Lately I've received more than the usual comments about the perceived conflict of a Christian who is also a practicing yogi.
Usually these emails are anonymous, so there is no call for response or they're so negatively charged that I don’t feel compelled to respond.
But on the heels of the news that a California school is being accused of religious indoctrination by teaching yoga to kid, plus a thoughtful letter from an old classmate of mine from Catholic High School who begged to know if the two could, in fact, coexist I had to respond.
It’s been said that speaking of sex, religion, and politics is either impolite or inappropriate. I have no desire (no pun intended) to write about sex and have decided to peacefully promote peace and love for all political views rather than jump in on some of the angry comments I see on Facebook. Often even the comments that claim to just defend a candidate offer up a snarl for the opponent.
That said, I believe that most Americans are inherently good and want the same good things for our nation. But when someone challenged me on the ability to be a Christian and a yogi, my blogging brain began to spin.
Cuz, guess what? You don’t get to tell me I can’t be both.
First off let me iterate that I am not a religious scholar. I also have much to learn about the roots of the practice I love. But as a yogi, I think it is inherent that we understand our practice is ever-evolving. My interest in the practice is one I intend to savor throughout this lifetime. In our world of yoga interwoven with social media and good old-fashioned books, I am fortunate to learn from many teachers about so many facets of the practice.
That said, I do feel confident enough to discuss yoga and religion. I was born and raised Catholic and the Catholic curriculum was a part of my life throughout my education. I’ve also been teaching yoga for many years and recently used yoga as a tool to recover after a tough battle with breast cancer.
I consider myself a Christian and a yogi I have not compromised nor surrendered my religious beliefs. And what I do know about the practice of yoga is that although the teachings of yoga are part of some religions, the practice of yoga itself is not a religion.
Hinduism did inspire yoga. The ancient yogis practiced asanas so that they could tolerate sitting in meditation on cold hard floors for long periods of time. Yet they were separate practices. Over time people began to fuse them together.
In addition, without trying to oversimplify, may I suggest that God and religions are inherently individual? My God growing up was the man with the long flowing robes and stern expression holding a thick Bible. My kid’s God looks a lot like Morgan Freeman (think Bruce Almighty) and is a wise, good guy. My husband experiences him in the beauty of nature.
Suggesting that God cannot be brought to the yoga mat seems to imply that He is only confined to the pages of a Bible and the walls of a church.
Here are some of the arguments with which I was presented:
Yoga's origins are in Hindu and Buddhist faiths. Christians believe in one God, the God of the Bible. The Buddhist view of god is very different and not compatible with the Christian view.
My response: I am not a Buddhist. I can separate the physical from the spiritual (when I want to) and when I am experiencing that calming of the mind that is a benefit from the practice I feel very comfortable inviting God in.
The Christian God exists in the church and the pages of the Bible, but why close the door there? Some of us want our children to have the opportunity to bring God into their school and some of us feel his presence in our work environment. When I practice, I feel balanced, gentle, connected and responsible. The practice inspires me. And my God doesn’t mind hanging out with me on my mat.
Yoga positions such as lotus are associated with meditation. The Eastern idea of meditation is different from the Christian one. In the East, the goal is to empty your mind. In Christianity, the idea of meditation is to actively think about God’s word.
Christians are not exhorted to empty their minds, but fill them with God’s word so that they have a Biblical basis for making decisions. Having kids exposed to an activity that can be done in such a non-Christian way would be another concern.
Yes, I do use meditation to empty the mind. But this yoga teaching, cancer–surviving, small zoo keeping, mother of four needs some mind emptying!
My body and brain go from 0-10 the majority of the day. From the earliest moments of my 5:30 am class, to running my husband’s businesses, planning retreats, picking kids up after school, and making healthy meals day I am in a continuous mode of brain sorting and event planning.
The mind chatter never stops. The clarity and softness of my brain post yoga makes me feel like I can once again tackle the world. And here’s the good God part. When my mind is quiet there is room to fill it again with his spirit. Church can be a wonderful place to pray. But for years bringing four kids to church offered very little opportunity to really listen. Honestly, it was more about bringing my family together. It wasn’t uncommon to have two kids hanging on me and two others arguing about whom was touching whom. With a calm (and empty) mind post yoga I feel grateful and have had some pretty awesome conversations with him.
Do the poses/positions themselves constitute any act of praise or worship within the Hindu/Buddhist faiths?
The poses were created for many reasons. The asanas (poses) are a very small part of the entire practice. Our culture tends to be primarily drawn to this one limb of yoga. Westerners take a beating from sitting at their desks and have learned that a yoga practice reduces injury risk and makes them feel better in their bodies. '
And may I suggest that is OK? Learning more about the practice and being a Christian is OK, too. In a similar sense, I can travel to India, observe, learn from, and appreciate their culture, and still practice my faith as well.
Why does the practice of yoga on a mat and being a practicing Christian need to be any different?
Hindus set up shrines with images of god/goddesses they pray to. Is there any sense of idol worship/praying to false gods built into the positions themselves?
We don’t worship false idols in my yoga classes. And in all of my training, I’ve never been asked to pray to a false idol. Sometimes I see yoga clothes with images of buddas and Sanskrit language and it doesn’t take away from my religion, either.
My teen daughter has quite the Justin Bieber pics in her room as well and I’m pretty sure she isn’t praying to him. Appreciation is different than worship. And I’m smart enough to separate the two.
Also there are all the incantations/chants and the Om-ing.
I love the chants and I love to hear others Om-ing. My kids will tell you I’m tone-deaf so I never lead, but I have participated. My understanding of Om is that it creates a vibration within our bodies that is representative of the hum of the universe.
It is believed to be the most basic sound and to contain all other sounds. There is a rhythm in the waves of the oceans, the movement of animals in the forest, and the vibrations in the depths of the earth. Yogis om to signify our connection (and responsibility) to the world and all life within the world.
I am not a Buddhist or a Hindu nor I do not bring their religion into my practice. I also don’t sing Alleluia or read passages from the Bible. My practice feels most connected with my faith when I see the good that stems from it.
For example, I recently attended a Gorilla Yogis event in Minneapolis. This donation only class raised money for the Rock Star Supply Co., a non-profit that provides tutors to at-risk youth. I also teach cancer survivors at the YMCA to encourage healing of the mind and body that has been torn apart by both cancer and cancer therapies. If God’s basic law is to love others as well as ourselves then the compassion that stems from these events is conducive to our Christianity.
So there you have it. It is an opinion but if I can leave with one final thought, here it is. For all of the parents who feel that their children will be forever tarnished from a yoga practice being offered in your school, there is a forest beyond the trees. The big picture is that the world of yoga is healthy, compassionate, and a wonderful place for kids.
And yes, it can coexist with your religion.