History of the Intersection of Yoga & Christianity

Photo by Adam Polselli, creative commons

Street intersections are defined entities—delineated by curbs, stop signs, and traffic lights. Ideally, these intersections are polite: green you go, red you stop, giving courtesy to drivers from the other direction.

Other intersections are more nebulous—like the area between two overlapping circles in a Venn Diagram. Here is where these two concepts are similar, here is where they are different. Here the borders are less defined, possibly less polite.

I see the intersection between yoga and Christianity as a Venn Diagram rather than a polite street corner (okay, so in Pittsburgh the word “polite” is generous when driving).

In my research there are at least two major intersections between yoga and Christianity: one in India, one in North America (by this geographical definition, there are more as well—in the 1980s, Indra Devi brought yoga to Argentina).

In India, the intersection between yoga and Christianity began when Britain colonized India and people with a Christian worldview encountered India. I don’t know much about this intersection, and someday I would like to study it more.

In North America, where my research is focused, the intersection began first with Thoreau (it’s possible he practiced it at Walden Pond), and second with Swami Vivekananda in 1893 at the Chicago Parliament of World Religions. Although yoga was introduced at a World Religions conference, there is considerable debate about whether yoga is a religion or a spiritual practice. (On this website, it is considered a spiritual practice.)

Album cover. Photo from Wikipedia.

Over the next century, yoga grew in popularity and morphed into Western exercise culture. Indra Devi again was influential here, marketing yoga to Hollywood stars and making it accessible to the masses.

It was only a matter of time until it hit the Christian subculture. In 1989, Episcopal priest, Rev. Nancy Roth published An Invitation to Christian Yoga, which invited Christians to pray the Lord’s prayer with the sun salutation.

1995, Father Thomas Ryan published a book called Prayer of Heart and Body: Meditation and Yoga as Christian Spiritual Practice, and Barbara Moeller published a VHS called Christian Yoga. Moeller also started a Christian yoga teacher-training program at Our Lady of Lourdes Wellness Center in New Jersey. In 2001, Fr. Ryan and Moeller began meeting with a network of yoga instructors who taught from a Christian perspective, and the result of their collaboration can be found on the website ChristiansPracticingYoga.

Fr. Ryan and Moeller were both influenced by yet another intersection of Christianity and yoga in Europe. In the 1960s, Fr. Jean-Marie Dechanet published Christian Yoga in French. After that he was prolific about the subject, although only three of his books have been translated into English; Christian Yoga was one of those books.

In the early 2000s, three evangelical yoga teacher-training studios were founded: Holy Yoga (2003), New Day Yoga (2003), and Yahweh Yoga (2005). In 2006, Susan Bordenkircher published Yoga for Christians: A Christ-Centered Approach to Physical and Spiritual Health through Yoga.

In the last decade, the phenomenon of Christians practicing Christ-centered yoga has grown by leaps and bounds. It’s always come under a lot of heat and debate (most recently from Pastor Mark Driscoll and Dr. Albert Mohler), but the amount of publications and new studios from the past decade tell me that this intersection is here to stay, folks!

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