by the Very Revd Nicholas Henshall, Dean of Chelmsford
One of my fellow Deans recently faced “Yoga-gate”. A yoga class meeting in the nave of the Cathedral attracted negative attention. Just before Christmas a vicar banning yoga classes from church premises made it on to BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine Show. And then just as Covid-19 made its presence felt the comedian Jenny Eclair poured public scorn on the whole Christian community for obsessing about such trivia at such a time as this.
On one level it is a side show that does not warrant serious attention. However, it is yet further evidence of a level of confusion and amnesia sometimes masquerading as “what the Bible really teaches” that is profoundly corrosive of the whole Scriptural witness.
Part of the issue here is that many contemporary Christians are unfamiliar with contemplative practice in the Christian tradition itself. Breathing exercises while seated are characteristic of all meditation practice and that is true as much of Christianity as of Hinduism and Buddhism. And for Christians – from Jesus’ early morning prayer times to the desert fathers and mothers, through the Hesychast movement and the Cloud of Unknowing to the opening up of contemplative prayer in the last few decades – there are precious gifts to share.
“Yoga-gate” also suggests that many of us are unfamiliar with the origins of yoga itself as practiced in the West. There is wide scholarly consensus that contemporary hatha yoga owes its origins to a combination of Danish and Indian gymnastics, plus British Army exercises as observed in 19th century Mysore. One of the perhaps quaint features of much contemporary yoga is that these origins are sometimes felt to be insufficiently glamorous. As a result, many yoga practitioners provide completely modern yoga postures with apparently ancient Sanskrit names. This is not helpful. It is what Eric Hobsbawm called “invented tradition”.
Even if it were the case that hatha yoga did spring from a clear alternative faith tradition, banning yoga from church premises remains problematic, not least in terms of what the Bible says. Certainly, the Bible and the whole Judaeo-Christian tradition are radically opposed to doctrinal syncretism. However, from Melkizedek onwards, the Bible is quite clear that God blesses pagans, gentiles, unbelievers, followers of other faith traditions, and uses them as both instruments of God’s purpose and as examples for us to imitate. God even gives the pagan Persian king Cyrus the Jewish title “Messiah”.
Jesus himself is clear in both teaching and practice. In Luke 4 the murderous anger of the synagogue congregation at Nazareth against Jesus is provoked not by his challenging manifesto (“the Spirit of the Lord is upon me…”) but by his insistence that God chooses to bless pagans like the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian rather than the faithful gathered in the synagogue. They are so shocked and appalled that they attempt a summary execution. It is no accident that Jesus makes the hero of his most famous story the despised follower of a heretical religion. We call him the good Samaritan.
Learning from the practice of other faith communities is also deeply characteristic of the Christian tradition. Christians inevitably inherited extraordinary gifts from Judaism, and – despite our contemporary stereotypes – Islam and Christianity have been very generous in learning from one another. Christians probably taught Muslims the practice of prostration in prayer, and then stopped practicing it ourselves. The ringing of bells before Christian worship derives directly from Francis of Assisi’s delight in the Muslim call to prayer during his visit to the Sultan. Again, the use of prayer beads – from the western rosary to the eastern prayer rope – is almost certainly a gift from Islam.
Most significantly, medieval Islamic scholars made Aristotle available to Christian theologians, something that changed the nature of western theology – catholic and evangelical – fundamentally. I love it that the leading UK Muslim lifestyle magazine, Emel, regularly runs features on St George as patron saint and common heritage for both English Christians and English Muslims. On a very pragmatic level it was beautiful to hear the Ethiopian Orthodox priest, Abba Aklilemariyam Komos, recently insisting that only building a new church in his community without restoring the local mosque would “disappoint God”.
Thomas Merton engaged deeply with other faith traditions. He was completely uninterested in their doctrinal superstructure as he fully recognised that different faith traditions believed different and incompatible things. But he was equally clear that people of different faith traditions can and should learn from each other’s practice without any doctrinal syncretism. Thus Sufis, Buddhists and Christians have little doctrinal shared ground but huge areas of shared contemplative practice from which they can and do all learn together. Indeed, I would suggest that over-busy Christians who have forgotten their contemplative roots have a great deal to learn about their own tradition from the contemplative practice of other faith traditions.
Which brings me back round to some serious theology. In the incarnation, God says a fantastic YES to the fact that we are embodied. Unfortunately, an overdose of Neo-Platonism in early Christianity and Augustine’s pessimism about the human body (for the west at least) has left a complicated legacy. Even extraordinary figures such as Francis of Assisi could still only see the body as “Brother Ass” to be drilled into submission. That has engendered among Christians a negativity about the body quite alien to the Bible.
The failure of the Christian tradition to find a way of giving a positive account of the body, with the consequent disastrous outcomes for our understanding of human sexuality, human dignity, the impact of poverty and so on, means that we urgently need better ways of discovering for ourselves the glorious and challenging implications of God “being found in human form”. Yoga is just one small way in which Christians can learn some great biblical values about the body.
Finally, maybe I need to declare an interest.
I wrecked my right shoulder in a road accident some fifteen years ago. They were in a car and I was on a bike, an unequal battle. Without yoga practice (much of it learned from physiotherapy) my right arm wouldn’t work and I wouldn’t be able to type these words. If you are interested in exploring yoga practice – especially as many of us will have enforced leisure in the months ahead – my own personal recommendation would be the videos of Barbara Curry. My three children (all in their mid-20s) would firmly go for Yoga with Adrienne (available online), but I am no longer quite that flexible! There is no evidence that either yoga teacher has ever misled us practitioners into worshipping foreign gods.