For years, parallels between yoga studios and churches seems to be headed on an irreconcilable collision course. But is harmonic convergence possible or inevitable derision? The parlance of OM and the act of ecumenical devotion has increasingly crossed my mind as two shooting stars falling towards the earth in tandem.
Directionally, that’s where everything seemed to be heading to me, a good girl from American 20th century Christianity and also a devout yogi. Now, more recently, I see an emerging trend in yoga studios advertising their Sunday line up as Yoga Church and overall marketing tone shifting away from fitness in pursuit of deeper spiritual insight. I no longer felt alone in figuring this one out.
First the motivation of the teacher then that of the student. One, it has to do with the fact that as yoga becomes more mainstream and Yoga Alliance through the masterful art of clearing checks has almost single-handedly destroyed the quality of yoga teaching in this country, many teachers are eager to go deeper into their studies and provide a wider range of teachings. It is a key differentiator for a studio with relatively newer and inexperienced teachers and more senior leaders in the field. Second, as students mature in their practice, the effects of the practice naturally lend themselves to taking it further, deeper into the more, for lack of a better term, esoteric aspects of yoga.
From the church perspective, I am reminded of my own religious encounters. I share them to be transparent about the context in which I am shaping this discourse.
First, there was Sunday Catholic school because my diminutive Syrian grandmother insisted on it for fear of damnation. My only memory was sneaking into the large wooden chest of stuffed animals and taking a nap until my mother came to get me. Maybe at first I got chided for it. Eventually no one seemed to care either way. I always left church very rested and newly energized just in the wrong ways.
Back in high school, I attended Tucson Baptist Church (where I was baptized at age sixteen) three times per week. We tithed weekly, including when my grandfather slipped me a twenty. We were friends with the pastors. Although my family was involved, donated generously and were always there, I cannot remember making a single friend or remembering anyone’s name except the pastor and his wife Della. Lovely people but there was no traction with the community. Where there was traction was the instilling of conscientious giving and as a discipline of devotion. My baptism that evening is still one of my most treasured life moments.
In college, a small liberal arts Christian one, I had an extraordinary cadre of friends but that’s not to say I felt particularly in the fold of the school. Perhaps I accidentally courted controversy by the way I dressed, wrote and spoke. It was a community where bonds were strong, and opposite of my high school experience, I didn’t fit into the structure of the system but was embraced and loved by many of the people. Thirty years fast forwarded, and I still find the heart of community that resonates vitally in my life today. Some of my very best friends met me on the lawn, walked me back to the dorm, wrote me letters when I moved away.
It was a good education for how to be human and live in mindfulness and consideration of others. I am so grateful that I made the choice to attend school there as opposed to my Ivy League options. My daily yoga practice enforces those guiding principles.
After college, I joined what was truly my only community of fellowship. It was in Santa Barbara and to this day, there just has never been anything like it. But of late, the yoga studio seems like the only place that comes close.
Back in high school, my mother ran a set of executive suites and I had the pick of the litter for small businesses to work with on some exceptional projects. One of them was a marketing house. The owner put me on a marketing project when I was seventeen called “How to Market Your Ministry.” This seemed profane to a good church girl like me the idea of having a plan to pitch people into coming into a house of worship.
But churches, like yoga studios, are also businesses. They require licenses and are bound to a certain set of laws. Both rely on income to maintain brick and mortar relevance. Both are open in service to others and rely on their communities for sustenance. Yoga studios in the state of Washington are not required to pay sales tax because they are offering a spiritual service, not unlike tax benefits for the churches. Gyms and fitness centers do not have that same entitlement.
In How to Market Your Ministry there was a long questionnaire canvasing the mundane: are there potholes in your parking lot to the more pedagogic: is your message in line with the sacred teachings of your denomination and if not, why? What I began to see is that churches cannot stay relevant without this degree of consideration for the operations they are running.
As I moved to Seattle, I found myself trying to recreate that experience I had back in Santa Barbara and by and large always felt marginalized, even by like denominations. Similar to when you move yoga studios, there can be that same itching human desire to recreate what was so safe and familiar before. People want to connect in meaningful ways, both with one another but also in a community where they feel and appreciated, loved and accepted. Maybe without realizing it, people want to connect with a higher power, God. It’s ok for God to be Holy Spirit or Jesus Christ but in some circles connect might mean Ganesha, or Buddha or Lakshmi or (Glyph) the artist formerly known as Prince.
People have felt it is not only their place to choose, but to explore and if desired to be open to inclusion of other religious or spiritual traditions. In this scenario, there is no hierarchy of importance, dogma, isolation or feeling like an outcast. The place of worship, by definition, is open for business to everybody.
But I think it is also more than that. Admittedly not all churches nor yoga studios are equal. This is not about specifics but general trends.
MIND-BODY CONNECTION: Yoga offers something church does not: movement. Have you ever sat for two hours in a hard wooden pew and left feeling as good as a power Vinyasa class? In yoga, we actively engage with and do not eschew the body. The body is a temple is as Biblical as it is yogic. We work on the body, we connect in with the breath learning to harness the mind. We think in terms of proper diet, stewardship of the land and ethical treatment of animals. We practice principles like compassion and truth. At the end of a yoga class, there is the sound of OM, like amen. Vibrationally we conclude all on the same page. The reason I was electrified by yoga was how I saw it as a form of spiritual expression in physical form, a merging of the two things I loved most.
ACCEPTANCE: People today seek an environment where the quality of action is in alignment with the teaching. In that case, the otherwise highly marginalized should walk in feeling highly valued. Perhaps somewhere along the line, dogma got in the way or people of God went too people and dropped the God, but this has undeniably created a sort of vacuum in our society that yoga has on some level picked up with increasing momentum. For a long time certain groups of people were ostracized or held back at arms’ length within churches that are non-issues in the yoga community. There has been a plethora of backlash from traditional religious communities (and many of my college friends’ moms incidentally) about the evils of yoga, notably how it has crept into the quotidian of church-offered classes and the peculiar energetic manifestations of kundalini and warnings of their dangers.
What is concerning about this phenomenon is how yoga can give power to people that are immature, not ethically aligned to the teachings, ambiguous in virtue and relatively uneducated about the practice that are provided a stage for espousing wisdom without training, ongoing mentorship without accountability. When people align to those lacking viveka and still deeply mired by the vrittis and kleshas, they unwittingly embark and directionally wander rudderless and wearily sail the seas of disenfranchised enlightenment. Yoga Alliance is not, nor should it necessarily be the place to hash these things out ala the Nicene Creed. Yoga teachers are not preachers, pastors and not gurus and yet here we stand at the crossroads of spiritual guidance. The individual in their own pursuit of truth will make it their journey to finding an unbiased middle ground.
No teacher desires to do harm, but increasingly people are walking into yoga studios looking for more than a teacher training provides or how their teacher lives and transfers wisdom. With the good-hearted attempt to provide service and love, sometimes the well-intended veer into stormy waters or get swept up with the seduction of power and influence. A few of the trending lawsuits in the yoga community ameliorates these points.
Whether religion as we know it lasts or evolves into something new or remains the same, humans remain human, billions of longing seekers looking up to the stars and gazing at the world around them asking the same unanswerable thing:
“What does all of this mean and where do I belong?”
Whether they find it out in nature, under a steeple or in the studio remains to be seen. As servants to the people, let’s just say, we should all just keep our doors open and our welcome mats out.