Mark Whitwell on Teaching the Heart of Yoga in Christian Communities

Yoga, or prayer? The two combine very naturally in this class taught by Mark Whitwell in a small Christian community in Fiji.
Yoga, or prayer? The two combine very naturally in this class taught by Mark Whitwell in a small Christian community in Fiji.

In this article, we collate advice Mark Whitwell has given those who share yoga in strongly Christian communities, for how to break down barriers and teach in a non-dogmatic way.

Yoga is what you do as your principal devotion. It is your principal practice. Not puja, not meditation, not kirtan, not philosophy. In ancient times, asana itself was what was done in the temple to your deity. What Krishnamacharya said was there is ‘Yoga Yoga’ — Yoga that is connected to life itself. But if you are describing life itself in terms such as deity or guru or God, which is what Christians are doing, then Yoga is the principal means of connection, your asana practice! We have to understand that in the tradition that is what asana is. Devotion to life. Devotion to God and guru or deity if that is relevant.

For a Christian, their deity is Christ. If Christians would do Yoga, then it would a whole-body prayer to life. Christianity is a great guru system, of course. The cross is a sincere yantra that people relate to with their body, crossing themselves. This can easily be translated into practice. We can inhale, open our arms out wide, receive God, the arms of the cross… and exhale, fold forward, devote ourselves to God. Inhale, come up, hands in prayer to the Almighty above, and then exhale, hands come down to prayer in the heart. Beautiful.

There is much practical Yoga instruction in the Bible. If you are familiar with it, you can speak to people in their language. “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin.” Important and accurate Yoga instruction. Or the kingdom of heaven is within you. Even words from Christ that say things like “No-one gets to the father except through me”, we can take a yogic perspective on this and hear him speaking not as one man, not as a body, but as someone who realizes and embodies Shakti, the power of the cosmos, and it is through this power that we can know Shiva or consciousness. It is the same as saying “through intimacy with all known conditions, the source is known.”

You must have some sincere sympathy with the beauty of Christian utterance. Those who go in with some kind of missionary or pity orientation won’t succeed. You must honour each person’s sincere beliefs and search for something sacred and meaningful in their life. Not a slavish swallowing of dogma hook line and sinker, but no one can deny the beauty that is there. Let yourself be moved by that and communicate within that sincerity.

Christ was a yogi. No doubt. We have to understand that a yogi is a woman or man who is a realizer of reality, who is not obstructed in their participation in the power of the cosmos that everyone is. It is not a cultural descriptor, a religious descriptor. It means someone whose mind is no longer imagining separation from others, and so becomes a wellspring of compassion, tolerance, and love. A friend to all. A human possibility.

Mark Whitwell demonstrating Jesus’s hand mudras at a church on the island of Lesvos, Greece. Photo: Rosalind Atkinson
Mark Whitwell demonstrating Jesus’s hand mudras at a church on the island of Lesvos, Greece. Photo: Rosalind Atkinson

Depending on the Christian communities you are teaching in, there may be a belief that Jesus Christ is the only God, the only ‘yogi’ and so that might be a subject to steer clear on. You don’t have to use the words ‘yogi’ or ‘guru’. You don’t even have to use the word yoga. When something is real, and really helping people, then it doesn’t matter what you call it.

I have one friend in Fiji, who was teaching elderly Fijian women who were very Christian. Because she was raised in the church, she is familiar with the language and liturgy. She was able to explain to them that the first gift of God was the breath, and so their yoga is to honour that gift, to receive the grace of God, and give themselves to that grace. They could really understand and enjoy that.

Every situation will be different — rural or urban, educated or more simple, older people or younger, more open-minded denominations versus more closed, and of course every different individual within that. Go slowly and with deep respect for everyone. You cannot teach anyone anything until you love them.

Mark Whitwell sharing Yoga with Fijian Christian women on the island of Taveuni, Fiji. Photo: JB Bieuville.
Mark Whitwell sharing Yoga with Fijian Christian women on the island of Taveuni, Fiji. Photo: JB Bieuville.

The Pope has said some things against Yoga, which means Catholics are sometimes a little cautious. Just let people know it’s all been a misunderstanding. After the 15th century, it became very confused what yoga was — invasions, the rise of orthodoxy, colonial times and western values all contributed to the belief yoga was either a male monastic transcendent practice of mostly cleansing and meditation, or else a very dirty suspicious sort of thing done by suspicious fakirs and ascetics, tapasyas, dreadlocked wanderers with one arm in the air and a cage around their neck, hanging out getting stoned at the cemetary, sitting in holes in the ground, that sort of crazy thing. That is not yoga. You can let them know that you won’t be teaching any of that stuff, that yoga has been confused with. Help them make peace with that.

Our teacher Krishnamacharya would say, “Christians need yoga!” He would teach all different religions, whoever came to him, despite his own Vaishnava religious orientation. He did not impose that. Yoga has always been practiced by all kinds of people across the ancient world. Jains, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, Egyptians… and all the unnumberable cultures that these blanket terms lump in all together. It is simply a tool to embody your ideals.

So for example, to ‘love thy neighbor as thyself,’ we need to be able to love ourselves. We need to be capable of love. To actually release all the reactions and trauma that restrict the heart. Let people know that yoga will serve their relationship with God, with Mary, with Jesus.

In fact, Christians often bring a beautiful depth of understanding to Yoga, because they are not embarrassed to be very sincere and devotional, not embarrassed to pray, and not aggressively insisting on a materialistic universe. I find that aggressive atheists are much harder to connect with. Especially clever western atheists, just mind mind mind, and a scorn for all the millions of sincere religious people around the world, looking down on them. Sincere devotees just want to learn the practical means to connect with their chosen deities, and the Yoga will help them naturally come out of the social dynamic of disempowerment, where you assume someone to be superior than you, rather than continuous with you. Yoga helps people to realise that relationship of intimacy with their chosen ideal, to make it real.

And if you do encounter some suspicion or lashback, don’t be dismayed. There are deep patterns of suspicion for the body, for anything different, for anything that empowers the people to feel and think for themselves. The dark ages of Europe are not so long ago. The witch burning and the Crusades are not so long ago. Some still believe that dinosaur bones were planted on the earth recently by God, who made them look really old, to test people’s faith. We go slowly. My friend Sriram, he has been teaching for many decades now in southern Germany, and when he started there was great suspicion and hostility. Things are slowly changing.

If you do encounter suspicion or closed-mindedness, or even find yourself unable to teach, do not take it personally. It is not a rejection of you. You have something useful to share with whoever wants it, to help them feel better, and feel better. It is a long slow thing, to share the basic practices of moving and breathing, and every little bit helps. You are not expected to change the world overnight by yourself. Everyone has a heart, and everyone wants to feel that heart, no matter how thick their layers of mind are over that longing to feel. There are cracks everywhere. Keep looking for those who wish to receive what you have to offer. Keep doing your own practice of intimacy with life and speaking with your friends about what you are discovering. Adjust your expectations. Perhaps do not rely on teaching Yoga to make a living. All in good time.

Hallelujah, praise the Lord!

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Originally Published Here: Mark Whitwell on Teaching the Heart of Yoga in Christian Communities

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Mark Whitwell

Mark Whitwell

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Mark Whitwell has worked as a Yoga teacher around the world for the last 45 years and is the author of 4 books on Yoga. He lives in Fiji with his wife Rosalind.