by Cornelius Swart, PraXis partner
Last week we had a great time with Phil Vestal of Ruah Space, an online space for spiritual practices, including Christian Mindfulness, embodied prayer and fitness. In the above video you want watch Phil with the group and exercise along with us. We end up with a 20 minutes silent prayer. It’s a pretty good session. Jamie and I have been doing the Ruah Space exercises in combination with Centering Prayer (Mindfulness) for the last few days and it’s been great.
I also wanted to provide a little more discussion on the hot topic of should Christians do Yoga?
I’m a Christian convert of about 7 years now. My parents were non-practicing Christians, one Episcopal and one Catholic. I came to Christianity after years of New Age meandering and a few years practicing Buddhism at a Chinese community in Portland, Oregon.
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Yoga is a super broad area from an ancient civilization that predates Christianity. It can’t be painted in broad strokes. I think some concerns Christians have about Yoga are valid. But just to get triggered by anything associated with the word Yoga is alarmist. We should talk with some precision.
The current Christian civilizational encounter with Yoga reminds me of the early Church as it wrestled with what to make of Greek Philosophy. Was it all pagan? Was some of it valid? Ultimately, the Church in the West said that some philosophy was just as valid when applied to Christianity as it was when applied to the pagan world. I’m thinking mostly of Aristotle. It took them hundreds of years to get there. I think today Christianity is still in the sorting out process when it comes to Yoga. Yoga has a fitness element, mindfulness elements, a worship element and much more. The point is to parse out what is and is not compatible with Christian spirituality and not throw the baby out with the bath water.
Here is a response to the question “Can Christians do Yoga” that we got on our FB page:
I used to believe that, but with more spiritual direction and prayerful discernment I have come to see and believe that any form of Yoga is harmful to the Christian spirit. [Quoting a website] “One indication of yoga’s spiritual nature is the way it affects practitioners over time. The International Journal of Yoga published the results of a national survey in Australia. Physical postures (asana) comprised about 60 percent of the yoga they practiced; 40 percent was relaxation (savasana), breathing techniques (pranayama), meditation, and instruction. The survey showed very significant results: although most respondents commonly began yoga for reasons of physical health, they usually continued it for reasons of spirituality. In addition, the more people practiced yoga, the more likely they were to decrease their adherence to Christianity and the more likely they were to adhere to non-religious spirituality and Buddhism.”Facebook Commenter
Personally having spent a lot of time with “New Age” spirituality and having converted to Christianity from Buddhism, I think this is a great comment to work with. First off, the comments is quote a Christian fitness group called Pietra. This exercise regime is actually no different from what last week’s guests were calling Christian Yoga. The only difference is that the other group calls their modality Pietra. They admit most of the moves are from Asana Yoga.
From what I’ve gathered most people don’t have a problem with stretching. Asana Yoga is just that. I’d be hard pressed to see people converted to another religion because they are watching the yoga practices over at our favorite secular fitness websites FitnessBlender.
The trouble comes in when you are practicing Yoga, with a group that is also practicing Vedic, Buddhist or New Age spirituality. That’s not a problem in and of itself. The problem comes if you are a committed Christian, and now engaged in someone else’s spiritual practices. It’s like having the free lunch at the mosque each week, just to get something to eat— don’t be surprised if you convert to Islam after a while. Phil and his wife Erin [see video above] say instructors are pretty upfront with what they are teaching. So just ask.
As Phil says in his presentation last week, “every group has an intention, know what it is.” And that’s really it. There should be no danger working Yoga with a group like FitnessBlender or 24HourFitness whose’s intention is 100 percent fitness for its own sake. By the same turn, a Christian group that is incorporating asana into a prayerful embodied prayer and fitness practice are not sell outs or syncretists, or sheep in wolf’s clothing. These folks, whether they are Ruah Space, or Pietra or RevelationWellness, have set an intention to unite fitness and Christian spirituality.
Phil and Erin’s Three Things to Avoid in Yoga:
1) Avoid classes that have a spiritual context. Go with the fitness class.
2) Avoid Kundalini Yoga (energy and breath work)
3) Avoid the Sanskrit names for the postures, only because of them them imply veneration of Vedic spirits.
The Slippery Slope
The Devil is in the details. Both the Pietra site and Phil’s discourse on the POD points to things in Yoga that might seem benign but that can take you off the Way of Christ. These are Kundalini Yoga, energy work, certain forms of breath work, any kind of meditation that involves reciting the names of, invoking the names of, praising the name of, or visualizing other spirits such as Vishnu, Ganesh, or Buddhist Saints like the Amitabh Buddha.
Kundalini and elaborate breath work can be particularly tricky. These forms of “energy work” do not necessarily involve the invocation of a named spirit. However, they can be very powerful forms of triggering altered states of consciousness, or at least, opening up transcendental experiences. What’s wrong with that?
Well, in my experiences, you just don’t want to blow open your psyche like that if you are not with a community you trust, and if you are not fully in the presence of God: The Creator of the Universe and your Savior Jesus Christ. It’s kind of like, it’s ok to go out and drink a little, but your don’t want to find yourself drunk beyond all self control, far from home and in a room full of people, that you suddenly realize, you really don’t know. Anything could happen.
For the most part, I think you are safe with those Christians who have done the work to parse out the safe space for you. Also, groups that are purely fitness oriented, like a gym, or FitnessBlender are also safe. Everything else, I would stay away from, at least for the next few hundred years while we figure things out.