Yoga as spiritual formation

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, even though a recent global survey of evangelical leaders indicated that 92 percent of the 2,196 surveyed believe that "engaging in yoga as a spiritual practice…[is] not compatible with evangelicalism."

So how are we to determine if yoga is OK to practice as Christians?

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; no two look 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’ relationships 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 to 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.

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.

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 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 and ended at 9:00 p.m. 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 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 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.

This is not a new idea for Christians. We have a rich tradition of our own practices that support this, such as 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 33 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.”

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.

Phileena Heuertz is a leading voice on contemplative spirituality and author of "Pilgrimage of a Soul." She also serves as co-director of Word Made Flesh, an international community serving Christ among the most vulnerable of the world's poor. This article originally appeared on Q: Ideas for the Common Good.

(Photo courtesy of Jessmcintyre/Wikimedia Commons.)

Phileena Heuertz is a leading voice on contemplative spirituality and author of "Pilgrimage of a Soul." She also serves as co-director of Word Made Flesh, an international community serving Christ among the most vulnerable of the world's poor. This article originally appeared on Q: Ideas for the Common Good.

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Strengthening those ties between head and heart? I know mine occasionally become loose and this could be a way to take up the slack. Should they become completely untied, yoga offers to “Reconnect our mind and heart” through “Conscious breathing” and ancient Hindu movement techniques. I am not wanting to mock here, simply trying to de-construct the language a bit. These disciplines help one to “listen to our heart’s connection to the body and the wisdom that lies within.” What exactly is that inner wisdom that the millions of teachers and practitioners of Hindu yoga, are tapping into? Can it be articulated? What inner wisdom do the Sanskrit texts on yoga, the Bhagavad Gita and other Sutras offer? Yoga is a Sanskrit word that means to “yoke” or connect. Drawing an analogy to a practice labeled "christian" does not make it acceptable. There are christians who practice the discipline of self flagellation. Repeating a 10 word prayer over and over in your head, thousands of times may bring detachment and the illusion of peace as any mantra would. It’s not OK simply because its called the Jesus prayer. “The longest journey you’ll ever make is from the head to the heart. And yoga invites us to make that journey.” Its also the shortest journey you’ll ever make. Its also the bluest journey you’ll ever make. The words have no correlation with reality. The Buddha is usually pictured sitting in a Mudra yoga pose. And of course, he is completely at peace. “Some Christians are concerned about practicing yoga because they think if they do, they are practicing Hinduism.” Without a doubt, they are. This is simply syncretism, the basis of a universal one world religion. No wonder 92% of believe that “engaging in yoga as a spiritual practice is not compatible with evangelicalism.”
sounds more like you are trying to justify something that may not be spiritually healthy for the Christian to partake in
It's pretty harsh to accuse someone you don't know of syncretism based on one blog post.  I don't believe this article at all sounds like she's justifying anything, but sharing how one practice has helped her personal walk with Christ.

In my experience, there are certainly some yoga practices that should be prayerfully considered before engaging in.  Kundalini yoga is one such example.  However, as the author points out, modern, Western yoga practice is a far cry from ancient Hindu yoga.  Yoga acquaints you with your body and your breathing; when you throw in Christian meditation, of course it can help your walk with Jesus.

Should Christians engage in  yoga practice with caution?  Of course.  As should we attend movies, drink alcohol, and watch sports.  We all pick and choose which aspects of culture to include in our lives.
I've read Phileena's work before this. The survey she quotes is a global survey of Evangelical leaders conducted by the Pew Institute at the Lusanne convention in Switzerland. The study says that "There is also widespread agreement that practices associated with other religious traditions are incompatible with being a good evangelical Christian: More than 90% of the leaders say that engaging in yoga as a spiritual practice "is not compatible with evangelicalism." This is not just my opinion, nor is it just the opinion of American Christians. 

Syncretism “consists of the attempt to reconcile disparate or contrary beliefs, often while melding practices of various schools of thought.” Indians consider Yoga as a religious practice. The Hindu-American Foundation argues that yoga (including what you call "Modern Western Yoga") is a spiritual discipline leading to moksha ‘liberation’. They are upset that Americans so glibly borrow their religious disciplines. The practice of yoga originated in the Hindu Vedas, Sutras, the Bagavad Gita and teachings by various Yogis. The physical postures and breath practices are an ancient form of Hindu religion. 

As Phileena says, "Conscious breathing, movement and postures train our mind to listen to our heart’s connection to the body and the wisdom that lies within."



Thank you for your post, Phileena. I am a Christian who loves, practices and teaches yoga. Yoga develops awareness in all aspects of our lives - mind (mental), body (physical) and soul (spiritual) - which promotes a healthier sense of self and clarified values. To your point, "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." 
I went into my teacher training knowing that yoga is spiritual (pertaining to the soul or spirit) and not a religion. What a sad world if I felt as a Christian I could not learn the philosophy and history of a different culture and then apply it in a way that I identify with. Meditation? Why not use it for a quiet time of devotion and prayer? Perhaps it's the fact we might be sitting in Lotus that bugs people.......
Namaste. 
 
Is the Bible sufficient to meet all my needs? Is grace sufficient to meet all my needs? Our riches are in Christ, including scripture, prayer, the indwelling Holy Spirit...are they not enough or adequate to meet people's real needs? Do I have to add things to the sufficiency of Christ? Do I have full confidence in the sufficiency of Christ? Just swap the word 'yoga' with "therapy". Satanic assaults are very subtle.
Is the Bible sufficient to meet all my needs?? Nope.  It's a book.  A holy, divine, Word of God book.  But how many people have used the Bible to abuse others?  The Bible must be accompanied by the prayer and indwelling of the Holy Spirit that you mentioned, but also Christian community.  (Including therapy, by the way.)

Satanic assaults are certainly subtle, and we should be on the look out.  Interestingly, most Satanic assaults I've experienced come from within the church, people that want to control the way I think and the things I do in order to affirm their own insecurities.

Yoga, done well, can be redeemed for Christ.  It can be a practice in seeking the indwelt Holy Spirit.
So I take it you're a Christian Scientist too, and you don't use medication? You don't listen to music that isn't explicitly Christian and find spiritual comfort in it? If you do either of those things, it's clear that you don't consider the Bible or Christ sufficient for you either.
Why should a christian look for inspiration or spirituality in any place out of the Bible, the only Word of God. Yoga is a religion, there is nothing to argue about it. How come that a christian is defending the need of repeating a "mantra", even if you call it Jesus prayer, to get inner peace? Regular Bible reading will lead you to plenty of verses or texts that will fill your heart of real peace from God. Can you find a "mantra" better than Psalm 23, just to name one, to give you peace and assurance?  Practice yoga exercises for your muscles and find divine peace from Bible reading and prayer. 
John 14:27
27 Peace I leave with
you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.
Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.
Physical exercise and stretching is helpful and beneficial. Meditating on the Word of God is beneficial. Yoga, per the author, "helps harmonize our body mind and soul". This is the essence of new age thinking and I believe Christians should run, not walk, away from this practice.

 

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