Inside the makeshift yoga studio, a large cross hung on the wall.
As the parishioners at New Community Church in Northwest Washington stretched their arms above their heads into the mountain pose, the instructor reminded them, “Faith moves mountains.” When they joined hands to chant, they did not say, “Om,” the yoga mantra. It was “Sha-LOM.”
The latest incarnation of yoga, a discipline that began 5,000 years ago as a set of spiritual exercises with origins in Hinduism, is for devout Christians and Jews. In a small but growing practice, churches and synagogues are offering yoga as a tool for connecting with God.
“It’s just a wonderful way to say, ‘Hey, we don’t just pray from our shoulders up,’ ” said the Rev. Jim Dickerson, pastor of New Community in the District’s Shaw neighborhood, which has monthly yoga sessions that attract about a dozen people. “The whole body is in this. Glorify God from your body.”
Once associated with the New Age crowd, yoga has stretched into suburban strip malls and county recreation centers. Yoga cruises, yoga health food and yoga clubs exist. Yoga classes have been designed for pregnant women, mothers and babies, and even people with pets.
So-called “Christian yoga” is drawing yoga veterans who say they feel more comfortable in a Christian setting, as well as many people who say they would not otherwise have attempted the activity. Practitioners usually perform the same series of physical postures and breathing techniques as in traditional yoga, a routine designed to calm the body and mind. But they also might incorporate prayers and hymns and rename the poses.
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
Dickerson, who said he doesn’t want to offend Hindus or put off Christians by using the term “yoga,” prefers to call the spiritual exercises at his church a “prayer of embodiment.” It is done by “Christians who have a spirituality who happen to practice yoga as a part of it,” he explained.
At Parkwood Baptist Church in Annandale, the preacher and many members at first were reluctant to bring in anything connected to Eastern mysticism. But with some gentle lobbying five years ago from congregants who were practicing yoga at gyms, the church began offering several weekly classes, which feature stretches while praying. Hundreds of people, many from other churches, have participated.
James Hamacher, Parkwood’s former pastor, said the relaxation techniques and meditation hark back to the spirituality of early Christian traditions.
“A lot of our spiritual heritage is meditation. Look at the entire book of Psalms,” said Hamacher, who wrote a devotional each week to be read during the meditation part of the yoga class.
But others say that attaching a religion other than Hinduism to yoga cheapens both faiths.
Swami Param of the Classical Yoga Hindu Academy in New Jersey said that he doesn’t mind if non-Hindus study yoga but that they need to acknowledge yoga’s roots.
In so-called Christian yoga, “They have separated yoga from Hinduism, which is in effect stealing,” Param said. “Is there Hindu baptism or Hindu Communion or Hindu Mass or Hindu Torah? No.”
Some Christians agree with him, rejecting the idea that yoga can be adapted to a church setting. As an alternative, some of them have promoted something called “Praise Moves,” a light aerobic exercise combined with Scripture readings.
“As Christians, we need to be careful of the religious practices that we participate in,” said Kathleen Porter, who is starting Praise Moves classes in Frederick this month, the first in the Washington region. With Praise Moves, “we’re giving [Christian] people an alternative. It doesn’t have connection to other religions or other gods,” she said.
Despite such criticism, the enthusiasm for spreading yoga to people of all faiths appears to be growing.
Praveen Tewari, a member of the board of trustees at Durga Temple in Fairfax Station, said he believes the yoga principles of fitness of mind and body are universal and should be shared.
Durga and at least one other Hindu temple in the region — BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha in Beltsville — offer free yoga classes, which organizers say are non-religious. Several non-Hindus attend the weekly class at Durga.
“Why not share the joy? Why miss out on it?” asked Tewari, who added that he has a Christmas tree in his home. “My firm belief is that ultimate reality is the same. Every religion teaches basically good things.”
Larissa Blechman, 43, of Annandale said that she started practicing yoga in a secular vein but that the exercises led her back to her Jewish roots.
She was introduced to yoga through a class at Congregation Olam Tikvah in Fairfax County. The class was non-religious — the instructor was simply renting space from the synagogue. But during the sessions, Blechman would hear the evening prayer services from the sanctuary.
The experience, she said, led her to create “Shalom Yoga,” a name she trademarked for a form of yoga that begins with readings from the Torah and features poses named after Hebrew letters. She teaches Shalom Yoga at Congregation Olam Tikvah, the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia and a couple of Jewish schools.
“Before I started working on Shalom Yoga, I was Jewish and I kept a kosher home and I was raising my children Jewish, but it wasn’t really personal,” Blechman said. “I didn’t have an understanding at a physical, meditative level that I do now. I get up and I pray every morning; it’s part of my yoga practice.”
June Young, a Forestville resident in her fifties, said that she tried yoga years ago, hoping to find health and relaxation, but that she felt uncomfortable. One instructor told the class to get into a standard yoga stance called the warrior pose and then pretend they were shooting a gun, which seemed an unnecessary reference to violence, Young said. In another class, she said, “They were calling on something I didn’t know, in foreign words.”
She said she thought she was done experimenting with yoga until she found New Community Church.
On a recent evening at the church, the yoga session started with each of the 14 men and women giving news and a spiritual update. Several people mentioned that coming to the church was a soothing retreat from the holiday hoopla. Others chastised themselves for not praying and exercising more regularly.
Then came the yoga:
The breathing was called “God’s spirit.”
The warrior stance was a “balance, balancing our lives.”
The child pose was to “remember we are children of God.”
And finally, the Lord’s Prayer.
It was, Young said, not unlike a church service.