Saturday Afternoon Bliss


 When I left the Church in the late 1980’s, thinking then that I would never return, I wondered if, in a certain sense, it was over for me spiritually.

 For I could not imagine walking into a church again. I had had enough of the painful feeling of not fitting in.

 I had reached the conclusion that I was an outsider by nature and that there was therefore no place in the church for someone like me. 

 As someone said to me then: “Al, you tried so hard, but it was not to be."

 At that time, I knew relatively little about other religions. What I knew was what I had received at theological seminary. There, we briefly studied other religions in order to write them off.

 I was told that there was some light in other religions, but not much. At best, any light to be found was dim, compared with the bright light of Christianity. 

 Except that, in my experience with Baptists and Anglicans, I had not experienced a whole lot of light. To be sure, I had had some great moments, but eventually concluded that Christianity had no monopoly on the light

 In fact, I had come to think that perhaps salvation might yet be possible for me if, I were to stay as far away as possible, from the people of the light.

 Then, to my surpise and amazement, through a whole series of events, I came in contact with an East Indian meditation master, Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, whose two chief ashrams exist respectively, in New York State and India.

 I, who had grown up in the Baptist church and had become one of its ministers, was now on the edge of a most unexpected spiritual adventure!

 So many of the devotees of Siddha Yoga demonstrated a joy and devotion to God that impressed me and sometimes left me filled with awe.

 I knew absolutely that these Yoga practitioners had found a way of being that was incomparably beyond anything I had experienced before. 

 Before long, I found myself longing to live fully in the Siddha Yoga world of gorgeous chants, inspired teaching and deep meditation practices.

 I became fully immersed in it all, feeling that I had never done better than to engage in the spiritual practices of Siddha Yoga. I would, for example, sit to meditate for at least forty minutes daily, and chant regularly for more than an hour at a time.

 I was engaged in an inner revolution. I experienced the heights and depths of an inner experience I had never thought possible.

 I knew a sense of bliss and joy beyond anything I had ever experienced.

 And now, almost twenty five years later, I will continue to testify that I received only the greatest of benefits from being introduced to Yoga.

 As an Eastern Orthodox monk exclaimed, upon hearing my story: “Al, Yoga was God’s gift to you.”  

 Now, one of the major benefits of the Yoga practice has been the many friends I made. 

 One of them surprised me one day with a phone call as I was riding my indoor cycle.

 The call came from a former student, the manager of a physiotherapy practice in Calgary. Her words encouraged and humbled me. 

 My former student startled me by saying that in the four years since she had been my student that, she’d done Yoga in several places, but had never found anything quite like the Calgary Yoga Academy. (my business for ten plus years)

 She reminded me of what I had tried to do at the Academy. She described the uniqueness of a style of Yoga that combined stress releasing, mind-calming Yoga poses with the encouragement to engage in philosophical self-inquiry.

 She articulated precisely the vision I’d had of a vital physical practice combined with the value of deep inquiry and reflection.  

 Now, looking back, I clearly remember that not everyone liked my approach. One lady expressed sheer disgust with my approach, especially with regard to my regular habit of delivering homilies in the classes, something she said that nobody ever did in a Yoga class, and should never do, in any Yoga class.

 She was harsh and condemning. I felt her stinging rebuke, but knew that I could not, and would not, do other than to deliver my little talks in the classes.

 After all, the words of Jeremiah had been read on the day of my ordination. Jeremiah testified to the fire of conviction that burned within him.

 Jeremiah had to express the passion he felt. He said he was weary with holding it in, and could not. 

 In my own way, I, too, sought to express the fire that continued to burn within me.

 Many of my students encouraged me to keep up the preaching/teaching ministry: "Al, you’re still a minister and that‘s why we come to class.”

 They would say to me as well: "Your Yoga classes are a lot better than going to church.” 

 And then, too, this statement from several, a statement I especially relished: "You’re a priest in shorts.  

 My ministry was continuing, but without a robe or collar. 

 Well, the priest in shorts, was encouraging others to find what he had found through the power and joy of meditation practice. 

 My own wife got the message, too, and began a diligent meditation practice.

 She created a corner in her wardroom where she began to sit for meditation. There she continues to sit every morning on a meditation cushion before an icon of Christ. 

 My wife's particular radiance is related, I am sure, to a regular early morning practice of prayer and meditation.

 My own set-up is a little more elaborate, in another part of our home. It is there that I ground and center my life in God’s love. There, as I sit for meditation, I experience (after a while!) an opening into a sacred space within me, a inner sanctuary, that becomes filled with God’s presence. 

 I particularly pay attention to the way that my breathing and heartbeat work together to create an exquisite sense of inner silence and peace. There is sometimes a most wonderful sense of an energized fullness.

 That fullness is God’s light and love, experienced in the depths of my being.

 Now, I did not learn how to meditate in any Christian contexts. Even Thomas Merton, the Catholic monk with whom I share a deep spiritual and temperamental affinity, never taught his students how to meditate.

 It was John Main, another Catholic priest, who, years after Thomas Merton’s death, appeared at Merton's Monastery in Kentucky to tell the monks that nothing meant more to him than the simple repetition of the word maranatha (Lord come) in his meditation practice.

 Fr Main had learned this simple practice from a Hindu and sought to share with Christians the joy that he had found.

 That phone call from the former student in Calgary reminded me as well of when I led what I used to call Saturday Afternoon Bliss.

 As I anticipated the Yoga Bliss sessions I used to say to my students: “Why would you go shopping next Saturday afternoon when you could be experiencing great bliss? Are you all crazy? Hope to see you on Saturday!”  

 These bliss sessions were made up of three parts. First, we did Yin Yoga for an hour. In Yin Yoga, you stay in a pose for a five minute period. By relaxing into a pose for five minutes, you not only give your body time enough to release its deeper tensions, but are as well wonderfully preparing yourself to sit with a calm mind for meditation. 

 For the second hour, we would chant some gorgeous melody to further separate ourselves from the tensions of our bodies and the restlessness of our minds.  

 In the third hour, we would do some inquiry upon a sacred text, relating it to the living of our lives. The last part of the hour was to sit quietly for meditation.

 Leading these Saturday afternoon bliss sessions was one of the greatest joys of my life. That anyone still remembers them means more to me than words can say. 

 I continue to do my Bliss sessions every day in my own private practice. 

 I am grateful to have discovered the Yoga, God’s gift to me.


Glacier Altus