As a yoga teacher and practitioner in the heart of the “Bible Belt,”I realize that there are many misconceptions and suspicions around here about what exactly my fellow yogis and I are doing up in the studio besides stretching and standing on our heads.
We actually do a lot of that—stretching and standing on our heads—and that in itself is a perfectly great yoga practice.
However, usually, if a person falls in love with the asana practice, and it really “clicks” with them, it’s not long before they find themselves wanting to learn more about how these same principles apply to life off the mat.
It was important to me, as my yoga practice deepened beyond the physical, that this wonderful thing I was learning about and experiencing did not conflict with my long-standing Christian faith.
Full disclosure: I am located on the more “progressive” or “liberal” end of the spectrum as far as Christians go.
My deal is that I attempt daily what is impossible—to emulate Jesus—the lover of all mankind, selfless, non-judgmental, humble Jesus.
Naturally, I fail at this many many times per day. Per hour. But that’s my own religion in a nutshell. I’m not a Biblical literalist, nor do I think that heaven is reserved only for those who believe as I do. That in itself is enough to get me some sideways looks in Sunday School around here, and I’ve learned to be okay with that.
That being said, my fellow believers (even the open minded ones) have had some things to say about yoga being compatible with our shared beliefs. I had the same misconceptions myself, before I actually read and studied it.
Here is some recurring feedback that I receive from others and how I have learned to respond to it.
Well, the short answer is, “Right, but it’s not un-Christian either.” Yoga and Hinduism are linked together, but not in the way that it is often perceived to be. It’s mainly about being respectful of the culture and history. Just like you don’t have to be a Buddhist to practice karate.
The influence is there, but there’s no one trying to convert you. That being said, yoga is completely applicable to the lives of those who are atheist or agnostic; it doesn’t demand you believe in anything.
2. “I’m not saying Om, or Namaste, or bowing in anjali mudra—it’s against my religion.”
And what religion might that be? Again, this is a culture we’re respecting and observing here. Yoga is thousands of years old. These things are part of its history and in no way does it mean that you’re “worshiping” anything.
“Om” literally translates as “Yes.” As in, “Yes, let’s begin our class now!” That’s it. Namaste is a traditional greeting or farewell on the Indian subcontinent, much like, “aloha” is in Hawaii. It means, “The light that dwells within me recognizes and honors the light that dwells within you.”
If that conflicts with your religion, well, that just makes me sad. It’s a beautiful, universal sentiment that I love so much it’s displayed on a bumper sticker on the back of my car.
As for anjali mudra…it’s traditional to the culture—many cultures, actually. We Christians do it too. And so do Jews, Muslims, and most other spiritually observant people. The act of bringing one’s hands together in front of your heart or face is symbolic of turning one’s thoughts inward and away from distraction. It comes so naturally to us to do this that it is practiced around the world and has been for thousands of years.
And when I bow forward at the end of class, I’m thanking God for the people around me in class, the physical health that allows me to practice and teach this yoga that I love, and a host of other things too. Just because this brief prayer takes place on my mat doesn’t make it any less Christian.
3. “The yoga observances/ teachings are not in the Bible.”
If you’re referring to the Yamas and Niyamas, the answer is, no, of course not. Wait, yes they are. From where I stand, they dovetail perfectly with everything I’ve ever learned in church.
Sometimes looking at the same things a different way is just what you need for these universal virtues to resonate. At least, that’s how it is for me.
And I could (and have) matched up corresponding Scripture for each yama and niyama, but I won’t bore you with it here. Rather, take a look at what those suspicious-sounding Sanskrit words really mean:
- Pradnidhana=surrender to a higher power
Just because it’s packaged differently doesn’t mean it’s any less true. Also, two other concepts we learn about in yoga are stirha/sukha and avidya. Again, totally in harmony with my (and any other) faith.
Stirha/sukha is the practice of balancing the “sweet” with the “strong.” If you’re in a yoga pose that’s challenging, can you find some sweetness and calm even though your body is working hard?
A truly useful aspiration off the mat in stressful times is: Can you try to cultivate some peace and calm (at work or while taking care of the kids, for example) even though what you’re doing may be difficult?
Avidya is basically about being honest with yourself. Really honest. Is that pose you’re attempting a good and safe choice for you, at this moment, in your body? Or are you wrenching yourself into it because the person next to you is doing it/you did it just fine yesterday/you want to look cool?
Or maybe you tell yourself something you want is totally doable budget-wise when you know, deep down, it’s not the smartest use of your funds? Just keeping it real. And what’s the point of spirituality of any kind if not to get real with ourselves?
4. “What’s with the chanting?”
Ah, yes. This is another case of cultural crossover. Traditional chants to Hindu deities do take place in Western yoga culture occasionally. Usually as a community building, celebratory, kumbaya type bonding experience called a kirtan.
I choose not to participate; it veers a bit too close to worship for my taste. But, when someone mentions a singalong of any description, I generally run the other way as a rule, so that may have something to do with it too.
Other Christian yogis I know are totally fine with it and look at it as another example of respecting and enjoying the culture yoga shares with India. It’s a personal choice and, really, has nothing at all to do with yoga as we generally practice it.
To wrap up what is surely a complex and personal topic, all I can say is that my faith has helped me navigate and maintain during the unpredictability, the joy and pain, and the beauty that is life. And yoga has had a part in that too.
Simply reframing the lessons I learned as a child, and that I hear from the pulpit on Sundays, has made a refreshing difference in my life. Truth comes in many forms and sometimes you need to hear it from another source to get refocused and recommitted to living an authentic, joyful, fulfilling life. My off the mat yoga practice simply enhances what I’ve always believed, and that is a beautiful thing.
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