Breathing Under the Christmas Tree with Mary Elyn Bahlert 

Reduce holiday stress the multi-faith, meditative way.

The table looks festive, but Uncle Joe has polished off a bottle of Merlot, Aunt Jen is mocking Mom's weight, and Dad just called your fiancé "Fatty." Cue the holiday soundtrack. Cue the stress.

Mary Elyn Bahlert knows how to tone it down. At Lake Merritt United Methodist Church (1255 First Ave., Oakland) where she's the pastor, Bahlert hosts an open-to-the-public workshop on Saturday, December 4. Titled "Slow Down: Welcome the Holidays With a Gentle Spirit," the workshop features strategies for doing exactly that, no matter which holidays you celebrate.

"People get upset about expectations at this time of year," Bahlert said. "Everything on their to-do lists weighs them down. And the holidays will be even harder than usual this year because of the dire financial situation so many people are in."

During the workshop, each participant will be invited to "tell as much as they feel comfortable telling about their situation, then deciding what their personal intention is for the holidays." By "intention," Bahlert means a goal or ideal, such as "calmness" or "making healthy choices" or "being kind to myself."

Stating such goals in the peace and quiet of a church classroom is all well and good, but following through on them is the hard part. The workshop will feature meditative and physical techniques for grounding and centering, drawn from spiritual practices around the world.

"To me, spirituality is not separate from the body," said Bahlert, a spiritual coach whose own path has been influenced by Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christian mysticism. "Even simple breathwork can help you come back to yourself: I did that just this morning in the dentist's chair.

"When you're grounded in your body, you can make choices from there — but unfortunately, we live in a culture where we've learned to separate from our bodies. You can see this on the street in the way people walk, but there's a wisdom in our bodies. We just need to learn to find it."

The workshop is not intended specifically for Christians or any other group. Bahlert's background has given her "an appreciation of the universality of spiritual practice and understanding, as well as my soul's call to teach," although "my own transformation began when I began to walk with Jesus."

Part of that transformation involves social action. A Berkeley Theological Union alumna, Bahlert is proud of her church's diverse congregation and activities such as an annual free Thanksgiving dinner, served to hundreds of needy people. "I'm a follower of Jesus, and social action and spirituality have always gone together for me. There is a tradition for this, and it's sad that most Americans don't know that there are people out here who call themselves Christians who want to do good work on behalf of the world and are progressive.

"I came out of the Sixties culture and feminism," she said. "That's what I was thinking about when I decided to become ordained. For me, it really was about changing the world." 9 a.m., $50. LakeMerrittUMC.org

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