Child’s Pose and Spiritual Direction: Stopping Along the Journey

I’m a complete novice to yoga, which is challenging because, like most people, I don’t like not being good at things. Worse still, it’s part of my goal as someone who lives in his head to better connect with my body—which I’m terrible at. I can’t study my way being more comfortable on the mat; I can’t brute-strength-train my way to feeling more embodied.

Much like making my beginning with spiritual direction, I find I have to adopt a posture that’s more teachable than determined, more attentive than sure and more playful than linear. Most of my life, I seek mastery; here, I practice, which includes practicing rest.

When You Stop, Stop Completely

I followed a video recently that took us through a practice for strengthening shoulders and arms, preparing us for headstands. It struck me that, even though we’d done more strenuous practices in the series, we stopped frequently to rest. The goal wasn’t simply to maximize the workout; it was to practice in preparation of a more difficult practice the next day. The instructor reminded us, “When you stop, stop completely.” Each time, we’d return to the position we’d started in: sitting back on our knees, folded forward, head down, arms stretched—Child’s pose.

Child’s pose is sometimes called a counterpose, as I understand it, because it balances the movement or exertion of numerous other poses. Here is where we would “stop,” because in a sense, it’s a position of nonexertion, repose. Our shoulders became soft; our arms relaxed; we didn’t counter-stretch—we stopped completely. Then, we started again: Chaturanga, Child’s pose. Dolphin, Child’s pose. Chaturanga, Child’s pose.

Yet it’s also grounded, firm, engaged. It’s not a collapsed heap; Child’s pose is still, in my understanding of yoga-ese, an asana—meaning, like the more rigorous or challenging positions, both the place and posture of a yoga practice. The posture—one of non-exertion; the place—identical with the place of exertion. That’s to say, we stopped, but we never left the mat.

The Journey is Too Much for You

Long before Jesus, there was a corrupt king who launched a campaign of slaughtering the prophets in Israel—that’s to say, those who spoke for Gød and especially for Gød’s heart for the poor—and beside some that were kept in hiding, there was only a man named Elijah, whom Gød kept sending on (suicide) missions. Elijah was the sole voice speaking against the king; he saw Gød’s incredible power working through himself; yet he was a hunted man, and he was alone, except for the Spirit of Gød that seemed to keep saying, “Go.”

At one point, fleeing for his life, he prayed, “I’ve had enough, Yhwh. Take my life” (1 Kings 19). And he fell asleep under a bush in the middle of nowhere:

Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, ‘Get up, and eat.’ He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. He ate and drank and lay down again. The angel of Yhwh came a second time, touched him and said, ‘Get up, and eat, for the journey is too much for you.’

Understand first, in biblical theology, unlike in pop culture, an angel (literally, messenger) isn’t a free agent; they act at the behest of Gød. That’s to say, this wasn’t a solitary angel’s pity on a little human but rather Gød’s compassion shown through a messenger—Gød’s compassion expressed not just by words but with a tender understanding of human need. Note how:

  • Gød wakes him by touching him—both times (not with a trumpet or a blaring light)
  • Gød lets him go back to sleep to rest more
  • Gød feeds him—then, feeds him again

Patience is a part of this compassion. Elijah resigns himself in word and act, but Gød doesn’t let him go. Gød even knows that Elijah’s sense of reaching his limits isn’t imagined: “The journey is too much for you.” But Gød doesn’t fire him. Neither does Gød say, “Get up. Eat. Keep going. You’ve slept, you’re nourished—there’s work to do.”

The story continues, “He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food for 40 days and 40 nights to Horeb.” Not the command, but the permission to rest—to stop and stop completely—gave a prophet at the end of his strength the strength to continue.

Child’s Pose for the Spirit

In the practice of our spirituality, as a discipline, we exert ourselves—sometimes overexert ourselves—and we need a position of rest, a posture of nonexertion, a place of return, to reset. Our practices are tied up in the emotional (our relationship with Gød and others), the mental (our theology), the physical (our embodied stress, anxiety, anger, joy . . .), which is to say the journey can become tangled and overcomplicated, and the simple desires—the simplicity of desire—that started us on the way can become lost in that knotted mess.

We can leave the mat. Or, we can rest. We can stop and stop completely but remain engaged, rooted, firm.

St Ignatius—a father spiritual direction—would call this our “First Principle and Foundation.” It’s just what it probably sounds like. Among everything that’s true for us, it’s the first thing. Among everything that’s important, it’s the foundation. It’s the organizing principle for everything that follows in our spiritual life and our practical theology. There are many translations and paraphrases, but Ignatius begins his like this: “God created human beings to praise, reverence and serve God, and by doing this, to save their souls. God created all other things on the face of the earth to help fulfill this purpose. From this it follows . . .” And to this, everything returns.

We are on a journey that is too much for us. I experience this frequently as I hit the limits of my understanding, my willingness or my strength. So how do we rest? To what do we return without losing our way, to find our way, so we can continue building on our practice once we feel able again?

For me, at present, it is this: to remember that at the foundation of every good desire I have is the desire to see Gød’s good kingdom in people’s lives. When I don’t know where to go from here, that leads me forward in greater clarity than I can find in a week’s worth of meditation.

Perhaps this week, you could ask Gød to show you what images or desires or hopes you engage with as you are most restful, most rooted, most centered. This may be your Child’s pose.

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