Practice a spiritual stretch?
A dozen yoga practitioners crouched over their mats on the sanctuary floor at Horizon Presbyterian Church, illuminated in the soft morning light radiating through a stained-glass cross on the wall.
The pose was a strenuous one, and instructor Brooke Boon alluded to a higher power to help students focus.
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“This practice is like our faith,” Boon said. “Even in the difficult times, we’re re-creating.”
Christian yoga – the marriage of the ancient practice of exercise, breathing techniques and meditation with Christian spirituality – is exploding in popularity. Organizations that certify Christian yoga instructors are seeing an increase in enrollment, and classes with an openly Christian focus are popping up in churches and studios across the country.
In the Valley, Ahwatukee Foothills is the movement’s epicenter. In addition to Boon’s Holy Yoga Ministries, the area is also home to Yahweh Yoga, a certified Christian yoga studio that opened in April. One of the studio’s teachers offers classes at Mountain Park Community Church.
Christian yoga is also a thriving business. Boon will release a Holy Yoga DVD set later this year that has already been picked up for distribution by the Home Shopping Network and QVC. Yahweh Yoga plans to franchise throughout the Valley, co-founder DeAnna Smothers said.
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
Within the year, Boon hopes to have instructors trained by her program teaching in Chandler, Mesa and Tempe.
Though critics have charged that yoga’s ancient Hindu origins are incompatible with Christian faith, practitioners say the exercise is an ideal vehicle for spiritual reflection.
Yoga opens people up spiritually, and “in Christian yoga, we are offering all of the availability to God,” Boon said. “The focus is on Christ.”
Boon, 28, began teaching secular yoga five years ago. Two years later, she became a born-again Christian. The Ahwatukee resident formed Holy Yoga Ministries last year.
In class, Boon leads students through a series of traditional yoga poses described with a Christian theme. In the lunging warrior pose, for example, she encourages students to think of themselves as “good Christian warriors.” She begins and ends each session with a reading from the Bible or another work that she relates to Scripture, and closes with an “amen” instead of an “om.”
Practitioners say that Christian yoga fills a need for believers who want the health benefits of yoga but are put off by the practice’s ancient Hindu roots.
“A lot of Christ-centered individuals are intimidated by walking into a regular yoga studio because a lot of yoga studios use Hindu words and Sanskrit,” said Courtney Kutta, founder and co-owner of Yahweh Yoga. “They don’t know what they’re chanting, and what they’re sending out there.”
Despite its prevalence, Christian yoga has garnered criticism.
Laurette Willis, an Oklahoma-based former secular yoga teacher who now speaks out against what she terms as yoga’s “New Age” influences, says Christian yoga is an oxymoron.
“It’s like saying, well, I’m a Christian Buddhist,” Willis said. “There’s really no such thing as Christian yoga. I appreciate what they’re trying to do, but its still blending the two different belief structures.” Willis developed a workout program called PraiseMoves, a series of stretches and prayers that she markets as a Christian alternative to yoga.
Some secular yoga practitioners disputed the idea that yoga and Christianity are incompatible, emphasizing that yoga is not a religion in itself.
“It is possible to integrate the two belief structures,” said Hansa, the single-named president of the Yoga Alliance, the body that registers yoga teachers and training schools. “The basic concepts are very, very parallel.”
She also said that books about yoga published in the United States as early as the 1920s had a Christian bent to them.
“I think the awareness of (Christian yoga) has been brought to the forefront, but it’s always existed,” she said.
For Kathy Marcucci, an Ahwatukee resident who attends Boon’s class, yoga and God are not mutually exclusive.
Christian yoga “brings together the wonderful physical benefits of yoga with my spiritual beliefs,” Marcucci said. “Staying healthy in your mind and body is an important part of praising God.”