Finding My Path

by Vickie Aldridge

I was raised in a Baptist church, sang in the choir, attended Vacation Bible School, and many years later, as an adult in my late 20’s, took a strong and personal step of faith to call myself a “Born-again Christian.” I was already practicing Iyengar Yoga by then and testifying to all about the many benefits of getting on the mat.

I had heard B.K.S. Iyengar say that “Yoga is not a religion, but the practice of yoga can help one to better appreciate his own faith.” Mr. Iyengar’s words assisted me in my own thought process of separating my faith from my yoga practice. Even when many Christians said that yoga was evil, I continued to practice for many years. Yoga made me feel physically stronger, more confident and peaceful, and it relieved my back pain and depression. B.K.S. Iyengar was “my guy” in the argument for yoga! 

But as Christians continued to be shocked and judgmental when they heard that I practiced yoga, I began to question it myself. As doubt settled in I felt that God, and certainly my pastor and friends, were telling me to stop. After much thought and prayer I felt I had to quit, even though my wise husband couldn’t figure out why! 

I believe, and the Bible teaches, that God speaks to us in a “still small voice.” After six months of no yoga, I heard that voice during my prayer time say what I had been longing to hear: that I had passed the test of where my heart lay, that He was giving yoga back to me, and that I should dedicate my yoga practice to the Lord. After all, the Bible says that we should “Do all things as unto the Lord, and pray without ceasing.” Even B.K.S. Iyengar states that “each asana is a prayer to God” and that our students are a “gift from God.” Guruji’s words helped to solidify what I knew to be true in my heart. 

Life went along at a nice pace for several years, yoga and the Lord coexisting peacefully, until the San Diego Convention in 1990. That was the year Guruji took a great deal of time to teach all of us the Invocation to Patanjali and requested that we incorporate it in our classes. I knew the chant could be seen as a cultic practice by Christians, but after a trip to Pune the following year, and much practice, I eventually gave it a try. Many of my long-time students said that if they had been asked to do it as beginners, they wouldn’t have come back. Twenty years later I am continually rethinking the Invocation and its acceptance in Idaho. We want people to like and be attracted to Iyengar Yoga, don’t we? I do. So if there are new students or those who I feel might be offended by an Invocation chanted in Sanskrit, I will leave it out. I don’t feel that chanting or not chanting will make the difference in what students learn in the class about their own life journey. 

But no matter how I present Iyengar Yoga to my community, there are some who will always have their doubts. A few years ago a local minister listed my yoga center as an “evil influence in the neighborhood” in his church newsletter. In the same sentence, our studio was separated by commas from Satanic practices, psychics, and witchcraft. My husband, who by now was a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher, and I requested a meeting with this minister to address the issue. He surprised us by bringing a group of his church elders, with Bibles in hand, who quoted scriptures to back up their accusations. We saw their fear and mistrust. The minister held his head down, would barely look at us, and refused to even pray with us. Of course, we could also back up our beliefs by quoting scripture. We might have used the line, “Be still and know that I am God,” or any of the many references to the need for meditation or contemplation on that which is good. We invited them to come to a class to see what we actually do there. I offered to go to their church and introduce myself and give my Christian testimony. They refused all offers and wouldn’t print a retraction. Many said I should take him to court, but I believe that in this world of diversity, we must first meet one another at a level of kindness and respect for each other’s beliefs. I put it in God’s hands and later heard that the church had fired the pastor because of too many doctrinal problems. 

In another incident, I had a conversation with a pastor and a church delegate who appeared at my door. I have “YOGA” on my license plate, and as the conversation got to that topic, they asked if I believed and followed the spiritual tenets of yoga. I didn’t answer, but instead asked what they believed those to be. The delegate said, “the worship of Self as God, the emptying of the mind, that there is no God, but that we are God, the Self is God. Isn’t it true that Yoga takes people away from God and into themselves?” I believe that God put us in each other’s paths for a reason, and after a very deep breath, I told them I found just the opposite to be true: that yoga doesn’t take us away from God, but that it teaches us to go inside to that God-given place of peace, joy, and contentment. 

I am reminded of the Catholic monk, J.M. Dechanet, O.S.B., and his book Christian Yoga. He speaks of his quest to unite his body, mind, and spirit as one pleasing to God. None of the physical exercises like swimming or gymnastics enhanced his spiritual life like yoga did. He embraced yoga and it changed his life. He came to the conclusion that we could take the practice of yoga out of the Hindu matrix and reintroduce the asanas to Christians so they might “profit from their techniques without giving up any of their own beliefs.” He wrote that “an extraordinary sense of calm sinks into the mind, while from the depths of the soul there rises up towards God a silent concert, as it were, of praise and adoration.” That doesn’t sound like the emptying of the mind to me, but more a filling of the whole human being with the light and love of God. 

Guruji describes asana as “meditation in action,” which says so much. In our practice we learn to turn away from those things that we obsess about daily and focus our positive energy on what we’re doing on the mat. I ask my students to pay attention to how they feel after their practice, to notice if they feel more connected to themselves, God, and the world around them. This union and peacefulness is our goal after all, isn’t it? 

In my heart I feel like a Christian, although I have come to understand that my idea of God is now much larger than what it used to be. My God isn’t judging people because they chant the Invocation to Patanjali or stand on their head. My God is bigger than that, full of grace and love and acceptance. He sees our hearts and our intentions and doesn’t “sweat the small stuff.” May we each continue on a personal path of truth, nonviolence, and faith, and let our time on the yoga mat give us the clarity to be nonjudgmental and make wise choices. 

We need only to read the writings and teachings of our Guruji, B.K.S. Iyengar, to know how important God is in this life. I am thankful for his reminders of faith that show us the way. 

“Surrender to God all your experiences. Start your work and end it with the name of God, then your life will be full of harmony.” —B.K.S. Iyengar 

Vickie Aldridge, Intermediate Junior I, lives and teaches in Boise, ID with her husband of 42 years, Jerry.