I’m reviewing a book this month that is a Yoga book without knowing it’s a Yoga book: Tattoos on the Heart, by Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest and the founder and director of Homeboy Industries, a gang-intervention program in Los Angeles. Boyle–a new hero of mine–distills his work with those transitioning out of gang life down to a magnificent series of vignettes united by themes of compassion, kinship and faith. Boyle is a master at painting powerful depictions of rich, sacred moments–the ones occurring all around him in what would seem like the most unlikely of settings. Some of his stories entered my heart through the doorway of sheer devastation; some through a quiet but powerful humility. Others are able to lift our hearts into flight, reminding us in just a moment or two of our expansive capacity to open, to love, to give and to forgive. All of them remind us of that which is human at the core: that which unites rather than divides us.
No question gets asked of me more than, “What’s it like to have enemies working together?” The answer: it is almost always tense at first. A homie will beg for a job, and perhaps I have an opening at the Bakery. “But you’re gonna have to work with X,Y, and Z,” naming enemies already working there. He thinks a bit and invariably will say “I’ll work with him, but I’m not gonna talk to him.” In the early days, this would unsettle me. Until I discovered that it always becomes impossible to demonize someone you know.
A common translation of Yoga is Union. This is the “Big Yoga.” Our poses or shapes are just a container for this bigger practice, a vessel in which we may hope to collect–sometimes in tiny drips and other times in a vast pouring–the boundless compassion and connections that are available to us all. Connections to teachers and fellow students, connections to ourselves, and connections to Source. The Big Yoga even encourages us to connect to strangers and enemies.
Close both eyes; see with the other one. Then, we are no longer saddled by the burden of our persistent judgements, our ceaseless withholding, our constant exclusion. Our sphere has widened, and we find ourselves, quite unexpectedly, in a new, expansive location, in a place of endless acceptance and infinite love. We’ve wandered into God’s own “jurisdiction.”
As an orator, priest, and researcher, Boyle shares his many gifts with us, condensing his wisdom into jewels that are equally informative, interesting, and inspiring:
Apparently, FDR had a sign on his desk that read: “Let unconquerable gladness dwell.” Our search to know what is on God’s mind ends in the discovery of this same unconquerable gladness. Dorothy Day loved to quote Ruskin, who urged us all to the “Duty to Delight.” It was an admonition, really, to be watchful for the hilarious and the heartwarming, the silly and the sublime. This way will not pass again, and so there is a duty to be mindful of that which delights and keeps joy at the center, distilled from all that happens to us in a day.
At the same time, as he introduces us to many different characters throughout his book, a diverse and colorful tapestry unfolds before us: a depiction of our human struggles and of the inevitability of how much more important are our connections rather than our differences. For example, we meet Spider, an eighteen year old who, after essentially raising himself and spending years in the darkness of gang life, has rebuilt his life and works as a hospital orderly and father. During one encounter, he updates Boyle on how he’s doing:
We speak of many things as we go, and I question him about his bills and rent and how he’s faring. I’ve helped him get jump-started in this regard a few times already. “I’m okay,” he says, then steers himself in a whole other direction. “You know what I’m going to do when I get home right now? I’m gonna sit down to eat with my lady and my two morritos. But, well…I don’t eat. I just watch them eat. My lady she gets crazy with me, but I don’t care. I just watch ’em eat. They eat and eat. And I just look at them and thank God they’re in my life. When they’re done eating and I know they’re full, THEN I eat. And the truth…sometimes there’s food left and sometimes there isn’t. Tu sabes,” he says to me, putting his hand on my shoulder as I drive, “it’s a Father thing.” The duty to delight is to stare at your family as they eat, anchored in the surest kind of gratitude–the sort that erases sacrifice and hardship and absorbs everything else.
All of it is relevant to Yoga in it’s steering us back again and again towards themes of gratitude, kinship, hard work, patience, faith, and compassion. Boyle’s message and the message of Yoga is that we are already perfect, whole, and untainted at our deepest core. This moment, the breath, and shedding the conditioning of our culture can help us to simply remember who we already are.
In the utter simplicity of breathing, we find how naturally inclined we are to delight and to stay dedicated to gladness. We bask in God’s unalloyed joy, and we let loose with that same joy in whoever is in front of us.
I could pull poetic or funny or touching or tear-jerking quotes from the book all day, but will leave the rest of them for you to find, better nestled in their deeper contexts. Without being sappy or overly drenched in religion, the book beautifully weaves together the historical with the intimate personal stories of those he serves. Almost instantly, this book felt like a true friend of mine, and as I continued to read it, my bond with it deepened and widened. At the risk of cliche, I can tell you that with this book in my hands, I laughed out loud, cried, smiled, and re-read passages again and again.
Boyle allows us to join him on his journeys into places most of us will never have the opportunity or courage to go, and encourages us to find our own versions of this connection to the Divine. Whether Jesuit, agnostic, Buddhist, or anything else, you can so very easily reap the beautiful bounties inside of this book. Whether you practice yoga for its physical or mental or emotional or spiritual benefits, or whether you practice yoga at all, this book will touch you.
Special thanks to my teacher Molly for recommending it, and to my friend Rufus for gifting it to me!