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I am a Christian who practices, teaches and encourages others to do yoga. In the years since I began my practice, I have heard many times from the Christian world, that a TRUE Christian cannot have anything to do with yoga. But I've also heard from the yoga world that a TRUE yogi cannot be a Christian! These statements are simply false.
Yoga is not a religion — its true origins are fuzzy in history. It arose from a system of beliefs that predates Buddhism, Hinduism and yes, even Christianity. The first Yogis were probably polytheists — believers in multiple gods. These men (only men!) practiced various ways of sitting, that would allow them to meditate for longer periods of time. Their goal in this meditation was to come closer to God. But their ideas of just who God was, changed dramatically over time.
Some schools of thought believed in an all-powerful, all knowing God, and that with meditation and other forms of devotion, humans could become more like Him. Some believed that each human is divine, and that we simply have to awaken to this reality with meditation, contemplation and a change of attitude. The debate on the nature of God extends to this very day, and will continue until the end of time. But these people, the original yogis, used their asanas as a tool to help them reach God.
Yoga is a TOOL. It can be used toward whatever end you wish. Many people come to class with the goal of relaxation. Many come wanting to better their physical bodies, or calm their minds. And some will come to yoga believing it as a tool to help them connect with God.
I'll use a personal example as an illustration. My whole life, I've been high-energy. Most of us know this personality as Type-A, or high-strung. When I would begin a prayer, I would set out with the best intentions to speak with reverence to the Creator. But my mind always wandered. Sometimes, it was less than a minute or two and I was off, thinking about something completely unrelated! That's not how I want to address the Most High. But I'm human and had never been taught to meditate, so I wandered.
But yoga has changed all that for me. Since practicing asana and meditation, I can now focus my mind for longer periods of time, showing the proper respect God deserves. On a side note, meditation is mentioned several times in the Bible, and we have reason to believe that God's people used to spend much time in meditation.
Yoga can be used as a way to enhance your own spiritual practices.
Let's look at some of the ideology associated with yoga to evaluate how it can fit with any faith. The most taught ethical standards of yoga revolve around the Yamas & Niyamas. These are ways of acting and abstaining, which create a moral life.
- Ahimsa = Nonviolence
- Satya = Truthfulness
- Asteya = Nonstealing
- Brahmacharya = Nonexcess
- Aparigraha = Nonpossessiveness
- Saucha = Purity
- Santosha = Contentment
- Tapas-Self = Discipline
- Svadyaya = Self-study
- Ishvara Pranidhana = Surrender
Upon examination of these ethical standards, they follow closely the teachings of Christ. They are simple, moral codes that most would agree would lead us to a better life. They make up the first two limbs of the 8-limbed path set forth by Patanjali, author of the Yoga Sutras. He was not one of the first writers of yoga, but one of the first to put together a codified system of practice.
Within his Sutras, Patanjali asserts that the practice of yoga consists of eight parts:
- Yama: Outward morality
- Niyama: Inward morality
- Asanas: Body postures
- Pranayama: Breathing exercises, and control of Prana (Chi or "life force")
- Pratyahara: Control of the senses
- Dharana: Concentration
- Dhyana: Devotion, Meditation on God
- Samadhi: Union with God.
But here is where my path diverts slightly from Patanjali's. I believe that complete union with God can only come after one's physical death. But still, as a Christian I can practice yoga with a clean conscience, because the main ideas of yoga are not about the nature of God, or how to worship. They're simply ideals for living.
Different people bring in their own ideas, beliefs and teachings and apply them to yoga, which gives every instructor has their own unique flavor. At my studio, I request that our teachers honor all religious beliefs by keeping their teachings religiously neutral. We do not chant to Ganesha (a Hindu god). We do not have statues of Buddha, nor do we have Christian symbols displayed. I believe that none of these are necessary for a full, rich yoga practice.
Yoga is not a part of my theological beliefs, but it has enriched my spiritual practices. If you come to the mat, you can choose how much spirituality you want to infuse into your own practice. Yoga is about getting to know yourself and the causes of your suffering, in order to remove unnecessary suffering from your life and find healing.