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Can Christians Practice Yoga?

flow yoga Dec 07, 2019

Can Christians practice the postures of modern Western yoga? I have encountered so many differing opinions over the past few years. Below I share my own journey and then a few important facts I have researched. 

I grew up Catholic and left the Church and abandoned my family’s faith when I was in college. I became quite alternative, studying various spiritual paths. Two that stuck were Buddhism and the philosophy of yoga. I went on a handful of meditation retreats and practiced Vipassana (Insight) meditation 1-2 hours a day. In 2012, while on a retreat I had a beautiful and encompassing experience of God which slowly brought me back to exploring Christianity. God pursued me loudly and greatly and after some struggle (think Jacob wrestling with God), I listened. I visited almost every Christian denomination before deciding to head back home to the Catholic Church, which is another story entirely for another post. 

While as I was a newbie Christian, I still meditated and practiced yoga, however, the practice changed: I practiced contemplative prayer (meditating on God) and secular yoga (just the postures, not the philosophy). 

A few wonderful and well meaning Christian friends suggested I re-look at practicing these two disciplines. And so I did, and decided not to practice for a time, to pray about it with some space and distance. 

Several years later when going back to work in the fitness industry I was asked to instruct yoga classes again (I used to teach quite of a few yoga classes 6-7 years ago). And so after much prayer, I took on teaching several yoga classes at my local community centre instructing wonderful students (such a gift!).

Here are a few facts: within the philosophy of yoga, there are 8 limbs, or “paths”, and one of those paths are the physical postures (others include varying levels of meditation, breath control, and virtue observances). The philosophy of yoga is quite old, but most of the modern postures are not. According to the book Yoga Body: Origins of Modern Posture Practice by Mark Singleton, before 200 years ago, there were only a handful of yoga postures and almost all were seated meditation poses. There are only three main yoga texts that contain postures: Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and Gheranda Samhita

Patanjali's second-century Yoga Sutra mentions no poses, other than a handful of seated meditation ones. The fourteenth-century Hatha Yoga Pradipika—the classical hatha yoga manual—lists only 15 poses and again most of them are variations of the cross-legged seated positions. The seventeenth-century Gheranda Samhita, another manual, lists only 32, and within those there are hardly any standing poses and no Sun Salutations that form the backbone of most modern yoga classes.

In Singleton’s book Yoga Body, he states that most of the current Western yoga postures were formed when the British occupied India, from 1505 to 1948. In the 1800s British gymnasts were hired to train the royal family and guards to become physically fit at the Mysore palace in India. Singleton has deduced that it was probably the British gymnasts that brought most of the modern yoga poses to India as the movements are very similar. One man, Krishnamacharya (where the lineage of “yoga” began), a sage who worked at the palace at the time the British gymnasts were there, or another teacher who came just before him, melded the British gymnastics and wresting with the older religious practices of Hinduism (along with the 8 limbs of yoga) together. The supposed "ancient" postures of yoga are not that ancient, really only 200-300 years or so. And thankfully, our modern Western yoga poses have changed from even 50 years ago as we learn more about proper body movement, and what is safe and not safe to do.

There is a little book called Sritattvanidhi which was written in the 1800s. It contains 122 postures, many used in yoga classes today. Most of the postures in this little book are quite similar to the Danish Primitive Gymnastics exercises that were popular at the same time in Denmark. Interesting to note, that Denmark and India did not connect at this time in history, but the British and Danish did, seeming to point that the British brought the similar gymnastic style movements to India. It was several of Krishnamacharya’s students, Pattabhi Jois, B.K.S. Iyengar, and Indra Devi, that carried on his “yoga” teachings of the Western world. 

Last year, I continued to pray to God to lead me on the path He has planned for me and He lead me to Holy Yoga, a large Christian yoga organization. I fell in love with their style and decided to enrol in their 100hr Existing Instructor Training for those who already have their 200hr yoga training. What I like about Holy Yoga is that while practicing you can worship God through music and movement. It's so beautiful to experience with a community of believers. I have such wonderful memories of my week long Immersion this past Fall 2019. I took that training to fully explore whether yoga can be mixed with my faith. My discoveries below. 

In my opinion the movements of yoga are universal movements not created by one religion. The movements of yoga are similar to gymnastics exercises, as well as, stretching movements with some bodyweight strengthening movements. These movements are common in everyday life, as a lunge is a lunge, a forward bend is a forward bend, an inner thigh stretch is an inner thigh stretch. No religion can patent that.

I like yoga-style movements because of the great combination of stretching and isometric holds (where the length of the muscle doesn’t change). I like everything fitness. I love to squat, I love to practice barre, I love to cycle, and I love to stretch.

As a believer, a good option is to practice yoga at secular places, like at your local community centres and fitness facilities. I love practicing with community. However, the practice really depends on the instructor and how much of the other elements of yoga they include in their classes. I teach a 8am Flow class every Monday and Thursday at Walnut Grove Community Centre, where I do not include any Sanskrit terms, chanting, nor yogic philosophy, just movements that create strength, length, and balance while flowing from one movement to the next.

Holy Yoga, Praise Moves, and Pietra Fitness are great alternatives to traditional yoga classes at yoga studios, as at yoga studios students may encounter chanting oms (an invocation to “Brahman”, the cosmic creator) and may encounter alternative religious practices.

I like how the creator of Praise Moves calls her movements “a Christian Alternative to Yoga”. Her movements stem from modern yoga poses (...which stem from the 1800s gymnastics). Every pose has a scripture verse attached to it, which is lovely. 

Pietra Fitness has a good article about practicing yoga, and I agree with many of their points. It seems for many Christians the issue comes down to the use of the name "yoga", as many believe the word yoga should not and can not be separated from the other branches (limbs), like the philosophy and meditation. The word yoga in Sanskrit means to yoke to the divine.

Catholic Answers has some really great points in their online article. A lot of tension that I have experienced from other Christians about practicing yoga is mainly from misunderstandings and misinformation, which I hope I have explained in this article. From their article: "Should you take up yoga? As a spiritual path, yoga is incompatible with Christian spirituality. But if you can separate the spiritual/meditational aspects of yoga from the body postures and breathing techniques common to yoga, then you might be able to use those postures and techniques beneficially for health. If you’re at all unsure of your ability to do so, you may well be advised to find another form of exercise."

I have not had a problem separating the physical yoga poses from the other aspects of a yoga practice, but I can understand that many can't. So really the main concern is about using the word "yoga" to describe a collection of exercises. Performing similar movements (lunge, squat, balancing on one foot, etc), but not calling it "yoga" as the word is connected to Hinduism and the philosophy of yoga. And also, importantly not adding the other elements of yoga, like retained breathing, clearing the mind style of meditation, use of mudras, chanting Sanskrit.

I decided to call my class Flow and use different names of the poses, using the Pilates version of the name. Taking out the word yoga helps separate the philosophy from the movements, and I hope helps worried participants feel more comfortable. The benefits of Flow are numerous. An expertly designed class just feels different, where we can create proper mobility and stability in the body. In human movement there is always a continuous play between stability and mobility. When mobility or stability is compromised the body will adapt causing undue strain to joints, ligaments, muscles, and connective tissue. When that strain occurs, it can cause discomfort and pain within the body. Flow helps with all of that.

I had to keep the facts short and sweet in this blog post, however, for more information about the modern origins of posture practice I suggest reading scholar Mark Singleton’s highly acclaimed book called Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. Max Sculley’s Yoga, Tai Chi, and Reiki: A Guide For Christians has some over generalizations and slight misinformation, the author did bring up some good points for Christians to consider. Fr. Sculley validly warns against using yoga to go into what he calls "altered states of consciousness", as in his book he explains that is the real danger, not the actual poses. He goes into much more detail in his book.

Some great Yoga Journal articles about the history are here and here.