I SAT on my mat inside the parish center at St. Paul the Apostle, a Roman Catholic church just around the corner from Columbus Circle, and began the evening’s yoga class, not with a long “om” but with the simple words of St. Francis of Assisi.
“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith.”
This was Christian yoga, where asanas, or poses, are taught with a twist of Jesus, and the Holy Trinity keeps you company. The teacher, Amy Russell, encouraged the class to quietly tap into our compassion, as St. Francis did.
“Can you find the peace in whatever movement you are in?” she asked. We moved into warrior pose, with our feet rooted firmly to the floor, and Ms. Russell asked, “Can you find the strength of being grounded in Christ through the center of your body?”
Nobody seems to know how many Christians practice yoga, or how many practice it in a Christian way, but the number of teachers, retreats, classes and DVDs geared toward Christians appear to be growing. Holy Yoga, which was founded by Brooke Boon in 2003 after she became a Christian, has released a series of DVDs and has trained 300 teachers. The Rev. Tom Ryan, one of the first to combine Christianity with yoga, has a network, Christians Practicing Yoga, that has trained teachers in spirituality based yoga techniques.
But in recent weeks, an online brouhaha has erupted over whether Christianity and yoga, which is broadly associated with Hinduism, belong together. R. Albert Mohler Jr., a prominent evangelical leader, warned on his blog in September that the two were incompatible. “Christians are not called to empty the mind or to see the human body as a means of connecting to and coming to know the divine,” he said. “Believers are called to meditate upon the word of God.”
The press picked up on his words last month, and a furor ensued across the religious spectrum. Most of those who posted comments online seemed to disagree. The back-and-forth took another turn when the pastor of a Seattle megachurch called yoga “demonic.”
The ministers say they are worried that the Sanskrit chants and Hindu texts sometimes used in yoga classes will lead followers away from Jesus. But Christians who practice yoga say the opposite is true.
“One of the things that most Christians and most people don’t get is that yoga is not a religion,” Ms. Russell said.
“It does not belong to Hinduism anymore than it belongs to Christianity,” she said, adding that it “transcends religion.”
Some Christian yogis see the practice as intensifying their relationship with Jesus. Yoga can enhance meditation, gratitude and selflessness, making it easier to pray. Many yoga classes in New York do not linger on the Sanskrit chants and texts. But even if they did, there is a kind of universality to the teachings.
The Rev. Anthony Randazzo, pastor at Notre Dame Roman Catholic Church in North Caldwell, N.J., became a priest in 1986 and started yoga 10 years later. We’re talking serious yoga: hot vinyasa, Jivamukti, Bikram. (He recently attended the Bob Marley flow at Garden State Yoga in Bloomfield.) He brings his faith with him and powers it up.
“I am more deeply rooted in the Christian faith than ever,” said Father Randazzo, 50.
The Vatican frowns on this. In 1989, it issued a document stating that the practice of Eastern traditions like yoga “can degenerate into a cult of the body.” But Father Randazzo respectfully disagrees.
“I have been in many places with Sanskrit chants, and it has never led me to any other place than Christ,” he said. “It is a spiritual experience.”
He also teaches yoga at his church and in his community, and when he does, he often focuses on the Beatitudes — the blessings from Jesus. An entire class can be woven with prayers. “If yoga is giving me a sense of peace,” he said, “then I am able to somehow help people come to their own inner peace.”
As I leaned my own body into a triangle pose in Ms. Russell’s class at St. Paul’s, I harbored no doubts about the power of yoga to deepen faith: the peace, the discipline, even the occasional suffering help make room for gratitude, compassion and humility. It’s not just your body that feels lighter. It’s your soul.