“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” — Matthew 11:28-30
Replace the word yoke with yoga in this verse (“yoke” is one translation of the Sanskrit term “yoga”), and Matthew 11:28-30 becomes a call for Christians to practice the physically and spiritually relaxing practice.
“Christianity has historically had a pretty antagonistic relationship with the body and at best, no relationship with the body,” said Meghan Davis, pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Newton. “Yoga has helped me make that mind/spirit/body connection and honor my body — the greatest tangible gift God has given me — thereby honoring God.”
Davis teaches Christian yoga at First Presbyterian on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The yoga itself is gentle; the mindfulness practices focus on scripture and prayer, and Gregorian chants or Christian music play in the background. About half of her students are church members and the other half members of the community enjoying an affordable yoga class (the church asks for about $2-5 per class as a suggested donation).
A “cradle Presbyterian,” Davis has observed her faith all her life. Every now and then, she’d pop in a yoga VHS tape, clicking it off when the actual workout was over and the meditations began. Her perspective changed after completing seminary and starting yoga at a gym.
“I just had this epiphany moment when it all came together for me in my mind and I thought, ‘I really love this. Why can’t yoga be part of a Christian spiritual practice?’” she said. “I thought I invented the concept, not realizing that people had been doing this for decades.”
Though 77 percent of Iowans are Christian, according to the Pew Research Center, the idea of connecting Christ with yoga is relatively novel in a state where most yoga is taught from a secular perspective.
“Holy Yoga allows you to offer your yoga practice to God by breathing in his love with each inhalation and breathing out your gratitude with your exhalation. Each movement is an offering, a prayer and a meditation.” — Gretchen Wheelock
Yahweh Yoga — a Yoga Alliance-recognized classification of yoga founded in 2005, and from which Davis received her training — and other programs have helped yogis fulfill niyama with Christian philosophy. This style takes the somewhat controversial label of Christian yoga.
“I was a little uncomfortable with the idea of ‘Christian yoga’ because I was concerned about appropriation and/or being disrespectful to the Eastern cultures from which yoga was developed,” Davis said. “In the course of my training I was encouraged by learning both that yoga predates any religion that it has been associated with and that yoga transcends any particular religion.”
A class titled Faithful Sunrise Flow at Evolve yoga studio in Sioux City is one of a handful of Christ-focused classes in the state. Instructor Gretchen Wheelock earned a 95-hour certification from Holy Yoga, which trains teachers to see yoga as a spiritual discipline akin to prayer and fasting (and not a religion in itself) with gospel study, prayer calls and retreats.
“I always tell my students that our practice is a moving prayer,” Wheelock said. “Holy Yoga allows you to offer your yoga practice to God by breathing in his love with each inhalation and breathing out your gratitude with your exhalation. Each movement is an offering, a prayer and a meditation.”
Wheelock enjoys the meditative qualities of Child’s Pose, Mountain Pose and Corpse Pose. Kneeling with goal-post arms and Sun Salutation A can be heart-opening; some Christian yogis will even recite the Lord’s Prayer during short flows.
“I think my faith has changed the way I observe my yoga practice and my yoga practice has changed the way I observe my faith,” Wheelock said.
For Jenny Chadima of Cedar Rapids, Jesus and yoga were the yin and yang that helped turn her life around. The loss of her father when she was 18 set her on a “dark road” that became self-destructive, and included addictions to alcohol and cocaine.
“There kind of came a point where I just knew I wasn’t giving myself the opportunity to live life, I knew that I could not feel whole,” she said. “I felt this calling to do something about it.”
Chadima completed a 12-step program, and in February, she will celebrate three years of sobriety. In the process, she found guidance in Christian teachings, though she doesn’t identify with any church. “Out of nowhere,” she got the tugging idea to offer free yoga classes, so Chadima, already a fitness aficionado, became a trained yoga instructor.
In May 2017, Chadima opened her studio in a storage room in the Cedar Rapids building containing her in-laws’ business, Hawkeye Fire and Safety, for which Chadima works. She refurbished the space and began teaching “slow flow” classes, accepting free-will donations, 100 percent of which is given to local charities.
One day, Chadima had another revelation: her studio should be Christ-centered. She named it Be The Light after Matthew 5:14-16: “You are the light of the world … let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
“Our mission is to cultivate love and unity while giving back to the community,” Chadima said. “I think some people didn’t really like the fact the yoga studio changed but in all honesty, I felt I couldn’t let that discourage me because I felt I was truly living out my calling in life.”
Be The Light classes are taught on Monday evenings; Chadima has organized volunteer opportunities for other days of the week, including serving meals to people in need at Green Square Meals.
Chadima’s classes feature Christian music, readings from the Bible or devotionals and occasionally faith-focused testimonies from Chadima. Students are often mothers and daughters, people aged 60 or older and a handful of 20-something women and men.
“Honestly, I don’t know what their religious preferences are,” Chadima said. “I like to say that you don’t need to believe in anything to come. Our doors are open.”
Christian Yoga teachers know the infusion of religion in yoga may turn off some yogis and Christians alike. But as they see it, one has little to lose from seeking the Holy Spirit on a yoga mat.
“Many [yoga] practitioners choose to unite their faith with their yoga practice as it has the ability to deepen one’s faith,” Wheelock said. “That is what Hindus, Buddhists and now Christians have done with the practice. I can’t imagine my life without my religion or without my yoga.”
Emma McClatchey is the managing editor of YogaIowa. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article was originally published in YogaIowa’s Winter 2018 issue.