December 1, 2016

Yoga and My Christian Faith

Yoga and My Christian Faith

Recently I’ve come across a realization. For my whole life, my Christian faith has told me what to do. Over the past six and a half years, yoga has taught me how to do it.

Christianity told me to take every thought captive. Yoga taught me mindfulness.

Christianity told me to be transformed by the renewing of my mind. Yoga taught me how to transform my body and mind by meditation in motion.

Christianity told me do not worry. Yoga taught me how to breathe in a way that calms my fight or flight response.

Christianity told me that my body is a temple. Yoga taught me how to pray with my whole body.

Christianity told me to love my neighbor as myself. Yoga taught me how to know, accept, and love myself so that I can love others well.

Christianity told me to pray without ceasing. Yoga taught me to clear space so that prayers could flow more effortlessly through me.

Yoga

Many years ago I read an article by a well-known and (then) well-respected pastor. The framework he used when discussing different aspects of culture through a Christian lens was “receive, redeem, reject.” Through a lengthy article, he completely rejected yoga, even going so far as to say, “…a faithful Christian can no more say they are practicing yoga for Jesus than they can say they are committing adultery for Jesus.”

I remember reading that and having a hard time. Here was someone who I respected and saw as a spiritual leader and authority, and frankly, whose opinion mattered to me. I couldn’t help but feel conflicted because I had found yoga to be an incredible path to connection with God and I was completely comfortable, spiritually, as a Christian, with my practice.

This pastor wasn’t isolated in his thinking. In fact, A 2011 survey of global, Evangelical Protestant leaders revealed that 92% of the 2,196 surveyed believe that “engaging in yoga as a spiritual practice…[is] not compatible with evangelicalism.”

Yoga became somewhat of a dirty little secret. I could practice, and find amazing connection with God through it, as long as I was cautious about who knew. When asked, I was very careful to tell people that I practiced yoga to empty myself for the sake of filling myself with the Holy Spirit. I tuned out any kind of yogic philosophy that was taught during my classes. Living in California, yoga is much more acceptable in Christian culture, but I’ve had many friends admit to me that they feel this way in more conservative places in the US.

Richard Rohr has a helpful metric for trying to come to spiritual truth. It is a 3-pronged approach combining scripture, tradition, and inner experience. He says, “Scripture as validated by experience, and experience as validated by tradition, are good scales for one’s spiritual worldview.”

I’ve talked before about how I used to believe that I had to deny my inner experience if it clashed with tradition or the opinion of spiritual authorities. As I’ve been able to see beyond the past seventy-some years of American evangelicalism, I’ve been able to embrace the long tradition of my faith and, yes, even the recognition that God’s truth was self-evident on earth long before Jesus came to embody Christ (see John 1, Colossians 1, Romans 1). I have found it helpful to remember that all truth is God’s truth. The history of Christian meditation and contemplative practice stretches all the way back to the beginning of the church.

As I’ve studied some of the yogic philosophy throughout my 200-hour yoga teacher training, I’ve been fascinated to discover some of the resonance between my faith and this philosophy. The Yoga Sutras is one of the classical texts for yogic philosophy. According to Sutra 1.2, “Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively toward an object and sustain that direction without any distractions.” Isn’t that the goal of my Christian faith as well? Hebrews 12:1-2 comes to mind.

Some will cite 1 Corinthians 8 saying that we shouldn’t engage in practices that might cause others to stumble or be confused. I think this is a valid point, and I would invite anyone to ask me personally to share the fruit of the Spirit that has been borne out of my yoga practice beyond the examples listed above. For those concerned about the “pagan roots” of yoga, consider your celebration of Christmas with a tree inside your home or the decoration of eggs at Easter, which are both known to have pagan roots.

I’ve found it extremely helpful and beautiful over the past few months to gain a deeper understanding of the roots of yoga. I learned that the earliest yoga poses were all seated postures to enable practitioners to sit in meditation for longer periods of time. I am so thankful that I have found a spiritual practice that enables me to be in a meditative state that engages mind, body, and soul. It’s okay if everyone is not comfortable with it, but for me, it has greatly enriched my spiritual life and I’m excited to be able to use teaching yoga as a way to help others along on their path.