Yoga: A Way of Cooperating with Grace
By Fr. Kevin Flynn
“Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”(Philippians 2:12-13)
Christians who want to take the apostle Paul seriously sometimes find themselves wondering how exactly they might go about working out their salvation. Confident that God is at work in their lives, they look for methods or practices that can respond to and co-operate with God’s grace. The practice of yoga offers a well-rounded method or series of practices to do just that. The term asana or posture means in the first place a “seat”, understood to be a stable, relaxed position from which one may meditate. Yoga does not replace such necessary components of the Christian life as study of scripture and participation in the liturgical life of the Church. It is, however, a good “seat” for Christian practice. In what ways is this so?
While the yoga tradition insists that the asanas are but one component of an overall system, they are likely the way most Western Christians first encounter yoga. Indeed, the postures may prove for many Christians an entirely adequate complement to their spiritual life. They find that regular practice of asana yields a number of positive effects, including:
- increased physical health and stamina
- relaxation and calming of the nervous system
- recovery from or improvement of injury
These are benefits that come to anyone who practices yoga.
For the Christian, however, asana practice also provides
- a means of expressing devotion and prayer through physical posture and gesture
- a positive valuing of the body and its ways of knowing
- a positive valuing of both physical pleasure and challenge
- a heightened awareness of one’s interconnectedness with other bodies, human and non-human
- increased capacity for concentration and meditation
In this way, yoga helps the Christian to an experience of a genuinely incarnated spiritual life, a way of using the body for prayer. Some attach phrases from scripture or the liturgy to the postures. Others simply make it their intention that the whole of their asana practice be an offering to God. In either case, such a way of prayer can lead to a greater appreciation of other forms of embodied worship within the Church, especially its sacramental life.
At times, the Christian tradition has been suspicious of bodily experiences of pleasure or pain. Yoga practice can be a helpful way of responding to both such experiences with equanimity and grace. Comfort with our bodiliness heightens our sense of connection with other creatures. Repeated encounter with ourselves and God through yoga practice serve to ground us and keep the spiritual life from becoming abstract, merely cerebral or disincarnate.
As Christians discover these latter benefits, they may find opening to them other distinctive values of yoga practice. The other “limbs” of the yoga tradition find their place within the Christian’s life. For example, the yamas and niyamas – ethical constraints and commitments – complement the Christian tradition’s own moral teaching. For many people, the growing sense of bodily awareness and increased capacity for concentration open the way to meditation. The calming and opening of the body and mind help with other forms of meditation such as the mantra meditation tradition taught by Dom John Main.
Whether you are new to yoga or a long-time practitioner, yoga invites you to a journey of self-discovery which surprises by turning out to be a journey of discovery of God. Entering into the journey is a delightful, fruitful way of responding to the apostle Paul’s challenge to work out our salvation with God’s enabling help.
About the author: Fr. Kevin Flynn is the Director of the Anglican Studies Program at Saint Paul’s University in Ottawa, Canada.