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The Holiness of Yoga




Excerpted from
Holy Yoga: Exercise for the Christian Body and Soul
By Brooke Boon

In today's culture, Christians of different denominations are opening up to worship styles from other traditions. Many believers are newly interested in traditional spiritual disciplines such as meditation, fasting, solitude, and simplicity. Ancient rituals such as prayer labyrinths, in which Christians pray to and praise God while enacting a metaphorical journey to Him, are becoming more widely utilized as a way to meditate on God's glory and grace. Christians are learning how to pray and seek God in other ways besides kneeling at their bedsides and bowing their heads. I've noticed many people growing their faith from a visit on Sunday to an intimate daily relationship. The Vatican has even recognized that Christians are opening up to various body postures as a way to facilitate prayer. Our culture is finally at the point of being able to adopt a discipline such as yoga into the Christian lexicon.

Yoga as Christian Discipline

In his classic book Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster reminds us that "the classical Disciplines of the spiritual life call us to move beyond surface living into the depths." While yoga cannot be considered a "classical" Christian discipline, it nevertheless has the same goal and can have similar effects as other disciplines, provided it is practiced with the right intent. It can take us into the depths of a relationship with Christ.

Having an appropriate purpose in the practice of a discipline is what makes it holy or not. Like many disciplines, yoga can be practiced by two people using the exact same physical moves, with one coming into closer communion with God and the other not. It depends upon the intent, as do all disciplines. Compare it to the classical discipline of fasting. You can undertake a spiritual fast, spending time in prayer and meditation and worship. Your fast will be holy. It is about God. On the other hand, plenty of atheists fast frequently. Their purpose is not spiritual but physical, having to do with their bodily health and cleansing. Their fasts are not holy. It's the same with our practice of yoga: we make the discipline holy by placing our intent squarely on Christ.

If we're looking at Holy Yoga as a discipline, what then is its purpose? Foster tells us, "The disciplines are God's way of getting us into the ground; they put us where He can work within us and transform us. By themselves the Spiritual Disciplines can do nothing, they can only get us to the place where something can be done." I couldn't have come up with a better explanation for Holy Yoga! It is a discipline because it is a gift of God, a means of His grace, and a place we go to be in a position for Him to work in and through us.

As Jerry Bridges points out in his book The Pursuit of Holiness, "It is possible to establish convictions regarding a life of holiness, and even make a definite commitment to that end, yet fail to achieve the goal." He goes on to explain that the only way to obtain godliness is through discipline. While most of us are aware of that fact, we also tend to find it suspect. We prefer to focus on our freedom in Christ! We try, at all costs, to avoid "legalism."

Yet the apostle Paul put it clearly when he wrote, "Train yourself to be godly" (1 Tim. 4:7). He encouraged us with a reminder that God gave us a spirit of self-discipline (2 Tim. 1:7). I've found that Holy Yoga is one of the most powerful ways to discipline myself-my mind, spirit, and body-toward godliness. Especially when practiced in conjunction with the classical spiritual disciplines, Holy Yoga is a profound tool for Christian spiritual development.

Yoga Helps Christians Pray

The most commonly practiced discipline in Christian life is, of course, prayer. As I've studied and read numerous books on prayer, I've been fascinated to discover that all of the most distinguished and revered Christians in history have struggled with it! Every classic writer from Saint Augustine to Brother Lawrence to C. S. Lewis has written about his effort to concentrate and remain focused in prayer. Even Jesus' closest disciples, Peter, James, and John, in their moment of weakness fell asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane while they were supposed to be praying (Mark 14:32-42).

Frederica Mathewes-Green wrote, "Most of the time, even at worship, our minds are jumbled with a thousand other things. Throughout the ancient liturgy are regular reminders to pay attention. 'Let us stand upright! Let us stand with fear! Let us attend!' the deacon is instructed to say, and often he's saying it to himself as much as to anyone else." Isn't it comforting to know that we're not the only ones striving, often unsuccessfully, to have a focused prayer life?

This is where Holy Yoga finds its deepest and most powerful purpose. In order for us to be attentive to God, we need to quiet the mind and the body of all worldly distractions-a nearly impossible feat in today's noisy environment! Yoga's techniques are aimed at this goal. Even novice Holy Yoga practitioners find their openness and responsiveness to God intensifies immediately as they discipline their bodies and minds toward quietness.

To better appreciate how Holy Yoga helps us pray, it's helpful to consider the reasons we pray in the first place. First, we pray because God has made it clear in Scripture that it's our responsibility and our primary means of relating to Him. Prayer is one of the most important ways we seek His kingdom (Matt. 6:33). We pray because we are dependent beings-not by any means the autonomous creatures we imagine ourselves. We have needs and desires that we cannot meet on our own, and so by prayer we present our petitions and requests before God (Phil. 4:6). However, the essence of prayer lies not in our fervent requests, but in our growing relationship with the Lord. In other words, it's not the end result that counts-it's the journey.

Hank Hanegraaff helps us grasp this truth through a contemporary analogy: "For Tiger [Woods], playing golf is its own reward. It is obvious that he loves the process more than he loves the prize. For Christians, prayer should be its own reward. Prayer is not a magic formula to get things from God. Communing with God in prayer is itself the prize."

This is so important as it relates to Holy Yoga. As with prayer, the essence is in the process, not the result. And amazingly, Holy-Yoga facilitates our pursuing prayer as "itself the prize" by teaching us to let go of all those noisy words we tend to throw at God and simply be in His presence.

The depth of communion with God that Holy Yoga can bring about has led me to my own saying: "I pray, therefore I am." I am reminded that without God, I am not! Whenever I hear the oft-repeated Descartes quote, "I think, therefore I am," it feels so worldly and self-focused. I know the statement expresses a complex philosophy, but my surface reaction is, I did not think myself into existence! I was created by God and I am sustained, every moment of every day, by the very breath of God. "Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father" (James 1:17). It is only by continually seeking Him that we are able to receive His gifts-the gift of Himself the most precious of all.

Holy Yoga helps us pray by teaching us to cultivate a quiet heart and mind. As Thomas Ryan put it, "It invites cerebral Western world people to 'get out of their heads.'"7 This is crucial in helping us master one of the most important yet neglected aspects of prayer-listening. We cannot hear God speaking to our hearts if our minds are cluttered with requests, worries, and complaints.

Holy Yoga does more than simply assist us in our prayer lives. In addition to reinforcing what is prayed, physical prayer becomes prayer itself. The movement of our bodies, and the appreciation of God's gift to us of these holy vessels, allows us to worship our Creator not just through our thoughts and our words, but through the very physical entities in which we live.



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