Yoga: Jennifer Harvey and the Practice of Yoga

Jenny, Chris, and Harper on the first day Iowa had marriage equality.
Jenny, Chris, and Harper on the first day Iowa had marriage equality.

This is an occasional column on powerful people doing powerful things. The Church of the 1950′s is done and dead. People talk about how the Church needs to change. This column highlights people living that change now through creative thoughts, methods, and endeavors. In sharing stories of powerful people,  I hope that radical change and the dismantling of domination is seen as having unlimited possibilities.

Guest Blogger is Jenny Harvey, whom I adore, and known now in the academic world as Rev. Dr. Jennifer Harvey. I met Jenny at Union and ran many a miles together, early in the mornings, in Riverside Park.  I loved sharing time and conversation with Jenny at Union, and still do now as we've grown-up into married adults with kids, a dog, and the never-ending quest to find time for yoga. Jenny is now a professor at Drake University and lives in Des Moines with her spouse, Chris, and two kids, Harper and Emery.

Here, Jenny reflects on her consistent, spiritually aware yoga practice.

“I practice yoga.”

“I’m someone who practices yoga.”

I’m not sure if there’s a difference between these two statements, but lately it’s seemed worth wondering about.

For years I dabbled knowing the flexibility and strength yoga could help me build would be good for me. But I usually couldn’t shake this thought as a sat, posed, breathed or whatever-I-was-doing: “Seriously, my time would be better spent running.” A soccer player and runner, I couldn’t find the will or way to take yoga seriously even while this nagging voice (and a lot of people I really respect) kept telling me I should.

Then came my late 30s, with its aching knees (making running more dicey), two babies (so soccer too time-consuming) and a decision to make a one-year commitment to yoga twice-a-week. Some part of me knew I had to practice with consistency for a sustained period before I could actually know what yoga might be in my life.

Turns out what it might be is the emerging understanding that practice is everything.

Looking back I see my commitment even then was a decision to practice. (Of course, I wasn’t thinking that at the time. I was just praying to the ‘groupon’ gods: “please send me another yoga coupon so I can keep going without paying full price.”)

Practice.

Besides loving bodily activity, I’m also a person of ideas. I teach, write and tend to live in words, thoughts and categories. My ongoing relationship with my religious tradition—Christianity—has been vexed relative to how adequate (or inadequate) I have found its “beliefs” to be; how much its “claims” make sense; what the right kind of “thinking” about the divine might yield in my actions.

I didn’t anticipate that a year-long commitment to what I saw merely as a new type of physical activity would become spiritual activity that would turn this way of understanding upside down.

Here’s how it’s happened. The constant refrain of my teachers as I practice, urging me to “be in the moment” has crept into life off the mat. The constant reminder as I practice to let go of negative energy (self-judgment, worry, control) has found me turning away from my own or others’ negative energy off the mat. The realization that what I am experiencing on the mat has as much to do with how I choose to see it than to what is happening physically has become more and more my default recognition off the mat.

I’m coming to understand life as practice even as these practices have begun shaping my life.

It turns out my fixation on getting ideas and thoughts right first is backwards. It turns out practice changes thoughts and ideas, how I see and how—even who—I am.

“I am someone who practices yoga.”

Yoga is teaching me that I am (that’s the “someone” part) literally what I do (“who practices yoga”).

There isn’t a self, separate from practice.

The implications of this truth are astronomical for about a million other things in life. Practice is always process and never perfection. Practice has an insistent rhythm that transcends will or mood. But for me today the most important is this: a release from lifetimes telling myself “I should [idea/thought] do this [action]” only to be frustrated at my lack of follow through, discipline, choices, or whatever.

Putting practice first is nurturing fragile and tentative transformations for which I’ve longed for years, ways of being that thought I would get to eventually if I had figured it all out in my mind first.

Well before my year was over practice became part of who I am (for now—by nature practice also assumes impermanence: the physical with the spiritual; ideas about “should” less distinct from that which I simply do; postures on the mat not so different from those emerging in me (as me) off the mat.

Practice.

More about Jenny:

Jenny, Chris, Harper and Emery.
Jenny, Chris, Harper and Emery.

Jennifer Harvey is a yoga-obsessed writer, educator and parent interested in how social structures shape us and how we can transform ourselves into people who create more just, compassionate social structures.  She is passionate about racial justice, the problem of whiteness, queer life, community and spirituality.

Her forthcoming book Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation  will be out in November 2014. She also the author of Whiteness and Morality: Pursuing Racial Justice through Reparations and Sovereignty  and Disrupting White Supremacy: White People on What We Need To Do. Jennifer blogs at Huffington Post and her own blog formations.  where she posts her written attempts to make living connections among all of these passions and interests.