Can Christians Practice Yoga?

Yoga Mat

My husband and I recently enrolled in our first exercise class together in 22 years of marriage, and on Monday night we drove five minutes to the local community center for a yoga class offered by the county’s Department of Recreation.  That description alone should tell you a lot about the nature of the class.  It was more exercise than spiritual practice, and many of the poses we did were stretches I watch my husband do nearly every night before bed.

The stretching was great, and we laughed a lot.  The instructor couldn’t remember anyone’s name, and she asked my husband again a few minutes into the class what his name was.  “Matt,” he deadpanned, pointing to the mat beneath his feet.  “That should be easy to remember.”

The instructor followed his pointing finger and read the inscription my husband didn’t know was on the mat until he unrolled it for the class.  He had bought it last week for $5 from T.J. Maxx—which again should tell you something about our level of seriousness about the class.  The inscription read:

BE WHERE YOU ARE

OTHERWISE YOU WILL MISS YOUR LIFE.

“Oh, that’s a nice quote,” said the instructor.  That may say something about her level of expertise.  And she was also oblivious to the two punctuation errors that we English teachers noticed right away.  But my oncologist has been telling me for years that I should practice yoga, and my husband and I figured it would be easy to start with a class that was cheap and close to home.

“Hey, I can’t take credit for the quote.  I didn’t paint that on there,” quipped my husband, sliding his foot to the side to reveal the wordBUDDHA.  The class laughed, and I grinned at my husband.  He makes me laugh every day, so I wasn’t surprised that he got a laugh from strangers within the first few minutes of class.

Had this been my first experience with yoga, I would have wondered why on earth there was a court case in California last summer where the plaintiffs tried to have a yoga class removed from an elementary school’s physical education program because it was associated with a religion.

And I would have had no insight into a former colleague who, when I told her my oncologist had recommended yoga, told me that she would never do yoga because her church forbids it.  When I asked why, she gave me a convoluted explanation of how one could not worship God, the one God, and practice a tradition that came out of Hinduism.  Astonished at such a reaction to something so many people I respect practice, I did research to find that many Christians consider yoga a danger to the soul.  And as I so often feel when I encounter such attitudes, I was sad that something that brings so many people so much peace is off-limits to those who draw lines in the sand around their faith.

After my doctor’s recommendations, I occasionally did yoga from a DVD, but I’d never been very faithful, preferring to walk outside instead of stretch in front of a flat-screen television.  But last year when a colleague won a contest for designing a fitness logo for our school system, he requested as his prize a six-week yoga class for the first 30 people in our building who signed up.  I responded right away that I’d like to try it.

The instructor, from a respected yoga center, was a trained and serious woman who focused first on listening to the rhythms of the body—especially the breath of life that we take for granted and seldom think about.  She began the first class by having us lie on our backs in a dimly lit room, music playing softly as she spoke to us in soothing tones.  We lay on our backs, and she asked us to feel the contact points of our bodies to the floor, feeling how those points changed as we breathed in and out.  Starting at our foreheads, she talked us slowly through relaxing the muscles from our heads to our feet, coaching us to listen and to feel our life’s breath.

When she got to our chests, she asked us to put our hands on our hearts.  Tears welled up in my eyes, and at first I wasn’t really sure why.  But then I realized that I was more aware in that moment of the loss of my breast to cancer than I had been the first time the bandages were removed after the surgery.  I wept silently through most of that class, as I had not done since I first learned I had cancer.  But unlike those times when I had gasped for air at the knowledge that I had cancer, this time I felt a peace that passed understanding.  I wiped the tears away in the last moments of the class before the instructor turned up the lights again.

As I walked away from the class, I knew that it had been one of the more spiritual experiences of my life—that I had felt the Spirit’s presence as I practiced the poses and looked within myself for the Breath of Life.  And when I got home, I tried to explain what happened to my husband, crying as I described what I’d felt.

It would be days before I fully understood why I had been so emotional—until I realized that I had not allowed myself to be so keenly aware of my body since I had been diagnosed with cancer.  Before cancer, I thought I knew my body well, and it had betrayed me.  Listening to my body that night was a healing experience for me.

John Sheveland, a writer for Christian Century—a magazine with the logoThinking Critically. Living Faithfullywrites about the yoga controversy, “Arguably, Christians who are most committed to their own tradition are the ones able to share in and learn from the practices of other traditions without fearing the loss of identity. These Christians are often able to look confidently beyond the church to what God has done and continues to do among non-Christians.”

My mother would have said it more simply.  “Use the common sense God gave you,” she used to tell us when she thought we were being “pig-headed.”  And common sense tells me that a practice that makes me so mindful of my own spirit and the Spirit within can only bring me closer to God.  Our own faith can be the richer for learning from the practices of others.

Namaste. Om. Selah. Amen.

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