Seane Corn Demonstrates “Body Prayer”
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
For Seane Corn, yoga is much more than a practice in flexibility. It’s a way of applying spiritual lessons to real-world problems and personal issues. One way she channels her energy and love is through a practice she calls “body prayer,” as she shares in this video from Yoga from the Heart.
She shared this perspective about “body prayer” with Krista Tippett in our show, “Yoga, Meditation in Action”:
“I trust that if I do my yoga practice, I’m going to get stronger and more flexible. If I stay in alignment, if I don’t push, if I don’t force, then my body will organically open in time. I know that if I breathe deeply, I’ll oxygenate my body. It has an influence on my nervous system. These things are fixed and I know to be true.
But I also recognize that it’s a mystical practice, and you can use your body as an expression of your devotion. So the way that you place your hands, the ways that you step a foot forward or back, everything is done as an offering. I offer the movements to someone I love or to the healing of the planet. And so if I’m moving from a state of love and my heart is open to that connection between myself and another person or myself and the universe, it becomes an active form of prayer, of meditation, of grace.
And when you’re offering your practice as a gift, as I was in that particular DVD, as I do often, I was offering to my dad who’s very ill. And so when I have an intention behind what I’m doing, then it becomes so fluid. Because if I fall out of a pose I’m not going to swear, I’m not going to get disappointed or frustrated. I’m going to realize that this is my offering, and I don’t want to offer that energy to my father. I only want to offer him my love. And so I let my body reflect that. And when you link the body with the breath, when my focus is solely on getting the pose to embrace the breath that I’m actualizing, then the practice, it’s almost in slow motion.
It has a sense of effortlessness. When people can connect to that, it takes the pressure off of trying to do it perfectly. It just becomes a real expression of their own heart. Sometimes it’s graceful and elegant, other times it’s kind of funky and abstract, but it’s authentic to who the person is. It’s their own poetry.”
The Practical Mystery of Yoga
by Krista Tippett, host
After my interview with Matthew Sanford a few years ago, I started thinking about yoga. I had dabbled in it intermittently across the years, but until very recently the structure of my life did not yield happily to new “non-essential” commitments. I would sign up for a weekly class and then only attend once or twice.
Then I discovered a studio with a full and flexible schedule — drop in classes literally morning, noon, and night — and I was off. Initially — and this is how Seane Corn describes her experience too — I was mostly aware of how good the physical workout felt. (I’m doing “core power yoga” — a fusion that is indeed more of a sweaty workout than I’d experienced in yoga classes before.) But at some point a few months on, I realized that yoga was working in far more significant ways on my energy, my sense of spiritual and mental well-being, the way I moved through the rest of my life.
Several of my colleagues were nearly simultaneously going through a similar process with yoga in their off-hours. And we’re not special or strange in this. The past few years have seen a surge of cultural and journalistic attention — some wary, some appreciative — to the way yoga has suddenly taken in cities, small towns, schools, and workplaces. Perhaps I’m justifying the fact that this show, as much as any we’ve done, indulged an enormous curiosity that has grown in me privately as well as professionally. But when I read Sebastian Faulks’ James Bond redux novel and found that he has the Chief Spymaster M instructing his agents to practice yoga for strength and focus, I felt we had no choice but to at least devote an hour to it.
Seane Corn is a wonderful and surprising voice for this exploration. She is a master teacher and a star in the ever-expanding universe of yoga teachers and trainers. She appeared as the beautiful face and body of yoga in a Nike “goddess” ad campaign. But the cadence and intensity of her voice — as she’s quick to point out with some pride — reflects a blue-collar New Jersey upbringing and the fact that she is one of life’s fighters.
Nothing in her early life prefigured her current embodiment of yoga’s alignment of strength, energy, and grace. She left home and school to move to New York City at 16, found work as a waitress, and partied hard. She discovered yoga at 19, as she was on the edge of sanity. She had been battling an undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder, which she believes was connected with an episode of childhood sexual abuse.
The drama of Seane Corn’s story makes for a fascinating conversation. But she is also a very down to earth guide into the basic facts about the practicalities and power of yoga.
I’ve written a more personal essay about the changes this practice has affected in me — the very unexpected lessons it has brought to the rest of my life. On this point, too, the intensity of Seane Corn’s story is compelling. But it also throws into relief parallel experiences I’ve had and heard about in others that have practiced yoga in varying forms and degrees. She had been practicing yoga for years until one day she was filled, walking home, with an utterly strange sensation, which she finally understood to be a sense of joy, of happiness.
Her practice of yoga is thoroughly interwoven, at this point, with her understanding of grace, God, and love. The way she comes at that — and expresses it — is anything but light and airy. The joy and love at the heart of yoga drive her to be ruthlessly honest about the darkness in herself and to face the darkness in the world. She takes yoga’s sense of the teacher in every experience with utter seriousness — working with organizations helping get teenage prostitutes off the streets, for example, from Los Angeles to Cambodia.
Like meditation, this ancient spiritual technology lends itself to interpretation and incorporation with many spiritual sensibilities and religious traditions — just as its range of practices are adaptable to any type of body at any stage of vitality or disability. I also see this yoga phenomenon as part of a larger move that we’ve variously explored towards rooting — or rather, reintegrating — the body into spiritual and religious traditions, from Judaism to Pentecostal Christianity. There is some wonderful, fundamental insight here that many of us are reclaiming from wildly different directions. And as Matthew Sanford still so memorably put it to me, the more completely we inhabit our own bodies with both their strengths and their flaws, the more compassionate we become towards all of life. That’s the kind of earthy, reality-based mystery I love.
Living with Yoga
Kate Moos, managing producer
I went to my first yoga class in eight weeks last night, and remembered that we are broadcasting our program with Seane Corn this week, which we originally produced about a year ago. At that time I was in the local Bikram yoga studio three or four times a week, sweating and smiling at the instructor’s injunctions to “struggle harder!” I love the arduous athleticism of Bikram practice.
But I had foot surgery over the summer, and am still nursing it eight weeks later, my right foot three sizes larger than the left. It’s healing nicely, but it takes a long time, and the Bikram heat just isn’t the right thing for a swollen, healing appendage. That has meant no yoga for the first few weeks, and then being restricted to some basic stretches and breathing execises at home. I miss the community, the sense of building on other peoples’ energy and strength that I get in group practice, and I was nourished to join the teacher and two others holding long, slow, challenging poses in an extended floor series last night.
During my hiatus, people told me to do any yoga I could manage — even if it was just mindful breathing at my desk at work, or listening to recordings of asanas while lying still on my mat. One tool I turned to was this video of Seane Corn, which I watched in my early recovery, when I could barely hobble to the kitchen.
Corn reminds us that the yoga we do on the mat is only part of the story, and that yoga is not only for beautiful, young bodies. That’s a message also underscored by our program with Matthew Sanford, who was rendered a paraplegic at the age of 13 after a car accident. His unique experience of the mind-body connection, and the lessons about inhabiting his entire body, is related in Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence.
Even a temporary disability like the one I am now impatiently enduring has an effect on one’s sense of self, of one’s personal power, and one’s vulnerability. The “spiritual technology” of yoga, these teachers help us understand, gives us a way to be more fully ourselves, whatever our physical strength or limitation might be.
What’s your practice? How do you bring body, mind, and spirit into alignment?
I Am Not As Devout
Mitch Hanley, Senior Producer
I am not as devout a yoga practitioner as my colleagues, Kate and Krista, but I usually do about 20 minutes of yoga after a half hour on the elliptical — don’t ask me how often THAT happens. Actually, it is exactly 20:27, during which I go through a series of poses that I learned from a few yoga classes as well as a some instructional DVDs. I have an iTunes playlist on my computer called “Mitch-Yoga” that I put on and I know that I will start when the music starts and stop when it is done, measuring the time spent on each pose to where I am on the playlist. It is interesting to see if I am rushing through it or if I am necessarily taking my time.
Well here are the rest. The first track is Bebel Gilberto’s “All Around,” have a listen:
2. “Madman’s Honey” performed by Wire
3. “Ceu Distante” performed by Bebel Gilberto
4. “The Boy with the Gun” performed by David Sylvian
5. “Maria” performed by David Sylvian
I don’t think this is for everyone, but it does put me in a place that helps me relax and get into my body. What do you like to listen to while you do yoga? Silence?
Confessions of a Yoga Convert
Krista Tippett, Host
Kate got me into yoga — coming in day after day last fall glowing from Bikram. Bikram was too hot for me, literally, but I discovered “Core Power” soon after and was hooked. And grateful. Kate is thinking of posting a photo of herself in corpse pose. It doesn’t occur to me to do something like that, as I am incredibly word-centric. And that is part of the reason yoga is fantastically healing for me. I came off a long stretch of years of writing my book where I was desperate for a break from the thoughts in my head. Yoga has taken me out of my head. Rather, more accurately, it has helped me center myself, including the thoughts in my head, in my body. This is a relief, practically a whole new life.
As I’ve grown into this practice, I’ve experienced other intriguing epiphanies. About six months in on a very regular routine, I experienced a surge of energy. This was nearly overwhelming for a few weeks; I was sleeping several hours less than normal and waking up energized. It was as though yoga had unblocked or tapped more energy than my metabolism knew what to do with. And after about a month, that stabilized, settled down. I also went through a period a few months in of a deep, visceral, unnamable sadness. I’ve written in my book and done radio about my history of clinical depression; and for someone who has struggled with depression, sadness can be scary. But this felt natural and safe somehow. The scary part was that it eluded words and conscious analysis; I could not think it through. As it was arising in my body, I sensed it would have to work its way out of my body. And it did. I do speak about this with Seane Corn in our interview, something I’d been looking forward to.
There’s a lot of talk in yoga about taking the practice “off the mat” — letting its lessons infuse daily life. I didn’t notice this immediately, and the ways I find it happening now are quite mundane. But they’re still powerful; they are reordering some of the ways I approach what is mundane. So, for example, I’ve always been driven and goal-oriented. But in flow yoga, every transition is as important as every finished pose; and grace in transitions is as important as getting the final poses right. Somewhat to my surprise, I find that I’m able (sometimes, not all the time!) to spend more time and care on graceful transitioning and processing as on final products in other parts of my life. This is liberating — it’s like I’ve been missing whole stages of experience, at an ordinary level, all my life.
Finally, I also see the deepest lessons of yoga taking hold on me as I go lighter rather than harder on myself as I in fact become more advanced. This is perhaps the first passionate endeavor in my life in which I am absolutely content that I don’t have to be great or best or always better. I take as much pleasure in slow poses as in fast; I cut myself slack when I’m tired or distracted. I let messy, inconsistent life be what it is. I learn to delight in my body just as it is, at 47. And this does somehow translate into being easier on everything and everyone else around me. For a lifelong perfectionistic over-achiever, this is a seismic step forward into wisdom. I’m amazed to find this practice helping me literally embody many of the great spiritual teachings of my own faith and those that inspire me in others. So I’m grateful to Kate, and grateful to all the sages and practitioners who kept this spiritual technology alive for something like 5,000 years so that I and other 21st-century mortals could discover it when we need it most.
Breathe, and Everything Changes
by Kate Moos, managing producer
I am, perhaps, a yoga cliché. A mid-50s, bookish, somewhat perfectionist, slightly workaholic sort of person who had begin to wonder if that modest but persistent pain in her left hip was innocuous and temporary or whether my body was just deciding to ache, possibly forever.
Then, almost precisely a year and a half ago, I quit smoking after a life-long habit, and 4 months later I took my first Bikram yoga class. It’s been something of a conversion experience, honestly. Bikram involves a fixed 90-minute regimen of 26 asanas or postures, two sets of each posture, performed in a room heated to 105 degrees. The heat increases flexibility, and it also puts the cardiovascular system into overdrive, and creates a kind of peak experience for even a novice practitioner.
The goal of my first class, as a person who had never practiced yoga, let alone yoga in such heat, was simply to keep up as best I could and not leave the room. I succeeded at that, though I felt I might expire or possibly throw up; the sense of centered physical and spiritual well-being that came over me after that first class was so astonishing, I have gone back 3 or 4 times a week ever since, acclimating to the heat, and thriving on the yoga. My experience of Bikram yoga is almost liturgical — the 90-minute regimen offers the same Sanskrit postures in the same order, and even the same directions from the instructors — echoing the Latin liturgy of my Catholic girlhood in a powerful, almost sub-molecular way.
It goes without saying that yoga creates physical strength and wellness — I no longer experience chronic neck pain from sitting slouched for long hours over a computer keyboard, and I don’t see a chiropractor every 3-4 weeks to adjust my lower back any more. The pain in my hip went away. Yet yoga most importantly brings me actual revelations — revelations that start as a new physical experience and then seep into consciousness.
About three months in, I started being able to perform a full camel posture, which means I was greatly increasing the strength and flexibility of my back, and was also opening my chest and my hips. But on a more interior level, the effect of the camel is spiritually profound. A regular practice that includes the camel posture changes my perspective; it helps me open my mind to new ideas — the very ideas where my mind has been closed; it makes it possible to give up resentments; it occasionally causes me to express grief I thought was done and past: the death of a parent, the loss of a love. I don’t mean that I cry in my yoga class (though I have had a few quiet sobs surface after a camel pose once or twice), or that this is therapy. I don’t, and it’s not. I mean that if you engage vigorously with this “ancient technology,” as Krista calls it in the show, the yoga will in fact diagnose your imbalances — physical, emotional, and intellectual — and gently, incrementally, begin to correct them.
There have been times in my life when as a spiritual seeker and a somewhat but not entirely lapsed Catholic I have felt deeply separate from God, whatever my inchoate concept of God was at the time. The most painful and dangerous (to myself and to others) distance from God I have ever known has come through the experience of addiction. Then, at some point in my recovery I had the simple insight that I was unable to experience the love of God because I was not putting myself in the way of it. After all, if you want to feel the sun on your back, you have to stand in the sunlight, yes? At the most basic level, I feel yoga puts me in the way of God. Then, what happens, happens.
In the picture above, snapped with an iPhone after a class this past Tuesday evening, I am practicing the corpse pose. What the instructor calls “the most important posture in the series.” Being fully, deeply relaxed, focused, and cognizant of one’s body allows the teaching of yoga to settle in and take hold. This is what Seane Corne calls “mystical work.”