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Yoga for Christians
A Christ-Centered Approach to Physical and Spiritual Health
By Susan Bordenkircher
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2006 Susan Bordenkircher
All rights reserved.
Why "Christian Yoga"?
God cares about how you choose to take care of your body. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 6:19–20, "Don't you know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body."
Those who choose not to adequately care for their bodies soon become enslaved by them. We become enslaved either by the desires of our bodies or by the pain and discomfort that result from lack of care. Paul is telling us that God's plan for our bodies offers freedom, since our bodies (and our lives) belong to God.
Your body is the instrument in which you carry God through your life. Therefore, taking care of your body is a responsibility entrusted to you by your Maker. Furthermore, it is a gift you can offer Him to express your love and honor. I encourage you to periodically take a personal inventory of what you are telling God by the way you care for your "personal temple." Do you respect the body He has given you? Do you value your body as an instrument of God?
You wouldn't purchase a musical instrument without some thought to its care and upkeep. My oldest son, Ty, recently received a guitar to fuel his aspirations of becoming a musician. He soon learned that the guitar falls quickly out of tune after use and that he must frequently tune the instrument for it to make the proper sound.
Your body is the same. If you fail to provide the proper tune-up, your body will also begin to work improperly. You will lose strength, flexibility, stamina, and balance. As your range of motion decreases, your ability and desire to do certain tasks will likely be affected. Your attitude may be negatively affected. As your weight increases (as is the case for most of us who don't exercise), your relationships may even suffer as you struggle with self-image and esteem.
Ultimately, as we'll discuss in a later chapter, the pain and discomfort you may feel in your skin can be the cause of division between you and God. How are you to share the love of Jesus, the peace of God, and the freedom you have through salvation if all you feel is uncomfortable and cranky? Do you exhibit freedom in Christ if you are bound by the limitations and inabilities of your out-of-tune body? If you represent Jesus to the world, what kind of message are you sending: one of brokenness or one of healing?
I think God will bless your efforts at exercise when you practice from a perspective of healing. So if you enjoy walking, walk. If you enjoy step class, keep stepping. If you enjoy spinning, spin. All of these forms of exercise are effective at healing your body on the outside. And all of them, when practiced with Christ-centered intention, could provide spiritual benefits for the Christian.
An Undivided Life
However, I contend that there is no practice like yoga for integrating the mind and body in unity. Sure, the practice will work to heal the body on the outside. Some of the proven benefits of a regular yoga practice include reduced stress and blood pressure, strengthened muscles, improved posture, reduced risk of injury through improved balance and coordination, healthier immune system and organ function, improved concentration, and increased flexibility and range of motion. Furthermore, medical studies have shown yoga can provide significant improvement for certain medical conditions such as anxiety, depression, asthma, diabetes, arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and hypertension.
I could literally go on and on for pages about the positive physical benefits of a yoga practice. But what makes the practice unique is the correlation of the mind with the body in order to create health on the inside as well as the outside. To put it simply, the key is the breath. Your breath determines your movements and at the same time acts as the catalyst for a perspective change, a focus shift that results from the stillness and quiet. Add to that an intention for Christ-centered worship, and you have a recipe for wholeness.
For a Christian, yoga becomes meditation in motion, preparing your heart and body to work together as tools for worship. The Bible is clear in depicting the body as an integral part of worship. In Exodus 4:31, the leaders of Israel "bowed their heads and worshiped." In Revelation 11:16, the elders "fell on their faces and worshiped him." And of course, the Bible repeatedly instructs us to stand and lift up our hands to the Lord. He wants us to come before Him, ready to worship with all that we have and all that we are.
Matt Redman writes in his book Facedown that every posture in worship says something of both the worshiper and the one being glorified. "When it comes to expressing our worship, what we do on the outside is a key reflection of what's taking place on the inside. Out of the overflow of the heart we speak and sing, we dance and we bow."
When our Christ-centered yoga video series first came out, there was a lot of interest from local and national media because of the uncertainty still surrounding yoga in the Christian community. As I shared from the initial truths God gave me about this ministry, I was sure we would encounter some negativism. And God had prepared me to be content in the responses I received — both good and bad — because, remember ... it wasn't about me.
But one comment that has continued to perplex me came from a Christian teacher who asked, "Why do we have to 'Christianize' everything?" First of all, I'm not sure "Christianize" is a word, but his point disturbed me. Doesn't God's Word tell us, "Whatever you do or say, let it be as a representative of the Lord Jesus, all the while giving thanks through him to God the Father" (Colossians 3:17)? You see, I believe this teacher is missing a key component of the Christian life. We are not told to compartmentalize our physical health, financial health, vocational health, and so on, with spiritual health needing attention only on Sundays or during our daily devotion. Instead, we are to live an integrated life for Christ. "Give yourselves completely to God since you have been given new life. And use your whole body as a tool to do what is right for the glory of God" (Romans 6:13; emphasis added).
Reclaiming for Christ
So to forego the healing benefits of yoga because it is sometimes practiced within a different belief system is like telling God that He is not big enough to take something from the dark and bring it into the light. Let's keep in mind that it was God who created the breathing process, oxygen, muscles, movement, and our body's natural relaxation response.
Some Christians who remain skeptical of yoga also question, as I did at first, whether the postures themselves are considered worship to something other than God. Didn't God create our bodies and entrust them to us as "the temple of the living God" (2 Corinthians 6:16)? Therefore, when you have a Christ-centered intent to your practice, how could holding that God-given vessel in any particular position be used for evil because of what another faith has named it? Simply because traditional practices use a series of postures as a salute to the sun, does that indicate that regardless of the intent of our hearts, that moving in those positions would change our worship from God-centered to sun-centered? Of course not.
Furthermore, suggesting that yoga cannot be separated from its Eastern history and therefore should not be practiced by Christians is like saying Christians can't enjoy the sunshine God provides because some religions actually worship the sun. Was the sun not given to us for life, health, and enjoyment? If God is big enough to make the sun, is He not big enough to discern those who enjoy it from those who worship it?
I love this argument in defense of Christians practicing yoga that was posted on the Christianity Today Web site by Agnieszka Tennant. She writes, "Worship is a conscious act of the mind. If it's busy overflowing with gratitude to Christ for the way he made my body, I simply don't have the mental space to give up to an idol. Second, can a non-existent idol snatch me away from Father God who has adopted me as His child? No chance."
Called to Be Counterculturalists
It should be little surprise that God would use something like yoga to bring His children closer to Him. Throughout history, God has often proven to use people and things that the world would least expect. Jesus, our greatest example, was a radical counterculturalist. He turned the religious community on its ear, with much of His teaching in direct contradiction to what was expected. In addition, God chose to use Paul, once one of Christianity's greatest adversaries, to become His greatest missionary.
Consider the hymns sung today from most of our Christian hymnals. Many of those sacred hymns were adapted from bar songs that were popular at the time. John Wesley and others thought they could best reach people for Christ by meeting them where they were. So they took something familiar and turned it into something for Christ.
The same could be said of today's rock music. When rock and roll was first introduced, many thought it was evil and would lead to our children's downfall. And perhaps it has not always been the best influence on our young people, but no one could challenge the fact that God has also used rock music to influence the contemporary Christian music that has now reached many people for Christ.
The common thread in these creative ways that God reaches and uses us is intent. If our intent is to glorify God, to share His love, and to draw us ever closer to Him, He can use it. God is using yoga today.
Training for Silence
How do you draw closer to God through yoga? You allow the slow, intentional, meditative practice to train your heart and mind for silence. Just as a football player trains his legs for power or a baseball player trains his arm and shoulders for throwing the perfect pitch, yoga trains your heart and mind for stillness and silence.
When was the last time you were completely silent? No TV, no radio (even Christian radio), no conversation. No visual noise, such as thumbing through magazines or gazing at billboards. No emotional noise, such as thinking about your current problems or your to-do list.
When you learn to become quiet and still, you are creating a heart that is teachable. David says in Psalm 4:4, "Search your hearts and be silent" (NIV). In silence, you can begin to see the attitude of your heart more clearly and recognize if it does or does not reflect God's glory. You can begin to see yourself and others through God's eyes, with an unconditional love that reflects the sacrificial love of Jesus for you.
A quiet heart allows you mental space to meditate on Scripture. It allows you a clear mind to raise up others in prayer. In addition, silence provides an atmosphere in which you can hear from God. He longs to give you direction, comfort, wisdom, and much more. How can you ever expect to hear a word from God if you never slow down enough or get quiet enough to hear His voice?
Joyce Rupp, in her wonderful book The Cup of Our Life, writes that "listening attentively is essential for spiritual growth. To do this, we need open minds and hearts, emptied of the clutter that blocks our way and crowds out what awaits entrance into our life. Listening is especially difficult to do because our external world is so full of noise. As we become accustomed to tuning out these external things, we develop a pattern of not listening internally as well."
Train. Condition. Prepare. Learn to create an atmosphere that allows your heart and body to work together as tools for worship. It begins with silence, a silence that can be developed in a Christ-centered yoga practice.
What Is Yoga?
To fully understand yoga, you have to recognize that yoga began in India and is now part of Hinduism. However, it is not Hindu. It is a universal practice that is thousands of years old, predating Hinduism, and was not designed specific to any religion. It is considered a framework or guideline to direct people toward greater spiritual growth and physical health. Therefore, yogic principles and disciplines can be used in the context of any faith (or none at all). Easterners were simply the first to appreciate the practice's numerous benefits and apply it to their belief system.
Most Westerners have only recently begun to fully appreciate and understand how beneficial the practice can be. Many have chosen to practice yoga only from a physical perspective (called hatha yoga), eliminating any Eastern overtones or philosophy. Others have recognized the powerful spiritual element and integrated the practice into their own faith, thus creating the exponential growth of the Christ-centered yoga movement.
Early Yoga Teachings
Originally, the focus of yoga was much more spiritual than physical. Early teachers believed that to attain spiritual health, you must achieve all-around health. Practitioners were encouraged to train the physical body first, leading to better mental health, focus, and concentration, which ultimately led to a deepening of their faith.
These early yoga teachers developed the physical aspect of the practice by finding inspiration in nature (God's creation). They studied the behavior of animals and the patterns of nature to establish the original yoga postures, called asanas. They imitated the way some animals moved and found that the movements created strength, power, and agility. They studied the animals' breathing patterns and learned that those with slower heart rates would live longer. They noticed how plants and trees would grow strong and tall, with roots firmly grounding them. With this inspiration, early teachers developed a series of postures to create similar results in the human body.
After training the body, yoga's forefathers believed the next step in spiritual growth was to train the mind. They believed that an unfocused mind would not allow for growth or development. They believed we all have the ability to achieve clear, focused thinking but usually lack the training necessary to enjoy it. To achieve this level of concentration, they encouraged a focus on the postures, breath awareness, and an attitude of stillness and silence.
It was their contention that training yourself to concentrate allows you the ability to fully understand and retain information, to fully engage in conversation and relationships, and to be fully present in every moment. From this deeper level of concentration, yoga teachers believed that peace of mind was born. They believed that when our focus is fully engaged, our minds are clear of distraction, and our bodies are quiet and still, we achieve a contentment about life's worries and an understanding of our inner self, our soul. This contentment and understanding then ultimately lead us to the connection with our divine Maker.
Since yoga is a philosophy and not a religion, it makes no specific statement about a deity, nor does it require students to believe in things such as karma or reincarnation. Yoga is designed to equip students to find the inner meaning of their religion, understanding it on a deeper level. Yoga helps restore to people the foundation of their beliefs because it provides a means by which we develop the quiet, reflective, and receptive spirit that we need to be teachable. When practiced within the context of one's faith, yoga can restore to the student the intimate relationship with God that is at the center of our Christian faith.
A Paradox of Opposites
In fact, the word yoga is literally translated to mean "to yoke" or "to unite," representing the bringing together of one's mind and body. It also represents the union of opposites, such as energy and relaxation, or effort and surrender. These are all concepts that are integral to a yoga practice. Similarly, if we look closely at our faith, isn't our God a God of paradox? He sends His Son to be born in a lowly stable yet crowns Him King of kings. Jesus tells us that in order to be first, we must be last. We are to find joy in our deepest suffering. And the cross, a symbol of execution and death, becomes the Christian's depiction of life and freedom.
Excerpted from Yoga for Christians by Susan Bordenkircher. Copyright © 2006 Susan Bordenkircher. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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