Culture At Large

Praying with yoginis: when public prayer isn’t the Christian kind

Karen Swallow Prior

Earlier this month, the United States Supreme Court narrowly ruled in Town of Greece v. Galloway that local governmental entities may open their meetings with Christian prayers, despite the exclusion felt by the complainants. The court’s 5-4 decision - and its various dissenting opinions - reflects well my own conflicted views on the subject. As a Christian in a country in which the majority of people claim also to be Christians, I can’t claim to know truly what it feels like to be a religious minority. But I’ve had a taste of it.

For nearly 15 years, I’ve attended a weekly yoga class offered by my county’s parks and recreation department. That makes it a government-sponsored event. The class is not a white-bread, YMCA-style faux-yoga class. It’s taught by a yogini for whom yoga is a lifestyle and a religious belief system, both of which, as a Christian, I do not share. I am well aware that many Christians think yoga is spiritually dangerous, or even “demonic,” and that many think it is purely physical exercise. I agree with neither of these positions. Rather, I approach yoga intentionally, having weighed carefully the risks and benefits as well as my own spiritual state and motivations for taking the class (which are for the physical benefits).

Our hatha yoga sessions - centered on slow, strength-building stretches and poses - include chanting and meditation. From these, I quietly abstain. Instead, while the other students mindlessly follow the instructor’s lead in chanting Sanskrit words or emptying their minds, I pray, or I think about the class I’ll be teaching the next day or about what I’m going to eat when I get home. But mostly, I pray. Since our eyes are all closed and no one is supposed to pay attention to what anyone else is doing, I assume no one will notice my lack of participation.

But this is not the case.

The first time someone said something to me, it was another class member, as we were leaving the basement of the public library where the class was held. “Do you not chant because you’re a Christian?” she asked.

“Right,” I replied.

I can’t claim to truly know what it feels like to be a religious minority, but I’ve had a taste of it.

She told me that her pastor thought Christians should stay away from yoga. A few weeks later, she stopped coming.

The next time someone said something, it was my instructor. She and I were the only ones left after class when she asked the same question. Since we were alone and neither of us was in a hurry, I felt freer to offer a more deliberate answer than I had before. “Actually,” I said, “it’s because I’m a Christian and because I’m an English professor. I believe in the power of words. I try not to say words I don’t know the meaning of or don’t mean.”

She reminded me that she handed out the translations.

“Right,” I replied. “And it is a prayer. To someone.”

“True,” she admitted.

“As a Christian, I can’t pray to other gods,” I said, gently, for my instructor is a gentle person. She nodded in understanding.

A few weeks later when the class was gathered in our instructor’s home for her annual “holiday” party, she surprised me by asking me - following the extended session of chanting that began the festivities - if I would pray for the meal we were about to share. I did.

In 15 years, that’s the only public prayer that’s been offered in our class to the God of Abraham and in the name of Jesus. It didn’t take an act of Congress or a Supreme Court ruling. It just took what James Davison Hunter calls “faithful presence.”

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Prayer, Other Religions, News & Politics, North America, Politics