Yoga is a tough sell at some churches

The walls of the small Sunday school classroom are decorated with posters created by students. “Give Thanks to God,” reads one. “Deuteronomy 26:1-15,” says another.

But this is not Sunday, it’s Wednesday morning. And instead of kids studying their Bible lessons, adults are stretching in a svaroopa yoga class at Parkside Community Church in Sacramento, Calif. For more than two hours, the students focus on their bodies more than their souls.

Some Christians, however, are wary of the ancient practice and its growing popularity — even the pope has warned Catholics about yoga. He and others are bothered by the type of spirituality they believe yoga promotes.


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

Now there’s a movement to “Christianize” yoga with special classes, books and DVDs such as “Christoga,” featuring Janine Turner of “Northern Exposure” fame.

Some don’t want to change the class — just the name. Earlier this year, yoga instructors at the Del Norte Athletic Club in Sacramento were asked to consider changing the name of their classes months after the club was purchased by Arcade Church.

“It was one of the first things they did,” says Toni Eaton, who has taught yoga at Del Norte for 4 1/2 years.

She says alternative names suggested included “Mind, Body & Spirit,” or “Piloga” (a combination of Pilates and Yoga), or even jokingly, “Holy Fit.”

The instructors and the members weren’t laughing.

“Yoga is yoga. Why call it something else?” says Mary Henson, a longtime member. “This does not have anything to do with Hinduism or any other Eastern religion… All it is, is exercise.”

Management eventually agreed. “There was some concern from people at the church about the roots of yoga,” says Tim Sandquist, consultant to the church and former club director. He says leaders learned more about the 5,000-year-old practice.

“In reality, the yoga in the United States doesn’t have the religious component,” says Sandquist.

Yoga is a form of spiritual practice that predates Hinduism, according to Christopher Key Chapple, professor of Indic and Comparative Theology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

He says yoga is found in several major faith traditions.

“In a sense, the Christian reinterpretation is keeping with the yoga tradition itself. It has been adapted by a variety of faiths and used to enhance one’s prayer life.”

Words that are used during yoga practice such as “namaste” are cultural expressions rather than theological, says Chapple.

Cindy Senarighi is a co-owner of Yogadevotion, which mixes Christ’s teachings with yoga poses. This type of Christian yoga is taught at 14 churches in Minneapolis and is spreading to other churches.

Senarighi opens class with an invocation — asking God to be present in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; repeats the same scripture three times during class; and closes with a devotion.

“This frames who we are as people of faith,” says Senarighi. “It combines the physical practice of yoga and the worship practices of Christianity.”

Not everyone is pleased with the acceptance of yoga. In 1989, the Vatican issued a statement that said practices such as yoga can “degenerate into a cult of the body” and was signed by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. In 2003, another document warned against new-age practices, including yoga.

But pastors who have had yoga classes at their churches say the practice promotes spiritual enlightenment by helping students relax and meditate.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday September 10, 2007.
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