The Vocation of Christian Yoga
Some people think Christian yoga makes about as much sense as Jewish chemistry… or Islamic mathematics. It’s a fundamental category error. Yoga, at least as practiced in the west, is a system of physical and mental exercises that has nothing to do with Christianity, these critics say. Go to church. And go to yoga class if you must. But certainly don’t mix the two up.
But I disagree. Christians who practice yoga – or the other Eastern spiritual body-mind disciplines of mindfulness, meditation, Tai Chi, and so on – bring with them the unique philosophical outlook and habits of mind that come with Christianity. While they explore what the Eastern practices have to offer them, they do so on their own terms, with their own perspectives. If, in the process of practicing these Eastern disciplines, they make modifications to accommodate their spiritual beliefs, so what? Isn’t that their right?
Now, I admit that I prefer to get my Eastern stuff straight. If I take a Tai Chi, Aikido or a yoga class, I’d rather take it from someone steeped in the traditions of these disciplines. I’d rather use the terminology of the traditional discipline, study what the discipline offers on its own terms. Later, I may decide which parts of what I learned don’t really harmonize very well with what I truly believe from my western (Christian) perspective, but I’m a big boy and can make those judgments myself.
That’s why I’m not really a fan of the Praise Moves or the “Wholly Fit” style of Christian Yoga – although I’m sure it helps very many people and I know its practitioners are sincere — in which all of the yoga postures are renamed from their “pagan” roots. Ditto meditation. If I go on a Zen meditation retreat, I want my Zen straight. Teach me what Zen has to offer… on its own terms and in its own way… and then I’ll decide for myself it I can harmonize Zen meditation with my Christian faith. I find little in minimalist Zen meditation to which any regular Christian could object… while at the same time I am careful not to say that Eastern meditation is the same as Christian contemplative prayer.
Now, that said, I will admit that Christians who have been practicing these Eastern disciplines for a long time do make their own adjustments – and that’s fine. There is a Christian Zen sitting group near me that has been around for ages (decades). These folks have developed their own synthesis. They are faithful Christians who think that traditional Zen meditation helps them, grounds them, perhaps prepares them for a more mature prayer life. But it’s pretty traditional Zen, all in all.
After a while, I think long-term practitioners do feel the need to evolve something new that explicitly integrates what they learn from Eastern practices with the unique spiritual outlook that is Christianity. And that’s why I think there is a real Christian Yoga vocation (yoga being used in a broad sense).
The unique Christian understanding of incarnation actually brings a depth and a pathos to yoga practice that enriches it.
Unlike traditional yoga and Indian philosophy generally, Christians don’t believe that human beings “cast off” their bodies like so many worn-out clothes at death – only to take on new ones in a reincarnated existence.
Rather, Christians have this strange, rather radical, certainly unusual belief that we are our bodies – and that God will miraculously preserve and render them immortal and luminescent in a resurrected state. Thus, the yoga emphasis on bodily care, awareness and health is thus completely harmonious with the Christian understanding of our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit. This is what the founder of Christian yoga – Père J.-M. Déchanet – was getting at when he tried to adapt the spiritual psychology of William of Saint-Thierry to a fairly traditional hatha yoga practice.