October 11, 2010

Yoga and Christianity: An Ongoing Spiritual Autobiography.

When You Are Mad That a Minister Says Yoga Doesn’t Go With Christianity, What Exactly Are You Mad About?

Some of my dearest yoga colleagues are currently in high dudgeon about the statements of Southern Baptist minister Albert Mohler upon the subject of whether Christians can practice Yoga and still be Christian. His position is: No.

I hate to say it, but he is right.

At the Hanuman Temple in Taos, by Jeff Frazier

Practicing Yoga might not make you renounce Jesus, but it might make you something more than Christian. The flexibility and openness of mind cultivated over time in a yoga practice is inhospitable to Mohler’s brand of narrow-minded, exclusional Christianity. That’s one reason we do Yoga in the first place, isn’t it? To become more open-minded and open-hearted? That is a gift of Yoga, a blessing! Think of what your own practice has given you: hasn’t it made you less doctrinaire, less aggrandizing of your own perspective? That’s what you want! If Reverend Mohler sees Yoga as a threat to a point of view that sees only one way to salvation, he is perfectly correct in seeing it as a threat, because it is: a good threat. I can speak to this through my own story, my own experience.

When I started practicing Yoga, I was very Catholic: steeped in the devotional traditions of Catholicism and very proud of them, even a little defensive of them, and in ways that seem sheerly ridiculous to me now: when my first teacher started talking about chakras, for example, I would mount elaborate intellectual defenses about how she might as well have been talking about the four humours from the Middle Ages. I was interested in other wisdom traditions, but trying to figure out how to hold with certainty to my own.

But more and more as I practiced, I began to experience the soundlessly deep peace that we feel in meditation, that direct experience of the texture of the Universe which we can call Divine. It was real to me, and didn’t look like any image of the Holy that I had ever inherited from my family or culture. I was having other experiences too, that did not come through the Christian interface, and could not be encompassed by it. Those experiences were less anthropomorphic, less anthropocentric, more universal. I could not deny them because I was living them.

Two years into my practice I accompanied my teacher to the Southeastern Yoga Convention, where I attended my first kirtan. It was Dave Stringer, projecting the words of the mantras on his screen as he does. I always love to sing in Church (a precious and rare thing for a Catholic!) so I followed along. And what happened is that the mantras carried me: blasted my heart and throat open and I was all over melting in a joy that I had never quite felt before, and at the same time was like coming home.

The beauty of human expression in finding those sounds, those ways to address and participate in the Divine, to rejoice with it, was urgent and present and real-er than a religious identification. But I think I was ready to do it, to ‘go there,’ because of the many months I had given to steady practice, to opening up my mind and heart to something above differentiation.

Because Yoga is a practice, and because we learn it through practice and the direct experiences that delivers, I experienced directly what before I had understood intellectually: that there is a field underlying the manifest Universe that is the source of that Universe, that that field is clear and pure and formless and ‘passeth understanding,’ so in order to understand it and to attempt to communicate with it we humans create interfaces and words that over time become religions, but that are our particular words and ways of approaching that deep reality.

In his original article, Mohler quoted from Stefanie Syman’s book The Subtle Body, that the broadening acceptance of Yoga in America ‘has augured a truly post-Christian, spiritually polyglot country.’ He says that Christians who practice Yoga risk transforming their spiritual lives into a ‘spiritually polyglot’ reality. ‘Should any Christian willingly risk that?,’ he asks in earnest.

I did. I now am spiritually polyglot. I speak to G-d in different tongues. Even though I don’t go to Mass any more, I still love Jesus. But I love Krishna, too, and the great bright wheeling Sefirot of the Kabbalah, and the Green Man who is the voice of the woods. I am an apostate but that is fine with me. I have a wider understanding of different peoples of the earth, a deeper sympathy for them, by appreciating the beautiful and intricate interfaces they use to talk to communicate with the huge and breathtaking Universe. Some of these languages I do not presume that I understand. But I can see the attempt in them, I can see what they are trying to do.

Should any Christian risk becoming spiritually polyglot? Hell, YES! And happy for it, to boot! Accept that your practice might have consequences to your spiritual identity. You might stay Christian, or you might have to say at some point that you have become something more than only Christian, or you might cease to be Christian altogether. But that is fine! It’s all made up anyway! Stop worrying about what other people think of you, and don’t get hung up on what definitions might imply. Take ownership of your spiritual path, the language you use to talk to G-d, as something bright and beautiful. It’s between you and the Universe, after all.

Photo from a Route 66 trip, August 2010. www.jefffrazier.com

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