Our bodies, minds, and spirituality are deeply interconnected, but Christians often miss out on this understanding of ourselves. We hear verses such as: “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). Usually, when we hear these verses interpreted, there tends to be a focus on the evils of the “flesh” (such as lust, sexual immorality, anger, gluttony, etc.).

The verse from Matthew is a quote from Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. When he said this to his apostles, he was reprimanding them for falling asleep while he cried out to God in anguish at the prospect of the cross (physical pain and spiritual separation from God). While the disciples didn’t know the cross was coming, as Jesus’s friends, they were letting him down by not being present in his grief.  

Yet for me, this particular verse is associated with sermons I heard in my teens telling me not to trust my feelings: the desires of my body were always bad and sinful. Many of these sermons were well-intentioned and designed to help teens think before they act. As teenagers don’t have fully developed logical reasoning, they can be prone to thinking only with their feelings. While this can still be a problem for adults, part of the maturing process is to learn how our feelings can inform logical reasoning. But this is a distinction I didn’t understand until my adulthood. Instead, I learned my emotions were never to be trusted and that my body would betray me at every opportunity. 

After I got married, I learned my body had, at some point, developed a pelvic floor condition. Issues with my pelvic muscles significantly impacted certain areas of my life and caused pain. I felt like my body had indeed betrayed me. I started seeing a pelvic floor physical therapist for treatment in addition to a mental health counselor. One of the first things I learned from both therapies is how the body carries stress. When we experience stress, especially negative stress, it’s not just a temporary feeling. Stress stays in the body unless it’s managed in a healthy way. Over the years, my body’s stress response had been manifesting in the continuous over-tightening of my pelvic muscles.

I wondered how this could be possible; I began ballet lessons when I was 10 years old and have always been dancing in some capacity since then, through high school recitals, college classes and clubs, and now adult classes. With all my years of dance, I thought I had a very intimate connection to my body. Yet, I learned through physical therapy and counseling that I had very little sense of my emotions or how my body felt under stress. I realized I’d been putting my body on silent like a phone notification and not tuning in to my physical or emotional needs. What felt like a betrayal was really an indication my mind and body weren’t talking to each other. I didn’t have a healthy sense of presence in my own body. 

I think many Christians may also have silenced their notifications when it comes to the connection between our physical body, our mind, and our spirituality. Many Western Christians in particular tend to think of Christianity as a cerebral exercise. We pray silently in our minds, we sit and stand at the right times in church if we’re able, and maybe, if we’re really into it, we might raise our hands during worship. Time with God often focuses on reading the Bible and praying silently— typically while sitting quietly and alone for twenty or so minutes in the morning. For most of my life, this is how I’ve spent time with God as well.

A few months after I started pelvic floor physical therapy and mental health counseling, my dad gifted me with a Rosary. I grew up Protestant, but my dad was confirmed into the Catholic church several years ago and now attends Mass in addition to Protestant services with my mom. It’s been incredible to see how connection to Catholicism has bolstered his faith. He brought me a set of Rosary beads because he thought physically using beads in prayer would help me feel more peace. He taught me some prayers, and I started taking morning walks before work and praying through the set of beads. 

Many different Christian denominations use beads or some other kind of physical reminder to help them pray. The intention of utilizing something tactile, like beads or stones, during prayer is to help us memorize different scriptures or prayers and have a tool to draw our mind back to God when it might otherwise wander. Plus, having something to touch and carry can act as a physical reminder of God’s presence with us throughout the day— something that helps many with fear and anxiety.

At first, I felt some discomfort that my time with God didn’t always include study of the Bible. But on my walks, as I’ve repeated the Lord’s Prayer, the Doxology, and other prayers for friends and family while sliding my fingers along the beads, I’ve experienced the Holy Spirit directly speaking into my life. And I’ve experienced a great deal of peace, leading me to explore other ways in which our faith might be physically embodied.

Scripture is full of examples of how our embodied lives are part of expressing faith. The story of Naaman in the Old Testament is one example. In 2 Kings 5, Naaman is the commander of a rival kingdom’s army and learns from one of his wife’s servant girls that there is a prophet in Israel who could connect him with the God who could cure him of his leprosy, a skin condition. This prophet is Elisha; when Naaman comes to Israel to be cured, Elisha declines to meet with him in person but sends a messenger to tell Naaman to wash in the Jordan River seven times to be healed. Naaman isn’t pleased about this— he expected Elisha to meet him personally and do something like wave his hand over him to heal him. But Naaman is eventually convinced to do what Elisha told him to and is healed, giving the glory to God. 

Why did Elisha tell him to go and wash himself in the Jordan instead of healing him on the spot? There are various factors at play in the story, but one of them is that God wanted to humble Naaman. The act of physically washing himself, seven times no less, in the Jordan (not the nicest of the local rivers) indicates a physical surrender that God wanted Naaman to show before receiving healing. 

The actions we take in our physical bodies mirror our thoughts and spiritual inner lives. The traditions many of us practice from the New Testament, such as baptism, communion, the laying on of hands, and washing each other’s feet are all physical embodiments of the truths of our faith. Actions we take in our physical bodies mirror the posture of our hearts. 

In dance, if the teacher wants a student to stretch higher or move differently, they don’t usually just say what they want. Instead, the teacher will tell you to stretch your limbs up like a tree, to root down through the ball of your foot, to fill your lungs with breath, to lift up through the crown of your head. When the mind receives these metaphors, subtle changes in the body take place. The standing leg in a balancing posture becomes firmer, the chin lifts, the arm stretches higher. 

Similarly, in our spiritual lives, when we take a posture of bowing our head in prayer, or coming to our knees, or walking outside in open worship, our mental image of God and our physical understanding of God are brought into closer union. 

Breathing is another great way to practice embodiment. We can invite a sense of the physical into our spiritual practices through breathwork. Recently, I’ve been pairing breath with prayer through Psalm 23. I invite you to give this a try:

(deep breath in) The Lord is my shepherd


(long exhale) I shall not want


(deep breath in) He makes me lie down in green pastures


(long exhale) He leads me beside still waters


(deep breath in) He restores my soul


(long exhale) He leads me on paths of righteousness


(deep breath in) For his name’s sake


(long exhale) Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death


(deep breath in) I will fear no evil


(long exhale) You are with me


(deep breath in) Your rod and your staff comfort me


(long exhale) You prepare a table before in the presence of my enemies


(deep breath in) You anoint my head with oil


(long exhale) My cup overflows


(deep breath in) Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life


(long exhale) And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever


May you find a comfortable sense of presence in the body God gave you. May you listen to the insights your body and emotions tell you. May you be attuned to the wisdom of the Holy Spirit.