discipleship: christian yogis, asana disciples

Dallas Willard notes that the church no longer makes disciples, but settles for making converts. The cost of nondiscipleship for the individual is, in short, “that abundance of life Jesus said he came to bring.” For the church as a whole, the cost of nondiscipleship is just as high. Church leaders discuss the problem of people leaving the church, yet I wonder if perhaps it’s more accurate to say that, by no longer offering programs of costly discipleship, the church is leaving people. The asanas, or postures, practiced in yoga could contribute to a discipline that, as Martin Copenhaver notes, helps practitioners to “experience the unity of body and spirit more fully than our [the church’s] current modes of worship do”  and thus support a Christian’s discipleship. Postural yoga offers a worthwhile practice for the spiritual formation of Christian disciples.

The physical, psychological, and spiritual benefits of yoga are well-documented, yet debates continue over whether or not the practice is beneficial or even acceptable for Christians. Andrea Jain writes with frustration of a yogi scholar who “mistakenly bifurcates religious (read authentic) from nonreligious (read inauthentic) yoga.” Yoga, Jain argues, is its own “cumulative tradition.” The practice we know today as yoga is the result of a dialogue between cultures and philosophies, and thus transcends the boundaries of religion as a spiritual practice fitting for anyone who wishes to become closer to God under any name.

Prayer sometimes looks like this.

Some Christians fear that yoga is inseparable from Hinduism and thus is idolatry. To forbid the practice on this basis, writes Sheveland, is to espouse a “container theory of religious identity” that builds walls around religion, shutting off interfaith dialogue before it begins through breeding fear and hatred. Sheveland adds that it is the most committed Christians who are “able to share in and learn from the practices of other traditions without fearing the loss of identity.” Yoga, then, can become a way to not only further a Christian individual’s discipleship of Christ, but also to aid in bridging gaps between faiths, perhaps even as a form of relational evangelism.

The idolatry that does exist in American yoga has little to do with Hinduism but, as Mary Hinkle Shore points out, much more so with “the glorification of beauty and youth … and trust in consumer goods” that we see throughout American culture. Any set of consumer goods that promise a perfect body and happy life has the set-up to become an idol, and this is true not only in yoga but also within the Christian tradition. Prosperity gospels in any form simply are not good news freely offered.

At the heart of the matter is the appropriateness and perhaps even necessity of redefining Christian living. The contemporary Church thinks of prayer as words directed toward God, but throughout the centuries we have seen creative alternatives. Ronald Rolheiser writes that “sometimes other words are used instead of the word prayer … but the essential idea is the same.” He notes that in order to pray always, we must learn to ponder in the biblical sense of “patiently holding [a situation or image] inside of one’s soul, complete with all the tension that brings.” The asanas offered in yoga provide a beautiful way to learn how to carry tension with dignity and peace, a work of the body that trains the soul, often without need for translation or additional effort.

Some Christians are suspect of the understanding or importance of the body in yoga. Losana Boyd writes that her experience of yoga practice lead her back to the Church because she found yoga to be lacking, largely dismissing the benefits. She writes that yoga “can release our attachment to the physical world … by first fully inhabiting the body,” whereas a Christian view of the body is that it has value simply because God created it. Boyd writes as though these two statements are mutually exclusive, but I see them as reflections of one another: the body is valuable (Christian view) and because of that we must fully inhabit it (a practice with which asanas can help). John Sheveland helpfully asks,

““Might asanas influence a Christian’s understanding of herself as a physical body created in the image and likeness of God and thus an object of unutterable dignity, held in being and redeemed by God?”

Such care and respect for one’s body can help Christians better understand what it means to be incarnate and lead us to a deeper understanding of the one-ness of body and spirit.

Another problematic area for some Christians is the definition of sacred. As Boyd “turned back to the Church, the idea of a yoga mat as sacred began to sound spiritually dangerous.” I had the opposite experience. A yoga mat is easily transportable; if anywhere I set it can become sacred, then on what holy ground am I treading without realizing it? Plenty of Christian texts support a paradigm shift of holiness. One of the most notable is Jacob upon awaking from his dream at Bethel. He exclaims, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it!” Nothing has changed in the landscape overnight, only Jacob’s perception of it. This is what a yoga mat can do for the disciple: a simple rectangle that can aid us in seeing any ground as holy, and provoke wonder at what else might be holy but overlooked in its familiarity.

Such re-orientation of a life toward God is the primary goal of discipleship. The discipline of postural yoga can be of aid to a Christian seeking to embody worship and beliefs, and should be accepted and encouraged as a discipleship for those who are called to it.

This piece originally written for Theology of Spiritual Formation with Chelle Stearns. Students were asked to write on discipleship.

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