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Yoga’s Christian Army

“Christian” Yoga?  It seems, at first blush, like a contradiction in terms. Don’t Christians believe that the body — the “flesh,” as it were — is contrary to man’s spiritual nature, while for yoga it is the seat of his soul and the source of Divine wisdom?   It would seem so, but never underestimate the power of a pop-culture fad to create a yogic “union of opposites.”

Of the 20 million Americans that claim to practice yoga these days it’s anyone’s guess how many of them are devout Christians. Recent surveys have broken down the current market by age, gender, and income – but no one’s thought to inquire about religious affiliation. And is it any wonder? Religious ID, even less than party ID, tends to be a poor guide to how well adherents know their belief system, let alone practice it consistently.

In fact, by all appearances, the Christian yoga movement is growing, with groups like “Holy Yoga,” “Praise Moves,” and “Christoga” offering classes in all 50 states, and in various foreign countries, including Belgium, Germany, South Korea, and the Philippines. Holy Yoga, started in 2001, even has a nationwide teacher-training program, and its founder, Brook Boon, has authored two books, including Holy Yoga: Christian Exercise for the Body and Soul. She and “Praise Moves” founder Laurette Willis, who started her rival group in 2003, sell DVDs on their respective web sites and have posted a slew of free instructional yoga videos on You Tube.

At one level, it’s a perfectly logical trend, reflecting the ongoing “hybridization” of yoga. No consumer sub-group or lifestyle seems safe from industry marketers these days. There’s “Hip Hop” yoga for young Black urbanites, “Circus” yoga for acrobats and clowns, “Ganja” yoga for potheads (mainly in California), and “Naked” yoga for gay men looking for a safe place to “hook-up.” So, why shouldn’t there be yoga for “Jesus Freaks”?

There’s also a strong generational component to Christian yoga. Most practitioners are in their 20s or early 30s and exude the same evangelical zeal for yoga and its potential health and spiritual benefits that any “secular” teacher does.   The movement’s filled with women who are slender and like to dress in tight-fitting stretch pants and tops (adorned with slogans like “Jesus is My Guru”). And while somewhat more demure in their body posturing than their “New Age” sisters, they’re just as anxious to cultivate and project a hip, anti-establishment image.

In fact, many Christian yoga leaders say they once participated actively in a variety of “New Age” movements, including yoga.   In her official biography, Willis of “Praise Moves” recounts an adolescence filled with sex and drugs, followed by her conversion to Christianity. Her mother was a full-fledged hippie and local yoga teacher and Willis eventually became a hard-core yogi herself. In Christian yoga, she’s found a way to have it both ways, she says — to “tone her body and to worship Jesus Christ.”

Religious leaders on both sides of the Christian-Hindu divide are not amused. On the Christian side, theologian Albert Mohlers and mega-church pastor Mark Jenkins have railed against Christian yoga, calling it a “dangerous distraction.” They accuse leaders like Boon of distorting Christian doctrine to accommodate Eastern mysticism’s view of the Divine Self. They are especially concerned about her embrace of meditation practices to “empty the mind” — suggesting that it opens the door to “occult” influences – and her deliberate conflation of the Holy Spirit with Hindu concepts of prana and chi, which give the body priority over contemplative prayer as a source of received wisdom, they charge.

Most practicing Christian yogis remain unfazed. On web site postings, they frequently accuse their religious fellow-travelers of being, in effect, “fuddy-duddies,” backward-looking oldsters out of touch with the spiritual yearnings – and rebel spirit — of Christian youth. “It’s my yoga, and I’ll practice it the way I want to,” seems to be the underlying message of this new Christian army. Ironically, perhaps, it’s one that students of mainstream yoga, who often feel ostracized by Christians and see them as hostile to their movement, can equally identify with.

In some ways, the mainline Christian attack on yoga is reminiscent of its one-time depiction of rock-and-roll as the “devil’s music.” But there’s a decidedly feminist twist. Religious critics are typically men, and priests, while the leaders of Christian yoga and their followers are overwhelmingly women. More than anything, what seems to gall – and threaten – Mohlers and Jenkins is that Christian yogis like Boon are functioning as de facto spiritual leaders – as mini-gurus — even though they tend to be recent converts to Christianity and are not well-grounded in the faith. In fact, it’s not clear how often they even attend weekly services.

Ironically, Hindu elders who otherwise extol the virtues of yoga seem to be in complete agreement with their Christian brothers. Yoga, they say, is thoroughly Hindu at its core, and cannot be “Christianized” or treated as a mere exercise regimen and given a religious “makeover.” In an article published in the Huffington Post, Rajiv Malhotra, founder of the Infinity Foundation, said that Hindus were just as guilty as Christians of “apostasy.” Because of their eagerness to popularize yoga in a Christian-dominated country, many were willing to play down important theological differences to gain mainstream acceptance. Some groups like the Hindu-American Foundation have even launched a nationwide movement ”Take Back Yoga,” to try to reclaim their mind-body practice from what they view as the predatory clutches of mainstream yoga organizations.

If all this weren’t confusing enough, Christians who oppose yoga in any form have launched a campaign of their own to try to keep yoga from being taught in American public schools. The battle has raged in localities for a number of years but came to a head earlier this year when some Christian parents in Encinitas, California – long considered American yoga’s spiritual homeland – sued the city school district to block implementation of a plan to substitute yoga for traditional PE classes. Plaintiffs charged that the classes violated California’s constitutional separation of church and state, especially since their children could not opt out of the classes without losing their gym credits, and had no effective way of preventing the classes from trampling upon their children’s Christian views and values.

In anticipation of a possible legal challenge, yogis who taught the Encinitas classes spent months working with the school district to revise the curriculum so that any obvious vestige of Hinduism was removed. Devotional chanting, including the “Om” meditation and the traditional “Namaste” greeting, were eliminated. Poses with Sanskrit nomenclatures were renamed. All symbols of the Hindu pantheon of gods, including Shiva and Shakti, were removed. In many respects, the classes resembled a Christian yoga class, except that the language of the yoga construction was strictly secular, with soft humanistic messages accompanying the breath and posture practice.

In the end, the judge ruled that the yoga taught in Encinitas schools was not religious in nature and that the school district could proceed.

Where is it all heading? No one seems to know. It’s tempting to think that over time, America’s multicultural, secularizing ethos will win out, as it so often does. After all, “Christian” rock is today a major part of the national music scene and groups like the Jonas Brothers are pop idols – and not just for Christians. America loves its religions – most of them, at least — and young people of all persuasions do have a way of making sectarian and cultural divisions disappear, especially if there’s fun and frolic at stake. And so do marketers, who have watched yoga morph virtually overnight from an esoteric practice into a multi-billion dollar clothing, beauty, and “lifestyle” industry, with female shoppers in the lead.

But the deeper issues at stake may not be so easily reconciled. Even the Christian yoga groups seem to be falling out over their internal rivalries and differences. Willis of late has publicly sided with some Christian leaders in depicting “Christian Yoga” as a spiritual abomination. “Praise Moves,” she insists, is a Christian alternative to yoga – not itself yoga — with basic health and fitness – and weight loss — as its goal. She and Boon scarcely acknowledge each other anymore. And within mainstream yoga, a backlash of sorts is brewing over the absurd lengths to which yoga is being commercially exploited, and stripped of its spiritual message, with some prominent yogis urging the flock to return to “basics.” Some have even sided with the parents in Encinitas, on the grounds that yoga should never be imposed by government or judicial fiat, or by a single yoga group with its own financial agenda.

Meanwhile, lawyers for the parents have recently filed an appeal, citing the judge’s finding that the group sponsoring the twice-weekly yoga classes is avowedly “religious” and has even organized tours of the students to its own private events. If the judge’s ruling is overturned, expect the school district to appeal and new cases to be brought before judges in other school districts where yoga is also being taught, but thus far, without legal challenge. Eventually, the entire issue could end up being decided by the US Supreme Court.

Holy yoga, it’s looking like a holy war.

Stewart J. Lawrence can be reached at stewartlawrence81147@gmail.com

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Stewart J. Lawrence can be reached at stewartlawrence81147@gmail.com

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