On Faith

Churches, Synagogues Mingle Yoga With Beliefs

Annie Mechanic, front, Kirk Starr and others at Congregation Olam Tikvah in Fairfax County practice
Annie Mechanic, front, Kirk Starr and others at Congregation Olam Tikvah in Fairfax County practice "Shalom Yoga," which features poses named after Hebrew letters. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Phuong Ly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 1, 2006

Inside the makeshift yoga studio, a large cross hung on the wall.

As the parishioners at New Community Church in Northwest Washington stretched their arms above their heads into the mountain pose, the instructor reminded them, "Faith moves mountains." When they joined hands to chant, they did not say, "Om," the yoga mantra. It was "Sha-LOM."

The latest incarnation of yoga, a discipline that began 5,000 years ago as a set of spiritual exercises with origins in Hinduism, is for devout Christians and Jews. In a small but growing practice, churches and synagogues are offering yoga as a tool for connecting with God.

"It's just a wonderful way to say, 'Hey, we don't just pray from our shoulders up,' " said the Rev. Jim Dickerson, pastor of New Community in the District's Shaw neighborhood, which has monthly yoga sessions that attract about a dozen people. "The whole body is in this. Glorify God from your body."

Once associated with the New Age crowd, yoga has stretched into suburban strip malls and county recreation centers. Yoga cruises, yoga health food and yoga clubs exist. Yoga classes have been designed for pregnant women, mothers and babies, and even people with pets.

So-called "Christian yoga" is drawing yoga veterans who say they feel more comfortable in a Christian setting, as well as many people who say they would not otherwise have attempted the activity. Practitioners usually perform the same series of physical postures and breathing techniques as in traditional yoga, a routine designed to calm the body and mind. But they also might incorporate prayers and hymns and rename the poses.

Dickerson, who said he doesn't want to offend Hindus or put off Christians by using the term "yoga," prefers to call the spiritual exercises at his church a "prayer of embodiment." It is done by "Christians who have a spirituality who happen to practice yoga as a part of it," he explained.

At Parkwood Baptist Church in Annandale, the preacher and many members at first were reluctant to bring in anything connected to Eastern mysticism. But with some gentle lobbying five years ago from congregants who were practicing yoga at gyms, the church began offering several weekly classes, which feature stretches while praying. Hundreds of people, many from other churches, have participated.

James Hamacher, Parkwood's former pastor, said the relaxation techniques and meditation hark back to the spirituality of early Christian traditions.

"A lot of our spiritual heritage is meditation. Look at the entire book of Psalms," said Hamacher, who wrote a devotional each week to be read during the meditation part of the yoga class.

But others say that attaching a religion other than Hinduism to yoga cheapens both faiths.

Swami Param of the Classical Yoga Hindu Academy in New Jersey said that he doesn't mind if non-Hindus study yoga but that they need to acknowledge yoga's roots.

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