Hot Yoga and a Schmear of Ashes


Shortly before the New Year, a friend asked me to go to yoga with her. “One month – all the classes we want to take – $40 total.” I had been interested in yoga for awhile because of its benefits, namely flexibility, stability and core strengthening. This opportunity seemed like a great and affordable way to jump start my yoga regimen. “Oh, and it’s hot yoga,” she added. “105 degrees and 90 minutes long.” Wait, what?? I sweat. I don’t mean that I get little beads of perspiration on my upper lip. I sweat buckets-worth. I probably lose a couple pounds of water weight with every strenuous form of exercise. I could not imagine what 90 minutes of exercise in a room that hot would mean.

Being the sucker that I am, I signed on and began my month of yoga fun. The first time was hard, but manageable. I did sweat, a lot. Every bit of me was perspiring for nearly the full 90 minutes. In spite of that I felt good and proud of what I had accomplished. Until the next day when I woke up with the most horrendous dehydration headache I have ever had. It took me two days to recalibrate my system and lose the headache entirely. In my second class, three days later, I could see improvement in my balance and flexibility. But I also found the amount of sweating to be annoying. Really annoying. I had a difficult time holding some of the poses because of how much I was sweating. But I got through another class.  And another. I learned to drink plenty of water before and after class, and include a sports drink of some kind for better replenishment. I wasn’t getting used to the sweating though.

About a week and a half into my month of yoga, I started to feel sick. I woke up feeling hung over, even though I hadn’t been drinking the night before. I was concerned that hot yoga would make me feel worse, so I took a few days off. My friend was patient but as I neared the day I would have to go back, I found myself ruing it. It was hot and long and difficult and required work before and after class. Why was I putting myself through it? Why couldn’t the room be 95 degrees instead of 105 degrees? I went anyway, again, finally. It was hot. And long. And it was 15 degrees outside. But I did it and I have to admit, it felt good.

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season for Christians. I grew up in a church that had few rituals. We celebrated communion/Lord’s supper/eucharist. We lifted up Christmas and Holy Week (Palm Sunday to Easter and all the events in between). Other things were mentioned as they occurred, such as Epiphany, Pentecost, and Advent. But we largely seemed to avoid the rituals that have long been associated with the christian faith. This was not uncommon among protestants who were determined to not look at all like catholics. A thousand years of history replaced with crappy, “contemporary” worship songs.

As I became increasingly frustrated with my ritual-less church, I sought out churches that still incorporated them. Although some denominations had certainly kept the rites and rituals in place, they had not done the work of updating its context. God was always “He” and the hierarchy remained: God -> pastor/priest -> parishioner. I longed for the rituals, but I needed them to be offered with relevance by way of acknowledging the difficulties, issues, and realities of today, not of days gone by.

So back to Ash Wednesday. The day marks the beginning of Lent, which is 40 days plus Sundays leading up to Easter. For the Christian, Easter is the event that reminds us that God is at work in and around and through us, in spite of what we might see/think/feel, and that death does not have the final say. Most scholars believe that the idea of Lent developed in the first few hundred years after the church began. The church rightly saw the need to prepare for Easter, and Lent could provide the opportunity to do so. Time and wounds and quite frankly, everyday life can make it difficult to see how God is at work, and how we might be getting in the way of that work. And so we spend time learning how to hear and see again, how to make more room for God. We reflect by asking questions such as, “How am I really doing?” “Do my values match my priorities?” “Where could I use some improvement?” “How might I strengthen my faith?” “How are my relationships?” We can easily fill 40 days of reflecting, particularly if we aren’t doing much of it in the remaining 325 days.

Ash Wednesday is traditionally commemorated with a schmear of ashes and the saying, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I know it might sound depressing. But for Christians, it is just the beginning of the journey, not its end. We begin by feeling the somberness of who we are (human), and consequently who we are not (God). We are invited to experience the weight of the world being taken off of our shoulders and to be okay with what we cannot do on our own. And we embark on the 40+ days to ponder this reality knowing Easter is just up the road.

I think Lent is a lot like hot yoga. The benefits are pretty clear. But it is a big pain in the ass. It is hard work. It requires the sacrifice of time and resources. It takes planning and commitment. It needs doses of faith and hope. And if I didn’t have my friend waiting for me, I might just wimp out with a thousand possible excuses. We should take this journey not because the church and religious leaders say so, but because it is good for the mind, body, and soul. I hope you will consider to take a Lenten journey yourself. Don’t forget to find a friend to go with you. Namaste.