THE BLOG
06/24/2014 03:04 pm ET Updated Aug 23, 2014

A Christian Yogi? Correcting the Misapprehensions of Two Spiritual Paths through Balance and Harmony

As I finally prepare to complete certification as a yoga teacher this weekend after decades of practice, I seek a balance between my adult spirituality (including having been ordained as a minister in the Christian peace tradition) and my childhood fascination with yoga and the Bhagavad-Gita. Both Christianity and this sacred text of yoga teach that all human beings may experience connection with God in several ways. The Bhagavad-Gita describes itself as a "sacred conversation" (18.71) of mystical direct dialogue in which the human protagonist speaks personally with God (18.75), which in Christian tradition is a form of mystical prayer. The more common approach for both students of yoga and Christians is study guided by human teachers, using the intellect in a self-disciplined way to seek God and learn a spiritual way of life when one is unable for whatever reason to experience direct revelation from God as mystics do. In Christian tradition, sixteenth-century Spanish mystical theologian Teresa of Avila explains this second path as the path of "ordinary" prayer most accessible to most people most of the time. Teresa explains that ordinary prayer uses techniques of contemplation and meditation that initially require more active effort on the part of the one praying or seeking spiritual knowledge but gradually become more passive and receptive. Her stages of prayer, outlined in detail in her autobiography as well as in manual on prayer The Way of Perfection, coincide almost identically with the fifth, sixth and seventh limbs of yoga - aspects of meditation that bring us ever closer to awareness of and union with God.

The goal of seeking spiritual knowledge, as both the Bhagavad-Gita and Christian mystics agree, is not to become wise to puff up one's own ego and knowledge, but quite the opposite: To melt into union with God, to let go of or surrender one's self-important sense of being an individual soul (atman in the Bhagavad-Gita) by dissolving into perfect oneness with God, our All. The spiritual seeker thus overcomes desire through ascetism, renunciation, and annihilation of the self (anatta) in yoga. However, in Christian tradition, a similar idea (kenosis, or self-emptying) leads not to self-destruction but to renewal and recreation (resurrection) to become the true and best self God has created and always intended one to be, one who loves perfectly with God's own love. As a Christian yogi, I try to hold these two opposing concepts in creative tension - two different ways of letting go of the sense that the individual self as such is important. Like balancing ha and tha or maleness and femaleness, trying to balance anatta with kenosis challenges me to understand with humility that I will never fully grasp either concept: Somehow in the paradox of God's boundlessness, perhaps both can be spiritual realities which bring us oneness with God.

While explaining the practices of meditation and yoga, Krishna (the incarnation of God who seems to the warrior prince Arjun to be in the human form of a servant) teaches that one can overcome the corruptibility of the human body through self-discipline and renunciation, focusing instead on the immortality of the soul. In this teaching, the limitations of the finite, mortal human body are transcended by denying their lasting significance and enduring reality. In my own life, I thought I was embracing this teaching as I entered puberty by denying my gendered body and its sexual longings entirely as a form of self-transcendence. However, through my adult profession as a Christian theologian, I have learned that ancient Christian teachings (in contrast with later medieval ascetic mystics) embraced the importance of the human body through a belief in individual resurrection - the path exemplified in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ as recounted by the first Christian apostles. For Christians like myself who have any physical challenge they or others may wish to deny or overcome, this distinctly different spiritual path is important: While the body is indeed corruptible in this life and doesn't fully define us spiritually, even so the body is God-created, God-redeemed, and an important part of who we are. Both body and spirit are aspects of one organic, whole self, all of which is created with intention and purpose by God, loved by God, and to be embraced in our own holistic spirituality. In fact, the practice of yoga too is both physical and spiritual, and Krishna explains, "Both spirit and matter are in Me" (9.20). The body is not denied entirely, even in yoga, as Krishna affirms "nothing is lost to me" (6.30) - "all created beings rest in Me" (9.6).

Like the Bible, the Bhagavad-Gita teaches that God is the source of all existence: "There is no being...that can exist without Me" (10.39). Put another way, as ancient African Christian fathers Athanasius and Augustine also taught, that which is cannot "not be." If God creates something (or someone), no human power can undo what God has created. Likewise, that which is not cannot "be." What God does not will and has not created, no human can bring about - at least not enduringly or in the fullest, most real sense. For Christianity, this teaching is expressed in the concept of redemption, the same idea that nothing is lost to God including our worldly sufferings and pains. Judaism, Islam and Christianity teaches that these are not only preserved but redeemed in God so that what humans may intend for evil, God uses for good (Genesis 50.20). These ideas from the Bhagavad-Gita and the Bible are entirely consistent with one another: Holding them together deepens my understanding of both while correcting common misrepresentations of and misunderstandings within each. This then is the path of the Christian yogi: Practicing an embodied, God-centered, devotional service detached from self-seeking without any attempt to control the results (1 Corinthians 13:4-8 and Bhagavad-Gita 6.46, 7.17).