Stretching for Jesus
Posted August 31, 2005
By LISA TAKEUCHI CULLEN/MAHTOMEDI
Time Magazine, Monday, Aug. 29, 2005
The yoga teacher sits in a lotus position atop a polished wooden platform. Behind her, verdant woods are visible through panoramic windows. Gentle music tinkles from overhead speakers. Two dozen students in spandex outfits, most of them women, settle onto purple and blue mats to begin the class with ujjayi, a breathing exercise. Their instructor, Cindy Senarighi, recommends today's mantra. "'Yahweh' is a great breath prayer," she says. "The Jesus Prayer also works. Now lift your arms in praise to the Lord."
The platform is an altar, the tinkly tune is praise music, and the practice is Christian yoga. Senarighi's class, called Yogadevotion and taught in the main chapel of St. Andrew's Lutheran Church in Mahtomedi, Minn., is part of a fast-growing movement that seeks to retool the 5,000-year-old practice of yoga to fit Christ's teachings. From Phoenix, Ariz., to Pittsburgh, Pa., from Grand Rapids, Mich., to New York City, hundreds of Christian yoga classes are in session. A national association of Christian yoga teachers was started in July, and a slew of books and videos are about to hit the market. But the very phrase stiffens yoga purists and some Christians--including a rather influential Catholic--who insist yoga cannot be separated from its Hindu roots.
Still, the boom, say its backers, is just beginning. Books on Christian yoga were published as early as 1962, but in recent years, as yoga has become as ubiquitous as Starbucks, more Christians have decided to start their own classes. Susan Bordenkircher, a Methodist from Daphne, Ala., is one. She discovered yoga in 2002. "I knew right away I was getting something out of it spiritually and physically, but it felt uncomfortable in that format," she says. So Bordenkircher prepared a vinyasa, or series of postures, with a biblical bent. Meditations focus on Jesus. She calls the sun salutation, a series of poses honoring the Hindu sun god, a "warm-up flow" instead; other Christians call it the "Son" salutation.
At first, Bordenkircher and other yoga teachers encountered skepticism. Officials at Bordenkircher's church asked her if she could call her exercises something other than yoga, and she has had to convince potential students that meditation is not anti-Christ. John Keller, a pastor at St. Andrew's, tells doubtful parishioners that the Bible describes many postures for prayer and that "yoga is just another way to pray." Also, says Keller, it draws potential converts through the church's doors; about a quarter of Yogadevotion students are not churchgoers.
Yoga purists, while encouraging people of all faiths to practice yoga, recoil at the Christian co-opting of its ancient traditions--especially when used as a tool for evangelizing. "We shouldn't use yoga to sell our students anything," says Patricia Walden, a renowned disciple of hatha yoga guru B.K.S. Iyengar. Moreover, others argue, Hinduism is not like a recipe ingredient that can be extracted from yoga. Says Subhas Tiwari, professor of yoga philosophy and meditation at the Hindu University of America in Orlando, Fla.: "Yoga is Hinduism."
"Christian yoga is an oxymoron," agrees Laurette Willis of Tahlequah, Okla. She says yoga led her to dabble in a rootless New Age lifestyle until she became a Christian in 1987. Willis now speaks to Christian groups against yoga, offering instead a series of poses called PraiseMoves.
Catholics face a more formidable skeptic. In 1989 the Vatican issued a document saying the practice of Eastern traditions like yoga "can degenerate into a cult of the body," warning Catholics against mistaking yoga's "pleasing sensations" for "spiritual well-being." It was signed by then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger--now Pope Benedict XVI. In a 2003 document the Vatican further distances itself from New Age practices, including yoga. Even so, Father Thomas Ryan, a Catholic leader of the Christian yoga movement, says he interprets the church's position not as a denunciation of yoga but as a reminder to "respect Christian logic" in its practice. "And that's what we're doing," he says.
For Judy Arko, 43, the logic behind Christian yoga is simple. "It gives me time alone with God," she says. "As a mom of two small kids, I don't get that--even in church."