Yoga & Christianity: An Unexpected Controversy

This week I was startled by the revelation that some people feel yoga challenges Christianity. As someone who has taken classes in all kinds of studios, this thought had never occurred to me. Even with Yoga’s Buddhist and Hindu roots, I have never once heard talk of God in a yoga class.

Instead, I have found deep spaces of quiet to reflect on who I am and connect with myself, both mentally and physically. While yoga is becoming more and more a part of who I am, its influence is through quieting the mind into a space of mindfulness, not through guiding me to surrender any of my core beliefs.

So why does it matter to me that some Christians are bothered by yoga?

The answer is simple. I want to teach yoga in my classroom, but I teach some deeply religious children with families sensitive to anything that might challenge their beliefs. It has already been suggested that I keep the word yoga out of what we’re doing. To me, it’s more important that I give my students a physical outlet for their stress than any sort of label. Still, I cannot help but feel bothered that this is the case. Yoga is powerful and I want to share it with my students in a way that helps to dispel misconceptions.

The little yoga that we’ve done this year has calmed them. Our contests of who can hold tree the longest provide quiet moments of concentration that connect my students with both their minds and bodies. Our breathing and visualization exercises have given them the strength to overcome anxiety in both social and academic situations. Multiple times in the past couple years, I have caught my students using our brain break techniques on their own to relax their minds. Jesus or Buddha has had nothing to do with it.

A friend came and talked to me after school today. She is deeply religious and I knew she would be able to help me understand. I told her how I wanted to do more yoga with the kids but was just beginning to understand what I was up against. She admitted she once felt the same way but then attended a yoga retreat with a minister friend and realized it was a way to connect with herself and her beliefs, not a call for change. Another childhood friend teaches “holy yoga” for free at her church. Clearly both can exist together, but people who do not know are still afraid.

Sometimes I go to a church downtown that honors all faiths. It does not ask you to leave your beliefs at the door, but rather invites Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Buddhists to see how their faiths intertwine and share so many common ideas. This concept puzzles some of my devoutly Christian friends. They cannot understand how Christians can acknowledge multiple paths to God, but the world is full of different faiths. That’s not going to change. We might as well try to understand our differences and find some common ground.

But here’s the real irony, all this religious strife aside, teaching yoga has nothing to do with religion for me. It’s simply the act of connecting body and mind to create a healthier self. The kids respond well to it. Never have I once tried to influence their beliefs. I don’t want to change them, I just want to give them a way to manage the stress in their lives and improve their physical fitness.

For the time being, I plan to continue my endeavor under a different name, but I want to reach the point where yoga mats are welcome in my room. Public schools in many parts of the country have already embraced yoga for kids. I want the same for my students. I leave you with two incredible clips that show how yoga is changing lives for at-risk youth around the country. While the second clip is low quality, looking into the eyes of homeless young people and hearing them talk about how yoga gives them the heat to survive the cold is life changing.

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23 thoughts on “Yoga & Christianity: An Unexpected Controversy

  1. kingmidget says:

    “They cannot understand how Christians can acknowledge multiple paths to God,”
    You’ve just described the fundamental problem that confronts the human race. People ho believe their way is the only way.
    Yoga challenges Christianity because it focuses on self and the inner aspect of self, rather than placing the self in the hands of a god. Christians, particularly the more devout, believe we should just put our faith in God. To elevate self as yoga and buddhism does. Well, it’s just wrong. At least from their perspective.
    I think you should continue teaching yoga. It has nothing to do with faith or religion.

  2. I agree with you that Yoga is really about connecting body and mind. I think the fact that it attracts “followers” who talk about it almost as a way of life makes some people uneasy

    • oliviaobryon says:

      Yes, you’re probably right. I also recognize that people who have never taken a secular yoga class really don’t know what to expect. They hear chanting and think religion, when really chanting is not a part of all practices. I definitely don’t chant with the kids, just move and breathe 🙂

  3. xandertrek says:

    I say you call it Agoy!

  4. Seb says:

    It’s from India. they worship cows over there, don’t you know – and that can’t be right! Do you teach in a state run school? If so, perhaps you should remind these nut cases about the First amendment, and all.

    • oliviaobryon says:

      Yes, must be the cows.

      And, I teach for a charter, so it’s state-run but the hierarchy is different. We don’t have tenure, we’re at-will employees. But, I agree, the First amendment is key and I’m still keeping a separation of church and state when I ask kids to close their eyes and count their breaths… 😉

  5. Unfortunately, there are those who are so threatened by anything that may be “different” that they freak out at what they perceive as provocation. It’s one of the things that bothers me about fanatics with any faith….extremists.

  6. hipmamamedia says:

    I found this post very interesting in light of the fact that I had just read an article written a few years ago about this very topic. I am a Christian, but I have never taken a taken a yoga class so I can’t speak to that (although I have taught aerobics), but the topic and your post intrigued me. I am including a link here to the article for you, Olivia, if it helps you understand why some of your student’s parents might be concerned. Not sure what the halfway point might between you and the parents, but I hope that you can reach an accord that respects their beliefs while also allowing the students the stress relief that is so beneficial to active kids that have to sit in chairs all day long. You have the true heart of a teacher and I am sure your students are blessed to have you.

    • oliviaobryon says:

      Thanks for sharing your perspective, I definitely get why I shouldn’t use namaste or om or the names of asanas in the classroom, I just never realized that secular yoga taught with words like tree and focus on breath would be threatening on the basis of that one word, yoga.

      A friend studied theology at Boston University and teaches holy yoga at her church. She wrote an article that cites yoga not initially having the connection to religion, (it was later adopted by eastern religions). Her article has great references to places in the Bible that encourage meditation and mindful movement. I like her argument that no one religion has ownership over the way we move our bodies. If you have any interest, you should check out this site:

      I can also forward you her article, it was in a print journal, so I only have a word document version. I really don’t intend to challenge anyone’s beliefs, I just see movement and breathing as so important to helping my children cope, I didn’t realize the word yoga itself carried negative connotations for some Christian families. And, as for the practice in gyms/studios/etc., I find it only strengthens my preexisting beliefs as I connect with myself, as opposed to challenging them. 🙂

    • oliviaobryon says:

      PS. One other thought– I really am glad you commented, it reinforces that these feelings toward yoga are real for many people and something I definitely need to be conscious of as I teach my kids. I’m just so used to knowing Christians who practice yoga and have never heard otherwise in the churches I’ve been part of over the years that it really threw me for a loop!

  7. hipmamamedia says:

    It is always interesting to me to see the diversity of opinions in some gray areas (like yoga) among Christians. Tattoos are another. I did look at the link you sent and it’s clear this woman is using yoga to deepen faith, while the other woman in the article in TCW is warning others about it. Believers, from all faiths, often express their faith through the filter of their experience. I have found it can skew perspectives sometimes. The challenge is to make determinations objectively, which is hard for anyone not just Christians. We can’t separate ourselves easily from our experiences. Maybe the Christians you have run into who are opposed to yoga have heard or experience something negative about it, like the woman in the article, while others, like the holy yoga instructor, have a different experience which has resulted in a completely different take on yoga. For someone who has never taken a yoga class, I do find it ironic that I have been commenting on this at length! 🙂 Love reading your blog, as usual.

    • oliviaobryon says:

      I think you’re definitely right, a difference of experience! And, it makes sense, within every religion there is a wide spectrum of expression/practice/etc. Even never having practiced yoga, I’m glad you commented, gave me more to think about and helped to deepen my respect for the differences of opinion at my school, even if I still want to teach the kids to “stretch and breathe” in a completely non-secular way 😀

  8. Ratnam says:

    I have been reading about this needless controversy about yoga versus Christian belief. Why is it so hard for the Western mind to comprehend that the search for the divine (howsoever we may define it) is through experience and through an understanding of our mind? Yoga is the path to that understanding. In walking this path, there is no book, no scripture, no dogma, no God. There is only our experience. And in contemplation of who we are, we come to the abiding notions of compassion and kindness. This is spirituality. Christ perhaps taught it in a different way. Indians do not consider it to be “revealed”. They consider it to be experienced.

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