MOBILE, Ala. — A few years ago, Susan Bordenkircher wasn’t comfortable doing yoga.
It wasn’t that she got bent out of shape by any of the asanas — downward facing dog, half lotus forward fold or the scorpion — to name but three yoga positions.
She just wasn’t sure if it was an appropriate activity for a Christian.
Long associated with mysticism and Eastern religions in particular, yoga is denounced by some who claim it promotes pantheism and self-worship.
So when leaders at the Moorer YMCA in Mobile asked Bordenkircher if she would be willing to teach yoga, the United Methodist mom reluctantly agreed to attend a seminar.
The practice, she said, changed her body and soul.
Often inclined to move at a rapid pace, Bordenkircher said yoga has helped her to breathe more slowly and deeply. That, in turn, has enhanced her prayer life; yoga can help believers be still and to listen for God, she said.
“My spirituality personally has increased,” she 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
She hopes to share some of yoga’s more ethereal benefits through two new videos, both titled, “Outstretched in Worship: A Christian Approach to Yoga.”
The videos show Bordenkircher teaching classes — one for beginners, one for more advanced students — through the traditional stretches that constitute hatha yoga. As her students hold various postures, she leads them in asking God to “help us keep our lives centered through prayer.”
Bordenkircher seeks to link the physical with the spiritual when she can. As students stretch to release tension in their muscles, Bordenkircher encourages them to “come to God with no baggage.” Mental clutter, she said, “keeps us separated from God, so let’s just let it go.”
Where other exercise instructors might encourage students to “feel the burn,” Bordenkircher urges her pupils to “find joy in the difficult” and to “feel so thankful.” As they inhale, they are encouraged to think about “breathing in the Holy Spirit,” and to “let him fill you head to toe.”
Bordenkircher’s approach to yoga is a relatively novel one, but not completely revolutionary.
In 1962, Jean-Marie Dechanet’s volume Christian Yoga was published. Twenty-seven years later, the Rev. Nancy Roth’s text A New Christian Yoga was released. That book, now dubbed An Invitation to Christian Yoga, was updated and published in 2001.
Roth includes sketches and written instructions for 25 yoga postures; each one is prefaced by a verse from the Bible. She also includes a Christian adaptation of “Salute to the Sun,” a series of movements devout Hindus perform at dawn as thanksgiving for a new day, which she calls “The Salute to the Son,” a series of movements designed to accompany the Lord’s Prayer.
“In addition to being a preparation for prayer and for prayerful living, the disciplines of Christian yoga can themselves become prayer,” Roth writes. “Attention to the position and movement of the body can be an act of gratitude to your Creator . . .
“Relaxing can be a physical expression of trust in the God in whom we can dependably live and move and have our being. Attentive breathing can be a kinetic meditation on the life that is the gift of the Creator within us.”
For Roth and Bordenkircher, practicing yoga as a Christian discipline comes naturally.
“It just depends on where you focus,” Bordenkircher said. “If you’re quieting yourself, there’s no reason you can’t get quiet with God.”
In recent years, yoga’s popularity has boomed as many have searched for a few minutes of stillness and for low-impact exercise that fosters flexibility and strength. Celebrities, too, have joined the masses on their yoga mats.
With the ancient exercises’ contemporary resurgence, Bordenkircher urges those interested in practicing yoga to choose their instructors carefully.
“It can be very destructive. I’ve really literally sat there and just prayed for discernment” at some seminars, she said, noting that she feels uncomfortable with those who suggest that humans possess divine power.
Cecil R. Taylor, dean of the School of Religion at the University of Mobile, said he would advise those interested in taking a Christian approach to yoga to “make sure it’s thoroughly imbued with the spirit of Christ.”
“You’d be able to judge a lot by checking your spirit,” Taylor said. “Sometimes people just instinctively know, ‘This is just not what I ought to be doing.’ They don’t know why. It may be theological perceptivity.”
For Bordenkircher, though, practicing yoga has offered boundless blessings, physically and spiritually. She said she even sensed God’s presence and support as the video project came together.
“The idea of the video kept coming up,” said Bordenkircher. “It was obvious to me that it was God’s will that we do this.”
Pre-sale copies of “Outstretched in Worship” cost $12 plus tax; to obtain a copy, send an e-mail to Susan Bordenkircher at gsbordenkircher(at)msn.com or call (251) 621-6733. All proceeds from sales will support ministries at Jubilee Shores United Methodist Church and fund future Christian yoga videos.