Yoga as Christian Spiritual Formation? by Phileena Heuertz

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." After growing up in this tradition, Phileena Heurtz has come to practice yoga as an essential part of her Christian spirituality. She explains why yoga isn't antithetical to Christianity and how it enriches her faith.

I was raised in a conservative, dogmatic Christian tradition that approached anything not explicitly “Christian” as wrong. Yet, as the years progressed Yoga has become an essential part of my life and spirituality. A 2011 global survey of protestant evangelical leaders indicated that 92% of the 2,196 surveyed believe that “engaging in yoga as a spiritual practice…[is] not compatible with evangelicalism.” And some of the leading, dominant, mainstream Christian voices in the United States have even gone so far 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 are we to determine if yoga is okay to practice as Christians?

What Does it Mean to be Christian?

Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are the greatest historical events in human history. This first-century Jew changed the world by calling people to a broader understanding of what it means to be children of God. His message was about transforming the human person, not about starting a new religion. What began as a radical revolution evolved into an established set of doctrines that define what it means to be part of the organized religion of Christianity.

Does being a Christian mean we practice only what has been accepted as “Christian” throughout the past two millennia? How are we to know what is “explicitly Christian?” Historically, these definitions of “Christian” have been problematic. During the Crusades and inquisition, there were strict punishments for not appearing “Christian enough.” What was once considered non-Christian—such as women being prohibited from speaking in church-is now acceptable Christianity.

I’d like to suggest that being a Christian means being in relationship with the person of Jesus, the Son of God, the Christ. And relationships are dynamic, not one looks the same. 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.

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

In the same way that the Lord’s supper is practiced differently today than during the last moments of Jesus’ life, 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 would 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.

Regardless of which religion or culture wants to claim 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 by strengthening the ties between my head and my heart.

So, what should our approach be to people outside the Christian religion who have sound wisdom, philosophy and practices that support and even deepen our relationship with God?

The Journey from the Head to the Heart

I had the privilege of undergoing sixteen 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 were some of the kindest, most generously loving, accepting and supportive human beings. It was rigorous training—our classes started at 6:30 in the morning ending at 9:00pm 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—though we certainly did more of that in sixteen 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 reflections. The most important thing I learned is that yoga is about the journey from the head to heart.

This is such a crucial invitation for Christians, since much of Western Christianity is practiced with the mind, reason and intellect divorced from the heart. We are more than just our minds. Our heart has its own way of “knowing.” But without practices that affirm this heart knowledge, we are less than whole in our relationship with God. To live the abundant life that Jesus talked about we need to acknowledge the wisdom of both the heart and the mind—working in harmony with each other. When these are divided or one part is deemed lesser than another, we are a fractured person who is more easily misguided in our faith journey.

Getting into our body by practicing yoga helps us reconnect our mind and heart. Conscious breathing, movement and postures train our mind to listen to our heart’s connection to the body and the wisdom that lies within.

Why Practice Yoga?

Making the journey from the head to heart is not a new idea for Christians. We have a rich tradition of our own practices that support this—like the Eastern Orthodox Jesus Prayer. This ancient prayer invites the disciple to pray without ceasing by reciting “Jesus Son of David have mercy on me a sinner.” As the prayer is repeated over and over, it starts to be prayed from within the heart rather than the head.

Pilgrimage is another Christian practice that supports the journey from the head to the heart. A few years ago my husband Chris gave me the journey of a lifetime. For thirty-three days we made the ancient pilgrimage, “El Camino de Santiago.” With nothing but the packs on our backs, we detached from our normal life and made the arduous hike across Spain. By making 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;” “There is a God who is immanent with me—making home within me—leading and guiding me.”

Jesus was scandalous to the ancient world because he taught that the human body is the temple of the Holy Spirit in contrast to a temple made of stone (Luke 17:21 [KJV]; Mark 15:38; 1 Corinthians 6:19). If our bodies house the Holy Spirit, 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.” (Mark 12:31) What does it mean to “love yourself?” Most of us get these truths in our head—“God dwells within you” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But do we embody them?

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. This leads us to mature beyond a dualistic mindset 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.

I was on my way out the door to attend one of my favorite yoga classes when I was handed the final manuscript for, Pilgrimage of a Soul. As I breezed through the finished pages of what had become my first book, I felt a surge of emotion within me. I hurriedly embraced the feeling of accomplishment and made my way to class. The ninety-minute practice of the evening focused on back bends—a series of 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 to 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. I asked, “Is it common to experience these kinds of emotions during yoga?” And they both proceeded to explain 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. In class 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 has the potential to open up some of the most vulnerable expressions of who we are. Normally, 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.

The longest journey you’ll ever make is from the head to the heart. And 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 that temple and the One who dwells there. I would argue that yoga has, in fact, made me a better Christian.