In the last decade much emphasis has been put on alternative methods of health care. Even medical doctors are beginning to give more credibility to holistic methods of healing. Studies have proven that the best results come from looking at the whole person, body, mind and spirit. It is no longer considered good medicine just to treat symptoms and ignore the possible underlying causes of disease. So where does yoga fit into this model of healing, and what are its implications for Christians?
Yoga is a science of self-awareness that seeks the realization of the unity of our humanity with our divinity, thereby creating health and wholeness. It is the deepening of self-understanding through breathing, movement, postures, and meditations (Kripalu, 2001).
Centering on the spine, the greatest nerve center in the body, yoga starts with correcting any imbalances in that important area. A healthy nervous system will carry impulses to all other organs of the body making them function correctly, and in the process making the immune system very strong (Choudhury, 2004). Yoga has been referred to as nature’s chiropractic.
Other major applications for the body appear in relieving stress, fatigue, and stimulating invigoration and vitality. Yoga has also been credited with anti-aging properties, and as an application for relaxation therapy. Because of its effect on normalizing glandular activity, yoga will tend to produce the right weight for the individual. Yoga has been associated with healing from stomach acid to wrinkles, and everything in between. There is an enormous amount of research available on the health benefits of yoga. Good physical health is important, but it is not yoga’s only contribution to the healing process.
When looking at the totality of yoga, only one type has emphasis on the physical practice or postures, and that is Hatha Yoga. The other three types: Karma Yoga focuses on self-service, and is predominantly action-oriented. Bhakti Yoga is considered the way of devotion and has its emphasis on ritual and prayer. Raja Yoga has its emphasis on meditation, tying up the loose ends and giving the practitioner a road map to the true self. This system in and of itself creates a solid path for health and wholeness. For a Christian, however, healing has a much deeper meaning. Although it may include the removal of a physical problem, it is not necessarily a cure.
What Is Healing?
Besides being good psychology, healing is the willingness to let go of blocks or “idols” which we have consciously or unconsciously set up against God’s unconditional love (McCall and Lacey, 1985). It’s more than good health. A person with a serious disease may not be able to be cured, but can be healed.
Healing can also be deceptive. Many people claim a healing when physical or emotional symptoms disappear. An example of this is the alcoholic who stops drinking, but has not dealt with the underlying reasons for his/her disease, or the person who joins a gym and gets their body in great physical shape motivated entirely by the ego’s willfulness. Something has shifted, but healing has not taken place. It’s like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. If sick beliefs and attitudes are left untouched, the symptoms will just return in another form. Until we accept the merciful and unconditional love of God for us, we will do the right things for the wrong reasons (McCall and Lacey, 1985).
Holistic practitioners believe that our emotions are stored in the body, the cells, the muscles and tissues. To coin a phrase “Your issues are in your tissues.” Working through the body with deep breathing, and holding yoga postures can bring up emotions that need to be dealt with at deeper levels of healing. Once these emotions are brought into the light of our awareness, we become participants in the process, and the possibility of healing through God’s grace becomes stronger. Lama Surya Das says “We all have spiritual DNA; wisdom and truth are part of our genetic structure even if we don’t always access it.”
The Inner Yoga
Matthew Sanford is an Iyengar trained yoga teacher. What is unusual about Matthew is that he is a paraplegic. In his book Waking, he chronicles the life events that irrevocably changed his life and body. At the age of thirteen he was in a car accident which killed his father and sister. The accident left him paralyzed from the chest down, and confined to a wheelchair. Matthew’s memoir takes the reader inside the body, mind, and heart of a person whose world has been shattered. His journey of reconnecting mind and body through yoga has much to offer in understanding the healing process. The following quotes from Matthew Sanford illustrate yoga’s tremendous potential to facilitate healing:
“The principles of yoga, its logic, hold for my body in the same way as for anyone else’s. Its outer expression just looks different. The result is that I start to gain presence, not on the outside, but on the inside. I begin to feel a different kind of life.”
“A new beginning for anyone’s study of yoga is when poses provide glimpses into what lies beneath their physical action.”
“The energies of life and death, of movement and silence, integrate within our existence to form consciousness. It requires both a mind and a body: one to open; one to stay present.”
Yoga can be a sacred tool which enables the practitioner to create a deep connection between body and mind. Body and mind together in passionate unity create a fully alive human being.
Yoga can also be very humbling. The practice can become a metaphor for the spiritual journey. A mistaken image of God that many Christians hold is that in order to be worthy of God’s love one must already be perfect. They have forgotten that we are loved not because we are good; we are good because we are loved (McCall and Lacey, 1985). We change the ways we are hurting ourselves because we see ourselves as loved by God.
An illusion around yoga is that in order to come to the practice one must already be thin, flexible, and able to perform difficult postures. The reality of yoga practice is that it is not designed for results, but to bring the practitioner to a deeper sense of awareness and self acceptance. Rodney Yee says “I find that so many people are doing this in their yoga practice and probably in every aspect of their lives – they’re always trying to do their life right.”
Yoga and religion are rooted in philosophy. They remain neutral until they wrap themselves around something else. Either can mistakenly become an idol. If that happens, healing cannot take place. Jesus Christ is the healing fountain. Jesus tells us that he has come that we might have life and that we may live to the fullest. He went about Palestine bringing the gift of new life to people. He brought physical and spiritual healing through word, touch, and smile. Through his healings he brought to birth the Kingdom of God that has finally broken into the fallen world. The Kingdom Jesus called forth was what was best and most beautiful in both spirit and body. He refused to divide humankind into compartments and, thereby, fragment the masterful work and rhythm of the Creator. A small taste of heaven came to those people who were ready to glimpse what it is like in paradise and live in their own flesh this vision of harmony and peace (McCall and Lacey, 1985).
Choudhury, B. Yoga: A Vehicle for Global Healing. 2004. www.bikramyoga.com
McCall, Fr. P. and Lacey, M. An Invitation to Healing. House of Peace. 1985.
Riverrun Press. Piermont, NY.
Powers, C. Yoga Wisdom: Daily Inspiration from Yoga Maters. 2002 Cassandra Powers. Lam Surya Das p. 147. Rodney Yee p. 22.The Lions Press.
Sanford, M. Waking. 2006 Matthew Sanford. Rodale, Inc. Rodale, Inc.