13 Jul 2017

Christianity & Yoga: Spirituality Series, Part 2

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I’m really into vulnerability these days, so I’m just going to be completely transparent:

Tackling this topic intimidates the hell out of me. (Pun intended?)

As I sat down to write this piece, I Googled“yoga and Christianity,” which only pulls up about 90 bajillion hits. There are articles by Christian writers warning about the evils of yoga. There are articles by yoga writers warning about the evils of Christian dogma. There are articles by Christians describing how yoga can deepen your relationship with God. There are articles by yoga writers lamenting the yoga community’s failure to reach out to Christian communities. There are certification programs for teachers in practices like Holy Yoga and Praise Poses. There are pictures of religious-based protesters outside of yoga events. And there are schedules of yoga class offerings at churches all over the world.

And then there’s one overwhelmed redhead on a couch in Birmingham, AL wondering what on earth she’s supposed to say about all this in one thousand words or less.

As a yoga teacher in the Southeast for the last ten years, I feel like I’ve had a front row seat for the yoga vs. Christianity debate in the United States. Christianity is certainly the norm where I’m from, with “Where do you go to church?” a common small talk question, the implied assumption being that one has an answer to that question. At the same time, yoga has experienced an extraordinary boom in this region in recent years, the kind seen on the coasts 15 to 20 years ago. When I first started teaching ten years ago, six people together doing yoga was considered a “big” class. Now, it’s not uncommon to have classes of 20 to 40 people, and sometimes more.

So clearly, yoga can thrive in an area with deeply-rooted Christian culture. And yet, I continue to hear stories about pamphlets in churches proclaiming the evils of yoga. I hear about pastors mentioning yoga in their sermons as a gateway to demonic possession. And about once a year, someone will say to me, “I can’t do yoga because of my relationship with the Lord.”

And yogis are not exempt from a role in the schism between the yoga community and the church. I occasionally hear my fellow yogis make disparaging comments about Christian dogma, sometimes with an eye roll. Some factions of the yoga community tense up or even become outright hostile if Christianity is mentioned. In the places where tension exists between yoga and the church, it clearly exists on both sides.

I genuinely understand the tension between Christianity and yoga. Many versions of Christian dogma teach one true path to salvation and Heaven, through Jesus Christ. Yoga offers a different path to liberation, and yoga as it’s taught in the West draws from many different New Age traditions, which don’t always jive with religious teachings. And many yogic traditions balk at the idea of religious dogma. Moreover, yoga tends to attract a personality type that doesn’t love authority, which is challenging when the church takes on the role of spiritual authority figure.

But, for me yoga and Christianity don’t have to conflict with one another. As I wrote about last week, I spent over a decade and a half avoiding the church and finding my spiritual practice on the yoga mat. In recent months, as I’ve circled back to religious worship, I’m shocked by how the messages at my church don’t conflict with and often fall directly in line with my yogic spiritual principles.

The teachings of Jesus Christ spoke first and foremost about compassion. “Love thy neighbor” is one of the first Gospel teachings small children learn. Jesus taught us to be in service of others and to greet everyone we meet with the same love and grace God shows us. Compassion is one of the greatest gifts of the yoga practice, as well. Classical yogic texts offer systems to experience oneness with all living beings. In the same way Jesus talked about serving others as a path to Heaven, some yogic paths emphasize service as a way to achieve liberation and enlightenment.

Most of all, I hope folks on both sides are able to recognize that, fundamentally, there is no conflict in the teachings of Christianity and yoga. There are some significant differences, to be sure, but neither is a threat to the other, and for some, they might even inform and deepen the profundity of our blessed human experience. If one’s relationship with their Creator is strong, it can exist and thrive in so many contexts.

In my ten years of teaching, I’ve come to believe that yoga as it’s taught in the West can serve merely as a container for whatever spiritual practice one has. I personally find my asana practice a beautiful place to give thanks to God for the body He has given me and the opportunity to become stronger and healthier. The mindfulness of my meditation practice allows me to feel joy for all the beauty God has created in the world. And taking a deep breath–filling my lungs with the life force energy God gives me–will forever be a holy act.

As someone who’s only just drifted back to the church after a long absence, I can’t speak to the reservations some Christians might have about yoga. I am an expert only in using yoga as a foothold on my singular, stumbling spiritual path. All I can do is stand on my mat and call out to my Christian brothers and sisters in hopes that they will join me in this one practice where I have communed with the Divine over and over in my life and share with them that God as you know him can be here, too.

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One Response to “Christianity & Yoga: Spirituality Series, Part 2”

  1. Kristina says:

    Thanks for this post! As a Christian on a more holistic health journey, it was comforting to read a compassionate piece exploring both sides. We may not all agree on what’s right but wise to take the time to understand each other’s views and not be so quick to demonize one another.