We all possess the capacity to search our souls whether in the woods, at our desk or in a sacred place. At Elizabethtown, while some find their peace in the College’s Memorial Garden or by sitting cross-legged in the grass of The Dell, there also are guided disciplines to offer a body and mind connection to the soul.
An ancient form of maze, first created more than 4,000 years ago and repeated in a variety of venues, also can be a place of introspection. The labyrinth, a single pathway wending through a complex pattern, draws the participant inward to the middle of the design and toward his or her personal center.
Historically, labyrinths helped train horsemen or entertained children. Today, they are passageways to reflection. Unlike a maze, there are no dead ends or wrong ways, just a simple trodden route that assists in leaving the external world behind, to concentrate solely on self.
Labyrinths are carved into rock, nestled in hedgerows, lined by luminaries, etched onto floors or, in the case of the College pathway, painted onto canvas that is spread across a large, flat surface. Purchased in 2009, it is most often unfurled in Leffler Chapel and Performance Center’s M&M Mars room, one of two indoor spaces large enough to accommodate the 45-square-foot pattern that duplicates a 13th-century configuration from the Chartres Cathedral in France.
Several years ago, when consulting Dr. Corrine Ware’s spiritual style inventory, Elizabethtown College’s chaplain, the Rev. Tracy Sadd, found that E-town had “activities for spiritual types one, two and four, but hardly any activities for spiritual type three,” she said. Threes find spirituality sitting in silence or walking in nature. Though it is especially meaningful to them, Sadd said, the labyrinth can provide a spiritual experience for anyone.
Labyrinths are a way to explore faith, philosophy or spirituality, explained the Rev. Amy Shorner-Johnson, the College’s assistant chaplain. She compares the experience to a poor person’s pilgrimage. “It is a journey you can take internally,” she said.
Shorner-Johnson, who walked her first labyrinth at the Krak des Chevaliers in Syria, said the patterns purposefully take participants inward but, when close to the center, the path purposefully draws them back out. “We sometimes have a tendency to want to go right for the goal,” she said. The labyrinth slows that pace.
Cassie Matyas, a 2012 Elizabethtown graduate with a degree in health and human occupation and a 2013 master’s degree in occupational therapy, walked the Elizabethtown College labyrinth because it was an active way to clear her mind and center herself, she said. “I’ll admit I was skeptical at first but, once I did it, I’ve never felt more relaxed,” she added. “It felt like I was hitting the reset button. If I had a hard day or week, I would walk the labyrinth and feel refreshed.”
As soft music plays, participants remove their shoes and slowly walk the pattern, sometimes carrying a stone, giving it meaning and letting it go when they leave. Some take a journal or sit on cushions and listen to their own breathing and ambient sounds, Shorner-Johnson said.
“How often do you find silence in life, a silence of peace and say to yourself ‘I am going to stop, stop the madness. I am important, and I am going to participate in something that is just for me’?”
Michelle Beebe began practicing yoga when she was in seventh grade “because I was flexible and I wanted to stay flexible,” said the senior occupational therapy major. But she continued practicing at Elizabethtown College because, as her studies took precedence, yoga was time that was just for her and, at the end of the hour, she said, her entire being felt better, more alive, more connected.
“I wanted to give that feeling to other people,” explained Beebe, about why she now teaches yoga through the College’s Body Meets Soul program.
Body Meets Soul was introduced three years ago by Dr. Charla Lorenzen, associate professor of Spanish, after being asked by the Christian Varsity Fellowship to lead yoga as a preparation for prayer. “What we call yoga—the physical poses—was traditionally the precursor to meditation,” Lorenzen explained.
She and Beebe both taught the classes until this past spring, when the OT student took the reins.
Body Meets Soul, held Monday and Wednesday evenings, focuses on relaxation. Sessions begin with breathing—in, out, gentle, mindful breaths. “By controlling breathing, it helps slow the body,” Beebe said, noting that when she senses all class participants have moved into the yoga space not only physically but psychologically, as well, she begins. “One breath to one movement,” she explained. From there the group holds each yoga pose for two to three breaths and then five to seven.
“We work the body to the point that you are so tired that, when you get to the meditation at the end, you can concentrate just on relaxing your mind,” she said. At the end of class, Beebe moves everyone into a corpse pose—a completely neutral position—guiding them through a meditation of four to 10 minutes. “I ask them to picture planting a seed and watching it grow…,” she said.
The student instructor hopes, at this point, class members have found their center, have let go of negative feelings and have reframed their thoughts on what happened so far that day.
Taylor Wilson, a senior occupational therapy major, has been a regular Body Meets Soul participant since last spring. “Not only do I leave each yoga class feeling like I received a strong workout, but I also feel … ready to take on the whole week in front of me,” she said. “Michelle (Beebe) has a way about teaching yoga that can reach all levels from extreme beginners to committed enthusiasts.”
Teaching yoga inspired Beebe to apply for a two-credit independent study. With approval from her academic department, she researches the benefits of yoga in physical therapy.
She has found that, in addition to the advantage of higher energy, better sleep and healthier digestion, yoga helps connect the body and the mind to the soul, she said. Participants experience the physical intensity of the poses and the mindfulness of breathing, which brings them to a place to quietly enter in exploration of spirit.
“In the future I actually plan on writing a book or a continuing education course on yoga and how and why OTs can use it as a modality in their practice. So, for my two passions to come together I need to do my own research and be able to support what I am doing in clinic when I get into the ‘real world’,” Beebe said of the independent study. “It’s been a true learning experience …”
In the Vedanta Hindu tradition, in which true yoga was begun, the discipline encompasses far more than the movement and breathing to which we now are accustomed. Vedanta is the aim or the end of wisdom, reached by four paths: yoga of action, in which the participant gives selflessly of himself; yoga of devotion, which seeks divinity as the embodiment of love; yoga of knowledge and wisdom, which is a journey of philosophy; and the yoga of physical and mental control.
Through this systematic process, anyone can meditate, said Dr. Jeffery Long, professor of religion and Asian studies at Elizabethtown College and advisor of the College’s Meditation Club. “Meditation is universal,” he said. People can benefit from it on any spiritual path. “We all have this calm center if we turn our attention inward,” Long said.
He likens the mind to a body of water. “The waves on top are our attention to outside distractions,” he noted. “If we can make the waves still and the surface like glass, we can see what is going on below.” Meditation, he said, takes us below the surface to those deeper levels.
We spend most of our time, he said, looking and responding outward. Meditation looks inward, toward our soul.
Long, who has been with Elizabethtown College since 2000, wanted to offer an opportunity for students to meditate but had been trained to keep it separate from the classroom. “Meditation should be experienced freely and spontaneously,” he explained. “It’s personal, and not everyone is comfortable doing it. If I required it in class it would be like making them pray.”
With that in mind, he offered a day or two of meditation each semester outside of class. Eventually, he said, students petitioned to start a group and asked him to be advisor. Meditation Club now meets every Monday afternoon in the Bucher Meetinghouse of the College’s Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies.
Students, faculty and staff members and community participants file into the room, removing their shoes at the door. They sit in repose, straight-backed on padded wooden pews, with their feet flat on the floor. “A good posture,” noted Long, “is important for a good flow of air.”
He guides participants—usually about 20 or so—to focus on their breathing, asking them to clear their minds. He explained that those who meditate with consistency—“15 minutes a day at the same time each day, over weeks, months, years”—are relaxed and can better concentrate and control their moods.
Dorothy Lower, a College neighbor attended Meditation Club after reading about it in a newspaper article. On her mind is her daughter, who has been hospitalized and in rehabilitation with some serious health issues. The meditation gives Lower “a sense of calm and peace and the ability to relax more easily,” she said. “I also have learned a new technique to breath deeper and allow the breathing exercise to carry my mind to a calmer more peaceful place. I try to do this more than once a day.”
“Through meditation you get to the ground of your existence,” Long said. “There is an infinite wellspring of joy. It’s already within us; we don’t have to go look for it somewhere else.”
With family committments, classes, work, volunteer responsibilities, hobbies and home, there are few moments each week for introspection. Taking even a few moments to rejoin the body, the mind and the soul reminds us of the importance of their interconnectedness. As wisely said by Mahatma Gandhi, “Physical relationship divorced from spiritual is body without soul.”
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