With all that is going on in the world right now. We at First Congregational have doubled our commitment to sponsoring free yoga classes that are now Tuesday and Thursday nights at 6 PM. As a Christian Church, why should we sponsor and host a practice like yoga? Isn’t it Hindu? Isn’t it in opposition to Jesus’ teaching? First, I want to publically answer these questions. Second, I want to encourage you to join us some evening as a way to stay grounded in this chaotic world.
For the early Pilgrims who came to America 400 years ago, the goal of their spiritual practice was communion with God. Why and how they prayed, why they lived in covenant, why they sought their own community as a way of making a place for God in this world; all of it was to sit at the table with the one who made them.
In this pursuit they called upon many of the traditional spiritual disciplines of the church: worship, prayer and fasting, thanksgiving and covenant keeping and a new one which has become the guiding principle of much of our worship, scripture study. It is hard to imagine the centrality of reading the bible being a new thing in the church but the pilgrims brought bible reading as a radical new discipline. God is always opening new disciplines and new ways for us to come into relationship with Him. I suggest yoga is another in the long line of disciplines God is giving us to tend the body and soul.
It is this claim of the church the God comes into the world as Jesus incarnate “in the flesh”. We are not meant to be a body at war with our soul or a spirit trying to escape this world; that is gnostic heresy. We are not meant to be a body with desires heading opposite directions to the longings of heaven within us, that is the seduction of the world leading to Hell. St Isaac the Syrian in the 7th Century said of the holiest people, “…that while alive they were dead; for though living in the flesh, they did not live for the flesh.” We are called to live in our bodies not for them. We are called to be sanctified through our relationship with Jesus the Christ and not let our lusts and fears overcome us. At the same time we are to be fully in this world just as Emanuel God-with-us is. Through yoga’s emphasis on the breath and movement it helps us not only be present but loosen the grip of the worldly passions that would destroy us.
What about Hinduism? Modern Yoga is not very Hindu at all. It uses some Sanskrit words some practitioners and traditions like insisting upon its link but it is a very 20th century phenomenon born of the interaction of west and east. In his book, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, Mark Singleton writes, “there is little or no evidence that physical yoga poses (asana]…has ever been the primary aspect of any Indian yoga practice tradition…” For whatever reason, yoga is a discipline that has organically emerged over the last century and I think that tells us as people of spirit is it not to be ignored. The Spirit is gives us new tools for every age.
Modern yoga practice carries many of the same elements that emerging spiritual disciplines have for those in the past seeking connection with God, just as the puritans did, and just as we do in our walk today. I have had the privilege of watching prisoners transformed as they learned to become yoga instructors. Personally I began my yoga practice while I was a Chaplain in Iraq showing me a new discipline to link the body to the heavenly direction of the walk with Christ. It about having a way to open myself to the need we all have for the Spirit to dwell both within and through us. An anonymous pilgrim prayed over 400 years ago: “I need the force, energy, impulses of thy Spirit to carry me on the way to my Jerusalem.”
We all need God’s strength to take us where we are going. I have found that a solid yoga practice links me with the Jesus by making space in my breath and my body to do greater things than exhaust myself in the worries and wantings of the world . We live in worried days and bodies filled with anxiety that need a home in Christ more than ever. We offer yoga to the public and to ourselves as way to fulfilling Jesus’ prayer in the Gospel of John: I pray… [that] they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. -John 17:20
I hope you will join us one session and see what this new discipline has for your walk.
(Thanks to Carolyn Williams’ writing in inspiring this piece. )
Rev. Andy Stinson is Senior Minister at First Congregational Church of Fall River.