Question: I enjoyed your seminar on “Yoga and the Theology of the Body” at the Hartwick Seminary Summer Institute of Theology. You told us at the end of the session that Christians should know their basic theology when they practice yoga. I’ve heard about “Christian Yoga.” What do you think about that?
Answer: This question is slightly different from the question about whether it’s OK for Christians to practice yoga that I answered previously in this blog. There are obviously many Christians among the millions of Americans and other people around the world who are practicing yoga and they obviously don’t think it harms their Christian faith to do so. I practice yoga and I’ve even dared to lead the practice of yoga when I do seminars relating to the body, as I did on Monday evening in the Hartwick Seminary Summer Institute of Theology (held at Hartwick College, Oneonta, NY, July 26-31, 2015).
Let me clarify that I don’t teach yoga. I don’t believe I’m qualified to do so because I don’t have yoga teacher training certification. But I use the yoga I practice to help people get into their bodies, as I did when I led students in yoga sequences in the “Embodied Liturgy” class I taught at Satya Wacana Christian University in Salatiga, Central Java, Indonesia last summer (see the photo above this post).
In the Monday night seminar at the Hartwick Seminary Summer Institute of Theology I wanted to get the participants to think about a theology of the body. I advertised that we would do a bit of yoga and asked people to bring mats if they had one. Most of the participants did bring yoga mats with them, so I assume they were practicing yogins. In this seminar on a theology of the body I led a practice based on the subdivisions of prana (breath, energy) known as the five vayus (winds) and then asked students to reflect on St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?… So glorify God in your body.”
What yoga does that other exercise regimens don’t do is give attention to the breath. It is actually the breath that empowers the poses. The Sanskrit prana is understood as breath or energy. The Hebrew word for “Spirit” is ruach, which means breath or wind. The Greek pneuma can also mean breath or wind. Also the Latin spiritus can refer to breath or energy. References to the Spirit of God in the Bible can be translated as breath or wind. The Holy Spirit is the life-giving energy of God. It is the wind of God that blows over the formless void and brings order out of chaos (Genesis 1:1); the breath of God that breathed life into the man (Adam) the Lord created and made him a living being (Genesis 2:7); the breath of God that the prophet calls into slain army of Israel so that dead bodies may live again (Ezekiel 37); the violent wind that propels the apostles out into the streets on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:5).
Yoga has a practice in which it dissects the effects of prana within the body. This has to do with the vayus or winds. In inhalation we take energy into the body and in exhalation we expel energy from the body. In various poses we can experience taking in energy (prana vayu), circulating energy (vyana vayu), moving energy upward (udana vayu), digesting energy (samana vayu), and eliminating unneeded energy (apana vayu). Can the practice of the vayus give us a way of reflecting on the embodied work of the Holy Spirit in our lives? That’s the question I posed in the seminar.
The practices I led were poses (asanas) from regular Hatha Yoga:
move in rotation several times from table to child to downward dog for warm-up, maintaining even inhales and exhales;
from cobra to warrior 1 (prana vayu , to open chest and fill it with prana);
to mountain and warrior 2 (vyana vayu to circulate prana);
back to mountain, standing back bend, to forward fold, to extended bridge raising arms overhead (udana vayu to move prana upward);
lay on your back for leg stretches up and down and side twists (samana vayu to balance prana);
butterfly, bring knees upward while maintaining root lock and repeat several times (apana vayu to eliminate prana);
Anyone who practices Hatha Yoga knows these poses whether they are Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, New Agers, Atheists, Christians, Jews, or Muslims. These were poses I received from my teacher Nick Beem at Grateful Yoga in Evanston, IL when he offered a class in the yoga of sun, moon, and fire. The vayus belong to the sun stage, which focuses on energy for the body. I did this vayu practice at home every day for 30 days. That’s why I felt competent to lead it in the seminar.
The whole practice of yoga can be an extended meditation of our relationship with God in Christ through the Holy Spirit. But as I said in the earlier post, I don’t think a specifically “Christian yoga” is needed. But there are many kinds of yoga and they are taught in many different ways and from many different perspectives. That’s why I said at the end of the seminar, “Be careful out there in the yoga studios. Know your theology.”
The meditation I provided was a prana meditation practice that I turned into an invocation of the Holy Spirit for the purposes of the seminar topic. One could do this meditation with the breathing and movements simply chanting OM (pronounced A-U-M). Instead, I used the Latin “Veni Sancte Spiritus” (“Come Holy Spirit”
Seated in lotus position or with crossed legs extend arms overhead on inhale; on exhale chant Veni (“Come” ). Extend arms sideways on inhale to open the heart (as below); on exhale chant Sancte (“Holy”). Bring hands to prayer position at heart center on inhale; on exhale chant Spiritus (“Spirit”). Bring folded hands to forehead on inhale; on exhale fold torso over legs as you chant “Amen.” Do this three times.
If the body is the Temple of the Holy Spirit can we conceive of the Spirit energizing the body for the worship of God (“glorify God in your body”) and service to the neighbor? What else do we have with which to worship God or serve the needy neighbor than our bodies? Would not the Holy Spirit empower our bodies and put it into our minds (which are embodied) to do this? Would not a practice in which we focus on the movement of prana or spirit within us put us in mind of the service of God? St. Paul admonishes us “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service” (Romans 12:1).
The so-called “Christian Yoga” simply does yoga reflecting on Bible verses or Christian concepts. Some teachers even rename the poses with biblical references. They use the whole practice of yoga as an extended meditation on our relationship with God in Christ. I suppose I did this sort of thing with my Vayu practice and reflecting on the work of the Holy Spirit within our bodies. But yoga practices, in and of themselves, are not denominational. There really cannot be “Christian yoga” in the sense of having different pranayamas or asanas than anyone else practices. The breathing techniques and poses and wisdom about the body that one experiences in these practices are available to whoever wants to use them for whatever insight or enlightenment they shed on one’s life and being, including one’s relationship to God and the world.
People of different faiths have used yoga as a way of practicing their faith. That’s why I said that Christians need to know their theology when they venture out into the wider world of yoga. The world of yoga is a theological, philosophical, and spiritual marketplace as well as a fitness program. Historically, Hindus have used yoga to express devotion (bhakti) to their deities such as Krishna. Jains have used yoga in their quest for moral purity. Buddhists have practiced yoga as an aid on the path toward enlightenment. New age practitioners use yoga to arrive at a new consciousness. Those of a more secular leaning use yoga as a fitness regimen or a way of bringing mind and body together. Yoga is also promoted and practiced today for therapeutic purposes. Yoga has always been evolving throughout its history. If Christians practice yoga, what is its meaning for us?
Yoga can be regarded simply as a way of giving attention to the body. I believe that giving attention to the body is, in fact, a Christian contribution to the evolution of yoga. In my article, “Frank Answers About Christians Practicing Yoga,” I discussed the influence of the northern European physical culture movement with its gymnastics and calisthenics, which was brought to India by the YMCA and the British Army, on the development of modern postural yoga. This story is told by Mark Singleton in Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice (Oxford University Press, 2010).
Yoga has been resurrected in modern times through its attention to the body rather than as a practice to transcend the body as in the old yoga traditions. My argument is that this is the influence of Western physical culture movement that emerged from the Christian culture of northern Europe and was promoted by the YMCA with its threefold emphasis on healthy bodies, minds, and spirits. Christianity regards the body as the good creation of God that will be recreated in the promised resurrection. We keep our bodies healthy and strong so that we may be of service to God and our neighbor.
Christians believe that God created the body from the earth and commissioned us to care for the earth. These are acts of stewardship. This stewardship would be Christian action or kriya.
Yoga can also be practiced by Christians as a form of devotion to Christ. In a great yoga scripture from the classical period, the Bhagavad Gita (ca. 200 CE, a part of the great Mahabharata epic), the god Krishna, disguised as Arjuna’s chariot driver, teaches Arjuna about various types of yoga: jnana (wisdom), karma (action), samnyasa (renunciation), aisvara (mastery), and bhakti (devotion). Krishna regards bhakti as the highest form of yoga because it focuses on the relationship with God. “…the yogi is to yoke himself at all times…so that the workings of mind and senses are under control… let him sit yoked (yukta), his thought on me, his intention focused on me” (translated by J. A. B. Van Buitenen, The Bhagavadgitā in the Mahābhārata: A Bilingual Edition, University of Chicago Press, 1981, 6:23a). The highest purpose of yoga in Bhagavad Gita is bhakti—to be devoted (yoked) to Krishn
Arjuna meets Krishna at Prabhasakshetra
So, too, the Christian can practice yoga as a form of devotion—not to Krishna, but to Christ. Yoga for Christians, whether it is billed as “Christian yoga” or not, is also a form of bhakti —a way of glorifying God in our bodies. The yoga techniques are no different whether they are devoted to Krishna or to Christ. What we make of them is our “intention”. We devote our yoga practice to our own God.
Here’s a sample of my own “intention.” I have sometimes begun my home yoga practice with an enacted Gloria Patri (Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit).
Stretch up into standing or mountain pose (tadasana), arms overhead—“Glory.”
Standing backward bend (hasta uttanasana)—“to the Father.”
Forward fold with head down and hands reaching to the ground (uttanasana)—“and to the Son.” (This enacts in the body the descent of the Son of God into human flesh and into our world.)
Monkey pose, straight back, hands on knees, head looking forward (ardha uttanasana)—“and to the Holy Spirit.” (The Holy Spirit is the bond between the Father and the Son.)
Return to standing pose (Tadasana), hands in prayer position over the heart—“Amen.” (Tadasana roots us to the earth from whose elements the human body is formed by the Creator.) I do this three times in devotion to God the Holy Trinity.
Devotion to Christ will lead us not only within ourselves, but also outside ourselves into the world around us and into everyday life. If we’re going to practice yoga as a spiritual discipline, it should help us cultivate an incarnational spirituality—a spirituality that takes our body and earthly life seriously. Yoga should help us yoke together not only body and mind, but also the self and the world, the love of God and the love of neighbor. To me, that’s Christian yoga whether it is called such or not.
Some practitioners of yoga today are wondering whether there can be more of a communal and ethical dimension to yoga. In terms of considering an ethical dimension to yoga practice, I was impressed with an article by Matthew Remski, “Modern Yoga Will Not Form a Real Culture Until Every Yoga Studio Can Also Double As a Soup Kitchen and other observations from the threshold between yoga and activism,” in Carol Horton and Roseanne Harvey, 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice (Kleio Books, 2012), 109-31. Remski is a Buddhist, but he was inspired in these thoughts by his memories of Catholic Church life in his younger years. If there is to be “Christian Yoga,” precisely here is where it could make a contribution to the evolving development of yoga.
Whatever in yoga connects us to the world in which “we live and move and have our being” (a quote from a Greek poet cited by St. Paul in his address on the Areopagus in Act 17:28)—the world of nature and society, the world of ecology and relationships—is a yoga that Christians can affirm and should aspire to practice.
Pastor Frank Senn