Why I Return to Bikram Yoga, and the Church | Sojourners

Why I Return to Bikram Yoga, and the Church

Photo courtesy Vladimir Jotov/shutterstock.com

As I waited in the room heated to 105 degrees, my friend Molly looked for a sliver of floor space for her yoga mat. “I probably need a more relaxing type of yoga,” I whispered, almost apologizing for bringing my type-A body to the crowded Bikram class, known for its intense heat and addictive practitioners.

“This is the only yoga that quiets my mind,” Molly responded. “Since the teacher is talking non-stop, I can’t think about my to-do list. I’m just trying to get through the 90 minutes and stay in the room.”

At exactly 10 a.m., the yoga teacher entered the room: I stood in unison with the other students, much like I rise for the procession at my church on Sundays. Surprisingly, much of what draws me to Bikram yoga also brings me back each week to the Episcopal church.

Repetition of words and movement

Walk into any Bikram yoga class, and you will practice a series of 26 postures and two breathing exercises developed from Hatha yoga by Bikram Choudry, who copyrighted the sequence. The teachers use the same dialogue with imperatives such as: “Lock the knees, lock the knees, LOCK the knees!” and “Just stay in the room.”

While the Episcopal Church can’t copyright the Lord’s Prayer, the Book of Common Prayer establishes a common worship, known as the liturgy. My mother advised me to find the nearest Episcopal church anytime I visited a new city. “You’ll feel at home,” she reassured me. A sequence of repeated prayers brings me peace in a world where the unexpected has become normalized. And every week, I bring a new self – sometimes centered, often distracted – to the same prayers and postures, which then become new again.

Practicing stillness

Like many mothers who work outside the home, I don’t have much time for stillness, from the early morning alarm to the bedtime routine at night. So the chance to practice yoga, even once a week, allows me time to rest on the floor in the final pose of savasana. In Bikram and other forms of yoga, savasana provides a restorative time when the body is truly still.

In church, the pew gives my family of three the structured space to practice stillness, with my 13-year old daughter on one side and my 7-year old on the other. From that wooden pew, we sing, pray, squirm, watch babies, and invariably comment on cute outfits. And we listen to words that are bigger than whatever drama we left in the car that morning. We learn to breathe deeper into a still and sacred space.

A communion of people

For two years, I tried to develop a yoga practice at home using videos by yoga rock stars like Rodney Yee and Tara Stiles. But at home, I often leave the mat to grab the vacuum cleaner when the sight of a lint ball disturbs the tranquility of my downward dog.  In a yoga studio, the other students give me both accountability and comfort in our common human condition. The teacher instructs us to focus on ourselves in the mirror, yet I sneak glances at the toned African-American woman with the grey dreadlocks and the overweight red-headed man whose belly hangs over his yoga shorts. These classes are a luxury for those of us on a budget, but in the class, I marvel as different bodies move together, sweating profusely, but staying in the room.

In church, the communion of people has taught my children how to move and speak together, responding in prayer when the priest says: “The peace of the Lord be always with you.” Without prompting, my children say: “And also with you.” These words hold a different meaning to me when said in a group, with one voice created by many people. And I want my children to know that a communion of people – of all ages and backgrounds – can practice God’s love on earth.

So who needs a church if you’ve got yoga? When the “spiritual but not religious” and “nones” have gained such traction, many might contend that yoga classes are more relevant to today’s culture than congregations. But for me, I need both the yoga studio and the sanctuary.

I crave the physical challenge of yoga, which calms the whirlwinds that occupy my mind. Through my church, I learn to look beyond the mirror and see into my community - to feed the hungry, seek justice, and love God and my neighbor. If I’m honest, I usually struggle to get out the door, so I can stand with others in a yoga posture or prayer. But I always feel better after I return to practice, pray, breathe, and just stay in the room that is ultimately God’s earth. 


Mallory McDuff, Ph.D., teaches environmental education at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She is the author of Sacred Acts: How Churches are Working to Protect Earth’s Climate and Natural Saints.