03/31/2013 12:45 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

My Easter Question: Is Yoga Making Me Christian Again?


The author, still Catholic, Easter, 1968

I am finishing up a month of teaching in Manila, Philippines, where 80 percent of the population identifies as Catholic. I left the church as a teenager because it wasn't answering the important questions for me. I didn't get how it was supposed to work, so I moved away from it.

After going rogue, I found in yoga a lot of the answers to the questions I asked years before, like what it means to be human and what I am supposed to do with my life. And surprisingly, yoga has also brought me, finally, to an understanding of Christian doctrine. The convergence of this visit to Manila with yet another Easter as an ex-Catholic has gotten me to examine my own beliefs and my lingering need to label them.

Last night I was walking through an elaborate public display of the stations of the cross, where each part of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus is revisited and interacted with. A darkened tunnel is navigated to give an experience of the darkness of dying. There is also a cross-carrying station and a place where you nail a red felt square, symbolic of blood, to a giant crucifix.

I got to talking to a local man about the church and faith and a funny thing happened. I found that what I was saying was leading this man to believe that I was, like him, a practicing Catholic. Internally, I was struggling with, and laughing at, my need to tell him that I was an ex-Catholic, even though what I was saying was totally in line with Catholic doctrine. I began to wonder about my own need to label myself and it reminded me of another Easter a few years back.

In the early 2000s, in a yoga class I was teaching on Easter Sunday, I quoted Pope John Paul II as having said, earlier that day, that unconditional love overcomes the tyranny of death. Although I was no longer Catholic, I was moved by the statement because it reflected what I'd discovered with yoga. So I thought I'd mention it in Savasana, or Corpse Pose, at the end of that afternoon's yoga class.

In Savasana, we rest and balance the body, which is lovely; and we pretend that we're dead, which can be confrontational. As the body seems to return to the planet that made it, the breath becomes part of the sky from which it is drawn. One of the things that make this death-rehearsal a pleasant experience, rather than a scary one, is what happens next: a resurrection for the masses. We come out of Savasana by rolling onto our sides and curling up into a tight ball for a moment before sitting up. From pretending to die, we shift into fetal position -- and as we sit up, we are born again. Death followed by birth followed by life. Savasana can teach that death is a creation of our minds, as is taught in the story of the resurrection.

In all of the spiritual practices that I am aware of, suffering happens when we become detached from source, however each defines it. Jesus, Moses, and Mohammed called it God. And each practice has a different technique of reconnecting its adherents to source. Muslims pray throughout the day. Jesus taught to love each other. In the yoga practice I do, we concentrate. And there are other ways to do yoga and there are other religions; but all of the functioning ones get you to identify more with the infinite and less with the material.

By focusing the content of the mind, yoga practitioners open up to a whole new vision of the world and we see its inescapable interconnectedness and our own place in it, which feels good. The ego-self doesn't dissolve, but it loses its harmful potency. Ego becomes something that you are doing, not something that you are. You begin to identify as a divine being having a human experience, and you channel your earthly endeavors toward the infinite.

When I picture the last coherent moments of Jesus on the cross, I imagine him looking up, symbolically, at the life beyond the physical, simultaneously yearning to go back home to it, and teaching the rest of us that there is something better than our conditioned tenacious adherence to the physical. I wish the nuns at Our Lady Star of the Sea had told us that. That makes sense. To me, the longtime yoga practitioner who hasn't stepped foot in a Catholic church in years, that is Easter. It isn't about a miracle. It's about little, messy you and me and a way to be happy as humans. We can let go of the body a little and look inward and upward. We find that it's better there. It's a whole new life -- a resurrection.

So, there I was teaching yoga that long-ago Easter Sunday. I had planned all morning to have the class build toward a deep, peaceful Savasana. And, just at what I thought was the right moment, I launched my zinger: "This morning in Rome, the Pope said something that is very much in line with what we are doing here on our mats. He said that the lesson of Easter is that through unconditional love we overcome the tyranny of death." Bam!

In Savasana, everybody in the room becomes still. But, not this time. One of the students suddenly sat bolt upright (which is a very risky way to come out of Savasana!) and she glared at me for a long moment, her lips pressed into a most unpleasant pucker and her eyes pinched together in a very unfriendly way. Then she rolled up her mat and left. But, she didn't go far. After class, she was waiting for me. She pulled me aside and hissed, "This is what I come to yoga class to get away from. How dare you?" And she left before I could reply. Until then, she had come to most of my classes. She was a big fan of my classes until that day, yet I never saw her again.

I still hate knowing that I had so upset her, although I am not sorry about what I said. It was about the most important thing that yoga has taught me, and I am a yoga teacher, and it was Easter. So what if a pontiff said it? I believe that there are universal truths in yoga philosophy. If there are, then, of course, those universals will pop up in other systems. I wish the student had heard the message, and not turned off her ears when she heard who the messenger was.

Since then, I have found that one of the most challenging parts of my job is to get people to look for similarities at least as zealously as they look for differences. The more we identify as different, the less happy we are because we are denying the nature of the world. We are not separate.

Later on in my conversation last night with the local man here, I found that whenever I tried to draw parallels between Christ's words and yoga, his eyebrows would elevate, then start to come together, then his mouth would start to pinch up like the Easter morning yogi did a while back. He stopped hearing what I was saying when he heard that it was yoga.

The teacher in me wanted to ask him to soften to the idea that my practice and his might have some things in common. But the student in me watched curiously as I struggled internally to suppress my own need to tell him that I am an ex-Catholic, even though I identify again with the teachings of the church. And I felt that, as long as I was knowingly dealing with that harmful, conditioned pattern of thinking, it was better to not correct him.

We resolved any friction when I said, "Hey, I believe the same stuff that you do. I just learned it in a different way." He was good with that. We connected. We shook hands and I went back to my apartment here. And I thought about the student from the Easter way back, and I wish that I had said the same thing to her. I hope that, in a Savasana somewhere along the way, she found what she needed.

For more by James Brown, click here.

For more on yoga, click here.