YOGA OR RELIGION – DO WE HAVE TO CHOOSE?

I was raised in a Christian family and have been a committed Christian for the last 17 years. I am also a Yoga teacher. Not long after I started teaching Yoga, a Christian friend pointed

I was raised in a Christian family and have been a committed Christian for the last 17 years. I am also a Yoga teacher. Not long after I started teaching Yoga, a Christian friend pointed out to me that some Christians and leaders in the Church were not happy with the idea of “Yoga Practising Christians”. I was surprised at this but a quick look in the Nicky Gumbel book, “Searching Issues” confirmed what my friend had said. Being the wise person she is, my friend then went on to suggest that my decision to practise and to teach was a decision between me and God alone. After much thought and many prayers,I really felt at peace about practising yoga.

YOGA-OR-RELIGION poseSo, what exactly is Yoga? Yoga is a practice.
Yoga is a huge subject to which you could devote your whole life studying. There are many different types of yoga and crucially, yoga means different things to different people ( it’s like asking,”what is art?”). Frances Holden, author of, “The Beginner’s Guide to Classic Yoga” tells us the word yoga “comes from the ancient Sanskrit root Yug or Yuj meaning union”. Here “union applies to the body, mind and breath”. The book “Yoga, Mind and Body” states that, “Yoga is a practical aid not a religion and its techniques may be practised by Buddhists, Jews, Christians,Muslims and Atheists alike. Yoga is union with all”.

Clearly, yoga means different things to different people. Nicky Gumbel in “Searching Issues” tells us that yoga is an Eastern practice like the belief in reincarnation, levitation, karma, and Zen and warns against indulging in any of these mystical activities. He, along with other sceptical Christians, believes that the practice of yoga opens the floodgates to accepting beliefs that run counter to Christianity. Laurette Willis warns about the “spiritual pitfalls of yoga”. Laurette explains that the goal of yoga is to obtain oneness with the universe and thus spiritual enlightenment. I have read other definitions of yoga which include this phrase.

However, in my experience, many of my clients see yoga first and foremost as a form of exercise and relaxation. I focus very much on the physical aspect of yoga with some relaxation and mindfulness. I do appreciate, however, that every yoga teacher chooses to teach according to their definition of yoga. For me, as a Christian, I feel a sense of spirituality when I am teaching (which I believe is the Holy Spirit). However, I would never verbalise this as I do not feel that I should inflict my beliefs upon my clients.

Susan Bordenkircher, in her book “Yoga for Christians” highlights what I believe is one of the most important points that is often missed, “to forgo the healing benefits of yoga because it is sometimes practised within another belief system is like telling God he is not big enough to take something out of the dark and bring it into the light. Let’s keep in mind that it was God who created the breathing process, oxygen, muscles, movement and our bodies’ natural relaxation response”. Bordenkircher also says “yoga is a philosophy and not a religion. It makes no specific statement about deity, nor does it require students to believe in such things as karma and reincarnation”.

I think it is important to consider “intent” and I think that when you take part in a yoga class, the intention in your heart and mind will have an impact on your experience. This means that yoga is different for each of us regardless of our religious beliefs.

Taking the time to be quiet is, I believe, crucial. In my classes I include both mindfulness and meditation. Using mindfulness we focus our thoughts on our breath, our bodies, and how we feel at that moment. That moment is precious and very specific. Using meditation we quieten our minds to narrow our concentration on a single thought; a sound, a word, a picture, a poem or even a piece of scripture. In the book “Yoga and Breast Cancer” Loren Fishman describes yoga as succeeding in “quieting the din, easing the restlessness, and softening the glare. Yoga offers an island of calm”. Psalm 46:10 tells us to “be still and know that I am God” and, for those of us who are Christians, the meditative process allows us to create the peace to hear God should we so choose.

I have clients of many faiths, all of whom derive much benefit from yoga. The following quote comes from a practising Christian client ” I have been doing yoga as a form of exercise for about 27 years. For me, it is a gentle, non – competitive way of stretching muscles and improving awareness of how my body moves and feels. It is also a way of learning how to relax and switch off from day to day concerns”. She has no hesitation in coming to the class and does not feel she is compromising her faith in any way.

I feel that by putting our bodies into various postures, we are not taking on religious beliefs. I cannot accept that the thousands of people who do yoga on the “Wii” in front of their TVs are on a path to “spiritual enlightenment”. They are concentrating on balancing and stretching and not necessarily opening themselves up to spiritual influences. I think that yoga is very difficult to define because it means different things to different people and every yoga class is different too.

I am a Christian, that is who I am. I try to do everything as a Christian. My practice of yoga is no exception. I do it with God in my heart and mind. The time of relaxation can be a time to pray and to hear God. Christians who choose not to practise yoga because of their religious conviction may well be missing out, but everything we do, I believe is between ourselves and God.

I hope this has given you food for thought.

References
Searching Issues by Nicky Gumbel.
The Beginners Guide to Classic Yoga by Frances Houlahan

Praise moves.com by Laurette Willis

Why yoga is bad for a Christian by Yinka Vidal Yoga for Christians by Susan Bordenkircher Yoga and Breast Cancer by Lauren Fishman

Article Written by: Katie Bennett
Katie is a yoga teacher based in Sheffield. She has been a teaching for 12 years, and holds an Instructor Diploma with British School of Yoga. Since qualifying she has continued to study and gain BSY qualifications in Advanced Yoga Teaching, Pre and Post Natal Yoga, Relaxation Therapy and a certificate of Merit in Eating Disorders. Katie feels passionately that everyone can benefit from yoga, whatever their age, sex, or physical health. As well as teaching, Katie loves to write about yoga and its benefits on our day-to-day-life. For more information, visit Katiebennettyoga.co.uk / FaceBook: katiebennettyoga / Twitter: @kbennettyoga