Since returning from India, I have gotten into the habit of keeping simple altars around my home and at the Willow House in the spaces where the healing practices of yoga, meditation and bodywork unfold. The actuality of it is simple; there is a dedicated space on a shelf inside, and in the Spirit House outside, where I have images and statuary of saints, teachers and deities. I bring a flower or a piece of fruit, I light a flame and burn incense and sometimes ring a bell or repeat a mantra. I take a moment to pause and breathe, often times only in passing on my way to the next thing.
In the beginning, I was actively praying to the Divine in these moments. Asking for obstacles to be removed, asking for my desires to be fulfilled, asking for people that I know and love to be well. This is what I have always known prayer to be: asking. But I noticed that over time, the words slowed to silence and I found myself coming to the altar in reverence. I noticed the development of a simple, internal trust which recognized the unfolding perfection of my life. Though my mind, at times, was still in resistance, I felt the difference of this new approach at the level of my heart. A deeper peace settled in as my heart shifted from desire (doing) to gratitude (being). I found that I began to approach the altar not to ask for what I wanted, but to give thanks for the day, for my breath, for the Mystery that is beyond my mind’s ability to comprehend.
As I was experiencing this new way to be with the Divine, I came across a quote of Mahatma Gandhi which made my contemplation of what prayer can be more conscious. Gandhi says, “Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. And so, it is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”
Here, Gandhi describes a different way to commune with the Divine than I had been raised to believe. I began to explore a series of questions. What if, instead of pleading for my desires, I instead became very quiet inside? What if, rather than thinking about the list (long list!) of things that I want, I give more intention and attention to feeling the longing of my heart? What if I moved beyond the words that fill my inner space and dropped deeper beyond the mind into the wordless space of longing?
My desires have not disappeared, of course. I still wish the obstacles to be removed, the fulfillment of my dreams and my loved ones to be well. But the words and the request have gone. In their place is communion; an assured, intimate feeling that all I could ask for and more – even what I cannot yet see and imagine – is held and cherished. This arrives through the wordless longing of my soul to return HOME, right here, right now. It arrives by the humility of, as Gandhi says, ” The daily admission of one’s weakness.” As I step up to the altar each day, I desire to bow in humility to the True Source of it all.
It is my greatest joy to see that the students who come to the Willow House also take pause at the Spirit House to breathe, to pray, and to receive. They bring their own gifts to the Divine; representations of the longing within their own hearts. They clean and take care of these spaces, they light the flame and burn the incense. As a yoga teacher, it is an immeasurable gift to witness these acts of devotion being cultivated. To see how, before the students even step foot inside the temple studio, they are consciously opening to Divine Grace. This culture of surrendering ourselves to the Divine, again and again, breath by precious breath, creates an environment in which the natural healing and transformative nature of yoga can take place.
At the Willow House, we are even fortunate enough to have the
gentle beasts also take pause at our altar. This deer often meanders around the grounds. We will see her outside the windows during our yoga practice. She is particularly fond of standing outside the altar window. Many times I have opened my eyes from meditation or a healing session to see her standing still and seemingly gazing right at me. I always feel the power of protection in her presence.
On this particular morning, she was grazing just under the Spirit House and sweetly paused long enough for me to photograph her before sauntering peacefully along her way.