Yoga vs. Church: The Jesuit Post

My backyard--covered in snow and stillness.
My backyard–covered in snow and stillness.

As I mentioned on Tuesday, this week I’ve been mulling over “Yoga vs. Church,” by Joe Hoover, SJ. In the essay, Hoover compares Mass with a Bikram yoga class. Before and during Mass, Hoover notes a general irreverence in how people chat, come late, and leave early. Before, during, and after his Bikram yoga class, people are silent, disciplined, and respectful of one another. At the end of the article, Hoover calls the world in general–not just the church or yoga–to more silence and stillness.

More than his comparison between the church and yoga, and more than his thesis that the church could learn from yoga (hear! hear!), I am struck by Hoover’s respect for discipline in both church services and yoga classes. He enjoys the rigid discipline of a Bikram yoga class–

–and the very idea of a Bikram yoga class makes me physically ill. My body does not perform well in hot, humid conditions. I am not as disciplined as Hoover–in my church or my yoga.

But I’m really convicted by his thesis.

My church–the Open Door–meets in an old church building that has been turned into a community center. We place a bowl of holy water next to the Eucharist elements every week. We borrow liturgy from every Christian liturgical tradition. We always wander in late. And the part of the service where “pass the peace of Christ” often lasts for ten minutes while we wander and shake hands, hugs, and chat.

My church loves to chat.

Lately, though, I’ve been very tired when I come home from church. Hoover’s article has me recognizing why: when I go to church, I’m not-so-focused on the vertical relationship to God. I’m focused on the horizontal relationships. As an elder of the Open Door, this is a bit inevitable–part of my role as an elder is to care for the church, to know what’s going on, to notice how people are doing.

Like Hoover’s yoga studio, the yoga studio I am part of–Yoga on the Square–also emphasizes silence before a yoga class. People come to a yoga class to connect to their bodies, to be in stillness. Sometimes our members chat softly after the class. Most of all, though, our members are inquisitive about their own bodies, their own minds, and their own stillness. They come to the studio to leave the rest of the world behind them.

As teachers at Yoga on the Square, we encourage this. We encourage students to attend to the relationship inside them–which, in my mind, is an element of the vertical relationship, whether the student acknowledges it or not. If a student is dizzy or needs a modification, we encourage the student to take care of her own body, her own soul.

We would never, like Hoover’s studio, reprimand a student for drinking water. We hold a different philosophy of yoga from Bikram. But our studios agree on the silence.

And it’s the silence that fosters the vertical.

When I teach a class at the studio, I am focused horizontally. I am watching my students’ bodies, faces, nervous twitches. I am listening to their words. When I’m teaching a class regularly, I notice who is there and who is not there. In many ways, it is similar to being an elder at the Open Door. When I leave the studio, however, I still leave feeling vertically refreshed because of the stillness.

Hoover is right: we need more places in this world to foster the stillness. In our current culture, yoga studios have the corner on silence and stillness. If I listened inside myself more on a Sunday morning, I might be able to listen to the silence inside a church, too. And hearing the silence is the first step to creating it for others, too.

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