One of the biggest struggles in my adult life has been reconciling my Christian faith with my yoga practice. To some, it may not seem like a huge dilemma. But for me, it has been an intense, very real and challenging experience. And I am so grateful for it. It has pushed me to really reflect on what I truly believe in.
Before I started practicing yoga I was very much the cookie-cutter Christian. I was raised in a wonderful Christian home, attended church, was an active member of a youth group and had hopes and dreams of living the ‘ideal’ Christian life. But through a series of events my circumstances changed, my eyes were opened and I am truly thankful for this.
When I was 22 I suffered a particularly bad running injury and was forced to change up my exercise routine. As a classic Type A personality I gravitated towards the most intense form of exercise I could think of – Bikram Yoga. I had spent a small amount of time researching the practice (mainly to see how many calories I could burn) and I was relieved to find that Bikram was one of the more ‘un-yogi’ styles around. There wouldn’t be any chanting, there wouldn’t be any statues of Buddha or Ganesha so I thought it was probably ok. And it was more than ok – it was wonderful. I quickly learnt to pay attention to what was going on inside my mind and my body. The intense practice commanded all of my attention and I was so attracted to the focus, concentration and discipline it required to make it through the gruelling 90 minute class. Physical movement made sense to me and my body responded so well to the practice of asana. I felt like I was worshipping just in a stinky, hot room!!
Fast forward a few years and I had branched out from Bikram and was now a full on student of yoga. I practiced Vinyasa, Power, Jivamukti, Dharma, Hatha and Rocket. Each style revealed a new piece of the yoga puzzle and it opened my eyes to all sorts of things. It forced me to question everything I believed in. It wasn’t so much that my Christian faith faltered it was more that I questioned why Christians express themselves the way they do.
I was struggling to see the relevance of Christians gathering in a church, to stand and sing songs (some pretty bad songs at that) while the people who needed faith the most were outside of the church. At this time I stopped attending traditional church and went to a home group gathering instead. This gave me the connection to Christians I needed and desired within the close community that I thrived on. And I haven’t looked back.
Upon reflection, I realise that a lot of the things I did at church, I did because I thought I had to. I wanted to be accepted by the people there, I wanted to fit in and ultimately I wanted to feel something. And while I did have real experiences and true friendship I didn’t realise at the time how narrow these were. I don’t recall a single person in my church being from a different culture or country. I looked like everyone else in the room and thought the same way everyone else did. What my time in yoga studios has revealed to me is the breadth and depth of each person’s life experience. How do different cultures worship? What does communion with God mean? As an aside, it was at this time that I also married a Coptic Egyptian man so my mind was literally blown by how little I knew!!!! It would have been so easy to stay in my comfort zone, to try and assimilate people to what I knew and believed to be true. I now have a much deeper understanding of the complexities of tradition, culture and faith and for this I am grateful.
Over the years my faith has developed and while I still identify as Christian and truly believe in the promises of God, my expression of faith looks very different.
As Christians we are asked to spend time in worship, to bring worries to God in prayer and to spend time in communion with Jesus. But how, as a 21st century modern person do I actually do these things? What does worship look like? What if I don’t like to sing or dislike Christian music? How am I supposed to worship the Creator of the Universe when standing in a church, singing praise and worship songs, feels like hell? Well for me, I can turn to God on my mat and worship Him with my body just as a dancer expresses a prayer. Yoga is often called a moving meditation and for me this statement couldn’t be closer to the truth. I need to move my body in order to calm my mind and focus. Practicing asana (postures) prepares the body for meditation and my meditation is on Jesus.
Yogis practice Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses) as a way of turning their focus inwards and letting go of external distractions. For me this is one of the most important components of my practice and something that I have really spent time cultivating. By focussing on my breath and my body I am able to still my mind and then have space for my communion with God.
Now, before my fellow Christian friends think that I have abandoned the church, I want to assure you that I do see the value and relevance of church. I understand the argument for corporate worship but I do think that our Western idea of church probably looks a little different to how it did in the early years. First and foremost I am a committed and practicing Christian. I am also a yogi and a yoga teacher. I do not worship yoga. It does not save my life or offer salvation. It does however act as a tool to help me on my faith journey.
Sadly, I have seen a lot of fear in Christian communities surrounding yoga and it’s because of this fear, I have been inspired to write this piece. I have had numerous people ask me to share my story so for those Christians out there who are interested in trying out yoga here’s some information you may find useful.
Let’s get some facts straight. Yoga is not a religion. It is a system of beliefs and practices which help the student move closer to god (for some people they may view themselves as the divine, for others they don’t believe in any god or it could be any other number of gods). I see it as a practical way to remove the distractions and noise out of my life to make way for things which are more positive and healing.
The biggest argument I hear from Christians in regards to practicing yoga is that we shouldn’t worship other gods and opening ourselves up to the spiritual realm can be dangerous. Can I just say that I wholeheartedly agree with this! But, and it’s a big but, I don’t worship any other gods while practicing yoga. These days most of the yoga being taught is sensitive to people’s beliefs and practitioners are encouraged to find something to dedicate the practice to. For some people that may be Ganesha, it may be Jesus or it may be a close friend or relative. Nothing is forced in the practice of yoga so the idea that Christians shouldn’t practice because it would mean worshiping another god is just silly. There may be some studios which are a little more traditional and focus more of the Hindu influences and including chanting as part of the practice but there is a really simple solution to this – just don’t attend those classes or respectfully sit quietly while others recite the chant. Everyone’s experience will be different but I am simply suggesting that rather than dismissing a very useful practice because of fear, use your head and be open to the things which you may learn. Find a teacher and studio that resonates with you and then make the practice your own.
In 2015 and after much consideration, prayer and thought I decided to train as a yoga teacher. It was a decision I didn’t take lightly but I definitely felt a calling to share my love of movement and yoga. I absolutely love teaching and the best part of my job is meeting people from all walks of life. Everyone comes to yoga for a reason and quite often, people arrive on the mat when they are at a crossroads. Perhaps they are going through a lifestyle change or are questioning their place in this world or their self-worth. I honestly believe that arriving on a mat is a great place to start dealing with deeper thoughts and questions. Why? Because yoga encourages stillness and from that stillness we can then start to listen to what our heart and spirit tells us.
Given the above, I want to be clear about something – I do not teach Christian yoga. And I don’t think Christian Yoga is necessary. Why do Christians feel the need to take something and create their own version of it when there is a perfectly good system already in place? I teach my students how to turn their focus inwards, how to listen to their breath and to slow down and reflect on each moment and each movement. If a student wants to use my class to pray or meditate on a god that’s great but I won’t exclude myself from studios by only teaching Christian yoga to Christians. Sure if a student asks me what I believe in, I will tell them. In turn, I will also ask what they believe in and respectfully have a conversation with them. Too often Christians treat people as projects rather than the complex beings they are. Sadly, at times, Christians are some of the most disrespectful people around. They can be quick to judge, eager to preach their version of faith without any consideration of cultural, societal or personal circumstances. Christians will say that it is our job to evangelise and convert but in the end, a conversion is between a single person and God. If I get to be there for the journey – great, but ultimately, my job is to love people.
Do I have all of the answers? Certainly not. Do I get it wrong? Absolutely. But I am trying to be an authentic Christian, somebody who loves people for where they’re at and despite their beliefs, interests and lifestyle choices.
I hope this article has helped clear up some misconceptions about Christians practicing yoga and that you may have the opportunity to explore this powerful and transformative practice.