Sermons from the Mat
Mix Nadia Bolz-Weber with Anne Lamott, put them both in yoga pants and give them five children. That’s Samantha Wilde in Sermons From The Mat.
A dead dog in the freezer. The first woman to swim the English channel. A cat barfing on a yoga mat. Rumi poetry. Which of these is not like the other? None says Sam. Each bite-size chapter takes you to a different place: Kripalu Center, a dark and smoky bar, the top of a mountain, a health club on Nantucket, the 80s, the world of Jane Fonda, a time before sticky mats existed, the Swan River on Cape Cod, and places where people like Jesus.
A bitingly funny, enthusiastic critique of the modern yoga movement and the failings of religion, these searingly honest, passionately humorous, devotedly down-to-earth, and infinitely practical little sermons use truth-telling in a way that is relatable and inspirational making not a how-to book but a how-not-to book. Sam doesn’t want to make you happy or Aryuvedic or thin or evolved. She wants you to stumble with her towards the brokenness inside the spiritual movement so we can put the human back into the yoga-on-the-beach-in-organic-cotton-skinny-leggings humanity.
Teaching thousands of classes and preaching hundreds of sermons and visiting dozens of old church ladies inspired these radically different slices of yogic inspiration. The book is kind of like a pressed down version of myself, with tales spanning more than twenty years of classes with famous teachers (and not so famous teachers), visits to irritated congregants (and some not so irritated), attempts at core strength (and successes, too), and a life transformed by the power of devotion to a practice.
In this “sermons,” I wanted to fill a gap in the yoga and spiritual literature. I wrote what I most want to read: a truth-telling expedition. So often yoga and religion become worlds of either/or as we search for the “real” yoga or the “real religion.” But, as we learned as children through the wonderful story of the Velveteen Rabbit, being real is not what we think it is. I wrote so that everything I shared was as real as I could make it—like photos back before photoshop. Remember THAT?
My Yoga Exercise Plan
I was a child yoga prodigy. Minus the ability do lots of advanced poses. And much understanding of the philosophy. But in my defense, I did not begin my relationship with yoga in order to attain any of these skills. I did not take up the practice to find spiritual adventure, to better myself, to become more flexible, to wear leggings every day, or to initiate peace on earth.
I just wanted a nice body.
Superficiality, sometimes, looks surprisingly like the gateway to enlightenment. And I walked through that door in hot pursuit of thin thighs.
I was nine. It was the 80s. Thin thighs had value far above jewels. They were the nirvana for which you reached. To have them elevated you to a separate status of human. Life completed itself in the thinness of your thighs. As far as I could make out, they mattered pretty much more than anything else. If you attained them, you had succeeded as a person. If you didn’t. Well, if you didn’t then you spent the rest of your life trying.
At the time I found yoga, whittling the circumference of my thighs constituted one of the greatest pursuits of my life. If meditation is single-minded concentration, I was a wunderkind; I could focus on the size of my legs for hours. This was not an eccentric kind of fixation. This was the age of Susan Sommers’ thigh master. And not just that. I can still hear Jane Fonda’s voice urging me on from my little black tape player: “squeeze it, release, squeeze it, release.” She was referring to my buttocks. All this to the song, “Like a Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
Jane Fonda did not teach me yoga; she was more the gateway drug. Her book Thin Thighs in Thirty Days, my bible for the molding of my lower extremities, hooked me on a dedicated exercise routine. I repeated her 30-day routine every month for several years. She also led me to Richard Hittleman. Tell me, if you were already exercising with Jane, could anything stop you from adding Richard Hittleman’s 28-Day Yoga Exercise Plan to your repertoire? How this book came into my possession, I could not put into words, but one might spell it m-i-r-a-c-l-e. At the time, without the benefit of such transcendent hindsight, I guessed that one of my parents, in a freak accident, had picked up the book at a used book store. The thought of either of my parents engaging in the poses the book outlines gives me a pain in my side from laughing so hard. And that’s not an unkindness. It makes them laugh too. They certainly didn’t miss it when I took it into my possession. And for me, as a nine year old, two words glowed on the page like the secret password to the Holy Grail: Exercise Plan.
I opened the book and found the “Chest Expansion” (the posture I now call yoga-mudra, which stretches and opens the chest and shoulders). Here, as Hittleman explains it, the explicit goal of the pose: “to develop and firm your chest and bust.” That’s all it took for a budding woman like myself to become a devotee. Between Hittleman and Fonda, I needed only a month in which to acquire every woman’s dream: more breast and less thigh.
I applied myself to the program with true gusto. It became a part of me—the movements, the breath, the full-body leotard. Who knows the variety of yogic wisdom this book brought to my young-sponge-like mind? It promised “perfect health, lasting beauty, and enduring peace of mind.” Do I have all three? What I have, thirty-five years later, is a yoga practice.
I was a lonely girl in her parents’ basement in the me-decade with its skinny-is-holy focus and I was desperate for the impossibly perfect bode,. This may seem as far removed from our modern yoga culture as a person can imagine. A lot has changed in thirty years. Yoga isn’t the opiate for a bunch of body-obsessed females. It doesn’t cater to those who wish for weight-loss. It isn’t competitive. It doesn’t belong to a certain group of people who look a certain way. Why, it’s full of all different body types, men of color, and folks-of-the-wide-thigh.
Or, as we said in the 80s: not.