Can Yoga Teach a Christian to Pray?
The physical practice of yoga, or yoga asana, can complement christian spiritual practices by preparing the mind for meditation and a direct, open, prayerful communication with God.
““Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”(Philippians 2:12-13)
Christians who want to take the apostle Paul seriously sometimes find themselves wondering how exactly they might go about working out their salvation. Confident that God is at work in their lives, they look for methods or practices that can respond to and co-operate with God’s grace. The practice of yoga offers a well-rounded method or series of practices to do just that. The term asana or posture means in the first place a “seat”, understood to be a stable, relaxed position from which one may meditate. Yoga does not replace such necessary components of the Christian life as study of scripture and participation in the liturgical life of the Church. It is, however, a good “seat” for Christian practice. In what ways is this so?
For the Christian, yoga practice provides:
a means of expressing devotion and prayer through physical posture and gesture
a positive valuing of the body and its ways of knowing
a positive valuing of both physical pleasure and challenge
a heightened awareness of one’s interconnectedness with other bodies, human and non-human
increased capacity for concentration and meditation
In this way, yoga helps the Christian to an experience of a genuinely incarnated spiritual life, a way of using the body for prayer. Some attach phrases from scripture or the liturgy to the postures. Others simply make it their intention that the whole of their asana practice be an offering to God. In either case, such a way of prayer can lead to a greater appreciation of other forms of embodied worship within the Church, especially its sacramental life.
At times, the Christian tradition has been suspicious of bodily experiences of pleasure or pain. Yoga practice can be a helpful way of responding to both such experiences with equanimity and grace. Comfort with our bodiliness heightens our sense of connection with other creatures. Repeated encounter with ourselves and God through yoga practice serve to ground us and keep the spiritual life from becoming abstract, merely cerebral or disincarnate.
As Christians discover these latter benefits, they may find opening to them other distinctive values of yoga practice. The other “limbs” of the yoga tradition find their place within the Christian’s life. For example, the yamas and niyamas – ethical constraints and commitments – complement the Christian tradition’s own moral teaching. For many people, the growing sense of bodily awareness and increased capacity for concentration open the way to meditation. The calming and opening of the body and mind help with other forms of meditation such as the mantra meditation tradition taught by Dom John Main.
SOME EXAMPLES OF HOW YOGA CAN HELP YOUR PRAYER
Greater awareness of gestures or postures
When we cue in to the body, it can teach us about prayer and open us to new forms of prayer. Some examples of the things people say when they become aware of how a bodily gesture or posture inclines the heart:
“When I held hands with others in the circle, I felt solidarity and strength.”
“I never knelt in prayer before; it allowed me to express radical dependence.”
“Lying on my back with my eyes closed, I felt held in God’s embrace, secure.”
“I became aware of how hard it is to open my heart when my hands are clenched.”
“I always thought I had to sit still when praying.”
Such statements teach us that if one accord the body a role in prayer, it will be an ally; if we ignore it, it will be an obstacle.
PRAYING WITH BEADS
Praying with beads is another example of how the body makes a contribution to our prayer. Fingering beads aids concentration by occupying and integrating our external senses into our prayer, leaving the mind free to rest in God.
Yoga can invite you to become aware of how different poses incline your heart and mind in different ways, e.g. poses for evening prayer are generally folded in, whereas the morning poses for the sun salutation are reaching up and out. When you identify ways of positioning your body that express something deep in your spirit, remember those poses, go back to them and use them in your prayer.
There is also a linkage between engaging the body and engaging your affectivity. Engaging your body opens up a relationship, e.g., you wouldn’t think of sharing bed, bathroom, and bank account with someone with whom there’s only a relationship on a cerebral level. Similarly, engaging your body in prayer takes it to a deeper level by engaging the heart/affectivity.
For more on why it should it make good sense for Christians to give the body a role in their spiritual life, see the page "Our Perspective" on this site.
PRAYER TIME AFTER YOGA
After spending some time doing yoga exercises before a period of meditative prayer, the body is relaxed but active and therefore supportive of the spirit in its prayer. The mind has been relieved of preoccupations, and we will be less distracted as we practice the very subtle art of meditative prayer. If we are using a prayer word, the mind is also kept “occupied” with this one thought, which reduces the virtually constant flow of thoughts that grab our attention. The fruits of yoga exercises are more appreciated when we find ourselves “tightly wound” and “stressed out.” A relaxed state of body and mind is undoubtedly more supportive of our prayer life, and yoga exercises are an excellent way to accomplish this.
Whether you are new to yoga or a long-time practitioner, yoga invites you to a journey of self-discovery which surprises by turning out to be a journey of discovery of God. Entering into the journey is a delightful, fruitful way of responding to the Apostle Paul’s challenge to work out our salvation with God’s enabling help.