I open the door and the heat hits me like a solid wall. At 105º, the air has morphed into a physical presence, thick and palpable, yet I willingly enter the room. I am early. I want to get a good spot, because the only thing worse than being strangled by heat is being strangled by heat and unable to follow the instructor. Not that I necessarily need a visual.
The sequence is always the same: twenty-six poses in unchanging order. Some might consider the repetition monotonous, but these days, I find the predictability a comforting liturgy. This flow has served as consistency when life has been anything but. I have been coming to this yoga studio for ten months now, ever since I left my home for the last time and drove south. Ever since the day everything fell apart.
No one ever knows that their life is about to fall apart. No one wakes up in the morning thinking This is the day when it will all derail or This is the day when everything that seemed so sure will shatter. We just wake up. We go about a normal routine. Everything is fine, until it isn’t.
I unfurl my mat like a scroll and line it up with the floor planks. I want it perfect, precisely parallel with the walls. The past year has proven just how much is out of my control, from who I fall in love with to who falls out of love with me, from perfect plans to entropy. Meticulous yoga mat placement is my mutiny against the chaos, a small but stubborn effort toward an orderly base on which to build.
As others continue to file into the room and find their places, I lie quietly on my mat with my eyes closed, hands on either side of my face. Twisting my knees to one side and then the other, I’m glad when my lower back pops. The release of pressure is subtle but there are no small victories; when everything has felt impossible, any relief is a triumph.
The instructor enters the room. Unlike many yoga studios, here there is no fanfare, no centering monologue, no music—she simply flips on the lights and tells us to stand. I plant my feet and straighten up, imagining a taut string from the top of my head to the ceiling, expanding the space between every vertebrae. For being the central feature of our anatomy, it’s amazing to me how little consideration I give my spine. Thinking so specifically about my body flicks my thoughts to God, and I wonder the same thing—for just as the spine makes motion possible, it is only in him that I live and move and have my being.
Only in him. The reminder is enough for me. I begin to breathe.
I pull the air all the way to the bottom of my lungs, expanding the borders of my ribcage back and forth, an act of resistance. In and out, steady rhythm, combatting the off-kilter reality of life. Nothing feels even. This world is as broken as they come; this year is as broken as I’ve known. But as long as I draw breath, I am invited to create symmetry.
I once read that facial symmetry has an effect on how attractive one is perceived by others. Is this learned or innate, a trend or a truth? In any case, I stare at my reflection in the mirror knowing that my now relaxed mouth hides a lopsided smile. I am not symmetrical—not facially, and certainly not when it comes to my longings. I often want what I shouldn’t want; I don’t want what I should. More than once, my crooked heart has led me straight to pain.
In unison, everyone in the room lifts our arms from our sides to meet overhead with clasped hands, index fingers pointed tall; here is the church, here is the steeple. The thought of church pricks my heart, because I do not know where I belong anymore. A denominational interloper, I would like to find a community of people who take scripture seriously without being assholes about it. I wonder what kind of a Christian this makes me. The kind of Christian who also does yoga, I guess. I hold a long, deep bend, once in every direction, reaching up, reaching over.
Come to think of it, “reaching up, reaching over” would make a good mission statement for a church.
Rising onto my toes with my arms held out straight in front of me, I hold steady for a moment. Then, heels still off the ground, I begin to bend my knees and drop my hips toward the floor—rising higher while sinking lower, an embodied contradiction. This world is full of opposing forces, and the only way to live with any sort of peace is to hold these forces in tension: life and death, strength and weakness, light and dark, joy and pain.
This has been a lonely season; in the words of Brennan Manning, “I am alive, but it’s been hard.” Last summer, after being given every explicit indication that we would have a future, the man I had grown to love chose another woman. I lost my heart and, in the process, my home, resulting in a forced evacuation of the life I had been building. Introverts like myself are already predisposed toward isolation, capable of holing up for days on end without speaking to anyone; life feels safer this way, particularly after heartbreak and betrayal.
But I now refer to isolation as vice-olation, because I’m onto myself: it’s when I cut myself off from others that I am prone toward unhealthy habits and appetites. I must make room for community—and yet, never at the expense of solitude. Just like life and death, joy and pain, the two are not mutually exclusive or antagonistic. Henri Nouwen writes, “Solitude greeting solitude, that’s what community is all about. Community is not the place where we are no longer alone but the place where we respect, protect, and reverently greet one another’s aloneness.”
I don’t know how this works. I don’t know how to do it. Then I remember, only in him. And I breathe.
One arm swings beneath the other and, sweat dripping from my elbows, they tangle together into an awkward, compressive twist—Eagle, as the pose is known. I think of the two brothers in Canada who found a bald eagle caught in a trap on the side of the road. Stories like this always break my heart because the worst things tend to happen to the most vulnerable, whether animals, children, the poor, or the disenfranchised. It’s easy to feel small and helpless about it all.
But what if we don’t have to solve the entire puzzle? What if our job is just to look at the broken pieces in front of us and, when we can, put them back together?
The brothers pried open the trap and set the eagle free. I untangle my arms and stretch them long. On earth as it is in heaven, amen.
We move through the balancing series, equal effort in opposite directions. Despite my swaying, I stay rooted like a tree, all four corners of my foot glued to the mat. I am stronger than I know. Eventually I pull my right foot up to the crease of my left hip and stand with prayer hands in Half Lotus, remembering how my friend Stacey once told me that against all odds, the lotus flower persists through every dirty obstacle to bloom out of mud itself.
I am no stranger to the muck and the mire. I prefer to focus on the occasions in which it has been shoveled onto me by another, but when I’m honest, I know that I often choose to swan dive straight into the pit. Regardless of how I get there, I believe in my heart that redemption is always possible—beauty from ashes, beauty from mud. As I lower myself to lie on my back on the floor, I think back to the darkest days last summer when all hope seemed lost and despair set in. It was during those days that my friend Becky spoke what I have come to believe was a prophetic word over my life: “Beauty will play a role in your healing.”
My body glistens in the heat. I have soaked in her words all year—for as John O’Donohue once said of beauty, “If you can keep some kind of little contour that you can glimpse sideways at now and again, you can endure great bleakness.” And so it has been. Poetry, music, stories, and landscape have been my companions, flashes of lovely in an otherwise desolate wilderness. I am generally a linear thinker, organized and regimented—but by immersing myself in beautiful places and the beautiful work of others, my own creativity has blossomed in a new way. “Annie the Artist will save your life,” my counselor tells me. I’m coming to believe her.
Now lying on my belly, I rearrange my limbs from Cobra to Locust pose. Locust requires a clumsy pinning of my arms between my torso and the floor, rendering them useless, much like I have felt in this year of grief and displacement. For everything I have lost—my heart, my home, direction, money, trust—what I grieve the most is lost time. It’s the only thing that cannot be regained.
And yet, God promises the impossible: “I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten” (Joel 2:25). He will make up for what has been lost. I wiggle my arms out from underneath my body and feel the rush of blood back to my fingertips. Just as circulation is restored, freshly oxygenated and in a healthier form, could it be that vitality itself could return to me?
I have to believe it. Last month, I found myself laughing like I hadn’t laughed in a year. I was with two of my favorite people, Kelley and Joy Beth, in a hotel room in Grand Rapids. What was said doesn’t bear repeating; the important thing is that I laughed until my cheeks hurt and I wiped tears from the corners of my eyes. Here and now on my mat, I remember the joke, and I have a hard time keeping from breaking into laughter again. The corners of my mouth twitch; I avoid eye contact with myself in the mirror.
Rising up on my knees to Camel, I arch my back and lift my heart to the sky. This is always my least favorite pose, as it’s when I feel the most exposed and vulnerable. After all, it was the offering of my heart that resulted in a broken one.
In those early days, I could feel grief taking over, and it terrified me. Grief has a way of lodging itself in the body, and the past year has taught me that mine is no exception. There is a substance to sorrow, a gritty reality and physicality that, if left untended, has the power to choke out one’s hope. But here in the heat, fueled by the memory of laughter, I imagine my grief being broken up like icebergs in the warming Arctic—not gone, but moving. In the end, I lie on my mat with heavy limbs, melting into the floor as if it were warm, supportive sand. Ten months ago it all fell apart, and I am still paying the price. I am angry. I have unanswered questions. I do not know what happens next in my story.
But when my thoughts become anxious, I remember: only in him. And I breathe.
Cover image by Fabian Møller.
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