The title of this column is so tasteless, isn’t it? “Yoga versus Christianity” sounds like the line shouted into the microphone at a Saturday afternoon World Wrestling Federation match. Yet it is the antagonism that some people of faith apply to the two concepts.
Both Christianity and yoga provide terrific and precious benefits, and are complementary. But Christianity and yoga aren’t in the same category, so couching them as being in “conflict” isn’t even appropriate. It’s like saying, “exercise versus nutrition.”
Yoga can seem scary to an American of Christian faith, because it is unfamiliar, and even uncomfortable. A Christian might ask, “Since yoga was founded in Hinduism, isn’t the use of yoga a form of prayer to false Hindu gods?”
In a word, no.
Indeed, it is possible that yoga predates the very Hindu gods that some Christians worry about praying to. While the origins of yoga continue to be debated by academics, it is generally agreed that Yoga was created more than 5,000 years ago as an ascetic practice to develop unity with the divine universe (“yoga” is derived from yuj, a Sanskrit word meaning “to unite”). Yoga is not a religion. Yoga is not prayer. It is a toolkit that can be used in a number of ways, as any set of tools can.
For example, yoga is among the best physical exercises one can perform. It is rare in its ability to increase both strength and flexibility in the same practice. Rarer still, yoga is an exercise that can be used to lower blood pressure and stress levels. It can be used as a social bond. As a student of meditation, I enjoy its use as a methodology toward serenity. It requires an open-minded submission to its practice, and I like things that challenge my preconceptions. Yoga is designed to do exactly this. Its variety of tools — focused breathing, chanting, balancing, twisting and stretching — are not a threat. In fact, for millennia and for millions of people, they have been and are trusted, intimate, and nurturing.
Meanwhile, yoga does not have any ecclesiastical significance whatsoever. I was raised in a devoutly Christian family. As a karate teacher and as something of an A-type personality, I was curious about the overtly peaceful nature of the yogis and yoginis (male and female yoga practitioners) that I had met. When I began my practice, it did not impinge on my spiritual beliefs. In fact, the provision for meditation provided a forum for me to practice them. When I meditate, whether through prayer or yoga practice, I defer to God in humility. I am reminded that I am but a small part of the universe. I am afforded the opportunity to think deeply, seeking to be the best part of it that I can be. And in so doing, I began to understand the peaceful joy of the yogis and yoginis I had met.
Yoga is a celebration of spirituality, like Christmas is. Practicing yoga makes me no more a Hindu than buying gifts at Christmas makes me a Christian. Of course, I can choose to spend all of my holiday time in material fixations, or deny the validity of Christmas with a fundamentalist argument that Jesus was more likely born in March. Similarly, I could spend my entire yoga class concerned only with pose alignment or working up a sweat. In both instances, though, I would rob myself of a wondrous opportunity for spiritual reflection.
Consider the journey of Jessica D’Angelo, chief instructor at Hot Flow Yoga. “When I first started to practice yoga, I was doing it primarily for the physical benefits,” she said. “I’d heard that it was the ultimate exercise for building a strong core and healthy spine, and that it developed long, lean muscles and optimal flexibility.
“After about a month or so,” she continued, “I started notice of how positive I felt after classes. I noticed how yoga would get me out of a funk like no run on the treadmill had ever done. It helped me unwind after a very long day at my job. I even noticed that my sleeping patterns we more regular and uninterrupted. My yoga practice was following me ‘off the mat’ and becoming a positive influence in my life.
“As I started to delve deeper into my practice I realized that yoga made me closer, or more connected to my own faith. I was in awe at the gift my body was to me. I was closer to God. Now, for me, every yoga class is a celebration of spirit.”
We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness. — Thích Nhất Hạnh
Bruce Costa lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
This article originally appeared in Bux-Mont Living.
© Bruce G. Costa