Yes to Yoga
It's 7:45 p.m. on a weekday and for the first time today, I consciously slow down my breathing. I send the air deep down into my belly, letting it rise and fall like a wave. Inn Outt
Along with a group of 30 people in a darkened exercise studio at a Lifetime Fitness gym near Chicago, I use the unhurried cadences of the air filling and leaving my lungs to lull my muscles and joints into daring postures. My body becomes a mountain. An eagle. A warrior. A pigeon. A downward dog. A cobra. Finallymy favorite pose that comes at the end of each workouta corpse, during which I lay down and relax every muscle.
Oh, and I'm an evangelicalmostly, a proud one. Proud of Christ, of Mary Magdalene, of G.K. Chesterton, of the way the Bible cuts through all cultures and all times and all hearts, and of smart evangelicals like historian Mark Noll at Wheaton College who have pried open the collective evangelical mind.
Sometimes though, I admit, I'm a tad embarrassed to be a member of the diverse evangelical family. Like yesterday, when I heard on NPR that the National Association of Evangelicals had led a charge at the Supreme Court opposing out-of-state wine shipments. May the finest wine maker have mercy on us!
Also yesterday, shame rushed through my face as I read on The Huffington Post, the hot, new, militantly liberal website, a reference to an article on yoga published by Christianity Today's sister publication Today's Christian Woman. In it, Max Blumenthal rightly pokes fun at the admiring article's main voice, which belongs to Laurette Willis, who believes yoga is pretty much of the devil. "Yoga's breathing techniques (pranayama) may seem stress-relieving, yet they can be an open door to psychic influences," Willis says.
Willis, who used to be a yoga instructor, believes that the practice opened her mind to New Age spirituality and led to her depression and alcoholism. After she was born again, she's remade herself into a PraiseMoves instructor (and skilled marketer). She wouldn't say this, but let's face it: she's still a yoga instructorthus acknowledging yoga's healthful benefitsbut now offers biblical explanations and biblical-sounding names for the poses.
Now, Willis and other Christians may have good reasons to feel uneasy about yoga. With her background in New Age, which was clearly an oppressive force in her life, I could be weary of what yoga reminds me of, too.
But it bothers me that people like Willis demonize a healthful exercise regimen, and engage in fear mongering (or is it fear marketing?) among evangelicals. The stereotype of evangelicals they reinforce I'd rather live without. We can leave the spreading of wrong-headed stereotypes about evangelicals to the more experienced basherssome columnists at The New York Times, for example.
To dispel the stereotype at hand, let me witness that yoga has never had any negative influence on me, and it doesn't trigger any harmful religious impulses. Just the opposite is true. The three hours a week I spend doing yoga not only make me more flexible, tone my muscles, and relax me. They also draw me closer to Christ. They are my bodily-kinetic prayer.
Need I say that it was Alpha and Omega who first thought of and then created the common graces of oxygen, stretching, flexibility, breathing, and soothing music?
My natural response to any deep-breathing exercises is an emotionally felt love of God. Soon after I take off my socks and do a couple of poses, spontaneous prayers soar to Christ. Give me five minutes of yoga, and my mind immediately goes to the metaphor of God's spirit being as omnipresent and as necessary as the air.