Nicole Havelka: The sweat is worth it

Unsplash / Anupam Mahapatra

Lessons about transformation, on the yoga mat and off.

It’s odd as a UCC minister and conference staffer to admit just how much I get from yoga class. I love the church and my life’s calling is to teach and preach the gospel of Christ among her people. But it’s on the yoga mat where I experience transformation. Why is that?

I’ve studied several kinds of yoga over the course of more than a decade and chosen certain communities because of their commitment to yoga as a physical and spiritual practice, not merely a form of exercise. Everyone may not have my same experience if they go to the average yoga class at their gym. But you don’t have to look very far to find yoga studios that create well a particular kind of community.

Teachers at my current studio make no apologies for the fact that they are in the business of transformation. They are not interested in students staying exactly the same. We spend an hour or so sweating and grunting through poses well beyond our natural abilities. Teachers continually challenge us to do things we have not done before. They push us well beyond our limits before giving us comfort and rest at the end of class. Something always happens.

What happens often has nothing to do with the poses themselves. I don’t ‘get’ new poses very often anymore. I gain instead some significant insight into my own spiritual life. That transformation occurs on the mat, but it’s really geared toward the outside world. The most advanced form of yoga in many yoga systems is “householder” yoga -- the practice of living the principles in everyday life. I learn to practice something on the mat that I can take with me when I walk out the studio door. I learn to better embody spiritual principles.

In contrast, I receive more “comfort” from church leaders than I do “challenge.” I’m rarely aware that the experience of church community attempts to be transforming, personally and socially. I hear too infrequently that the gospel is to be lived beyond the walls of the church.

I wonder whether the worry about declining numbers in mainline churches has caused us to lower expectations too much, allowing people to believe that a life of faith is quick and easy and requires little work and attention. The gospel, after all, is the ultimate story of transformation. Jesus lived a life of significance, even to a painful and shameful death. He was then transformed in the resurrection, just as disciples of Jesus are called to be transformed.

I hope we can learn from our yogi(ni) sisters and brothers who quietly but unapologetically transform people on their mats -- and off -- in each class they teach. We church leaders could be bolder in our proclamation of the transformative life that can be lived in Jesus Christ. We should teach people to engage in this, not just on Sunday morning, but every day of their lives.

We might sweat a little, but it’s worth it.

Nicole Havelka is an ordained minister and serves as associate conference minister for youth and young adult ministries in the Iowa Conference of the United Church of Christ.