Yoga Theology: From "Corpse Pose" To Resurrection

In my first five years as a minister, I officiated at 40 funerals.

Pause. Crinkle your eyebrows in thought. Do the math in your head (forty divided by five divided by twelve...). Then say one of the following:

1. "Wow, that's a lot, isn't it?" (said mostly by laypeople)
2. "Only 40? I had at least 50 in one year!" (said often by clergy)

No matter how many or how frequent they are, funerals are emotional, overwhelming, exhausting, and mysterious. In the face of each one, we encounter the wonder of how short this life is--and what awaits on the other side. Families have to live to with new absences. Drawers and closets and homes are opened only to be emptied of the contents of a loved one's life. Psalm 23 and a declaration of "ashes to ashes" echo in mourners' ears.

And the minister tries to think of something to say -- not in explanation but in assurance.

During the times that I had multiple funerals within a few weeks of each other, people would say to me, "You must be exhausted," or "This must be so hard on you." Yes, whether I'd known the person for years or had never met them, walking alongside God's children in the valley of the shadow can leave me with slumped shoulders and sore feet.

What helps to cushion my ankles and lift my heart is to go to the yoga mat first.

Soon after I moved my yoga classes to the church in 2009, there was a death in the congregation. Before a formal group had even gathered in the upstairs' room, I went in for my own "class." I sat on the mat with no thought to correct posture, alignment, or forethought. I turned on the music. I breathed. I probably cried. Eventually I moved to child's pose. Then to down dog. I moved through a few poses, slowly breathing into each one. My mind calmed, and my body lengthened. By the time I rose back to my feet, the sunlight seemed brighter, and I was breathing more easily.

Ever since then, I've prepared for each funeral with yoga. Even if I only have time to get in child's pose and breathe, I go to the yoga mat.

I am not qualified to conduct psychological or scientific studies on the benefits of yoga for those who are grieving or those who assist in caretaking/pastoring. The only testimony I can share is how yoga has helped me to proclaim life in the middle of death and hope in the midst of despair. Here are some parts of that testimony.

1. In stopping to focus on breathing, I remember Who is the Breath of Life.

Even though my pastor's voice is what people will hear at a funeral or memorial service, I want for the breath powering that voice to come from beyond me. Pausing on the yoga mat to breathe reminds me that I, too, am dust, and without the Breath of Life, I will wear out. I need the strength and stamina that comes from the wind of the Holy Spirit--not just my own energy.

2. In stretching my body, I try to release unnecessary tensions.

At funerals, conflict emerges as families gather under anxiety. From regrets to finances to estrangements to plain-old grief, tension is present in one form or another. Sometimes there's an undercurrent, and sometimes there's a tsunami of emotions. I can't "fix" a lot of these problems, but I can ask God to help me release and relax. This is also an opportunity for self-care in the midst of chaos.

3. In savasana (literally translated "corpse pose"), I rest in Peace.

I try not to use the Sanskrit terms in Christian yoga classes, and savasana can especially make people nervous. "A dead pose?" people will ask. "That's so morbid." Often the final pose of yoga classes, savasana involves lying on one's back on the floor. Sound too simple? Stillness and simplicity can be so difficult for some of us. Dying, too, is difficult. At the end of stretching and strengthening and lifting and bending and balancing, savasana is the opportunity simply "to be." When I rise from the floor after "being," I remember that the practice doesn't really end with a "corpse," but with rising to go back into the world. In that final pose of the class, I can leave with hope of resurrection.

While practicing yoga before a funeral does not immunize me from making mistakes or saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, yoga helps me to be more centered, grounded, and focused than I'd be otherwise. Yoga is not a cure for grief, but I think it can be a tool to help us "move" through the valley. When we find ourselves in challenging circumstances, what if we made a little space in the chaos for a mat, and on that mat invite God to whisper to us:

Be still. And know that you are Mine.

all good things to each of you,
Pastor Darian