A Brief History of the Intersection of Yoga and Christianity

Renee Prymus

Over the past five hundred years, our world has grown increasingly smaller as our abilities to travel and communicate have grown faster. As cultures interact, they share small things like recipes and clothing designs, and larger things like philosophies on work, family, and life.

Yoga traversed the globe from India to the United States in two major waves.* The first wave came in 1893, when Swami Vivekananda attended the Parliament for the World’s Religions in Chicago. Swami Vivekananda then stayed in the U.S., teaching the philosophy of yoga as well as tenets of Hinduism and the Vedanta. Interestingly, Swami Vivekananda downplayed the role of the body and asana (poses).

The second wave coincided with the trips that the Beatles and the Beat poets took to India in the 1960s, and although they helped to popularize the practices of yoga and meditation, they were not the second wave. The second wave came through the fifties, sixties, and seventies as yoga gurus Indra Devi, Sivananda, B.K.S. Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, and Bikram Choudry brought their versions of modern postural yoga to the States. These yogis did not travel together or at the same time, but for the most part they were taught yoga by the same man in India: Krishnamacharya. It was Krishnamacharya who began emphasizing hatha (postural) yoga over other branches of yoga, and each of his students all developed their own flavor of yoga. (For more info, watch the documentary Breath of the Gods.) Thus, the second wave that brought yoga to the United States emphasized the modern postural yoga found in most yoga studios today.

Throughout the States now, there are probably as many different interpretations of yoga philosophy and methods of yoga postures as there are denominations of Christians. Finding a yoga class that is right for your body, mind, and spirit can be a little bit like trying to find a new church home when you move to a new city.

The history of North American Christians interacting with yoga builds on these waves.

In library searches of “Christian + yoga,” many practitioners find a little book called Christian Yoga (1960) by Jean Marie Déchanet. Déchanet was a French Benedictine monk who discovered the powerful impacts of yoga on his personal life when it cured him of a life-long illness. He began writing about yoga prolifically, although only three of his works have been translated into English, of which Christian Yoga is the most popular.

Two other Benedictine monks reversed the learning process by moving to India. In 1948, Father Henri Le Saux, a French Benedictine monk, moved to India and became one of the pioneers of the Hindu-Christian dialogue. Along the way, Fr. Le Saux became Swami Abhishiktananda and with Fr. Jules Monchanin founded a Christian ashram called Shantivanam (“Forest of Peace”) in 1950. In 1955, Father Bede Griffiths, a British-born Benedictine monk (and student and friend of C.S. Lewis), moved to India, and became the director of Shantivanam in 1968. Both Le Saux and Griffiths were prolific writers and pioneers in interfaith dialogue.

Back in North America, in the wake of the second wave of yoga, related seeds were being sown. In the late 1970s the Benedictine John Main, the founder of what is today the World Community of Christian Meditation, became the teacher and spiritual guide of Father Tom Ryan, CSP, in Montreal. In 1991 Fr. Tom, after 10 years as director of the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism, took a sabbatical study period in India to learn more about the world's religions. At Shantivanam, he studied the sacred writings of Hinduism under the tutelage of Bede Griffiths. It was in the daily practice at the ashram of yoga followed by meditation that Fr. Tom experienced how hatha yoga relaxes the body and quiets the mind for deeper and more focused prayer in meditation. Upon his return to the States, he saw the growing popularity of yoga and wondered who was helping Christians “connect the dots” and engage in the practice of yoga in a way coherent with their own faith understanding.

In 1995, Fr. Tom published Prayer of Heart and Body: Meditation and Yoga as Christian Spiritual Practice. Following its publication, many Christians who practice and teach yoga found Fr. Tom and also each other. A network (and this website) was eventually born of their friendships and collaborations.

As yoga was gaining popularity in western culture, many Christians had already been practicing yoga but felt rather isolated because they didn’t know other Christians who practiced yoga. In New Jersey, one such woman was Barbara Moeller, who began practicing yoga with Richard Hittleman’s Yoga: 28 Day Exercise Plan on a beach towel in her living room in the early 1970s. Eventually, she developed a teacher training program at Lourdes Wellness Center and published a VHS called Christian Yoga in 1995, the same year Fr. Tom’s book was published.

For people like Barbara Moeller, Fr. Tom’s book confirmed in published words what they already knew: yoga could be a powerful spiritual practice expressing one’s devotion to God. After 1995, the documented intersection between Christianity and yoga grew, and more and more Christians began to practice yoga.

The 2000s brought a Christian wave of books, DVDs, and yoga teacher-training institutions to meet the growing number of Christians who wanted to glorify God through the practice of yoga. These resources are listed on our Additional Reading and Practice pages. The growing popularity of yoga as a Christian spiritual practice reflects both the rich way in which cultures learn from each other as well as the larger movement of Christians who are incorporating embodied, contemplative practices into their faith.

 

*There are many different histories of yoga, some well-documented, some not. Its history is not nearly as simple or as clear as it is presented here. This narrative has been written to highlight some of the Western confusion around the word “yoga,” as well as streamline where Christians have intersected with yoga along the way. This interpretation of yoga’s history has been strongly influenced by the academic work done by Joseph Alter (Yoga in Modern India, 2004), Elizabeth DeMichelis (History of Modern Yoga, 2004), Mark Singleton (Yoga Body, 2010), Stefanie Syman (The Subtle Body, 2010) and Andrea Jain (Selling Yoga, 2014).