Contact Zone: Christianity + Yoga

From the Guaman Poma Website research archive.

In 1613, Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala sent a 1,200-page letter to King Philip III of Spain. It was filled with text in both Spanish and Quechua, as well as 400 illustrations depicting a “New Chronicle” of history. Guaman Poma wrote history in terms he hoped the Spanish would understand, recasting the Christian story of history to include the Incan people. He recorded the colonists’ abuses of his people and asked the king to address the issue.

There is no evidence that this huge letter was ever read by King Philip. In 1908, a scholar found the massive missive in a library in Copenhagen.

Guaman Poma is one of my heroes. He was native to the Andes Mountains—he claimed noble Incan history, adopted Christianity to some degree, and worked for the Spanish colonial administration. He learned the language of his oppressor, learned the form in which they wrote, and attempted to write back. He attempted to change his people’s fate. He was so dedicated to this vision that he wrote 1,200 pages—by hand.

I wish his letter had been read. I wish the King of Spain had had the knowledge and patience to read through the document. I wish the letter had changed something.

In 1990, Mary Louise Pratt wrote an essay called “Arts of the Contact Zone,” in which she uses Guaman Poma’s long-lost letter as an example of a Contact Zone, a term that she uses “to refer to social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out in many parts of the world today.”

This week, I’m prepping my freshman to write an essay in response to her essay, in which they consider the classroom as a contact zone.

My students think that Guaman Poma is obsolete, and that Pratt’s essay does not have anything to do with “modern” society. (I hang my head. Her essay is only 20 years old…  and so are my students. Wasn’t 1990 only, like, five years ago?)

This week, as I reread this essay with my students, I see that the intersection of yoga and Christianity is one BIG contact zone.

Think of the term: “Christian Yoga,” for instance. It combines:

  • Christianity – a religion that began east of Rome and became the religion of the Western conquerors and used to rationalize the colonization of India by force. Its practitioners understand it to be the only way to the one true God through Jesus.
  • Yoga – a philosophy based on the Vedas, codified by the Indians, eventually used as a tool to generate Indian nationalism in order to claim independence from the British, later combined with western calisthenics to create what North America knows as yoga today.

I am including reductionist histories of both to relate to the “power” part of Pratt’s definition for a Contact Zone. When Christianity claims yoga as a form of spiritual practice, it could appear that “Christian yoga” is yet another point of colonization.

This, actually, is why I don’t use the term “Christian yoga.” I have a similar avoidance of the term “Christian writer” or “Christian art.”* It makes the power asymmetrical, grammatically granting Christians power over yoga. I don’t think it’s authentic for Christians to simply take yoga and repackage it as Christian. To avoid the term I willingly perform semantic gymnastics.

A contact zone is a place “where cultures meet, clash, and grapple.”

Labeling something “Christian yoga” is, I suppose, a way in which yoga and Christianity “meet, clash, and grapple.”

You’ll also find Christians who reject yoga as demonic, Christians who embrace all of yoga’s philosophy and practice, Christians who embrace the practice but not the philosophy, and Christians who embrace some of the philosophy and some of the practice…  pretty much, you’ll find any mix of the two if you go looking. And you’ll also find yogis who reject Christians practicing yoga.

The contact zone between Christianity and yoga is broad.

 

Whenever you try something new, the experience requires a hope, an openness to learning, a relinquishing of power of authority, really.

So, right now, my favorite image of this contact zone is that first step into a yoga studio for the very first time. Say, hypothetically, that an awkward young woman of about 25 years or so walks into a yoga studio wearing track pants, carrying her mother’s extra yoga mat. At the time, she knows something is wrong in her faith and her beliefs in God, and she’s not really sure where God is. The Buddha statue at the front of the room looks like he belongs next to the bamboo plant, and she soon forgets that Buddha is there. She forgets everything except that in that dim, warm, cozy room, through breathing and moving and being, she meets God on the mat.

Om Cross at Shantivanam, Photo by Kevin Flynn

*For further reading, pick up Madeleine L’Engle’s book Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art.

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