, its truth is brilliant.

They went on to say, “Reading is not writing. Thinking about writing is not writing. Researching what you’re going to write… that’s still not writing. Only writing is writing.

“Until your butt is in the chair and words are coming out your finger tips, you’re not actually writing.”

I don’t know if they actually said that last part, but if not, they definitely should have. Because that’s the part that finally inspired me to put my butt in a chair. This exact chair I’m typing from right now, in fact. Let me tell you how I found this chair.

I had 75 minutes before I needed to be across campus to a class I’m taking just for kicks (during the time, I might add, that I’m supposed to be writing.) And so, I was going to seize that time and write! But first, I needed to find The Place.

As every good (current or former) graduate student knows, there is no point in even trying to get productive work done if you are not in The Place. (Entire books, by the way, have been written on the power of graduate student procrastination tactics – comic books, but still.)

It could be the third study corral from the right on the 14th floor by the stacks. Or the beat up couch by the whining vending machine down some back staircase under the lab. The point is, you know it when you see it. And until it’s perfect, well there’s no point in even trying. Until it’s perfect, or you really, really have run out of time. Like its 4 a.m. and the paper is due TODAY and you really should have started it sooner and you don’t think the professor will understand that you just couldn’t get it done because someone was in YOUR place.

That’s when every good current or former graduate student switches to plan B. And actually starts to write.

So I came to the most logical nearby location to find The Place. It’s quiet and filled with so many books that I was sure their presence would ooze intelligible insights into my weary finger tips. I tiptoed past students already huddled into their places. I ventured down hallways that ended in emergency exits. I trekked up flight after flight of stairs. I discovered oversized picture books for when standing in front of classrooms of students. I brushed past volumes I am quite certain have not been opened in 50 years. I even strolled casually past an entire glassed-in area dedicated to special collections and manned by a guard who eyed me curiously when I accidentally had to pass back through again.

In all that wandering, I could not find The Place. My 75 minutes were dwindling. And so I retreated. Back down flights of stairs, through the stacks, and to Plan B: the first empty study corral near the door. And, coincidentally, near giant volumes of bound papers of Ulysses S. Grant and Thomas Jefferson. There are 41 volumes for Thomas Jefferson alone. Each one at least 2 inches thick and ranging in dates from 1760 – 1803. Plus several special editions. In case you were curious.

And that is how I came to be positioned in this particular chair.

I’ve had to stop several times because people strolled buy, sometimes wheeling carts, sometimes lugging books or backpacks, sometimes quietly, sometime talking. It’s not the noise that distract me; I just can’t write with someone looming over my shoulders. But that’s okay. Better to have something interrupted then to have never even started.

This is certainly true of writing, as my rather dismal blog-posting record these last 12 months might indicate. It’s easy to put it off until I actually have time. Until I’m ready. Until I’m in the perfect place. It’s much easier to think about it then to actually do it.

I bet writing is not the only thing. How easy is it to postpone a phone call to a friend because I’ve only got a few minutes? Or wait to send a card until I have time to write a full letter? Or to skip quiet time with God because I’d prefer uninterrupted time to little snatches?

Eventually there comes a time when we need to retreat to Plan B.

Just do it.

Dear children, let us not love with word or speech but in actions and in truth. (1 John 3:18)

 

 

 

Pray. And Go.

This blog was originally posted in November 2014 on Inspire a Fire, a blog site for inspirational Christian messages. Visit the original post at www.inspireafire.com/pray-go/.

Sometimes we are the answer to our own prayers.

There is a scene in the third installment of the Harry Potter series that I love. Harry and his friends are attacked by foul creatures known as dementors and are losing the fight. Suddenly, in the hazy distance, Harry sees a figure that looks like his father raise a wand and scatter the dementors. Saved – but how is that possible? Harry’s father is dead.

Fast forward a few chapters, and in that intrepid J.K. Rowling fashion, Harry and his friends have travelled back in time and are watching these same events unfold. They are standing just a few feet from where their rescuer appeared. Even as Harry watches their earlier selves succumb to the fight, he is watching and waiting for their rescuer to appear. Harry knows it will happen because it has already happened. But where is he?

Photo courtesy www.freedigitalphotos.net & Salvatore Vuono

Photo courtesy http://www.freedigitalphotos.net & Salvatore Vuono

Then suddenly Harry realizes: it was him that rescued their earlier selves! It was him he saw from a distance and mistook for his father. And leaping to his feet, he draws his wand and shoots the powerful rays that scatter the dementors. All along he had been waiting, but it was him that had to do it.

Yes, sometimes we are the answer to our own prayers.

I don’t think this principal is accidental. In fact, we see it modelled in Jesus’ work with His disciples. Jesus told his followers to pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest field. “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few,” He said (Matthew 9:37). Jesus saw the rampant needs of the people He encountered. He knew additional help was needed to share the message of salvation and bring physical healing to the sick.

But Jesus did not stop with merely instructing his listeners to pray. Both times when this quote appears in the Gospels, it is followed by incredible action. In Matthew 9-10, Jesus instructed His disciples to pray, and then He sent them out to be the very workers they were praying for. In Luke 10, Jesus similarly instructed His listeners to pray, and then He sent out the seventy-two. “Go!” He declared. “As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons…” (Matthew 10:7)

Jesus told His listeners what to pray for, and then He answered their prayer by sending… them!

Field at Sunset

The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. (Photo by Janet Beagle)

Be careful what you ask for, I have heard. Because you just might get it. Be careful what you pray for, I might add. Because you just might become it.

God already knows who He wants us to become. He knows what task he has for us to do. Like the twelve disciples and the seventy-two, God wants to send us into the harvest field. God is looking for us to cry out like Isaiah: Here I am, Lord. Send me. Send me! This cry may look different for each one of us. Some may be called to far-away mission fields. Some may be called to a backyard harvest. Either way, the process is the same. The first step is to pray. Then we must go.

Like Harry looking back on his earlier self, we can rest in the assurance that our Savior will come to save us, because He already has. Our God has sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to die upon a cross and thus pay in full the debt of our sin. But also like Harry, this assurance does not prevent us from doing the task that is at hand. In addition to assuring us of our salvation, our God has also given us a job to do. As Jesus’ followers, we too are called to pray for more workers in the harvest. And then we, too, are called to go.

I Love Winter

No, I’m not being facetious.

After this winter, I won’t be sorry to see spring come (although I’m beginning to suspect that spring this year means small flocks of robins chirping happily in the midst of a light snow shower. I’ve never heard birdsong in the midst of a snow storm before this morning, have you?)

But let’s face it, for anyone who loves winter, this was a year to remember. And I am one of those rare (crazy?) individuals who love it.  I love walking outside into air that makes my face hurt. I love when little vapor clouds completely shroud my vision. Some days I even love the quiet that comes with early darkness, trudging along next to the glow of my dog’s red-lighted collar. (I do not love spending 30 minutes chipping ridiculously hard frost off my windshield every morning, but really, that is a small price to pay.)

Of course, if it’s going to be cold, I want snow. And this year we had plenty of that too. Our first major snow storm hit in December and I didn’t see bare ground again until March – very unusual for this part of the country.  It was so cold one week that snow I tracked into my car stayed there, unmelted, for 4 days, even though I was driving with the heat on.

That’s just cool.

There was one very important observation I made this year, however. And it’s this:

Clothing matters.

Now this may seem like an obvious observation, but in practice, it’s not so easy.  It’s very tempting to run the garbage out with just a hastily thrown on coat.  Or to take a quick walk with the dog without taking the time to put on a complete second layer. But on those really cold days, it didn’t matter if it was just a short jaunt outside, I needed boots, ski pants, jacket, hat (and hood if the wind was really whipping), scarf, gloves… in other words, I needed to be prepared for what I was getting into.  And when I prepared properly, I could spend hours in the snow outside – even the coldest temperatures felt like any other day.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, we’ve been told before about the importance of dressing properly.  “Put on the full armor of God,” Paul admonished “so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground…” (Ephesians 6:13)

It’s not enough to run out the door just as we are. We need to put forth the time and the effort to prepare for whatever storm outside – physical or spiritual – awaits us. It may be tempting to run out quickly, but just as severe winter storms can be deadly for the unprepared, so too can life’s storms sweep over us unexpectedly.

Do not wait until you are in life’s gale to reach for your armor.  Take the time now – everyday – to sharpen your sword in God’s word, to strengthen the shield of your faith, and to envelope yourself in the protection of God’s truth, righteousness, peace, and salvation. Yes, it takes time to layer on those winter clothes, and yes, it takes time to develop your spiritual armor. But when we are properly attired, even the worst storms will leave us still standing safe and secure.

Stand firm, then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Ephesians 6:14-17).

Consistency

Here’s something runners know that I have recently come to know too:  Consistency matters.

When it comes to running, consistency has never been my forte.  Before my trainer-friend got ahold of me, I’d run when I felt like it.  My progress was spotty because my running was spotty.  It took me more than a year to run a mile, and even then I was never sure if I could do it again.

Now, I run three days a week because my trainer-friend makes me.  (Accountability is a good thing.)  Twice a week I run with the training group and once a week I run on my own.  The other week I ran two miles.  Twice.  And that’s the amazing part.  Not that I did it, but that I did it more than once.  And as one of our running mentors shouted out the first mile, I thought “A mile is easy now.”  The amazing part to me is not so much that I can run a mile; it’s that I know I could do it again.

At a recent group run, my trainer-friend admonished us to not give up on our solo runs.  “Even if you can only get out the door for 10 minutes,” she said, “make sure you do it.  That extra day of running will make your long runs more manageable and your short runs feel awesome.”

Awesome. I don’t know about you, but I like to feel awesome.  And I find her words to be true.  I have made more progress in 5 weeks of consistent effort than I did in more than a year of inconsistency. Which says a lot for the power of consistency.

When I think of habits, I often think of bad ones. But habits can also be good.  They can be pillars in our life that give us structure, forward momentum, hope. And when our lives get turned upside down, it is the strength of our habits that give us footholds to find our way back.

The question I need to ask myself is what habits do I want guiding my life?  And if one of those habits is my relationship with God, what am I doing about it right now? How consistent am I in reading my Bible, journaling, spending time in prayer, sitting quietly, attending Bible studies, attending church services… No, there aren’t enough hours in the day to do all of it all of the time, but there is always enough time to do some of it consistently.  We need to take one small step and commit to it.  A weekly meeting, a weekly reading, a weekly teaching scheduled into our routine.  We need to establish a level of accountability – a trainer-friend to ask if we’re following our schedule or a small group that meets regularly.

I’ve come to learn that it doesn’t matter how fast or how hard or how far I run on any given day.  Most days it’s not very far, and it’s definitely not very fast.  What matters is that I get up and do it.  And then I do it again.

The same is true for our relationship with God.  It’s not enough for us to meet with Him sporadically.  Pray without ceasing, Paul wrote (1 Thessalonians 5:17).  Do not give up meeting together, Hebrews says (10:25). Like a runner’s endurance, relationships grow slowly, over time. And like consistent running, consistently meeting with God prepares us for the race ahead.  Indeed, consistency in our relationship with God makes the hard stretches of life’s run more manageable, and the good stretches feel downright awesome.

Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint (Isaiah 40:30-31).