The Yoga culture in Cascadia might have a lot to teach the church.

At the recent Christ & Cascadia Conference, Matthew Kaemingk encouraged us to consider this: “What are the questions that Cascadian culture is asking?” The rise of Yoga in Cascadia is just such a question. The ever-growing Yoga and mindfulness culture in Vancouver, BC, where I’m a Yoga teacher, is asking the Church questions about its religious practices—and about where those practices might fall short.

I’m a Yoga teacher, but I’m also a Christian. This is a concern for some Christians. Some think that Yoga is, at best, the outcome of a narcissistic culture and, at worst, the worship of foreign gods. In my experience, it’s neither. And that’s true for many Christians. Yoga’s popularity is not dependent on people’s religious or spiritual affiliations. Many Christians—such as myself—are regular Yoga participants. For us, Yoga is a holistic practice that cultivates spiritual as well as physical wellness.

We’re Christians. We should engage with church. We are the church. Still, a lot of us would rather meditate on the Yoga mat than listen to another sermon.

Many feel that their spiritual experiences in Yoga are more monumental than those in the pews. Susan Phillips, author of The Cultivated Life, notes that “more and more Christians—lay and clergy—report that they’re attending mindfulness classes and in those classes having lively spiritual experiences, which are, some say, more life-enhancing than their experiences in Christian contexts.” This is a challenge for many of us. We’re Christians. We should engage with church. We are the church. Still, a lot of us would rather meditate on the Yoga mat than listen to another sermon.

What is it that Christians find so important in their Yoga practice? Does Yoga allow meaningful spiritual experiences that the Church doesn’t?

Yoga Mats Over Church Pews

I spend a lot of time talking to Cascadian Christians about their experiences in Yoga. Through these conversations I’ve gained insight into what the integration of Yoga and Christianity means to them. They—along with my own experiences—help me understand what they’re finding in the Yoga studio that they’re not finding on Sunday. I’ve noticed three common themes: surrender, embodied spirituality, and personal experience.

One yogi found that the practice of Yoga helped her to surrender:

I find more comfort in the silence of my Yoga practice than I do when I am in church. I feel a deeper connection while practicing Yoga because it is about surrendering and finding peace… Prayer is often about asking for something or thanking God. Yoga is more about clearing the mind… and surrendering it all.

The physical postures of Yoga helped another to “appreciate the amazing bodies God gave us”:

It helps me to be present. I’m thankful about the way it helps me gain strength and stay centred. I believe God is within me (with his Holy Spirit)—I also believe that being more centred I am more connected to God.

And a third yoga practitioner feels Yoga allows him deep spiritual experience through the practice of spending time within himself:

Many people, especially Christians, never do that, because many Christians are afraid to study their inner self. They have come to understand that they are so deeply flawed that the only way they can find love and comfort is from an external source.

My  conversations reveal a disconnect. What these Christians seek isn’t what (they think) churches offer. And that’s the sad irony. The Christian tradition is full of profound teaching on surrender, embodied spirituality, and personal spiritual experience; these are also core aspects of Christianity. It’s important for the Yoga practitioner to remember the gospel message is not one of self-fulfillment—it’s that a true understanding of oneself happens within community. Still, as the Church, we need to create a space that sees the values and insights of other cultures and practices. We ought to openly welcomes those who are searching. We should hear their questions. And we should acknowledges the desires and priorities of local trends and cultures. We should do all this while embodying the true joy of a community that rests and finds fulfillment in Christ.

Lack of Stability 

Douglas Todd, in Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia, observes the following two reasons why Cascadian’s don’t adhere to formalized religion:

Organized formal religions in the church, temple, synagogue and mosque have not customized their doctrine or services to the inhabitants of this region… The high mobility into and out of the region has played havoc with the ability of the these centres to provide a stable centre and to develop a strong core of patrons and sponsors.

Churches and other formal religions struggle getting people to commit to regular attendance. Yoga studios don’t have this problem. This goes beyond the spiritual experiences facilitated by Yoga. The drop-in, flexible studio scheduling, the emphasis on personal expression, and a culture of tolerance and oneness appeals to people who often view religious institutions as stifling and intolerant. There are both spiritual and practical cultural appeals to Yoga that churches can appreciate and even learn from. This needs to be done with discernment, of course. Not everything about Yoga culture is consistent with Christian practice. In fact, the Christian tradition has a lot to teach the Yoga participant.

While as Christians we can be thankful to other traditions for their wisdom and practices… this cultural trend is also an opportunity for us to remember lost aspects of our own tradition.

Christianity is full of great teachers and thinkers who practiced surrender, embodied spirituality, and who acknowledged their own personal spiritual experiences. They did so through movement, isolation, and mindful awareness. Saint Dominic, the 11th Century monk, developed a series of postures that he used for prayer—many of which resemble those from the Sun Salutation sequence found in Yoga. Much earlier, the Desert Fathers practiced extreme forms of stillness and isolation, not unlike periods of stillness in Yoga and meditation. While as Christians we can be thankful to other traditions for their wisdom and practices—specifically to Eastern Traditions for bringing mindfulness and Yoga to us—this cultural trend is also an opportunity for us to remember lost aspects of our own tradition. Cascadian churches would do well to incorporate them.

Cascadian Yoga culture is beautiful. It answers many of the questions Cascadia is asking. If the Church could learn from Yoga, it would demonstrate our willingness to acknowledge that spiritual wisdom can be found in lots of surprising sources—even other spiritual traditions. Yoga isn’t something to fear. Yoga culture is an opportunity to observe the spiritual needs and desires of those who live in this region.

Christians in Cascadia can then offer what we know from our own tradition. We’re all seeking surrender, embodied spirituality, and personal spiritual experience. And it’s the church which shows us the actual Presence to which we surrender, the spiritual reality which should be embodied, and that what we hope to spiritually experience is Christ’s Good News.