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Faith, healing and … yoga

The Clarion-Ledger, USA
Feb. 12, 2005
Jean Gordon
www.clarionledger.com

ReligionNewsBlog.com • Sunday February 13, 2005

‘I wanted a deeper purpose to my life’

Sitting crossed-legged on a yoga mat, Susan Mason drew her palms together at her chest and folded her torso over a Bible on the floor.

Unfolding her body she said, “Relaxation is a form of prayer.”

As yoga teacher at Jackson’s First Baptist Church, Mason integrates Christian spirituality into a physical art with Hindu roots. And though some Christians shun yoga because of its Eastern origins, Mason embraces the practice that helped heal her body and spirit after debilitating cancer treatments.

The practice of breathing, holding postures and meditation is an ancient art form that originated in India nearly 5,000 years ago.

Yoga

Most westerners are naive to the religious origin and nature of yoga. Many practitioners who do, merely presume that the exercises are harmless if they are not practiced with a spiritual intent.

Yoga is a series of exercises and postures (asanas) which are advertised as a way to tone up, reduce stress and experience tranquility.

Yoga though is an intrinsic part of Hinduism. Swami Vishnudevananda, well known authority of Yoga, in his book The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga explains the purpose of Yoga, “It is the duty of each developed man to train his body to the highest degree of perfection so that it may be used to pursue spiritual purposes… the aim of all yoga practice is to achieve truth wherein the individual soul identifies itself with the supreme soul of God.”
- Source: Yoga, a Profile by Watchman Fellowship

According to Yoga Journal, some 18 million people practice yoga in the United States.

Mason’s journey into yoga is featured in the film The Fire of Yoga, which premiered Thursday in New York City. Also released to DVD, the documentary tells the story of a diverse trio of yogis: a South Bronx ex-convict, a Los Angeles actor and recovering alcoholic and Mason, a mother of two living with non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

Mason, 49, discovered the practice seven years ago when she joined a therapeutic yoga class at Jackson’s Baptist Hospital to help heal from cancer.

“Once I took that I was hooked,” she said. “I needed to rehabilitate gently.”

There she met teacher Rebecca Laney, a 52-year-old cancer survivor and owner of the Center for Yoga and Health in Clinton.

Laney, who’s been practicing yoga since age 16, also is featured in the documentary.

She opened her Clinton studio in 1999, when some people in the region were still a bit wary of yoga.

“I felt I was a pioneer,” she said. “It’s like you’re a salesman selling something no one wants to buy and they’re afraid of the product.”

Finding clarity

Though yoga has roots in Hinduism, Laney said there’s no expectation that practitioners follow any particular religion.

To honor the world’s faith traditions, Laney’s studio is decorated with a variety of Eastern and Western religious images including small statues and pictures of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the Buddha and Hindu deities.

She said yoga can enhance a person’s spirituality whatever it may be.

“Just because something is not decidedly Christian doesn’t mean it’s anti-Christian,” Laney said.

Julia Burr, a Raymond massage therapist, said yoga promotes spiritual growth because it feeds the body, mind and soul.

Drawing her own spirituality from Christianity and Zen Buddhism, Burr, 59, said she particularly appreciates the meditative part of yoga.

She said that practice helped her get clarity about making a career change from retail to massage therapy.

“I wanted a deeper purpose to my life,” she said.

Documenting change

New York City-based filmmaker David Conway said he made the documentary because he wanted to tell the story of the transformative power of yoga.

And that life-changing force affected his own life. Before he started practicing yoga, Conway, 35, suffered from panic attacks that forced him to leave his job in the Los Angeles film industry.

“In many ways this film is autobiographical,” he said.

Conway found Mason by contacting yoga studios throughout the South. He was looking for people whose yoga practice enhanced their faith.

He decided to feature Mason when he learned that yoga not only deepened her Christian faith, but helped her recover from cancer treatment.

“It’s a great combination about how it helped her physically and spiritually,” he said.

Christian emphasis

After her cancer treatment and a subsequent broken collar bone, Mason took up yoga because she wanted an exercise that bridged the gap between physical therapy and an aerobic workout.

“I wanted to do something gentle,” she said.

And after completing a training program at Laney’s studio, Mason moved from student to teacher.

She started the first Christian yoga class at her church, First Baptist Church in Jackson, three years ago.

Mason sees no conflict between yoga and Christianity because the practice helps her honor God by honoring her body.

“There’s a lot of correlation between yoga philosophy and Christian philosophy,” she said. “A lot has to do with man’s search for spirituality.”

Still, she’s tweaked her class to give it a decidedly Christian flavor.

In place of Sanskrit chants, Mason inserts words from Scripture. She calls the sun salutation posture a sequence of poses that begins and ends with hands drawn together in prayer the “son” salutation.

“I practice my faith and I use yoga to enhance my faith,” she said.

Mason is surprised more churches don’t offer yoga because of its physical and spiritual benefits.

“It was a perfect ministry tool to use,” she said.

Student Pam Berry of Brandon joined Mason’s class to help relieve the symptoms of fibromyalgia, a chronic pain illness characterized by muscle aches, fatigue and sleep disturbance.

“I liked the idea of Christian yoga because I like so many other people had the misconception that yoga is some sort of Eastern religion,” she said.

Still, the 52-year-old was more apprehensive about the challenges of yoga than its association with Eastern religion.

“I thought you’d have to bend yourself into a noodle,” she said.

Instead she found the class taught gentle exercises that helped improve her strength and flexibility.

“It’s better than any medicine I’ve taken,” she said.

Sherry Gentry, a Ridgeland hairdresser who’s been taking yoga classes at Laney’s studio for two years, said yoga only bolsters a person’s spirituality.

“Yoga is a practice for getting in touch with your inner being,” she said. “How much more in touch with God can you be if you’re in touch with yourself inside?”

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