Ode: A Christian yogi yokes conflicting identities

Jun 20, 2018

Credit Ally Karsyn

In college, a Floridian called me a Yankee. No one had ever called me that before. But being from Ohio, that is exactly what I was.

 

I’ve claimed a lot of different labels throughout my life: wife, daughter, friend, child of divorce, teacher, baton twirler, Christian, yogi. The last two don’t always get along. I’ve been in churches and yoga studios and felt like I didn't belong. Parts of me didn’t fit into either box. Christian. Yogi. I face questions and doubts from both sides. I’ve long been a little rebellious—dare I say liberal—when it comes to religion.

 

I got my first tattoo when I was 19. It’s on my left foot, and it’s a broken heart—a wayward rugged cross goes through and completes it. I got it a year before my mom unexpectedly died from pneumonia and a MRSA infection. I was the one who had to decide to take her off of life support. Losing my mom broke me.

 

Just looking at that tattoo on my foot reminded me that I don’t have to stay broken. I can find healing. And I did.

 

I marked that moment by adding on to my first tattoo, surrounding it with my favorite Bible verse in Spanish: “Todo lo puedo hacer lo en Cristo me fortalece.” Which means, “I can do all things through Christ who giveth me strength.”

 

Those two together keep me motivated.

 

But I’ve been sitting in group settings where people will go on and on about how tattoos are wrong, sinful, disgusting and desecrating the body, the temple of the Lord. They have no idea that I have four.

 

I went to a Bible college. While I never had any hangups about tattoos, I used to judge people on their appearances and convictions and whether they had an alcoholic drink in their hand or if they had sex before marriage. And I never pushed closer to get to know their heart. I just needed to be told how to live. I needed a set standard to know what’s right and wrong and to know who to judge and who to accept.

 

And then my mom died, and it was like hitting a midlife crisis 20 years too soon. One of my favorite authors—the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr—posits that entering the second half of life has little to do with age and everything to do with life-altering circumstances and how we choose to face them. He says that those who have fallen down are the only ones who understand “up.”

 

I took a hard fall. The semester after my mom died, I was a leader for a youth group and getting burnt out on church and the self-righteous posturing. During a prayer service, I started walking towards the back of the sanctuary and I was like, “I’m done. I’m just done with this.”

 

That’s when I heard what I believe to be God say, “You can leave church, but you’re never going to leave me, and I’m not going to stop pursuing you. So just deal with the people.”

 

Even when I wasn’t sure if I believed in it anymore, I never stopped going to church because I never stopped believing in God.

 

About five years ago, I found another way to connect with the Divine, and this time, it was through movement on a mat. I was a dancer and baton twirler in high school, and I’m unapologetically Pentecostal. So, when I worship, I jump and dance and clap my hands.

 

Yoga became a new form of worship.

 

Of course saying that sometimes elicits funny looks or self-righteous remarks about worshipping false gods. There’s no way around it: yoga has Hindu roots. But what I found is that, in the past, Yahweh, the Hebrew word for God, could not spoken—only breathed. “YHWH.” It’s the same kind of deep, guttural sound that I’ve come to know in yoga as ujjayi pranayama or the Darth Vader breath.

 

In a light-filled yoga studio, I connect with my body, with my breath, and I pray in movement.

 

My life looks much different than I thought it would. For a long time, I wanted to be a missionary.

 

The summer after my mom died, I went to Honduras for a week. I was working for the Trash Mountain Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping children and families who make a living by rifling through trash dumps in the developing world. That’s where I felt called to serve.

 

When I was about to graduate from college, I told God, “I’m going to move to a Spanish-speaking country, and I’m never going to live in the Midwest ever again.” Within a few months, I started working at Irving Elementary School in Sioux City, Iowa. In the dual-language program. So, I kind of got both.

 

The word “yoga” is derived from the Sanskrit root “yuj,” meaning to yoke, to unite, to join. That’s what I’ve done.

 

Last fall, I was at the Iowa Culture and Language Conference. During one session, we heard from several adult immigrants who overcame the obstacles and managed to arrive into their new ‘American’ selves. One man, a refugee from Sudan who had been living in Des Moines for more than 30 years, said, “In our culture, we will not seek therapy or go to a counselor for help, but we will go have coffee with friend.”

 

I’ve been a part of North Middle’s newcomer language program for three years. I’ve seen students struggling to make the transition and acting out. They’re triggered by teachers calling on them in class. Some of them flinch when the bell rings.

 

They’ve lost so much. Their country, culture and home; their sense of stability, their sense of self.

 

So, I wondered, what can we do to help students who are immigrants and refugees community arrive into themselves? How could we give the ability to go have coffee with friend?

 

I partnered with English teachers, yoga teachers and art therapists to create a six-week program called This is Me. For three hours every Saturday morning, 15 students from places like Ethiopia, Guatemala, Vietnam, Somalia, Mexico, Puerto Rico got to be a part of mindful movement, writing and art therapy activities.

 

We made a giant mural that’s hanging outside my office. They sketched out self-portraits and journaled about where they’ve been, where they are now and where they’re going.

 

Recently, I went back to Ohio and drove by my childhood home on Chestnut Street. I looked out the window at the mauve-colored Victorian-style home with a wraparound porch—and the shadow of where Mom’s hydrangea bushes used to grow. And I broke. All over again. I lost my sense of home when I was 7 years old and my parents got divorced. I’ve been looking for it ever since.

 

I finally found it in myself, and that can never be taken away. My home is not a physical structure. It’s peace within myself. It’s acceptance of myself. It’s living what Maya Angelou said, “You only are free when you realize you belong no place—you belong every place—no place at all.”

 

If you can belong to yourself, you belong everywhere.

 

That’s what I want to give these students. I want them to know what it feels like to belong to themselves.

 

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Tori Albright is the world languages program coordinator for Sioux City Community Schools. She enjoys practicing yoga and writing. She is married to her best friend, Ben. Together, they enjoy traveling and listening to all genres of music.

 

Ode is a storytelling series where community members tell true stories on stage to promote positive impact through empathy. The next show is 7 p.m. Friday, July 27 at The Marquee, 1225 Fourth St., in downtown Sioux City. The theme is “Lessons Learned.” Tickets are $10 in advance; $15 day of show.