Yoga and My Christian Faith


Recently I’ve come across a realization. For my whole life, my Christian faith has told me what to do. Over the past six and a half years, yoga has taught me how to do it.

Christianity told me to take every thought captive. Yoga taught me mindfulness.

Christianity told me to be transformed by the renewing of my mind. Yoga taught me how to transform my body and mind by meditation in motion.

Christianity told me do not worry. Yoga taught me how to breathe in a way that calms my fight or flight response.

Christianity told me that my body is a temple. Yoga taught me how to pray with my whole body.

Christianity told me to love my neighbor as myself. Yoga taught me how to know, accept, and love myself so that I can love others well.

Christianity told me to pray without ceasing. Yoga taught me to clear space so that prayers could flow more effortlessly through me.

Yoga

Many years ago I read an article by a well-known and (then) well-respected pastor. The framework he used when discussing different aspects of culture through a Christian lens was “receive, redeem, reject.” Through a lengthy article, he completely rejected yoga, even going so far as to say, “…a faithful Christian can no more say they are practicing yoga for Jesus than they can say they are committing adultery for Jesus.”

I remember reading that and having a hard time. Here was someone who I respected and saw as a spiritual leader and authority, and frankly, whose opinion mattered to me. I couldn’t help but feel conflicted because I had found yoga to be an incredible path to connection with God and I was completely comfortable, spiritually, as a Christian, with my practice.

This pastor wasn’t isolated in his thinking. In fact, A 2011 survey of global, Evangelical Protestant leaders revealed that 92% of the 2,196 surveyed believe that “engaging in yoga as a spiritual practice…[is] not compatible with evangelicalism.”

Yoga became somewhat of a dirty little secret. I could practice, and find amazing connection with God through it, as long as I was cautious about who knew. When asked, I was very careful to tell people that I practiced yoga to empty myself for the sake of filling myself with the Holy Spirit. I tuned out any kind of yogic philosophy that was taught during my classes. Living in California, yoga is much more acceptable in Christian culture, but I’ve had many friends admit to me that they feel this way in more conservative places in the US.

Richard Rohr has a helpful metric for trying to come to spiritual truth. It is a 3-pronged approach combining scripture, tradition, and inner experience. He says, “Scripture as validated by experience, and experience as validated by tradition, are good scales for one’s spiritual worldview.”

I’ve talked before about how I used to believe that I had to deny my inner experience if it clashed with tradition or the opinion of spiritual authorities. As I’ve been able to see beyond the past seventy-some years of American evangelicalism, I’ve been able to embrace the long tradition of my faith and, yes, even the recognition that God’s truth was self-evident on earth long before Jesus came to embody Christ (see John 1, Colossians 1, Romans 1). I have found it helpful to remember that all truth is God’s truth. The history of Christian meditation and contemplative practice stretches all the way back to the beginning of the church.

As I’ve studied some of the yogic philosophy throughout my 200-hour yoga teacher training, I’ve been fascinated to discover some of the resonance between my faith and this philosophy. The Yoga Sutras is one of the classical texts for yogic philosophy. According to Sutra 1.2, “Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively toward an object and sustain that direction without any distractions.” Isn’t that the goal of my Christian faith as well? Hebrews 12:1-2 comes to mind.

Some will cite 1 Corinthians 8 saying that we shouldn’t engage in practices that might cause others to stumble or be confused. I think this is a valid point, and I would invite anyone to ask me personally to share the fruit of the Spirit that has been borne out of my yoga practice beyond the examples listed above. For those concerned about the “pagan roots” of yoga, consider your celebration of Christmas with a tree inside your home or the decoration of eggs at Easter, which are both known to have pagan roots.

I’ve found it extremely helpful and beautiful over the past few months to gain a deeper understanding of the roots of yoga. I learned that the earliest yoga poses were all seated postures to enable practitioners to sit in meditation for longer periods of time. I am so thankful that I have found a spiritual practice that enables me to be in a meditative state that engages mind, body, and soul. It’s okay if everyone is not comfortable with it, but for me, it has greatly enriched my spiritual life and I’m excited to be able to use teaching yoga as a way to help others along on their path.


6 Comment

  1. Emily says: Reply

    Paul talked to the Corinthians about a similar spiritual debate over food sacrificed to idols. While to some it was just food no big deal, but to others it bothered their conscience and they felt they were sinning.

    I totally feel the same way about yoga as you do. It has expanded my faith in a way I never experienced before. (I also read your posts on leaving the church) I have a hard time sitting still in church on the hard pew listening to a sermon about something that is most likely not even really relevant, wearing the church mask, and just punching my ticket. Whereas with yoga, I feel a stirring within my soul and I feel the Holy Spirit moving/speaking within me. As a yoga teacher, I want everyone to experience this amazing connection! But to some it may feel a bit like food sacrificed to idols. It makes me sad though that these leaders take such a harsh stance and limit the experiences of their members. It kinda gets back to this box that Christianity is supposed to fit in. Sometimes it makes me wonder if Jesus himself would be welcomed with open arms or if he would have been that weird guy you smile at real quickly and walk away with the sideways glance.

    1. Chelsea Long says: Reply

      Absolutely about the Paul passage–although at times I’ve felt that it’s used against me in practicing yoga (ie, I shouldn’t practice yoga if other people feel sketchy about it)–so it’s tricky! I want to write more on this topic for sure. But I definitely agree. Yesterday I visited an amazing church and I got that same feeling that I get when I practice yoga. That Holy Spirit, emotionally moving experience that I missed for years before discovering yoga.

  2. Taylor says: Reply

    I think this is very well said with grace and truth. It’s just a good point overall to ask questions when (especially when) we don’t understand something, instead of making assumptions.

    1. Chelsea Long says: Reply

      Thank you, and yes, it’s a great general policy but it’s amazing how much more people would rather assume they know.

  3. I love this so much. The semester in Costa Rica before I met you, we had a bible study group of ladies which is actually where I began my Christian faith journey. I remember feeling ashamed of the Sanskrit tattoo on my foot, and worried about how strongly I felt drawn toward the principles of Buddhism that aligned well with parts of Christianity. So much of what I learned in Buddhism was from meditation, yoga, and classes I had been taking in religious education. I was baffled at some similarities they (Christianity + Buddhism) had, and confused as to why I seemed to feel so sinful for appreciating another religious culture and practice. I was having a one-on-one meeting with a bible study friend, and in her sweet grace she gave me that same exact peace of mind – All truth is God’s truth. It helped me accept my yogic tendencies and allowed me to fully connect through yoga to the God I was starting to know. I know my story is different in that I actually practiced as a Buddhist for some time, but yoga was so helpful for me in ways other than religion that I didn’t want to let it go for the sake of being a “real Christian”, so to speak. Thank you for sharing, as always!

    1. Chelsea Long says: Reply

      Thank YOU for sharing! I love that story. So awesome that your friend was able to extend that grace to you. xoxo

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