Culture At Large

Yoga as spiritual formation

Phileena Heuertz

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.)

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