Sophia Rising – Is Yoga An Acceptable Spiritual Practice?

Sophia Rising by Monette Chilson

Sophia Rising by Monette Chilson

Is yoga an acceptable Christian spiritual practice? That is one of the questions that will arise for many of us as we read Monette Chilson’s new book Sophia Rising: Awakening Your Sacred Wisdom Through Yoga. 

I love the way that Monette weaves her own faith journey through her exploration of yoga. Her choice of Sophia as the name of God she uses throughout the book will immediately send many outside their comfort zone. However she explains:

Most of us will pay lip service to the fact that God transcends gender, but our experience – because of the stigma associated with the feminine divine in Western religions – does not include prayers, images or words that let us express this truth. Whether the aversion to referring to God in feminine terms stems from patriarchal roots, a desire by early Christians to separate themselves from Goddess worhsip or to differentiate themselves from gnostic communities, the result has been a severing of the sacred feminine that has silenced voices that would pray to God our mother. Sophia embodies those missing pieces, giving us the prayers, images and words we need to complete our limited human perspective on who God is- and who God wants to be in our lives (13)

In the second chapter of Sophia Rising, dubbed The Heart of Yoga, Monette describe one of her  favorite applications of pratyahara, the Benedictine practice of mindful eating. For those of us who love to garden, cook and eat it is a wonderful invitation.

“If you want to experience taste in a sacred context, try slowly and silently eating a bowl of soup on a cold night. Not only will you savor the taste of the soup as it moves over your tongue, but the warmth of it will move through your body, extending the experience beyond that of a meal where we eat and move on to another bite, another thought, another activity before the food is even down our throats.

While soup is soothing and a great way to ease into mindful eating, you can expand your experience into a seasonal rhythm. Soup is perfect for a winter practice. A salad full of the first greens of spring can usher in the warming winds of the season, awakening our taste buds to the delicate treats ahead. Juicy strawberries and peaches, dripping from our chins, call us to the informality of summer, while crunching into a crisp apple is the perfect way to transition our taste buds to back to the routine that fall brings with it. Who would have thought that yoga could be so delicious?!”

As Monette explains, it is an interesting paradox that in narrowing our focus, we expand our awareness. By restricting our intake of stimuli, we actually increase our consciousness of God’s presence in any given moment through acts as simple and mundane as eating.

Sophia Rising disturbed, enriched and challenged me. It’s provocative and well researched content stretched my views of spiritual practices and Christian faith in a healthy and inspiring way. I do not currently practice yoga but this book definitely tempted me to begin. And for the many of my Christian friends who do practice yoga and yet have never been sure how to integrate the practice with their faith, this is a must read book.

Lord Teach Us to Pray: The Quietest Prayer by Monette Chilson

The post for the Lord Teach Us To Pray series today comes from Monette Chilson.  Monette is long-time yoga practitioner and dedicated to making the spiritual benefits of yoga accessible to all through her writing. This post is an excerpt from her forthcoming book, Sophia Rising: Awakening Your Sacred Wisdom Through Yoga, coming Fall 2012 from Bright Sky Press. You can read an expanded version of this excerpt on her website

Photo by Monette Chilson

The Quietest Prayer

by Monette Chilson

So often we associate prayer with talking to God. We are much less comfortable with the part of prayer that is sitting and listening. Meditation brings to mind images of lotus-bound swamis and seems to bear no resemblance to our own prayer life. But what would an exploration of this quiet state of being with God yield in our spiritual lives? Could it lead us to the state of union with God (samadhi) that yogis describe as the pinnacle of their spiritual experience (the eighth limb of yoga)?

This idea of becoming one with God is very much in line with the mystical practices that date back to our Desert Mothers and Fathers of the fourth century who lived and breathed Psalm 46:10—“Be still and know I am God.” According to modern day contemplative leader Thomas Keating, these forerunners of our faith interpreted this beloved psalm to mean “movement away from ordinary psychological awareness to the interior silence of the spiritual level of our being and beyond that to the secrecy of the union with the Divine Indwelling within us.” The experience he describes is samadhi, though he doesn’t use that word. Indeed, this experience of yoking oneself to God transcends religions and appears to be the destination of travelers on all spiritual paths. While this merging consciousness is often seen as exclusive to Eastern religions,

it is equally rooted in Western traditions. The distinction is a rhetorical, not a theological, one.

In Catholic theology, theosis refers to a specific and rather advanced phase of contemplation of God, not unlike the unifying experience of samadhi that is the eighth limb of yoga. The process of arriving at such a state, or moving toward it, involves different types of prayer which lead practitioners along the purgative, illuminative, and unitive ways, known collectively as The Way.

Similarly, theosis—divinization—shows up, more or less prominently in various Protestant denominations as a manifestation of divine grace. While most Protestants do not use the term theosis, they refer to a similar doctrine by such terms as “union with Christ” or “filled with the Holy Spirit.” John Wesley, putting his unique Methodist spin on this process, developed the doctrine of sanctification which describes a state of such unity with God that sin is no longer present.

If quieting the mind so that we can focus on spiritual matters is our universal goal, why is it so difficult for most of us? The idea of samadhi is affirmed in many faith traditions; however the concept of being still—of doing nothing—and letting God dwell in us, is far removed from our modern sensibilities. Those operating within Western religious paradigms resist the concept of meditation and experience the obstacles to it even more acutely than our Buddhist sisters and brothers who outlined these five hindrances to a state of deep meditation:

Sensual Desire: Craving for pleasure to the senses

Anger or ill-will: Feelings of malice directed toward others

Sloth-torpor or boredom: Half-hearted action with little or no concentration

Restlessness-worry: The inability to calm the mind

Doubt: Lack of conviction or trust.

There is no way to enter a state of samadhi with any one of these loitering in your head.  How do we rid our mind of these unwelcome intruders? The answer lies in the limbs of yoga that precede this ultimate spiritual union. Go out and perform a random act of kindness (yama & niyama), incorporate some breathing exercises into your meditation time (pranayama), get up and focus on some body-expanding asanas (yoga postures). Just maybe your mind will follow.