lessons from my yoga mat.

       For the better part of the last five years, my yoga practice has held me through many shifts and changes. It has been my place of empirical growth, for nothing has quite compared to the feeling of seeing my progress in my positions and feeling them in my body. Specifically, my mat has been a sanctuary, the place to which I can safely retreat from the pressures of work and life, and to be revived in body, mind and spirit. It has been the place of stretching, both literally and figuratively, as I’ve often challenged myself to bend a little bit further and lean down (or up, or over) a little bit deeper, so as to really feel the weight and impact of a particular posture. More than many churches, my mat has led me into the Holy of Holies, where the voice of the Spirit speaks with silencing clarity and my heart becomes as open as the ocean. And, within the incubator of my practice and the sanctuary of my mat, I’ve considered my instructors, and even some of my friends, my gurus. My pastors, even.

           One instructor in particular, Joe, comes to mind. Some years ago, I’d taken several classes with Joe in the South Loop location of my favorite yoga studio. He was so effortless in his practice, and in his style of teaching, he transferred that sense of effortlessness to his students. I guess that by making poses and transitions sound so easy, he had a magical way of making them easier to accomplish. I remember speaking with him after class one day, and we became Facebook friends soon thereafter. Fast forward to an August afternoon, earlier this year. Since our first meeting, I had moved through several life changes and became a resident of Kenwood, a neighborhood on the Southside of Chicago.  On this particular day, I had just begun my transition out of my church job, and I needed to get to my mat to begin orienting myself to my life without that position. I’d worn all black and brought a small pack of tissues with me to class; I knew I would probably end up crying at some point around, or after, Camel pose. I was happy to have my practice to turn to that day.

           Joe was teaching the class. I hadn’t seen him in a couple of years, but we’d followed each other on Facebook. Having no idea of the experiences and emotions I was bringing onto my mat that day, he told me, “you need to be careful working in the Church, Neichelle. It can be a really hard place.” With that, the tears began to well even before class had begun. There were only five of us: Joe, two other Black women, one Latina and myself. I felt safe.

           “Hot Power Fusion” is my favorite class at the studio. It’s the only class for which I have memorized the sequence, and there’s enough variation in difficulty to feel both challenged and comfortable. It is heated to the maximum, and the feeling of the sweat torrentially pouring from my body is addicting. Frog and Sleeping Pigeon are my apex poses; the hip stretches are second to none. But, there’s one pose that has challenged me since I started attending this class in 2013: Crow. Tried many times. Failed every time. Eventually stopped trying.

           I don’t know what made me attempt Crow that day. Maybe it was Joe’s intentions of “trust and surrender,” or his radiant effortlessness or the way that I felt safe among my sisters. But, I went for it. And time stopped, not because of some ethereal presence, but because Joe stopped it. He must have noticed my efforts. He walked over to me, and he guided me through the pose. He said a lot of things, but I specifically remember two. First, he told me to where to fix my gaze: “Don’t look right in front of you because it’s too close, you’ll lose your balance. Look a few feet ahead and focus more on the feeling of holding yourself up.” Timidly, I followed his instructions, fixing my gaze ahead of myself, lifting one foot at a time and firing up my core to do the work of sustaining my own weight. And I held it. For the first time. Ever. I felt what it feels like to get into an impossible position and to stay there long enough to experience it as an accomplishment and not a failure. Since that time, it has dawned on me that perhaps I wasn’t able to hold it before, not because I wasn’t able to, but because I rushed out of it too quickly because I was afraid of failing. It was a lesson in holding on. But, it was also a lesson in silencing the disparaging voices in my head. Later, I posted about my yoga breakthrough on my Instagram, disclosing how it was impossible to hold the pose in previous seasons of my life, due to the noise that was produced my life events.

           The second thing that Joe said was not to me, but to my classmates: “Let’s celebrate Neichelle for going for it.”  The women clapped and shouted, and I felt my tears come. In gratitude for tears of celebration, when I’d anticipated tears of dismay, I put my hands together in prayer, at my chest, and I bowed to my teacher and fellow yogis. I wanted to thank them for teaching me the importance of fixing my eyes a few feet ahead, rather than right in front of me, and for showing me that when this happens, there’s less to mourn and more to celebrate. I wanted to thank them for their sacrifice of pausing their own practices whilst I elevated mine. I wanted to thank them for celebrating me, a woman in the throes of necessary transitions, who needed to be reminded that my efforts, on the mat or otherwise, would continue to yield fruit for celebration.

           I’ll never forget that day.

           In the beginning of the Hot Power Fusion sequence, there are about three rounds of Sun A, the seamless movement from Mountain Pose, swan-diving into a Forward Fold, a Halfway Lift, another Forward Fold, and then the rise all the way to the top of Mountain. I learned another unforgettable lesson here in 2013, about why it’s important to rise slowly back to the top of Mountain Pose. The instructor said, “you don’t want to rise too fast between your Forward Fold and your Mountain Pose. Rise slowly, to prevent the blood from rushing to your head and making you dizzy.” This motif of the slow rise has become the metaphor for my ministry. I, like many of my peers, have often been seduced by the appearances of popularity and prestige among ministers. I’ve been wooed by the affirmation and attention. But, these have never come easily to me. A Capricorn and Enneagram 6, I need my space, my privacy and the Secret Place of the Most High. I crave these more than anything else, especially after Mountaintop experiences in ministry. But, these seem countercultural to an industry that, just like many others, thrives on ego and hinges on idolatry, even though the God we claim to proclaim vehemently prohibits it. The quick rise is sexy, and it has often called to me loud and clear.

           But, there’s a slow rise that is mediated the Spirit of God, and it has ensured me I am prepared for every new level, new place and new experience. I’ve avoided becoming dizzy from ministry by allowing myself to take my time and to be true to the journey that is mine to take, and not anyone else’s. The slow rise beckons me to keep going, to keep rising, to keep doing my soul’s work, because I’m not in a race to get to a finish line, and I’m certainly not competing to beat anyone. My slow rise is to the sound of my genuine, at the instruction of my Guide, with the accompaniment of my fellow chosen few sisters and colleagues.

           shepreaches started in 2012. It 2015, I took the site down. I did not possess the energy of heart or body to do the work of maintaining it. Even though our work continued in a variety of settings and cities, I faced a fear of re-launching the site due to a range of symptoms, from imposter to burnout. This year, I’ve been reminded of the necessity of this work and this space. Black millennial women in ministry are at once, one of the Church’s greatest hopes and greatest mules. We need spaces that are just for us. And, it has been through my slow rise that I’ve come back to the work of curating such spaces.

           It has been a slow rise to healing and wholeness.

                       A slow rise to clarity of thought and voice.

                       A slow rise to finishing my PhD in Homiletics.

                       A slow rise to repositioning myself for vocational thriving.

                       A slow rise to this mountaintop of re-launching, where the dizziness of denying my call has subsided, and the air is thick with excitement for what is to come for shepreaches.

           Often, during Sun A, I recite Maya Angelou’s famous words as I’m slowly rising, moving from being bent over in my Forward Fold into standing tall in Mountain:

           Leaving behind nights of terror and fear

           I rise

           Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear

           I rise

           Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

           I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

           I rise

           I rise

           I rise.