I remember the first time I noticed the parallels between yoga and my relationship with God. I was halfway through an intensive three-hour workshop that was soundly kicking my rear end, and the teacher, Nicole, had just thrown another tough pose at us.
Here are the basics: balance on your toes, squat down so your knees are bent and your thighs are parallel to the ground, then cross one leg over the other so you're balancing on just one foot. Oh, and hold your arms out wide.
Sound impossible? Yep. Felt that way to me too.
I'm a little embarrassed by the snarky thoughts that ran through my head as I tottered and wobbled and fell over and over. This is stupid. This pose is impossible. She's just trying to make me feel bad. I was so frustrated with the pose, I nearly stopped trying.
Then Nicole said, "That's the great thing about yoga: you put yourself in a frustrating or difficult pose, and see what comes out."
"What if what comes out is vitriol?" my classmate said with a laugh, who looked just as frazzled as I felt.
"Well, then you know you need to work on that," Nicole said. "Maybe you need to embrace the challenge and give yourself some time to get better, or ask for help instead of feeling angry."
Ask for help instead of feeling angry.
Her statement reminded me of a situation at work earlier that day, when I was slammed with a last-minute project that would require nothing less than an act of God to finish on time. I felt a storm cloud forming over my head, and I could feel the resentment tightening the muscles in my shoulders. I typed so violently I nearly pounded my keyboard through the desk.
I worked, fuming, for about ten minutes before I found myself half-thinking, half-whispering a prayer: God, please help me get this done. Help me get through this project. I didn't plan to start praying. It was like God nudged me and said, "Hey, you know you can ask me for help, right?" Immediately I felt the tension dissolve.
I got the project done on time.
Back on my yoga mat, I tried again.
Hey, God, I'm about to fall over and break a bone here. Hold me up?
It took a few minutes, but I grew steady. Just concentrating on asking God for help gave me the focus to hold the pose, trusting that he wouldn't let me tip over. When I finally managed to hold still for a few seconds, I was so delighted I laughed out loud. Nicole gave me an approving smile, and the class moved on.
Next up was a headstand, one I'd been working on for a while. It took a few kicks to get up, and I was disappointed with how unsteady I felt. I'd been practicing, so where were my results?
Nicole's headstand, of course, was stock-still and perfectly balanced. A classmate asked, "How are you so good at that?"
"I've been practicing for a long time," she said. "You need to trust that your body is getting better. It's not going to happen as fast as you want it to happen, but if you keep at it, the change will come."
God's timing is perfect. God is working in you. Trust that the change is happening.
How many times had I heard this before? And yet, this was the first time it resonated with me, with a tangible example of how continued effort, continued prayer, continued trust in God's plan will lead to a brighter future. Or a better yoga pose.
Yoga is full of these little reminders for me, nudges in the direction of a God-centered mindset.
Wobbling over in eagle pose? On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.
Feeling frazzled in Warrior Two? No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to this rock I'm clinging.
Absolutely positive you cannot do full wheel? With God, all things are possible.
I can't explain why, but yoga flips a switch in my head. I go from my normal thoughts to a completely God-centered stream of consciousness the minute my feet touch the mat. I'm the type of person who feels happiest while active: I talk to God while I'm running, and feel most worshipful when I'm on my feet singing in church, so it makes sense the intentional, slow movements of yoga feel so prayerful to me. My mind tends to wander when I try to pray while sitting still, while my mind moves straight to God the minute I start moving.
Some Christians dismiss yoga because of its Hindu roots, but why do we dismiss yoga as a way to connect with God? Prayer is so much more than folded hands and bent knees. God is so powerful, so present, that he surely must hear prayers uttered from a yoga studio or a forest trail, as well as those whispered in a church or a bedroom. God created each of us to be unique, so surely we each have unique ways of connecting to our creator and speaking to him.
God never misses an opportunity to reach out to us, and to teach us something. If I'm in crescent lunge, reaching my hands up and looking skyward, why wouldn't my heart be filled with praise and worship? If I'm curled up in child's pose, why wouldn't I trust he's protecting me? If I'm on my back in final resting pose, why shouldn't I think of it as a reminder to rest in God's presence? Yoga moves prayer beyond words and lets me feel God's presence with my body. Yoga humbles me, challenges me, relaxes me, and shapes me into something new—just like God is changing and molding me every day.
Not everyone connects with God through physical movement, and that's okay. God speaks to each of us in different ways, and calls us to pursue different things. For me, yoga is a way to rest in his presence, and use the body he created for me to praise him and thank him.
I use my time on the mat to refresh my faith and reconnect with the God who created me just as I am.
Maggie Olson is a writer from the Midwest. Follow her on Twitter @maggiebolson.