Why Practice Faith-Based Yoga?

Chronic stress, cancer, heart disease, arthritis, eating disorders, and addiction— these are just some of the conditions in our Western world for which medical doctors are recommending yoga. And Americans are listening. It’s estimated that approximately 20 million people, 8% of the adult population, are taking yoga classes in the United States annually. Yet in an effort to present a class accessible to the widest audience, most American yoga instructors today avoid teaching devotional yoga practices such as reading sacred text, meditation, and prayer and pay only perfunctory attention to breath work—all keystone practices of traditional yoga that offer the most healing and spiritual growth opportunities. 

Classical yoga was centered on devotional practices, presented in ancient Sanskrit, the language of the time. The modern use of Sanskrit in describing yoga practices unfortunately seems to have created the misunderstanding that devotional yoga practices are derived from Hinduism. In fact, the opposite is true: yoga predates Hinduism by many centuries. Because of a general lack of public understanding about the classical roots of yoga, many American yoga teachers, and their employers and students, fear yoga being labeled an Eastern religion and therefore strip devotional techniques from their instruction, as they are unable or unwilling to show students how to incorporate their own faith traditions into their yoga practice. 

The contemplative practice of meditation seems to have escaped these religious misunderstandings often associated with yoga, in part because meditation techniques are taught using modern language and because sacred movement was largely lost as a contemplative practice in Christianity during the Reformation, while meditative practices continued. Similar to meditation, yoga is just another contemplative technique and as such may be practiced with or without a faith component. Most important, yoga, like meditation, may be practiced as a way to expand our own faith practices.

Western medical research shows time and again that the safe practice of yoga has health benefits, not the least of which is an ability to address issues that can cause disease (dis-ease) and stress. The practice of yoga strengthens our body, calms our central nervous system, and filters and settles our thoughts—thoughts that can clutter our mind and wreak havoc in our body. As a result, yoga has become widely accepted as a complementary therapy, part of an integrated treatment plan to manage or recover from illness, with the goal of seeking cure. 

Healing, however, is more complex. Healing in faith language is promised whether or not cure takes place. To heal is to make whole. These bodies we inhabit are temporary, and there are certain circumstances, like pain, suffering, and broken relationships, that simply do not make sense. We seek wholeness that is outside our ability to provide for ourselves. When our mind quiets, a window opens that connects us to something greater than ourselves. When our mind quiets and we bring to that quiet our faith, we tap into the infinite goodness of God, within which we experience wholeness. This is the true source of yoga’s healing power. 

In his research Dr. Herbert Benson from Harvard University Medical School found that belief, our faith life, is a powerful force in healing the body. According to Benson, biologically we are “wired for God.” By removing devotional practices from our yoga classes we extract much of the power from the practice, with little increase in benefit beyond that of a traditional exercise or relaxation class. If Western yoga students want to truly experience the profound healing, mental, and spiritual-growth effects of yoga, they would benefit from learning how to incorporate into their pose-based (asana) yoga practice the devotional yoga components of studying sacred text, meditation, and prayer from their own faith traditions and beliefs. 

We have written this book to show others how to incorporate their faith traditions into a yoga practice. Our faith tradition is Christian, but the formula is the same for applying your own faith to a devotional yoga practice: study of sacred text, reflection on application to the world in which we live, meditation, prayer, breath work, and gentle movement. Both of us have experienced the healing power of yoga and have grown in our relationship to God through yoga. Our yoga practice is at times mundane and occasionally profound, but what makes all the difference is the discipline of the practice—setting aside a time each day to open ourselves to God’s presence. We hope our readers will be inspired by our devotions to practice faith-based yoga and to share with others the love of God that they experience in Yogadevotion. 

The National Institute of Health website states that yoga is one of the “top 10 complementary health approaches” and lists a variety of studies and current research on yoga and health and from the Yoga in America Market Study.

Asana (physical pose) is only one of the eight limbs of yoga, yet most Western yoga classes offer only Asana practice. The other limbs are Yama (ethics and integrity), Niyama (self-discipline and spiritual observances), Pranayama (breath control), Pratyahara (sensory control), Dharana (concentration and inner awareness), Dhyana (devotion and meditation on the divine), and Samadhi (union with the divine). See Swami Satchindanada, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (Yogaville, VA: Integral Yoga Publications, 2012).

Herbert Benson, Timeless Healing (Simon & Schuster, 1997).