By Dr. Amanda Brees, EDD RYT RMT, Meditation Researcher & Pastoral Counselor
I happened upon yoga, reiki, and meditation as a fifteen-year-old evangelical coping with symptoms of developmental trauma. At the time, I was unprepared for the resistance I would face given how much these complementary therapies (CTs) were helping me. Through yoga especially, I was able to experience a calm and stillness that provided an essential reprieve from the chaos of my reality. It was the extent of the healing potential of yoga that kept me committed to the practices despite the resistance I faced in every direction. I was required to meet with the pastor of my church to justify my decision to practice Christian yoga despite being on the leadership team of my youth group. I simply could not understand how something so profoundly helpful to my spiritual life and mental health could be so theologically incompatible with my faith. Unfortunately, this was only the beginning of that struggle.
Eventually, I felt called to Mount Shasta, California—a small New Age rural town thriving on spiritual tourism. I ended up spending the better part of the next ten years of my life feeling at home in this community. During those years, I became a student of all things related to spirituality and healing. Yet, despite the freedom and acceptance found in this spiritual community, I never completely fit in. I only ‘resonated’ with Jesus, and therefore failed to ‘resonate’ with the fundamentalists who thought yoga was from the devil or the liberals who thought all paths lead to God.
Then one day, I drove past an Assemblies of God Church with a sign out front that said, “The Gathering: A safe place for spiritual seekers.” I happened to be in the car with my other Jesus-loving yoga teacher friend, and we all but exploded with excitement. Could this be it? A place to love Jesus and meditate without being ostracized? I emailed the pastor shortly thereafter and informed him I was a bible-college graduate turned yoga teacher, and I wanted to know whether he meant what he said. Thankfully, he did, and for the next four years, I served as volunteer staff of that life-changing church plant. In the end, my faith matured, and 18 years after I set out on my Christian yoga journey, I graduated from Liberty University with a doctorate in Pastoral Care and Counseling.
My doctoral dissertation was a reflection of the authentic Christian healing and spirituality I found throughout a lifetime of discovering the implications of Christian yoga. I conducted my research study in the church apartment I resided in before moving back home to Minnesota. When I left, a Christian meditation group had just started. Spiritual seekers were coming to church, and many of them were joining the community and finding Jesus. Many had the same story I did—they had been rejected by Churchianity due to their failure to conform and give up their spiritual practices, but they knew faith still needed to play a vital role in their lives.
What I found during my doctoral dissertation on Christian yoga surprised me. I decided to appeal to an authority higher than the pastors and professors who had prohibited me from doing Christian yoga. Instead, I conducted a meta-synthesis of 35 scholarly peer-reviewed journal articles on the topic of Christian complementary therapies for healing family trauma—appealing to the authority of the research. What I found was that Christian meditation is absolutely a healing tool that helps address complex and relational trauma in ways other methods fail. I also found a group of researchers asking the same hard theological questions I was regarding Christian meditation and yoga.
What I learned on this dissertation journey was yoga was indeed rooted in the Vedic philosophy of ancient India, but the evolution of yoga continued to be adapted by different religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Christianity, etc.) as it evolved throughout the ages. It was originally more of indigenous Indian shamanism based on the science of meditation that didn’t use postures at all. This is in alignment with yoga’s ultimate goal of union with God where postural yoga is simply a means to the end of preparing the body to sit in meditation. Postural yoga is something newer that was influenced by its movement to the West. Therefore, what surprised me was that the question is not whether Christians should do yoga (postures), but whether Christians should meditate. This left the, ‘Is yoga the intellectual property of Hinduism?’ debate secondary to the conversation regarding the theological implications of Christian meditation. Meditation seemed to fall more under the domain of Buddhism anyway. In this regard, those original pastors and teachers were right. Yoga has been adapted by many religions over thousands of years, which makes it vulnerable to the Hindu and Buddhist adaptions of yoga and meditation present today, but the story doesn’t stop there–enter the need for Christian yoga.
Instead of treating Christians who practice yoga as theological second-class Christians, it is becoming apparent the Christian adaption of yoga and meditation is paramount. For Christians who disagree about postural yoga, it would behoove us to then shift the conversation to meditation. Meditation is simply a spiritual tool like prayer and fasting. This tool is not the intellectual property of any religion, and Christians have been adapting it for thousands of years. Although some experts advocate for Christian-sensitive practices, the reality is the Desert Fathers were just the original Christian adapters of meditation. Being that 70% of Americans still claim to be Christian, the development of Christian yoga and meditation is more vital today than ever before. Especially with the emergence of the third wave of behavioral therapy which is proving meditation, when combined with counseling, is immensely powerful in healing complex trauma. This was the consensus of the data set: we need Christians to become thought-leaders in adapting the third and fourth wave of behavioral therapy for Christians.
In summary, Christian meditation is uniquely capable of healing our relationship with God through Christian enlightenment in alignment with yogic philosophy. It holds enormous power to help us to our true identity as being made in God’s image. Christian meditation challenges the Buddhist notion of no-self alongside the Hindu belief that the Self is God. Meditation is not only Christian-adaptable but vital for all Christians hoping to grow in their walk with the Lord. Through meditation, the research suggested that our neuroplasticity (the way our brains are wired) is restored to its God-intended state. As our attachment to God is restored, we awaken to our true nature as being made in His image.
So, remember these things the next time you are faced with resistance from the yoga community for ‘appropriating’ yoga for Christians. If you’re a Christian practicing or teaching yoga and meditation, be encouraged! Your ministry in this world is important. The world needs your help understanding what parts of yoga and meditation need to be adapted for Christians and how to do that! You have the support of the worldwide growing movement of Christian yogis as you continue to navigate your calling to Christian yoga and meditation. Trust you are making a difference in this world by preserving your unique journey of Christian yoga.