Now That's a Stretch
In "Yo-God!" classes, Christians bend over backwards to Jesusify their yoga.
By Stephanie Hunt
“Drawnwod God” is Downward Dog spelled backwards. "Drawnwod"—as in Rocky Balboa slurring "drawn toward." I figured that out between deep, throaty breaths as my rear end pointed toward heaven and my head was bowed low. Granted, this is not exactly a common Praise the Lord position, but it seemed to be working for the middle-aged ladies craning their devout derrieres at a popular "Yo-God!" class I recently crashed. With each inhale/exhale, each stretch of those skyward glutes, we were being "drawn toward" God. At least that was the premise of this "Matt Ministry" program, a righteous recapitulation of ancient Eastern asana practice, held at a nearby evangelical Episcopal (yes, you read that correctly) church.
I showed up in conservative, belly-covered attire and rolled out my purple mat in the church's fellowship hall. Happy Jesus muzak, known in the trade as "praise music" (or schlock rock on Prozac), was playing; people’s mats were oriented like sun rays around the instructor who, front and center, had her well-exercised Bible flopped open at the top of her mat—its leather spine definitely limber. Her soothing voice and gentle manner almost made me shrug off the unsettling intensity that came across, as it always does, when someone I don't know tells me she's been praying for me.
"I prayed this morning that this class would speak to each of you," she said, adjusting her Britney Spears-ish headset, "and be for you whatever your heart seeks. Whatever it is that God wants for you."
While I tend to think God wants for us to be feeding the poor, working for peace and caring for creation, I began hoping He wanted to ease the vicious knot that had been gnawing at my upper right trapezius.
I don't mean to be demeaning. There’s nothing wrong with creating new opportunities and new outlets for worship and praise. I appreciate the Yo-God intent, and in fact, long ago when I was a newly minted Christian back in the Jane Fonda aerobics heyday, I thought a Christ-centered calorie burn would be a good idea—the whole your body is a temple, so why not do some squats theology. And truth be told, the Yo-God class was fine, a decent hour of stretching and some basic core strengthening with familiar poses and well-meaning people, but it threw me off balance.
If true yoga is inherently "unchristian," then this Scripturally souped-up version is Christianly unchristian, I guess. Giving traditional poses Jesusified names seems more like an exercise in semantics than a real spiritual intervention, not that a spiritual intervention was ever necessary in the first place. I don't think the Lord gives a down dog whether or not I do a sun salutation or a Son salutation, or chant Om instead of Amen at the beginning or end of practice. My faith is firmer than my side shoulder stand, and it isn't threatened by practicing an ancient spiritual discipline shared by Hindus or Buddhists.
All in all, I saved three bucks and brushed up on some rusty Bible verses, but here's what I missed:
In a typical yoga class, I sweat. The intermediate classes at my preferred studio are challenging to body, mind and spirit, and I’m always humbled by the many poses I've yet to properly execute. My Warrior II is a wicked battle between my quads and my shoulders; my Crow is more like what I eat as I fail yet again to balance my knees high on my screaming triceps. And I like it that way. I practice yoga to explore my edge, to engage muscles I didn't even know I had. The Yo-God workout lacked the physical intensity I'm used to, perhaps because it's hard to concentrate on proper alignment and the muscular minutia involved in sinking deeper into Triangle bind—a.k.a. “Trinity” pose—while also figuring out what Matthew 6:27 has to do with anything.
What’s Yoga without the lovely, exotic ring of words like Virabhadrasana, Vinyasa, Chadaranga, Utkatasana, Ardha Chandrasana? The breathy, roomy, expansive language transports my mind and body into a different realm. The words make me pay attention as I try to remember what exactly Uttanasana is (standing forward fold). Just say "Mula Banda," code for tightening and lifting up of the pelvic floor muscles, and it sounds so damn moola mysterious that you just want try it. Or the word "drishti," which is yogic for "gaze"—there's no comparison! Drishti is onomatopoeia par excellence, it sounds dreamy, soft, spellbinding, like something your eyes long for. In Yo-God, even the common English names for poses get a Jesus-friendly makeover. "Plank" becomes "altar" pose, and suddenly my abs and my shoulders lose a little oomph as the instructor asks, “What do you need to surrender in your life, what do you need to bring to the altar?”
Yoga is, above everything, a meditative discipline. I listen for breath, I aim for stillness, I crave the cleansed emptiness that comes with extreme concentration. In Yo-God, silence was replaced with Bible verses and relentless Christian music that really struck a sour note compared to, say, the delicate, non-invasive tones of the sitar. We were encouraged to repeat the Lord's prayer during Vinyasa (or Son salutation), and frankly, it became too much verbal clutter. Where's Thomas Merton when you need him? Turn down the loudspeaker, cut the mic and give me a thoughtful, reflective Christian, one who looks inward rather than outward and knows the spiritual value of just shutting up and listening.
Ahhh, Savasana. The ultimate resting pose. The dangling carrot, the grand finale of a grueling practice, when your body gets to lie down and melt in total release, your eyes closed and your mind quiet and peaceful. In Yo-God, however, Savasana becomes "cross pose" with, you got it, your arms extended out as in a cross. “Take up your cross and follow Him,” the instructor whispered. And suddenly I couldn’t quite let go. That led to a sense of guilt—definitely not the goal of Savasana—as I wondered why I wasn’t “Christian” enough to buy into this. Was I doomed to eternal damnation—in Spandex?
The irony is that yoga teaches flexibility and openness, acceptance of one’s abilities and limitations, and compassion toward yourself and “all beings everywhere,” as one of my favorite teachers is fond of saying. Calling that “unchristian” seems just plain absurd, not to mention a slap in the face to the spirit of Christ. The whole point of asana practice is to connect body to mind and spirit and to prepare physically for sitting in meditation and/or prayer. But why should Yo-God’s colonialist need to usurp another religious tradition's spiritual practice and mold it in its own image be a surprise? With its rigid dichotomies and adeptness at telling us what not to do with our bodies, Christianity has never had particularly good range of motion.
Maybe some realignment and Mula Banda is what the God-guru wants for us. And maybe more Downwod Dog-induced blood rushing into Yo-Godders heads will help shift the karma.
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Contributing editor Stephanie Hunt's last piece for SoMA was Apocalypse Now.
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