Why Christians are turning to yoga instead of Jesus for spiritual care

Why Christians are turning to yoga instead of Jesus for spiritual care November 21, 2019
spiritual care
Photo Credit: radargeek Flickr via Compfight cc

I’ve seen many former “believers” deconstruct their faith and become atheists. For many of them, this has been a healthy step on the road to spiritual wholeness. Having grown up with a fundamentalist conception of God that was prone to violence, wrath, vengeance, and shame, they were destined to either disbelieve or go crazy trying to live up to their God’s standards.

In other words, I don’t blame them. In fact, I can think of many still-believing friends who would probably benefit from a good dose of intellectual atheism, because it’s clear (to me, at least) that their God-concept is unhealthy both for themselves and the people they are trying to serve.

You might not hear many pastors or faith leaders admit this, but it’s true.

At the same time, I know many folks who would benefit just as much from a renewed faith in God. I met a guy this week who told me he’s never really had time for God because God has always let him down. When I asked what he meant, he told me a story which implied that his belief was based simply on the fact that a lot of bad things have happened to him in life.

Ok, I get that. I’m sure there’s more to the story, but again, I can’t blame the guy for where he’s at.

We humans instinctively conflate our (mis)fortunes in life with God. If life is good, we say we are “blessed.” If life is bad, we think we are “cursed.” These feelings are legitimate, but they can be problematic when we project them onto God. The resulting religious conceptions we form can create barriers to our healing by shutting us out from genuine spiritual care.

I see this in many former “believers” who are stuck in places of struggle that are essentially psycho-spiritual. They may eventually find their way to wholeness without “God,” and if so I will celebrate with them, but I suspect they would have a far better chance if they opened themselves up to God again, albeit with a new conception and through a process of deliberate theological reflection.

I’ve been reading Carrie Doehring’s book The Practice of Pastoral Care. Doehring provides helpful language in understanding the process of change that occurs when care seekers move beyond the “life-limiting” features of their “embedded” theology to a “life-giving” theology that is both deliberate and consistent with their deepest spiritual values.

Most interesting is the way she emphasizes the role of compassionate spiritual practice over the role of intentionally-formed theologies. She writes,

Meaning-making on its own will not be enough to change emotionally triggered body theologies formed in childhood. Co-constructing life-giving theologies that one tries to intentionally live out will not defuse automatic stress-related default theologies. People of faith might feel more inadequate, discouraged, and shamed when the intentional theologies they are trying to put into practice don’t change the childhood theologies of fear and shame they still experience through their bodies. Trying to practice intentional theologies without compassionate spiritual practices that acknowledge embedded theologies might even increase spiritual struggles and related moral stress arising from conflicting core values and beliefs. (pp. 12-13)

Man, have I been there. Not only have I tried to remedy my own spiritual struggles by substituting one “better” theology for another over the years, but I’ve tried to provide relief for other people by getting them to do the same, such as adopting a more loving view of God, for instance.

That method has never worked — not for me and not for anyone in my care. We just started spinning our wheels in a different direction.

Doehring further elaborates on this principle later in the book:

Identifying life-giving values and beliefs will not, in and of itself, sustain ongoing change. Meaning-making at an intellectual level does not get rid of embedded theologies associated with emotions like fear, shame, and guilt… These embedded, emotionally based theologies formed in childhood by family and social systems arise over and over again under stress and will continue to be experienced in spite of the intentional theologies people intellectually adopt. Spiritual integration at an embodied, emotional level comes about through spiritual practices that foster compassion, especially self-compassion. (p. 85)

I would add that the same goes for people who cast off all notion of “faith” and embrace a kind of militant, intellectual atheism. They may think they’ve gotten rid of the problem, which they superficially relate to the toxic belief system associated with the church or religion they left behind, but the problem still lies within them.

Don’t get me wrong, it may be the perfect move for them to divorce themselves from whatever form of faith they currently associate such theological toxicity with. But as Doehring says, this alone will not suffice for healing. Whether the new intellectual meaning they create is a more benign form of faith or a militant non-faith, their inner world will remain fragmented as long as they fail to address the roots of their issue through compassionate spiritual care.

Some people do this without even realizing it, whether they maintain a certain form of faith or not. In fact, it’s no wonder so many Christians are turning to yoga and meditation these days. Pastor Joe at the church down the road might view it as a sign of the great falling away (let the reader understand), but what I see are broken people fleeing for refuge from a Christianity that has not met, and in many cases even warred against, their deepest spiritual needs.

If that’s you, dear reader, all I can say is, “Do what you gotta do.” I don’t think Jesus is offended.

About Joshua Lawson
Josh Lawson is a pastor, writer, and spiritual care provider. He lives in southern Ohio with his wife and kids and their cat Gryffin, which is short for Gryffindor. He loves strong coffee and good books. If you'd like, you can support his work at www.patreon.com/JoshuaLawson You can read more about the author here.

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  • Chad Royer

    Valuable perspective on cultivating the type of meaningful life we all desire.

    I do not often hear religious folks trying to wrestle with what are called body or embedded theologies in this article, except when shaming them and seemingly pointing towards them as our piece of original sin (or similar things in non-Christian religions). If Carl Jung is right when he says, “One of the main functions of organized religion is to protect people against a direct experience of God”, this seems to be a primary way.

    I doubt there is any meaningful theology other than the embedded type, which I generally refer to as visceral beliefs. Those visceral beliefs generally have all sorts of conflicts with one another that seem unresolvable. If we are some sufficient combination of desperate and adventurous enough to have the courage and patience to sift through them though many of the conflicts quickly fade away and the ones left are rarely hopelessly conflicted if they honor one another as part of the same whole. Being valued/honored as the guides they are meant to be can quickly make them much more benevolent and agreeable.

    I’ve never been overly adventurous but for a long time I was quite desperate and many years of more superficial measures just weren’t enough. After sifting for about a decade, life turned to being mostly enjoyable for a decade or so now. That’s great and all, but my courage is often lacking without the desperation, which might be why most other lives seem more admirable to me than my own extremely fortunate one.

  • C_Alan_Nault

    “Why Christians are turning to yoga instead of Jesus for spiritual care”

    Another example of the word spiritual being used without providing any clear meaningful definition for the word.

  • Ron Swaren

    Are you talking about peace? or bliss? Please clarify. Is there a place for distress? How do you resolve differences between people? Is it when someone has peace, all have peace, or is there an objective means. What type of hermeneutics do you have/?

  • John Purssey

    Christian Communities should be the presence of Jesus to members of their community. If they do not meet the Matthean metaphor of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving drink to the thirsty, then Jesus is not there for a member to turn to. Often they prefer to follow the metaphor of prophesying in Jesus’ name, casting out demons, and performing deeds of power. It is not surprising that some church members start look to other sources that may provide affirmation and support.

  • God is infinite, but religion is finite so we look elsewhere to find another piece of the puzzle; therefore yoga, meditation, Buddhism, Hinduism and just being an atheist can help us spiritually and even make us a better Christian if we are into that.

  • Ivan T. Errible

    How about “It’s cheaper and makes me feel better”?

  • There you go!

  • Or as Paul said, “all things are yours.”

  • Not surprising at all.

  • Mainly I’m referring to the satisfaction of deeply felt “spiritual” needs. That may take different forms for different people.

  • Ame

    For me, yoga poses and stretches are just relaxing exercises. Most poses & stretches are not exclusive to yoga anyway, but it would make me feel both guilty for culturally appropriating the spiritual aspect of yoga and worried that I wouldn’t be able to counteract the negative side effects of yoga that so many Western instructors are oblivious of and would require a life of asceticism to correct if under the guidance of Eastern instructors. My spiritual care does come from Jesus, mostly through mental prayer and liturgical prayer.

  • Yoga is at heart the practice of reducing the grip of ego’s attachments, fears, and self-aggrandizement.

    As the abstracted sense of a self separate from the All-in-All is shed, the Truth is remembered.

    Plain and simple.

  • God is infinite, but religion is finite so we look elsewhere to find another piece of the puzzle; therefore yoga…

    Though I will point out that the “infinitude” that is God, is not “another piece of the puzzle“, but the fulfillment of it.

  • Any effort that any of us make to not be part of the problem is Good for all. It is in collaboration with Grace.

    Getting a handle on the nature of the problem being point of practices such as the one under discussion.

  • Though the sense of ownership of that “satisfaction” is recognized as a distraction and inhibition of ripening in Yoga practice.

  • Another example of the word spiritual being used without providing any clear meaningful definition for the word.

    Let’s start with your definition then and see where it fits. I don’t have one except by association with those who do.

  • Richard Aahs

    “I see are broken people fleeing for refuge from a Christianity that has not met, and in many cases even warred against, their deepest spiritual needs.”

    Thank you for acknowledging this truth.

  • Thanks for sharing that, Ame.

  • Robert Conner

    “I don’t think Jesus is offended.”

    Neither do I. I think Jesus has been dead nearly two thousand years. Hence not offended.

  • Ed Senter

    Your attempt to “reduce the grip” only results in the grip getting tighter because all you have is the self- what irony.
    You worship the creation instead of the creator.