When my kids were in the diaper years, I found myself reluctantly attending spin classes twice a week.
I began spinning to train for the MS150 (a 150-mile bike ride) as a show of support for my recently-diagnosed sister.
But after a couple classes, I was hooked for purely selfish reasons.
The pounding music, rhythmic pedaling, and heart-pounding effort somehow released my mind and spirit to process the challenges of my day in new ways.
I'd walk in frustrated with my reaction to my two-year old or anxious about a parenting challenge and walk out with peace, clarity, and resolve.
By the end of class, I'd accessed deeper wisdom than I'd gained by simply thinking through the frustrations before class.
In fact, a year later I started a blog about parenting and faith, filled with insights largely gleaned from the saddle of my spin bike.
It's difficult to overstate the power of the physical body—movement, breath, voice—in the spiritual life.
And this powerful tool is available to every preacher.
Preachers tend to consider the physical aspects of preaching only in the context of delivery:
- raising or lowering the voice to emphasize phrases
- using gestures to enhance a point
- breathing in sync with the flow of sentences
But when is the last time you used your body and voice in sermon prep? Or before you climbed into the pulpit?
Have you ever?
Actors use voice and body warm-ups as they prepare for rehearsals and performances.
Preachers, too, can benefit from such exercises as they prepare to write and give sermons.
Fortunately, it doesn't have to be intense aerobic exercise like spin. A few simple breathing and moment exercises can improve your sermon and preaching.
The Rev. Dr. Ruthanna Hooke wrote a letter to the first cohort of Preaching Fellows from Deep Calls to Deep: A Program to Strengthen Episcopal Preaching. In it, she shared the following wisdom.
Misconceptions: The Mind-Body Split
A common misconception is that voice/body exercises are merely application of truths about preaching learned elsewhere.
This misconception is rooted in the mind-body split in which we habitually live.
We tend to think of our bodies as instruments for accomplishing our brain’s demands rather than recognizing the body itself holds wisdom—and is the place where mind and spirit find integration.
In fact, embodiment work is itself generative of theological knowledge as well as spiritual aliveness.
Embodiment work for preachers is about learning how to bring all of yourself to the preaching task.
Or, to put it differently, how to be fully present in preaching.
What does it take to be able to say,
“I am here in this room with all of you,”
and really mean it?
We can engage this challenge at a spiritual or emotional level, but there are also physical and vocal practices that can help us speak these words with the ring of truth.
Embodiment Exercises to Help You Be Fully Present in Preaching:
Some of the exercises we did at the Residency to help free the voice involved:
- awareness of how we stand, so as to find the natural alignment that enables the breath to come and go freely
- becoming aware of the natural rhythm of the breath—and connecting the impulse of relief with the breath—so that feeling is expressed on the breath
- picturing sound coming up from a pool of vibrations deep in the body, so that our voice is connected to our body and our breath
- amplifying the sound by adding vibrations in humming on the lips, in the head, and in the body; so as to feel the voice going out into the room and reaching others
(The exercises mentioned above can be found in Kristin Linklater’s Freeing the Natural Voice. If you want to delve further into this work, that book is an excellent resource.)
The Vulnerability of Engaging the Body
These exercises are about taking the risk of connecting our voices to our bodies and our breath, so that the words spoken fully express the deep truths that God gives us to communicate in preaching.
There is no question that this is vulnerable work.
To be present in body, mind, and spirit—and to speak deep truths—requires the courage to strip away defenses, to break open the self to the human other and the Divine Other.
We can sometimes resist engaging our bodies in preaching because we are afraid of the vulnerability that comes with being truly present.
However, vulnerability and authenticity will help you connect more deeply with both the Truth of your message and your listeners.
How to Concretely Build these Exercises into Your Practice of Preaching:
As you enter sermon preparation:
- Begin your sermon preparation with the body instead of going straight to the written page
- Stretch, stand and feel your feet under you and your spine long.
- Become aware of your breath.
- Sigh out on sound. Sigh a hum onto your lips and wake up the vibrations in your body.
- Then read aloud the text on which you will preach.
You might be surprised at how the text strikes you differently when you let it resonate in your body.
As you write your sermon:
- Write your text on a separate sheet of paper.
- Lie down on the floor with your knees up and feet flat on the floor, and the paper beside you. Become aware of your breath dropping into your belly.
- Pick up the paper and whisper the lines of the text.
- See how the text connects to thoughts, feelings and images down in your breathing source.
As you prepare for delivery:
- Learn the text by heart, and speak it aloud to someone else, perhaps in your peer group.
- Notice what you learn about the text because you have internalized and externalized it in this way.
When you preach:
- Take the time to stretch, breathe, sigh on sound, hum prior to preaching.
Do this physical preparation just as you would prepare for preaching by prayer. Or make this physical work a form of prayer.
It will make a difference!