In Defense of the Om
I grew up thinking a lot of things were evil: cursing, smoking, Texas A&M, Democrats.
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But one thing that never fell into the “damned” category was yoga. I guess it just didn't come up. So I was more than a little confused when a few years ago, pastors across the religiously affiliated spectrum started condemning my workout class of choice.
Seattle megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll has said multiple times yoga is evil, concluding, “A faithful Christian can no more say they are practicing yoga for Jesus than they can say they are committing adultery for Jesus.” Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler said — and was later lambasted for it — that embrace of yoga is contradictory to Christian commitment. Even the guy at the Vatican who does exorcisms said yoga is the “work of the devil.”
To which my initial response — to quote the Dude — is … well, y’know, that’s just, like your opinion, man. (Er, I mean men. White pastorly men.)
When I lived in Chicago, I dragged my white pastorly man-husband to a new yoga class at our gym, Crunch fitness. The center had a yoga studio that overlooked the Chicago River and I loved the juxtaposition of deep, cleansing breath with the industrial waste floating below us. The husband leaned toward the “yoga-might-be-worshipping-the-devil-question-mark” camp. (But in reality, it was more of the “crap-I’m-going-to-look-like-an-idiot” persuasion.) Then again, if our Lutheran congregation could host yoga classes in the church basement, maybe it was OK.
Now, the guy does better arm balances than me, and he somehow manages to maintain his Christian commitment.
I get what the concern is, really. While practicing yoga, you’re told to reflect, meditate, turn inward. For Christians, anything that takes focus off of Christ and onto self could be deemed sinful or at least at odds with the faith. (This, of course, unless you’re talking about actual salvation. But that’s a whole other kettle o’ fish.)
Many claim yoga actually reconnects them to the faith, opening up a new level of spirituality — transcending the earthly something or other. I don’t particularly feel that way, but I tend to shun most touchy-feely, new agey, “spiritual-but-not-religious” speak. (I’m Southern.)
But let’s take the scare tactics out of it, shall we? Practicing yoga isn’t a secret plot to turn you Hindu. That’s not really a thing.
Here’s what happens: You take off your shoes. You stretch a bit. You set an intention (I usually try to concentrate on de-stressing, i.e., not thinking about work, or focus on someone in my life who needs prayer, or meditate on my own life and/or lack of discipline in certain areas of it.) You breathe deeply. You do things you didn’t realize your body was capable of — like stand on your head. You realize how difficult it is to reach your toes without bending your spine. Then you rest — you lay in “corpse pose,” which is the most vulnerable, beautiful way to end a busy day.
So yes, it is inwardly focused. But so is getting a new haircut. Or going on vacation. Or pretending not to see the mother and child asking for spare change on your way to Starbucks. I digress …
But throughout the 60-to-90-minute mediation, I like to notice little things and give praise for them. You gain a whole new appreciation for the body God gave you — the body you spend so much of your life scrutinizing, trying to cover up, or downright hating.
I’m thankful to God for the connectivity of all the muscles that allow me to flow from one pose to the next.
I notice the twinge in my wrist as I move through “chataranga” (a type of pushup) — and I give thanks for the carpel tunnel-inducing hours I spend hovering over my computer, pursuing my passion of writing.
With my feet over my head in an inversion, I peek at my chipping toenail polish and give thanks for the relationship I have with a friend who shared “lunchtime pedicures” with me.
When I feel inferior because my shoulder can’t bend a certain way like everyone else in class, I remember with thanks that I had a pretty good throwing arm once upon a time that left me bursitis-ridden.
And as I lay still as a corpse, I give praise that God has seen fit to lead me through another day.
Sandi Villarreal is Associate Web Editor at Sojourners. Her yoga form is not nearly as good as pictured. You can follow her on Twitter @Sandi.
Yoga illustration, Tom Wang / Shutterstock.com