Note: The information I use in this post was found in several online texts from Yoganonymous as well as The Little Book of Yoga. It is not meant to offend anyone of any religion or bring judgement to any part of life. It is simply my own experience, opinions and beliefs.
I’ve been doing yoga on and off for about four years, and right now, I’m practicing really regularly and feeling amazing after every class. I’ve done yoga in three different cities that I’ve lived in, and since getting more into the yoga community in my hometown, and just more into yoga in general, I’ve run into something that surprises me every single time it happens.
“Do you worship Buddha?”
“Can Christians do yoga?”
“Do you even do the chants?”
These are questions I’ve either received personally or read of others dealing with. It knocks the wind out of me for some reason. I’ve figured out how to better deal with it, but I realized that I was letting people steal my joy by judging or questioning my practice. But why was it bugging me so badly? I think these comments take me aback because those notions do not even matter to my practice of yoga. Like, at all.
Obviously, these questions are typically coming from people who just haven’t experienced yoga for themselves. Which is fine! When things are new to someone, they will naturally have questions about it. These questions specifically are just not ideas that I ever considered until I was asked or read other blogs.
So let me be very clear: I’m a Christian. I have been for most of my life. I pray to God in Jesus’s name and try to live a life He would be proud of. I fail more times than I succeed and I have to ask for forgiveness every day. I try to read the Bible regularly.. I also do yoga, almost every day in some form or another, and I have never felt closer to God than some of the times I’ve been on that mat, praying in Savasana.
The yoga philosophy is based on many Hindu practices and the yoga language is Sanskrit, which is an ancient religious tongue. Yoga has evolved over thousands of years, when yogis used to live secluded lives in caves and woods, but the main goal remains the same: to find harmony within yourself and the world.
To me, this is such a beautiful way of living. Christians might argue that I shouldn’t be looking within myself, but rather to God and His will for my life. While I don’t disagree, I think that the two notions are separate, at least for me. Why can’t I trust God to lead my in the right path but also search for a way to live a life where I am happy with myself through what He does for me? Won’t becoming a better human ultimately help me be a better Christian?
As I’ll say throughout this post, it’s all about your intention.
I’m still figuring it out, too, but I’ve learned so much over the last few years of practicing yoga, and I’ve found ways to incorporate these ideas into my life. Forcing these ideas onto anyone is not my intention, I only wish to present what I know and what I’ve learned. Let’s start at the beginning.
Yoga has been in existence since about 3,000 years before Christ himself existed. Some believe that yoga is about 2,500 years old, because that is when it was first mentioned in an ancient text, so of course, it’s hard to say exactly when it originated, but we know for sure it was BC.
Fast forward to the Modern Age, today, yoga has transformed and evolved into some form of what we practice. There are six branches of yoga and multiple styles, ranging from Ashtanga (Vinyasa-based) to Bikram (hot yoga) to Restorative (exactly what it sounds like). There is literally a style for everyone.
The yoga philosophy basics were outlined by a man named Patanjali. He was a prolific sage of his time and writer of The Yoga Sutra, which explains The Eight Limbs of yoga. These represent the different levels of practice we can choose to participate in, which range from practicing kindness and morality to breathing practices.
I feel like this is where Christians are going to start freaking out. Just hear me out.
These are the Eight Limbs:
1. Yama – Universal Morality – The Yamas are meant to guide how we treat those around us.
There are five Yamas:
Ahimsa – Nonharming
Satya – Honesty
Asteya – Not stealing
Brahmacharya – Sensual moderation
Aparigraha – Nonpossessiveness
2. Niyama – Personal Morality – This is when we apply these practices or commandments to ourselves.
There are five Niyamas:
Saucha – Purity
Santosha – Contentment
Tapas – Self-Discipline
Svadhyaya – Self-Study
Ishvara pranidhana – Surrender
The Yamas and the Niyamas are what Christians might think of as The Ten Commandments. They are obviously different, but still based on basic rules to live by according to our faith.
3. Asana – Physical Practices – “Asana” means “seat” in Sanskrit, so this limb is the study of the actual yoga poses or the exercise aspect of it. As Christians, God does not want us to be sluggish, lazy people, so we can relate to this idea, as well.
Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been purchased at a price. Therefore, glorify God in your body.
— 1 Corinthians 6:19-20
4. Pranayama – Breathing Practices – Have you ever been sitting at your desk and realized you’ve been holding your breath for who knows how long? This is where pranayama can help in everyday life. This is the foundation for any yoga practice. If you don’t breathe, you aren’t doing yourself any good.
5. Pratyahara – Withdrawal of the Senses – Huh? This just means that we need to strive to overcome distractions, fears or cravings, and focus on our study and practice. Christians might associate this with “desires of the flesh,” or worldly things that we naturally want as humans but are not good for us spiritually.
6. Dharana – Concentration – Pretty self-explanatory, this limb can help us be more aware of our surroundings, which can help us live in the present moment, make us more successful in our jobs and make our hobbies more enjoyable. Have you ever tried to say a prayer and your mind immediately wander off to something else? Me, too. Practicing concentration can help that.
7. Dhyana – Meditation – Clearing our minds of everyday clutter, stress and fear is what ultimately gets us to the eighth and final limb. This is where we can allow whatever moves or speaks to us show itself. God wants us to go off to pray in a quiet place, which is when He speaks to us and guides us.
But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
— Matthew 6:6
8. Samadhi – Enlightenment – In other words, inner peace. This is when we have achieved the obstacles in front of us in this life and are able to be content, free and happy. God tells us in John that in Him we may have peace, because while the world is full of heartache, He has already overcome it for us.
Are you with me so far? If not, take a break and do a Sun Salutation!
In yoga, there is also the study of crystals and stones, as well as the use of different herbs, essential oils and sounds to create certain atmospheres or promote specific feelings while practicing.
For instance, I wear a green calcite necklace from DrunkenMermaid to yoga class sometimes. Green calcite is a stone that grounds you and promotes balance in your life. My sister wears an amethyst stone, which promotes peace and patience. I also recently purchased a moonstone from DrunkenMermaid, which reminds us that everything is part of a cycle.
In some yoga studios, the practitioner will burn sage, which is a Native American practice used to cleanse the room of negativity. This is similar to burning incense, which can be used for different purposes.
Essential oils are super popular these days, and many of my teachers have used them in various ways, typically during final relaxation at the end of a class to help ease us into a calm state. Some will use it as a massage oil and come around to rub the backs of our necks, and some have used spray forms of essential oil blends to calm our senses.
One of my favorite teachers uses a Tibetan Singing Bowl at the beginning and end of her classes, and I love the peaceful, yet invigorating sound that it makes. It is a very specific type of sound that is thought to help heal stress, pain, depression, and other nervous conditions.
The study of chakras, which are seven different points of energy within the body, is another major idea of the yoga practice. The chakras are meant to remain open and fluid, and if one part of our bodies (or lives) become blocked or confused, energy cannot flow. I struggle with keeping my heart chakra and my throat chakra open, which are the centers of connection and communication.
Just to be clear, I didn’t even know what a chakra was until a few months ago. However, by learning about them, I was able to work on things that help open up my blockages, and I swear to you, these practices have helped. I am loving harder and more openly and connecting with more people without being afraid. I’m working on communicating with my friends and family better. It’s just a way to show yourself what you need to work on.
Finally, let’s talk a little bit about chants and mantras you might hear in a typical yoga class. I feel like this is where a lot of people get confused in a yoga class. When people are confused, they’re uncomfortable, and when they’re uncomfortable, they might just quit. Don’t quit.
Om is a chant that is often “sung” at the beginning and/or end of a yoga class. I say sung, because it is pronounced in a long, drawn-out “aaaaauuuuuummmmm” in unison with the class. It is not a prayer to Satan, so don’t freak out. It signifies pretty much everything – all creation, all consciousness – but more specifically, it is a sound that is meant to connect us with the earth and each other, mind, body and spirit. Even the sound is calming, and creates this sense of unity that brings us to a clearer focus.
This is almost always said at the end of a class, and it means “The light in me greets the light in you.” It is simply a recognition of each person’s own specialness. It’s a yogi or Sanskrit way of saying “Hey! I love you and I don’t even know you!”
So what is the point of all this?
First of all, I hope if you are indeed Hindu or Buddhist, that I have not offended you in comparing these practices to the Christian faith. That is not my intention, but rather to present what I’ve learned over the years and how I apply these ideals to my own life. I would never force Christianity on someone or try to convince you that these ideals are for you, it is just my hope that my thoughts will shed a light on the subject. My local yoga studio has never forced any religion on me and I honestly have no idea what any of the people there are religiously. Because it doesn’t matter.
We go to church for religion. We go to the studio for self-improvement and community.
Secondly, I am hoping to encourage anyone who is unsure about yoga to just try it and consider what I’ve said. The yoga community is an inclusive one. It is not one of judgement or shame. If you attend a class and can’t get into a headstand, you will not be kicked out. If you go and perform a chant at the end of class, don’t freak out. It will be okay, I promise. And if it makes you feel uncomfortable, no one is going to force you to do it.
Also, there are so many different yoga teachers at different studios and locations that you are bound to find someone who really works for you, and probably someone who doesn’t. Sometimes teachers do chants, sometimes they don’t. Almost always, the teachers I practice with are reading from books that you’ve probably seen at your local bookstore. We listen to different music styles, depending on the class, but I bet you’ll know some of the tracks by heart. It’s an environment of love and acceptance and a place to learn to love and accept yourself.
One of my favorite teachers said something in class that really spoke wonders for this idea of inclusiveness in yoga, and really anything you’re doing in life. She read a passage from a book where an older lady gave advice about life. She said that in your 20s and 30s, you’re focused on being perfect and trying to make sure everyone is okay with all the things you’re doing. Then in your 40s and 50s, you start to realize that no one is really thinking about you at all. By the time you get to your 60s and 70s, you can really let go and enjoy life, because you truly understand that no one is worrying about what you are doing, and they never were.
Lesson? Everyone is just trying to figure out their own lives. They aren’t concerned with yours. There will be people all around you in any class you attend that are on different paths than you, who are at different levels than you, and who do not give a crap that you have never attended a class before or that your yoga pants have been in the back of a drawer for ten years. The teachers and class members will greet you with open arms and a smile.
As for all of this “Christian practicing yoga” business, my philosophy is this: God created this earth, and He created me. I believe He put me here with this body and this life to do extraordinary, special things. I believe anything healthy that can help me clear my head of clutter in order to better hear Him is something He approves of. I believe He made the elements of this earth (crystals, stones, minerals, herbs) which in turn makes them powerful and we can use them within our daily lives. I do not worship the sun or the moon, but I respect them as things God has created and believe they hold power, as well, because He created them. I believe God cares about my intentions and prayers, but not so much about others’ judgements of my practice, the color of the red Starbucks cups or whether or not I share that one post on Facebook. I believe in living a life that brings joy to Him, to others around me and to myself. And I believe yoga is a life-changing practice that has helped me with my anxiety, my balance, my health, my confidence and my focus.
I’ve recently made a goal to set aside a few minutes a day to sit on my mat, read my Bible, do a few yoga poses, maybe spray some essential oils and reflect on my day. No one can make me believe that God would be displeased with that.
Through all of this (and some serious help from my family and yoga teachers) I’ve learned that I don’t need to prove myself to anyone except God, and as long as He knows my intentions and prayers, then that’s all that matters. And through my practice and my faith, I hope I can help other people see that this is possible for them, too.