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What is yoga?

As many of you know we have a yoga program at Redeemer. Why? This post gives you a basic answer.

The word “yog” literally means “yoke” or “discipline”. It comes from ancient traditions in the country which is now India, dating back as far as 5000 BCE. The first documents which were written about yoga are in a language called Sanskrit. Like many ancient languages it is difficult to translate to mean exactly one thing but a good translation of what yoga is might be that it is the stilling of the mind, it is an exploration of being in the present moment.

This might surprise you. If you Google yoga you will probably find a lot of pictures of people in difficult looking poses. The truth is that what most people think of as yoga is a version which is fairly recent and is a mixture of gymnastics and more ancient postures, this version is only about 150 years old and concentrates on the physical side of things.

Traditional yoga is about the whole person. It is about learning to control your body and steady your breath - not as an end in itself, but as a way of beginning to still all those things which churn around inside us all the time and making space to connect with the Divine.

This might surprise you. Some people worry that the quiet and meditative side of yoga practice is un-Christian but, in fact, one of the most popular texts for yogis does not give a name to any deity. Patanjali, who wrote the Yoga Sutra, uses the word “Ishwara” - but that is not the name of a specific god - it is just the word for what we would call god or God.

The Bible talks a lot about prayer and meditation - it does not talk so much about exercise. For that, we have to look to some of the writer’s in our faith tradition. A good example would be St. Benedict, who understood the importance of a balanced life and physical labor. He began a monastic order which is now named after him, the Benedictines. The rule of life which he writes for his monks stipulates prayer, study, meditation and physical work as necessary to healthy living - he was writing 1500 years ago

Yoga is a system for health and spiritual well-being which covers physical, mental and spiritual aspects of our being. IPatanjali saysbthere are 8 parts to yoga. The first two are sets of moral behaviors. Then there is physical movement - the asana or posture, then there is breathing (pranayama). Then we cross into the more spiritually oriented parts. Pratyahara or the withdrawal of the senses - simply put, learning not to be distracted by things around us. Then focused concentration - once we have let go of our busy-ness we can begin to concentrate on God - Dharana. Dhyana is a similar word and, in Christian terms, means the moments when we get really close to God, those moments where we are only aware of God and nothing else. Finally, Samadhi is the final part - the moment of union with God - in our tradition this is the experience of the mystic.

This is a very brief introduction to some very big ideas. This system of living has mostly been used in India and within the Hindu religion. Hinduism itself is very diverse and has many branches but, despite the fact that this is where Yoga has mostly been taught and learned about, Yoga is not tied down tight into a specific religious tradition.

Some might be cautious about cultural appropriation. That is, of course, a danger. But this holistic approach to yoga, even within the Christian tradition, might well be seen to be truer to yoga’s roots than an exercise class with no connection to any sort of Divine Principle. Cultural appropriation happens when we take without understanding, choosing the pieces which work for us and discarding the pieces which do not and then claiming authenticity.

The reason we have yoga at Redeemer is that it is a holistic practice which even extends to diet and lifestyle. Whilst we have classes which teach movement, ideally this would be a step into a wider practice which includes prayer and making space for God in a quiet mind. This making space for God, time spent deep with God, union with God is the center of Christian life. That is our life blood - but it is not an academic, cerebral exercise. Time with God involves everything that we are here and now, including our bodies. Stewardship involves our physical being as well as our spiritual and mental selves.

Yoga is simply a system to live holistically. It is far from the only one, but it is also a highly flexible system, one in which we can find ourselves with compassion.

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