SPIRITUALWARRIORSPIRITUAL GANGSTER: those were the two words spelled out in white on letters on the black hoodie worn by our yoga teacher as she walked into the room. I did not know that this was the name of a new line of yoga wear, so I mused on those two words, “spiritual gangster,” as I stretched out before the 90-minute class began. The phrase pulled up memories as I settled into a long deep breath.

During the AIDS crisis in the 80’s, I studied Soaring Crane Qigong, a healing martial art that uses movements like the crane kick made famous in the movie the Karate Kid. Its movements, breathing, and mental focus are based on Chinese Medicine.

“If you really want to know how these exercises work, you will need to learn Chinese Medicine,” our teacher told us when we wondered why we felt ourselves being healed. For example, my allergies that I suffered from since childhood disappeared after several months of practice. Another classmate was able to quit smoking; she had coughing fits while practicing that brought up from her lungs what looked like black tar.

We giggled nervously during the lecture when our teacher told us that each organ in the body was directly affected by a specific emotion. The liver, for example, will falter in its function from suppressed emotions, or a constant flying off the handle.

We chuckled smugly when he gave lectures on morality. Each organ, he told us, housed a unique essence that helped to engender a specific virtue: wisdom, patience, courage, justice and kindness. Staying healthy was not just about eating right and getting exercise: it included being a good person by, as he put it, aligning ones intentions and action with the Tao or the natural order of things.

“What does all that have to do with being healthy?” someone asked as we swigged our beers at the bar after class one night. We had no clue what he was talking about.

Since then, I have learned that health, from a Chinese medical perspective, has everything to do with being able to house our spirits comfortably in our bodies. Health means that our emotions, lifestyle and choices are aligned with our true purpose in life.

Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Jesus, Gandi, the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh are ‘spiritual gangsters’, or as I would put it, ‘spiritual warriors’: people who break rules to do what is right. They are counter-cultural and do not care what people think of them. They care about justice and act on it. They embody those five virtues mentioned above with courage and wisdom leading the way.

As our yoga class began, the teacher asked us to sit quietly for a moment and bring an intention to mind. Mine was to do my best to be a spiritual warrior.

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