‘All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.’ Julian of Norwich
I am laying in shavasana, corpse pose, the final assimilating pose of any Hatha yoga practice. I am sprawled on my back on my yoga mat and my right hand receives a pleasant weight that I can wrap my arm around. I hold this weight and I know suddenly in that inner way of knowing that I am holding my own soul.
I come back from shavasana slowly and look at my friend on the mat beside me. She is near tears. She says, “I held my father in my right hand.” We regard each other across our mats, slowly, slowly, coming back to ourselves.
I have practiced yoga for eight years with the same teacher. In that time we have left the YMCA, where we used to practice, for the far more intimate church hall where we now meet. The core of our group consists of about eight women, and we gather twice weekly. My teacher is not a guru, she does not foster dependence. Rather she leads, and she gives us the tools to possibly lead ourselves.
Our classes become so intense I ask my teacher what, exactly, we are doing. “Body prayer,” she replies. Her name is Sherianna Boyle, and she is quick to credit the church priest for the phrase. “Libby Gibson called it body prayer when I asked her if we could practice yoga in the church, and that set the tone,” she explained. Libby is a bit of a local celebrity, she has infused her Episcopalian church, St. Mary’s, with terrific energy and a full congregation. She also practices yoga and encourages us to practice in her church hall, where the sacredness of consecrated space enhances the experience.
The idea of body prayer sticks to me like glue. I understand it, it is familiar, but I cannot place it. Until a friend tells me in a moment of doubt, “All shall be well,” and suddenly I grasp it. It’s Julian of Norwich, the fourteenth century English mystic and pioneer of body prayer. I read Julian of Norwich in college as the Berlin Wall was falling in a world confident of its future, and at the time had no possible way to understand her, no possible context within which to place her. I had not seen much mysticism in the Unitarian church I grew up attending, and it would be years before I rediscovered some of Julian of Norwich’s ideas unknowingly upon my yoga mat.
While yoga is an ancient practice, it was conspicuously absent from the fourteenth century town of Norwich in England, so a woman there invented her own practice. Today we do not even know her name, we call her Julian of Norwich (1342-1416), in reference to her church, the Church of St Julian, and her town, Norwich. She was an anchorite, and as a mystic she was open to receiving the greater energy that informs the universe. Her practice is called body prayer, and it is very much like Sherianna’s yoga. It is prayer through motion with the intention of connecting the practitioner to the divine energy source within. As we, today, use the movement of yoga to yoke to the divine, Julian of Norwich moved through prayer to what she called a ‘oneing’ with the divine source, which she knew as God, and surprisingly for her time, her God had a distinctly feminine aspect.
Julian devised four stages of prayer through movement: await, allow, accept, and attend. The first stage, await, is a posture of receiving. She held cupped hands extended at her waist to receive the presence of God. The second posture, allow, is a stance of opening to what god has to say, allowing a sense of God’s presence to come. She reached up with her hands open. The third posture, accept, she assumed with her hands cupped at her heart, in acceptance of whatever gift comes or does not come, followed by the final posture, attend, assumed with hands extended and palms open. This is the willingness to act on the gift given. Her movements allow the mind to relax, and through them achieve the same meditative state induced by the movements of yoga.
A strong component of female mysticism is that it happens within the body. Julian of Norwich’s body prayer flips the patriarchal tradition that Christian enlightenment occurs as a transcendence of the body, in which the body becomes an unimportant impediment. Instead of renouncing her body to access the divine, Julian goes through her body as she follows the motions of her prayer, finding her oneness with the god within through movement.
Libby Gibson at St. Mary’s says body prayer pulls her out of her mind, which is one of the great challenges of our time and culture. “We are driven into our heads through dualism and entrenched position, and our defense of these mental positions causes violence. The return through the body quiets the mind and its chatter,” she said. She sees body prayer as part of a current opening of cultures, exposing Christian dualism to the mind and body, returning our understanding of the gift of being incarnate in a human body, and countering the sublimation of the feminine. While body prayer can be found in simple tasks that create, such as knitting, gardening or cooking, Libby said, “Childbirth is the ultimate body prayer.”
Armstrong, Karen, Visions Of God (1994) Bantam Books
Jewett, Ethan Alexander, The Body Prayer of Julian of Norwich, (2012) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7iImZilFvOE
Note: this article was originally published by Homebound, which has granted permission for reprinting here.
To be continued.