Many yoga students of mine are surprised to learn that my partner is a pastor. Likewise, people in my congregation are often surprised to learn that I am a yoga teacher. “How can you be both a pastor’s wife and a yoga teacher?” some ask. “Isn’t that a conflict for your church?” I love telling them that I actually taught my first yoga class at our church and continue to offer a weekly yoga class at the church. These two areas of my life don’t feel separate at all. In fact, these two areas of my life fit very well together.
So often, when we look at two traditions, we want to see how they are different. Is one better than the other? Is one right and one wrong? Which team are you on? And so forth. I think it’s far more productive to see how traditions are similar, how they are working toward the same goal, and what there is to learn from each tradition.
To me, yoga and Christianity share so much in common. As a Religion and Psychology double major in college, I learned early in my studies that we, as a human family, are looking for a way to alleviate suffering. Whether through a major world religion, philosophy, or even modern medicine – we as humans want to explain why we suffer and then figure out a way to alleviate suffering.
Both yoga and Christianity strive to alleviate suffering by bringing more peace, love, and joy to the planet. At least, that’s what yoga and Christianity mean to me.
One way yoga seeks to bring more peace, love, and joy to the planet is by giving people tools to move through the koshas in order to experience wisdom, enjoy a blissful and transformative state, and catch a glimpse of their eternal consciousness, or true self.
Yogic philosophy describes the koshas as a sheaths, or layers, which cover our eternal consciousness or true self. The koshas are depicted in the illustration below:
The physical, or annamaya, kosha is described as the food sheath and has to do with all the physical needs of the body. It is completely governed by the external world. The energy, or pranamaya, kosha is related to the life force and breath that flows through us and enlivens our physical body. The mental, or manamaya, kosha is related to the mind where all thoughts and emotions are processed. It is also where illusions and doubts are born. The wisdom, or vijnanamaya, kosha refers to the reflective aspects of our consciousness. It is where we experience a deeper insight into ourselves and experience “ah-ha!” moments. The bliss, or anandamaya, kosha is where we experience integration, connection, and a sense of wholeness or completeness. It is where we experience peace, joy, and love. It is simply being. The self, or atman, is our eternal consciousness that was never born and never dies. It is the very essence of who we are. The self is like a light bulb underneath five lampshades or koshas.
We constantly shift back and forth between these sheaths or koshas. Yoga asana practice and meditation help us navigate through the first three koshas and move closer towards wisdom and bliss, closer towards an enlightened way of being. As we continue to practice yoga and meditation, we can enjoy longer moments of bliss and experience more peace, love, and joy in our lives.
Christianity also brings more peace, love, and joy to the planet.
When I look to the stories of Jesus Christ in the New Testament, I am struck by the ways in which Jesus was incredibly present with people, especially those who were oppressed and on the margins of society. I think of stories such as the Samaritan woman at the well, the hemorrhaging woman who touched Jesus’ cloak, and how Jesus healed the blind man by the Pool of Siloam. I also think of the adulterous woman who is about to be condemned and stoned to death in John, chapter 8. Jesus suggested that anyone who has not sinned throw the first stone. After her life was saved, Jesus did not judge or condemn her, but rather encouraged her to start living a better life. Instead of seeing this woman as a sinner, or defined by the external world, Jesus saw her as a daughter of God and treated her as such. I think the miracles performed by Christ are the moments in which he was truly present and invited others to experience who they really are: a beloved child of God.
I think both yoga philosophy and Christian teachings show us that when we allow ourselves to believe that we are something more, and when we treat others as something more, transformation can happen. We can experience moments of true peace, love, and joy. We can experience moments without suffering. The wonderful thing is that with both yoga and Christianity, we can cultivate practices that enable us to experience these moments daily. We can get on our yoga mat. We can sit in meditation. We can volunteer with a local charity. We can reconnect with a long lost friend. We can feed the hungry and clothe the naked. We can sing hymns of praise. Each moment is an opportunity to be present, to connect, and move beyond what is fleeting and to dwell in a space of possibility.
Christ modeled for the world what it would look like if we lived in a state of bliss, where peace, joy, and love were constants, rather than fleeting moments. As Christians aspire to be more Christ-like and yogis aspire to break through the first few koshas and live in wisdom and bliss, I believe the world will be transformed.
In this way, I think yoga and Christianity are very compatible. Both help me be a better person and experience more peace, love, and joy in my life.
I hope this holiday season brings you peace, love, and joy.