Until I went on my yoga teacher training in October, I never felt compelled to explore the question around yoga and Christianity.Should Christians practice yoga? Good question. I’ve never been an institutional person and I am fairly skeptical of dogmas of any kind. To be faced with this question to me was just another example of how bad timing rules the day. I’ve always practiced yoga as a means to heal myself, reduce stress, release toxins; and increase flexibility, balance, and strength. For me – these have always been – and still are- the primary goals of my yoga practice. I have a Judeo-Christian background and practice yoga and Christianity. When I attended yoga teacher training I was further challenged as to whether yoga was Christian or otherwise religious. I must say at first I was super annoyed at being confronted with these thoughts. The idea of yoga being religious (from both Christians and adherents of eastern religions) seemed utterly ridiculous. Through my research, I am finding that the battle for the soul of yoga is alive and well. Everybody seems eager to stake his or her philosophical stamp on this extraordinary mind-body practice. Therefore, let me also get-up-in-there and plant my flag in the seemed yoga and Christianity conflict.

Elle Schnurr stretching after her morning yoga practice at the She Yogic Yoga Club in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

 

The origins of modern yoga

It is arguable that one of the greatest reasons for the confusion surrounding yoga is that Yoga is a homonym of sorts. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, there is almost nothing said about physical postures. The overriding concern of the sutras is the workings of the mind. Instructions for asanas appeared much later, in tantra-inflected medieval texts, such as the “Hatha Yoga Pradipika.” Even in these writings, you’d be hard-pressed to find many of the poses taught at your local yoga studio.

Scholar Mark Singleton in his tome The Yoga Body  underscores the notion that the asanas (yoga poses) as we know them today are not an ancient practice, rather yoga, as we know it today, is derived from the Dane Niels Bukh’s primary gymnastics exercises, which framed the YMCA’s approach in colonial India. He writes that when the YMCA took its message of social transformation through bodily transformation to India, the organization found “no “system” or “brand” of physicalized yoga that could satisfactorily meet India’s need.” So they created it, co-opting the few posture-based practices that were in use at the time and fusing them with medical gymnastics, calisthenics, and bodybuilding.

Only in the modern era has hatha yoga been transformed into a wholesome, accessible regimen for health and well-being. A central figure in this transformation was the raja of asanas, B. K. S. Iyengar, the author of the yoga bible “Light on Yoga.”  Yoga, as we know and love, is heavily influenced by this clash of ideas and cultures. Since Americans have begun embracing yoga there has been an explosion of styles that have been developed by various teachers that are explicitly physical. Power, restorative and hot yoga are the styles that immediately come to mind.

So that brings me back to the original question: is yoga secular or is it spiritual? The answer depends on your definition of “spiritual” and the intention you set when going to the mat.

Finding spirituality through yoga

Yoga is secular in that it meets many secular goals: better breathing, posture, and flexibility – which staves off chronic diseases and infections. Better circulation, strength, coordination, and balance — all of which make the yoga practitioner healthier than most of his or her non-practicing peers. While these benefits are felt mostly on the personal level, they also could benefit society on a population level, in that if enough people practiced yoga, there would be a reduced burden of disease, which has numerous economic and social benefits. The human body does not vary according to the man-made institution of religion. Yoga is good for — all bodies — from all walks of life. With that said, following the yogic lifestyle aligns with the Biblical perspective that our bodies are temples – and we should treat them as such. In fact, a fascinating observation that I made at my yoga teacher training is that many yogis more closely adhere to the idea that the body is a temple than many people of the Christian faith.  

Yoga could prove beneficial for the person on a spiritual quest as it increases the ability to focus, meditate, and be still. This is no small feat in the 21st century, where the average attention span for a person is believed to be eight seconds, just one second less than nine seconds of the notoriously ill-focused goldfish , according to a study from Microsoft Corp, which highlighted the effects of an increasingly digitalized lifestyle on the brain. Most of us are living with an over-stimulated nervous system. The peak pose (in my view) of every yoga practice is savasana, which calms the nervous system and promote equanimity in your entire body. Yoga, mindfulness meditation and sitting in silence is what we need now more than ever for our physical and spiritual selves — but these activities are on the ban list of many conservative Christians.

What does the bible say about yoga?

On the metaphysical level, Yoga has some spiritual benefits. The Psalmist wrote, Be still, and know that I am God. Yoga cultivates stillness. On my mat every morning I am still for at least 90 minutes – even as I move through the postures- because yoga is one of the few (if not only activities) that connects mind, body, and breath. Through stillness and meditation, which is advised all throughout the scriptures, it becomes possible to listen to God — as He speaks in a still small voice.

This is not lying down this is Savasana.

Bottom line, my Yoga not only aligns with my faith it shores it up! To be clear, there are those who practice yoga with the goal of enlightenment and other esoteric goals. With respect to my yoga teachers, and to all of the great yoga teachers before them, I do not accept those intentions for my practice. I practice yoga as a mind-body activity with the full expectation that it can have spiritual implications — as can any activity in which we participate.

I hope this short post demystifies yoga a bit for those who are afraid that practicing yoga is somehow antithetical to their Christian faith. Is yoga against Christianity? No. Can Christians do yoga? Is there a dark side to yoga? No. At the end of the day, remember that everything that is good comes from God. Just to double down on how great yoga is — a growing body of clinical research studies and some systematic reviews on the therapeutic effects of yoga reports that yoga positively affects depression, anxiety and anxiety disorders, fatigue, stress, post-traumatic stress disorder, cardiovascular disease, blood pressure and hypertension, metabolic syndrome include cancer, glucose regulation, menopausal symptoms, musculoskeletal functioning, cardiovascular endurance, physical fitness and weight loss. All of this without drugs or invasive surgery!

Yoga for healing and teaching

In my personal experience, Yoga has been a healer and a teacher. I learn many things about myself on the mat and this helps me to react to challenges as I would entering/exiting an advanced pose — with poise and with grace. So, of course, this yoga that is practiced on the mat, permeates other aspects of our lives off the mat.

Now that my curiosity and fighting spirit has awakened – I will spend more time learning and teaching my students how to practice yoga on and off the mat. I am inviting all yogis who identify as spiritual people to join me on this journey of exploring issues around faith and yoga. I will delve into yoga philosophy – the yamas (restraints) and niyamas (observances) – as they relate to the Christian faith; and also relate yogic concepts, asanas to a creative application of faith in my daily life.

So the verdict — practice on (….my sisters)! Namasté 🙏🏾