Local church blends Christian scripture with ancient Eastern tradition of yoga
Church-goers at St. Anthony Park United Church of Christ are putting a little “om” in their “amen” these days.
Alford, who is in her third year of working at the church, has been a yoga practitioner for 10 years. After hearing about Holy Yoga—an Arizona-based ministry that promotes yoga as a spiritual discipline like prayer, fasting and meditation—Alford enrolled in a nine-week online course that culminated in a seven-day immersion retreat in Stillwater last spring.
“I got the 200-hour required training to have that registered Holy Yoga title,” she said with a laugh. That means she is now Lori Alford, R-HYI (registered Holy Yoga instructor).
On a Sunday morning in early January, children ranging from 5 to 14 trickled into the lower room of the church, where three rows of purple yoga mats were lined up. The kids (and some of their Sunday school teachers) took off their shoes and settled in on a mat, then Alford led them through a breathing exercise in which she instructed them to “breathe in love, breathe out kindness.”
This particular Sunday was the Epiphany, Jan. 6, which Christians observe as the day the Magi visited the baby Jesus. As Alford led her congregants through various yoga positions she guided them through a story about following an ancient star.
Holy Yoga is a “cool blend of bringing Christian scripture to life in a new way,” Alford said. There are some conservative Christians “who think Christians shouldn’t be dabbling in that,” she said. “Some feel Christians are co-opting an Eastern tradition, but I haven’t had a lot of push back. This is about a spiritual connection in however we reiterate that in our own religiosity. Worship for me is a rite. I’m not a fan of the organ or church as usual. I’m a much more embodied person. I want to explore these other ways to worship, using my body, using all that space inside your body.”
When you practice yoga, Alford said, “you literally open up your body. It’s just a really cool way to explore being in connection, being in spirit, being in prayer.”
St. Anthony Park UCC’s journey into yoga began last year when Alford did some yoga with a confirmation class. “It was all boys and they were squirrely,” she said. “[It] was hard to get them calmed down, but at the end, we really got to a special place.”
Pastor Victoria Wilgocki—who also practices yoga—encouraged Alford to bring this ancient Hindu practice into the church.
“I can’t say enough about how open [the congregation is] to trying new experiences,” Alford said. “That has been such a gift for me. Nobody flinched when I said I was going to buy $200 worth of yoga mats.”
It appears the younger church-goers aren’t flinching, either. “I wasn’t sure what kind of response I would get from the kids,” Alford said. “But I think we’ve hit something that speaks to [them] and it’s getting a little infectious.
“You have to put a little heart and soul behind believing something. [The yoga is] helping kids understand that we are entire human beings not just a thought process. That’s resonated with them. If we’re going to breathe in love and breathe out kindness, what does that really mean? We’re going to breathe it. We’re going to explore what our bodies do with Christianity not just our heads. It gives them a new expression, a new way.”