I was asked, today, if Christians could practice yoga. The girl who asked blushed, said she knew it was a silly question, but still wondered how her faith and her yoga studio were related, in the sum total of her life.
It is an odd question, but also not. Both are things that promote spiritual journeys, healing communities, a more centered soul. 98% of Americans say that they believe in God, and the vast majority of these identify with a monotheistic religion. Meanwhile, millions are practicing yoga, in studios and in livingrooms. Both are attempts to come closer to something. Both are marginalized from our daily life. Yet both speak to our live’s center.
I told her I wasn’t sure I would believe in anything, especially prayer, if I hadn’t found it in yoga.
There is something deep in us that yearns for truth and meaning. This thing has become irritated and sore in a culture of ruthless individualism, mass marketing, and social discontent. Oddly, even as we believe in the power of the individual, we seem to be a people radically disconnected from our own selves. Both traditional faith and yoga are attempts to answer that deep something. Both are valid.
But the problem with belief is that stubborn “Truth” thing. Faith becomes arrogant when it claims a better right than others. No system of thought or expression of faith holds a monopoly on insight. Yet there has to be some gravity, some reality, to a faith. Pure relativity becomes wishy washy and hollow.
The expression of yoga in our world is unique and, I think, uniquely special. It is not the same practice it was thousands of years ago. The magic is not only what it has done and will do to heal our culture and change us, but the way we are changing it. Yoga is an expression of Spirituality, and I sometimes do it in a Christian church.
I also do it on sidewalks. But that’s a different point.
Let my prayer arise in Thy sight as incense,
And the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice. -Psalm 141:2.
We tend to think of prayer, spirituality, and our ‘selves’ in intellectual ways. We are taught that religion is a thing we retreat to, find in special places, are taught by special persons. We tend to disregard the physical as a handicap, an embarrassment, and a weakness.
We lose out when we do this. Spirituality is not a thing to be found in churches once a week or in ‘retreats’ and ‘cloisters’: it is here, and it is now, or it's fake. Nor is it a teaching handed down by others, if we’re honest: religion is the song of the heart. Our bodies our our very lives, our gift received and our gift to give. Our bodies will dictate our ultimate truth. Our relationship with our bodies says an awful lot about what we think of God’s creation. The most profound connection to the divine is always experienced inwardly, as something between ourselves and god.
Ever since the Incarnation, when the Word became flesh, no one is permitted to scorn or disregard anything human, natural, or earthy, and this includes the body. The Incarnation establishes without a doubt, once and for all, the given-ness of union with God. We do not have to attain divine union. We do not have to climb out of our messy flesh into the pure Spirit of God. God has become man. Our flesh is his flesh. Our body is his body. – Carmelite monk William McNamara
How do we come to terms with our own selves? What role does shame play? Love? Hunger? What does that self of clay and ash have to teach us about salvation, grace, humility, reverence, and joy? What does it teach us of death? Why have religions across the world, throughout time, involved physical practices? And why have mystics of all faiths found union with their god through practices of prayer, breathing, posture, meditation, and selfless service?
There is a strong tendency to deny (starve, abuse, overwork, cover, hide) or disparage the body. It’s been suggested the body is the source of sin, let alone weaknesses of mind and spirit. Yet God, if we want to go the Christian route, chose to Incarnate his son. Maybe this was about suffering. I don’t know. I think it must have also been about love. Jesus was a man, full on sensual, and hungry, and tired, and aging. Disparaging his humanity also disparages our own. It opens the door to philosophies of exclusion, hatred, and violence. It is the first step toward self-loathing, shame, and losing our ‘selves’ to the judgement and possession of others.
Who are we? What are we supposed to do with this life, this body? How do we, each and personally, incarnate the idea of devotion, love for neighbor, peace, or gratitude?
We pass through life. We know youthful play, awe, thrills, and heartbreak. We taste sex. We know relationships, parenthood, and work. We know illness, trial, and loneliness. Ultimately, I think we are called to dance, and to pray. These things that are done with our hands.
In the end, I think yoga is less about athleticism than about a prayerful heart.