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Yoga as Christian Spiritual Formation? by Phileena Heuertz

I was on my way out the door to attend one of my favorite yoga classes when I was handed the final manuscript for my first book. As I breezed through the finished pages, I felt a surge of emotion. I hurriedly embraced the feeling of accomplishment and made my way to class.

The 90-minute practice of the evening focused on back bends—a series of asanas or postures that I wasn’t very familiar with at the time. At the end of the session when we transitioned into savasana—a final resting pose, I was surprised to find tears quietly streaming out of my eyes, into my ears and falling softly on the mat. After we came to a seated position to acknowledge the effort of one another and bring closure to class, my instructor, Jed, kindly asked, “Are you okay?” That evening it was only Jed, his wife Sarah and me in class, so it felt intimate and safe.

“Is it common to experience these kinds of emotions during yoga?,” I asked. He explained that it is common, especially after a session of back bends.

What I learned in those moments was the beauty of embodiment and how the varied layers of our body, mind and soul come together. As I practiced the postures of back bends, I was opening my heart center—the place of love, compassion and vulnerability. And the exposure of the bodily heart center has the potential to open up some of the most vulnerable expressions of who we are. The average person trends toward hiding and protecting his or her most vulnerable space—symbolized in the front body and heart center. But in class that night, I was opening that body space and, simultaneously, my deepest sense of self, bringing the body into harmony with my mind and soul—one of the gifts of yoga.

As the years have progressed, yoga has become an essential part of my life and spirituality. But this hasn’t come easily since I was raised in a dogmatic Christian tradition that approached anything not explicitly “Christian” as wrong. Some of the dominant Christian voices of our time have gone so far even as to say that yoga is demonic.

There is certainly controversy over whether or not it is in a Christian’s best interest to practice yoga. People who contribute to the conversation either speak from their positive or negative experience with yoga or from their firmly held doctrinal beliefs.

So how is a Christian to determine if yoga is okay to practice? Is yoga in fact “UnChristian?”

What Does it Mean to be “Christian?”

To approach the subject, let’s start with asking the question, “What does it mean to be ‘Christian’?”

Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is perhaps the greatest historical event of human history. This first century Nazarene Jew changed the world by condemning the religiosity of his day and calling people to a broader understanding of what it means to be children of God. He established a new order called “The Kindgom of God” that was starkly contrasted to the political kingdom of the time. Jesus’ “Kingdom” was about self-giving love, total forgiveness, unconditional acceptance and unity of people. His teaching was about transformation of people from the inside out. Jesus was a Jewish teacher and his message was about transforming the human person, not about starting a new religion. After his death and resurrection, what started out as a radical revolution of what it means to be divinely human eventually evolved into a so-called “orthodox” or “right” set of beliefs and doctrines that must be upheld to belong to the organized religion called Christianity.

The dualistic mind is most comfortable with orthodoxy or a set of rules and expectations to adhere to. This double mind wants to know clearly what is “right” and what is “wrong;” who is “in” and who is “out.” The dualistic mind is exposed in Christian Scriptures through the example of the Jewish people’s religious approach to God. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day wanted to be given the rules so they’d know what is right and wrong. They were experts at this, trying to strictly “keep the law” and make sure others did as well. Then here comes Jesus, and he starts breaking the law—such as the law to not heal on the Sabbath and the law to stone a woman found committing adultery. So what was Jesus doing? He knew the “rules” of his religion, yet he challenged and often broke them.

Surprisingly, Jesus said that he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill the law—here Jesus starts to reveal a non-dual mind—the mind that can hold contradictions in tension and live within paradox. He remarkably revered the law and transcended it—something that was not easy for first-century Palestinians to grasp, as well as modern and post-modern people like us.

So then what does it mean to be Christian? Does being a Christian mean we keep the “rules of the church?” Kind of problematic when different churches have different interpretations of what the rules are and how one keeps them.

Does being a Christian mean practicing only what has been accepted as explicitly “Christian” throughout the past two millennia? Also problematic when some of what was considered “non-Christian” then would be found to be acceptable Christianity today—such as women having to cover their head in church and not being allowed to speak in church.

At the time of the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, there was grave punishment for not appearing Christian enough. So how are we to know what is “explicitly Christian?” If I practice yoga, am I subject to the same scrutiny, judgment and punishment that innocent, faithful, God-fearing people of the past were?

I’d like to suggest that being a Christian means being in relationship with the person of Jesus, the Son of God, the Christ. Relationships are dynamic; not one looks the same as another. My mother’s relationship with my brother is different from her relationship with me in the same way that your relationship with God is different from my relationship with God. It is egocentric of us to expect others’ relationship with God to look like ours.

And recognizing this informs our approach to people outside the Christian religion who have sound wisdom, philosophy and practices that support the common good and even the deepening of relationship with God?

Is Contemporary, Westernized Yoga Hindu?

I had the privilege of undergoing 16 days of intense yoga training for teacher certification. It was an extraordinary experience. The location was one of the most beautiful places on earth, and the staff was comprised of the kindest, most generously loving, accepting and supportive human beings. It was a rigorous training—our classes went from 6:30 in the morning to 9:00 every night, but I couldn’t complain while falling asleep to the sound of the roaring ocean, migrating whales and chirping creatures.

Surprising to some, we didn’t practice postures all day long every day—though we certainly did more of that in 16 days than I’ve ever done in my life. The study was holistic—there was time and space for philosophy and meditation or prayer, as well as anatomy and physiology and group heart reflection. The most important thing I learned is that yoga is about the journey from the head to heart.

This is very similar to the Eastern Orthodox wisdom of the Jesus Prayer. This ancient prayer invites the disciple to pray without ceasing by reciting “Jesus Son of David” as one inhales and “have mercy on me a sinner” upon exhale. As the prayer is repeated over and over, it starts to be prayed from within the heart rather than the head.

Some Christians are concerned about practicing yoga because they think if they do, they are practicing Hinduism. Yoga is certainly connected with India and Hinduism, but it is arguable as to whether yoga is explicitly Hindu. Some contend yoga existed before Hinduism was an organized religion.

Contemporary, westernized yoga may be very far removed from the most ancient of yoga practice dating back 2,000-5,000 years. Over the centuries, this Indian approach to nurturing the body, mind, and soul has blended with Tibetan and Chinese practices as well as Western physical fitness philosophy.

Some argue that yoga is more philosophical than spiritual or religious. I agree that yoga is, in essence, a set of philosophies, wisdom and practices that support living in harmony with God, self and others. Though the predominant yoga practice that is widely available in the West is limited to the practice of postures (asanas) and breath work (pranayama) and the average yoga class at your local gym will not focus much on ancient philosophy and wisdom.

[ANOTHER VIEW: Theologian Albert Mohler asks, “Should Christians Practice Yoga?”]

Regardless of which religion or culture claims yoga, it seems to me that the yoga available to us today is the best of tried and true practices that nurture, discipline, exercise and harmonize the body, mind and soul. And to the degree that the practice does not compromise my relationship with God, I welcome it in my life. In fact, yoga has deepened my faith and relationship with God.

Why Practice Yoga?

Nearly all the great religions share a universal acceptance that the body is God’s temple. As Christians, this belief is ingrained in us—“The body is the temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 6:19). If our bodies contain the Divine, obviously we want to care for the dwelling place. Jesus invites us into deeper contemplation of the mystery of the Divine Indwelling by inviting us to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk 12:31). Most of us get these truths in our head—“God dwells within you” and “Love your neighbor as yourself”—but do we embody them?

A few years ago, my husband Chris gifted me the journey of a lifetime. For 33 days, we made the ancient pilgrimage of “El Camino de Santiago” across Spain. With nothing but backpacks, we detached from our normal life and began the arduous hike. By engaging in this kind of outward, physical feat we grew very acquainted with our body—its strength and weakness, endurance and limitations, and we learned to love it—from the tips of our toes to the crown of our head. We cultivated a deep gratitude for this carriage that was taking us to Santiago.

But beyond the physical pilgrimage, with every step we were making the delightful and painful journey from our head to our heart—progressing from the external to the internal. The gift of pilgrimage taught us so much about embodying truth. Truths like “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” and “There is a God who is immanent with me—making home within me—leading and guiding me.”

Yoga, the Jesus Prayer, and pilgrimage are just a few practices that provide support for us to make the journey from the head to the heart in an effort to progress from a dualistic mind to a non-dual mind and bring harmony to the body, mind and soul. These kinds of practices invite us to actively surrender and allow for Truth to be revealed and embodied.

The journey from the head to the heart is the longest you’ll ever make. Yoga invites us to make that journey. As I have stayed faithful to the practice, I have grown more acquainted with my body—the temple of the Holy Spirit—and I have grown to love both the temple and the One who dwells there. Some naysayers claim that yoga is spiritually damaging, but I’d respond that it has actually made me a better Christian.

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Do you practice yoga? Do you think it is spiritually harmful or beneficial?