Beyond exercise: Yoga can be a spiritual experience for all faiths

Published: Friday, Dec. 30 2011 5:00 a.m. MST

Jeremy Richardson participates in a yoga class at the Hare Krishna Temple in Spanish Fork Sunday, Nov. 20, 2011. The class is for people in the community, from troubled teens to pre-missionaries and not just stretching and downward dog, but a chance to renew and find greater connection to God.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

When fitness instructor Cindy Senarighi walked into her first yoga class 10 years ago, she figured it would be something she could teach when she was old and "get paid for having people lay around."

Yet an hour later, she walked out sore and humbled, amazed at the level of physicality and the depth of spirituality.

"I could lay there quietly and I didn't have this busy-ness going on in my head," the pastor at St. Andrew's Lutheran Church in Mahtomedi, Minn., and faith-based yoga teacher said. "And when that (busy-ness) was gone, I just experienced this powerful presence of God. From that day on, it's been a life-changing thing for me."

Across the United States, nearly one-quarter of adults believe in some aspects of certain Eastern religions, according to a report from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

In the December 2009 survey, which looked at how Americans mix elements of different faiths into their own, nearly 23 percent of the general public and 21 percent of Christians said they believe in yoga not just as exercise, but also as a spiritual practice.

Senarighi goes to her mat "religiously" as a way to be present with God, and has spent the last several years teaching others to do the same. She, like many others, isn't worried about the practice's connection with eastern religions, nor is she faltering in her faith because she's adopted the habit of yoga. To her, the chance to be still and listen to her body has made her more receptive to a connection with God. She believes the spiritual, as well as physical benefits, are available to everyone, regardless of their religious or non-religious background.

"Whether you're being present in a faith setting (like church), or just present on your mat, I think God can act in both of those places," she says. "I see many people in the yoga room experiencing the presence of God, whether they can identify it or not."

On a recent Thursday night at the Hare Krishna temple in Spanish Fork, a thick wave of incense floats through the air as the chords of a singsong prayer echo off the temple's octagonal ceiling.

Underneath a canopy of flowers and lights, a statue of the dark-skinned Krishna and his ivory-skinned wife Radha smile out at the half dozen students sitting cross-legged and bare-footed on the floor.

Some sway back and forth to the music, singing along with the words of the prayer while others close their eyes in blissful meditation.

The musical ceremony is a chance to offer gifts back to God, the original giver, and is the first portion of the evening's yoga class here.

"When you say yoga, people think of physical exercise," says instructor Sri Hanuman Das, "but that's not actually what yoga means, (it means) to connect with God. Catholic, Jew, Hindu, Muslim, Mormon — it doesn't matter. God wants us to have a relationship with him. That's what love is all about."

Das practices Vaishnavism, a branch of Hinduism in which adherents worship one supreme God — Vishnu, or his manifestations, like Rama and Krishna.

For nearly five years, Das has been leading students through the ceremony of offering gifts, as well as the asanas and pranayamas, or positions and breathing exercises, and finishing with a musical meditation and a repeated prayer mantra.

It's part of Das' religious worship, but for others — like 19-year-old Mormons preparing to serve proselytizing missions or troubled teens with little interest in religion — the yoga class is inspiring on different levels.

"It's much more than exercise," says Cheryl Gibson, 27, who doesn't identify with any particular faith, but loves the meditative nature of the class. "It helps change your mindset and it changes your day. It puts you in a better place to approach (life) with peace and love."

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