Ancient Christian Prayer, Beyond “Christian Yoga”: Part I

Ancient Christian Prayer, Beyond “Christian Yoga”: Part I

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Secular spirituality commonly recognizes that healing occurs through one’s body-mind-spirit. Today, many are spiritual, but asked if they are Christian and spiritual, many wouldn’t conclude that they are. To be Christian has come to mean that one knows the Bible and follows Jesus. Of course, this is essential to Christianity, but ancient Christian prayer is highly spiritual and deeply engaging of body-mind-spirit. The head of this lifelong endeavor of prayerfulness is God Himself.

I’m exhausted by ten at night, and my evening prayers can lead me into sleep— literally. I aim to pray more in the morning, but Facebook is sometimes a distraction. (It doesn’t help that I have placed an app for FB and Scripture side-by-side on my iPhone.) A friend from high school, now a yoga instructor, posts pictures and videos of her amazing body yoga-ing. She includes thoughts and quotes that reflect her sensitive spirit. In a caption to her handstand, body a beautiful arc against morning light through the window of a hotel, she states: “Yoga away from home, and I am home.”

Home is the experience of realizing who I am created to be and becoming that individual through the grace and love of God. Like my friend, also in her later thirties, I have lived in a number of different places at this point in life: from college days in dorms, apartments, and for a semester abroad in Russia, to living in a small house with Russian in-laws, in a castle on a hill with host-parents, and now a home of our own with four small children. Prayer has always been my “home.” I find a quiet place in the pre-dawn morning, usually a vacant bathroom, and I am “home.” Through prayer, and all that goes with that quiet, alone time: reflection, planning, (picking-up after boys who ate late after hockey) I am found in meeting with God. Prayer can occur anytime and anywhere, but this special uninterrupted time is a particularly coveted experience of “home” that helps soften my endless earthly cares. When a kid gets up too early, or the husband, I have to really pray for help not to go bananas in my heart for the loss of this essential-to-my-life time.

Prayer to God and meditation are both concerned with deeper, truer understanding of one’s self, but the inner content of prayer differs because it is centered on God, and seeking Him helps me understand my own life. Reading scripture and the lives of the Saints points me in the direction of holiness that my heart cannot get on its own. I desire wellness that is wholeness and holiness, which develops through prayer.

Christianity differs from meditation in one important way: prayer is communication with God, and meditation is self-focus. Prayer also helps me know myself, but through the lens of Jesus Christ. Meditation may include focus on God, but oftentimes does not. Many today, my friend included, are drawn to Buddhism and Hinduism that use yoga to express the relationship between the body and spirit. Soothing the five senses through stretching, incense, calming music, and comforting words is good. Prayer also affects the body, and the Church appeals to the senses. In a group on Facebook called “The Healing Project”, a friend shared an article on the healing properties of frankincense and myrrh. Many in the group, myself included, found this information new. While some had not experienced the aroma of these fine spices, I thought of how the Church has always used them as incense, and how beautifully and perfectly healing Liturgy is. It is said that incense is a strong urging for prayer, and that incense is a holy mystery. My priest said that heaven will be Liturgy. In this life and the next, one has the opportunity to draw unto the merciful Lord as He has always intended, as sung in the Cherubic Hymn: “Let us, who mystically represent the cherubim and sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-giving Trinity, lay aside all worldly cares, that we may receive the King of all, invisibly escorted by the angelic hosts. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

While there are secular and religious spiritual exercises that help heal the body and spirit, only prayer, as synergy with Christ, is uniquely saving and eternal. Archimandrite Sophrony explains the important difference between true prayer and other meditative endeavors:

It is imperative to draw a very definite line between the Jesus Prayer and every other ascetic theory. He is deluded who endeavors to divest himself mentally of all that is transitory and relative in order to cross some invisible threshold, to realize his eternal origin, his identity with the Source of all that exists; in order to return and merge with Him, the Nameless transpersonal Absolute. Such exercises have enabled many to rise to supra-rational contemplation of being; to experience a certain mystical trepidation; to know the state of silence of the mind, when mind goes beyond the boundaries of time and space. In such-like states, man may feel the peacefulness of being withdrawn from the continually changing phenomena of the visible world; may even have a certain experience of eternity. But the God of Truth, the Living God, is not in all this. It is man’s own beauty, created in the image of God, that is contemplated and seen as Divinity, whereas he himself still continues within the confines of his creatureliness.

Yoga is said to offer a host of benefits, including increased strength, agility, and flexibility; improved memory and cognition; weight management; pain reduction; efficient respiratory system; normalized blood pressure; mental health (lessening of anxiety, a sense of well- being and self-actualization, as well as motivation); prevention of degenerative diseases; strengthening of parasympathetic nervous system; and yoga is convenient and can be done anywhere. To be sure, there are many benefits to yoga. This article asserts such bodily benefit that it can seem yoga is a sort of elixir against death. However, unlike prayer that unites one with Christ eternally, yoga is merely a bodily exercise. The meditative state, stretching, and muscle building is good for the body, but against death is helpless. Prayer unites one to the Savior of all.

In Orthodoxy, the body and spirit pray, but the Jesus Prayer is not a Christian yoga. Archimandrite Sophrony discusses how “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” differs from transcendental meditation. He claims that every culture (not only religious cultures) is concerned with ascetic exercises. Prayer is about freeing one’s self “by the power of God from the domination of passions” because Jesus is the only Savior, and His Name evokes actual prayer.

To read “Ancient Christian Prayer, Beyond ‘Christian Yoga’: Part 2”, click here.

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About author
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Lea Povozhaev

Lea Povozhaev earned a PhD in Rhetoric and Composition from Kent State University in 2014 and an MFA in Creative Writing from The University of Akron in 2007. She spent a semester abroad in Russia studying at Nizhni Novgorod State University in 1999, where she was first introduced to Orthodox Christianity. Lea teaches writing part-time as she focuses on writing and presenting her current research on wholeness of body and soul. Two of her recent works reflect the culmination of her writing pursuits as a creative non-fiction writer who believes in merging reflection on one's personal life with current social events. She recently (June 3, 2016) had an interview with Ancient Faith Radio on her memoir: check it out! Lea aims to continue writing, researching, and presenting and invites inquiries from the audience to share her work ranging from academic (Medical Rhetoric—arguments in current health care and their implications for those who value the sanctity of life), creative and personal (focusing on family life and Orthodoxy). She lives in Ohio with her husband and their five children. Read more about Lea and her work here.