Sunday, August 21, 2011

Is Yoga a Religion?

Once at the end of a Sunday morning yoga class, a woman blurted out, "This is sooo much better than church!". That memory has stuck with me. Churches struggle with how to attract young people. Young people, especially young women, flock to yoga. 
After more than three years and hundreds of classes, I remain perplexed about what yoga really is.  One thing for sure, any type of exercise that can be done lying down is inherently appealing to me.
It seems there are yoga studios popping up everywhere.  As a business opportunity, it has a pretty low barrier to entry.  Not a lot of capital investment.  Two hundred hours of training and one can become a yoga instructor.  All it takes is an empty room and some mats, blocks and blankets.  Poof, it's a yoga business.
Since anyone with some training can become an instructor, there is wide variation in the quality and content of a yoga class.  Some include chanting and esoteric discussions about yoga sutras, in studios decorated with statues of Buddha and Buddhist flags.    Others would make Jane Fonda feel right at home, with lots of  lunges, twists and aerobic level routines.  Some include meditation, with readings.  Some conclude with physical relaxation techniques, of the relax your head, relax your neck, etc, working their way through the body.  One of my oldest and funniest yoga class memories happened on a family vacation at a dude ranch in Montana.  The instructor was going through the parts of the body to relax, including a request that we relax our kidneys.
Afterwards, a physician in the class observed wryly that, "if I relaxed my kidneys, I'd pee on the floor!" 
Then there are the gurus.  While the vast majority of yoga instructors in this community are women, the 'names' in yoga are more typically men.  Rodney Yee, John Friend, Max Strom and Bikram Choudhury are just a few of those who have followings.  And Choudhury has copyrighted and franchised his approach, hence, 'Bikram' yoga was born.  
Some people claim that those who practice yoga and claim to be Christians are on the path to spiritual ruin.  The Catholic newspaper of our diocese ran an article about a local 'PraiseMoves' instructor.  I tried a couple of her classes.  The poses were given new names and the routines are liberally sprinkled with biblical passages.  She was very kind, very sincere and very convinced of the value of PM as the Christian alternative to yoga.  But PraiseMoves is a franchise too, requiring its own teacher training and certification. 
Catholic bishops and pastors have been known to ban yoga classes.  But Catholic retreat centers also offer yoga classes and yoga retreats.  I know, I attended one earlier this year taught by a Paulist priest, Father Thomas Ryan who is a Kripalu trained yoga instructor. 
In the Introduction to his book, "Prayer of Heart and Body: Meditation and Yoga as Christian Spiritual Practice", he explains that Kripalu was, until 1985, a Jesuit novitiate.   But the Jesuits had to downsize due to the lack of recruits.  Now, Father Ryan points out, hundreds of people reside in a celibate community, and accept a simple lifestyle under the direction of a guru.  In a further bit of irony, he notes that a mosaic of St. Ignatius Loyola looks down upon people who are largely in the 20-45 age range, a population coveted by church pastors, who largely minister to a significantly older group. 
His writings and retreats are based on integration of yoga with Christian spirituality.  He heads a Center dedicated to interfaith understanding and has apparently not been kicked out of the priesthood or  summoned to Rome for retraining.
This morning I went to Mass and then to Gentle Yoga. I'm sticking with both. 

1 comment:

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