This past year, St. Alban’s Parish in Washington, DC, conducted a bold experiment in liturgy.
Associate rector Jim Quigley and I, with the support of parishioner Sally Craig, piloted a yoga worship service. We called it A Poise of the Soul: Yoga as Liturgy, and strung a large banner outside to advertise the monthly Friday-night offering. People of all ages showed up for six months to move, pray, and connect.
As Jim explained in a Facebook post, A Poise of the Soul is not “yoga next to liturgy or near liturgy or in the parish hall before or after … [but rather] a new way to pray.”
Why should we want explore a new way to pray? Well, anyone who spends much time in yoga studios sees the spiritual hunger in urban Millennials. Studios support their spiritual stirrings with yoga classes that align movement with breath and that frequently involve meditation, chanting, and short homilies aimed at spiritual centering and uplift.
Jim, Sally, and I set out to address these growing ranks of the spiritual-but-not-religious. We also reached out to churched folk interested in exploring new ways to practice their faith.
In addition to being a seminarian, I practice and teach yoga. I have often wondered what draws young urbanites to bow their heads at a yoga studio, chant prayers in a foreign language, participate in ritualized practices—but never darken a church door.
“Why can’t church services be as transformative as our yoga classes?” I have heard asked many times. “Church services can be—should be—even more life-altering,” I’ve responded.
After all, church services are where we go to address God, to be in the compassionate company of other God seekers, and to be spiritually fed before going back into the world. The task is to find a shared language.
In fact, the sweep and ritual of an Episcopal service feels surprising similar to the flow and structure of a well-conducted yoga class. Why not build on this similarity? we thought. As former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams wrote recently in a description of his daily prayer practice, “I don’t think any one of us can begin to discover again what religion might mean unless we are prepared to expose ourselves to new ways of being in our bodies.”
I believe that understanding the power and promise of yoga and similar practices is enormously important for people interested in bringing the unaffiliated toward Christianity. Yoga opens the door for people to experience their spirituality in ways they may not have yet found in regular church services.
Church services often frighten people who are clueless to traditional forms of worship. Perhaps more importantly, the unchurched may feel judged or excluded when they try to come to church.
“I feel lonely when I see a cross hanging and rows of benches,” one woman told me recently. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. It’s like I don’t belong.”
In yoga classes (as in similar organized gatherings), participants are accustomed to clear instructions to orient them. People with different body types and levels of experience find a message that they are accepted for who they are, even as they are challenged to grow. At center, however, is that connection between soul and body.
Yoga is strongly tied to this soul-body interconnection. It invites participants to connect their movement to their breath and to their sense of themselves as spiritual beings. Some experience a kind of “spiritual proprioception,” a noticing of the movement of God within themselves and in their lives.
“In yoga, I feel how my hand connects to my arm and to my body and to the room around me. It makes me feel connected to the whole world,” a secular Jewish woman told me.
I want people who are afraid of mainstream religion—or who think it irrelevant to their lives—to find they can experience the connection between God and themselves in church. One way we tried to encourage this in A Poise of the Soul was to experiment with lectio divina and with including prayers of the people.
We learned to tightly integrate sacred readings with yoga sequences. For example, when we focused on “pilgrimage,” we read Psalm 84 and poems by Mary Oliver. “Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion,” writes the psalmist. We repeatedly asked participants lying in savasana, the final resting pose, “Where are you going?” Voices floated up into the air, “on an adventure “ and “to talk to God.”
The week we explored Epiphany, we read the encounter of Moses with the burning bush and from the poet T.S. Eliot. “What has been revealed to you?” we asked them during savasana. “God’s love,” a voice called out. “My own frailty,” said another.
In every session I cued slow, careful breathing as I led the participants in yoga poses. The bodily movements emphasized, in these cases, the experiences of searching and of revelation.
The method of alternating readings and questions with movement allowed participants to feel and explore the words of the readings in their bodies. One woman had the “most remarkable experience” from the cumulative effect of the intertwining of reading and movement, she told me later.
For those interested in “the details”: Between eight and twenty-four yogis came to the monthly A Poise of the Soul services. The participants were divided between parishioners and younger people who don’t normally attend church.
We advertised A Poise of the Soul in the weekly church e-mail, on the St. Alban’s website and Facebook page, and during post-sermon announcements. We created our own Facebook page, too.
None of those new media outlets drew newcomers to the service as effectively as did the colorful banner we hung outside the church and the glossy postcards we pinned up in yoga studios across city. Yoga students read on the postcards an invitation to those who would say, “I’m looking for a way to deepen my spirituality.” Or they saw the banner and took a chance.
All our participants were open to experimenting with yoga, prayer, and scripture. In this pilot, we planted some seeds that we hope will grow. If others are engaged in similar experiments, I’d love to hear your stories.
Diana V. Gustafson is a yoga teacher and M.Div. middler at Virginia Theological Seminary.