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The Yoga Lesson

April 26, 2012

I enjoy a good stretch as much as the next guy, and I do realize that better posture and deeper breathing habits are beneficial, but I am not a fan of yoga.

My distaste for yoga has nothing to do with the physical postures, stretches and exercises it prescribes; it lies in yoga’s Hindu philosophical/theological foundation and the Hindu world and life view it promotes. So, when Jonan (our eighteen-year-old) told us his college course required him to take a one-hour introductory yoga class (outside of the college), I was bothered. I debated whether I should encourage him to make a stink about the requirement, but then I realized this probably wasn’t the molehill to ask him to die on. So, instead, I decided I would help him choose the particular class and go with him.

We went to the yoga class on Tuesday evening, and it proved a fascinating experience. Here’s why…

Whether or not the instructor knows this or not, yoga serves as an introduction to Hinduism. (I know, I know. Some Christians are going to argue with me about that statement, but, as one who has travelled twice to India, has visited many Hindu temples and talked with many Hindus, I think I can offer that as a reasonable assessment.) In this particular case, I think the instructor must realize that. She had incense burning, new age Indian music playing, and gave the perfunctory ‘namaste’ at the end of the lesson. Also, I asked her after the lesson whether she had ever been to India. She answered, “No, but I have been throwing out my positive energy into the universe asking it to return to me with the funds to travel there.” Hmm, okay.

But I said it was a fascinating experience. Why? Because it offered me the opportunity to watch an adherent of another religion engage in an ‘outreach’ event, and I was able to observe firsthand which elements of an outreach event are attractive and repulsive to the visitor. And this was even more true as I would probably be classified, in terms of fishing for converts, as a skeptic.

Let’s look at the elements that were effective. I’ll just list them with a brief explanation:

  • The introductory class was a required event. Wow, let’s not rush past this observation. Somehow, this religious activity has become mainstream enough that a state college can make it a required element of a general-ed physical education course. Wouldn’t it be great if we could get the public schools to mandate attendance at an Introduction to Bible Reading class?
  • The instructor met us at the door and was friendly.
  • The instructor took down our contact information. Her method of soliciting our information was reasonable (“I need you to fill this out, stating that you are able to engage in this physical activity.”)
  • The instructor was not wearing a freaky/fruity costume. I was nervous going in that I was about to meet a woman who was part Mrs. Roper from Three’s Company and part Trelawney from the Harry Potter series. She wasn’t any of that. She was a normal, friendly middle-aged lady.
  • The instruction focused primarily on the physical activities and encouraged us to participate as we were able. There was no long discussion of the philosophical/theological presuppositions underlying the exercises.
  • The instructor spoke with us after the lessons about ‘normal,’ ‘common’ things (i.e. about her daughters who attended Geneva High School, about local community happenings, etc.). This helped us to see her as a ‘normal’ member of our society and not simply as the representative of a foreign discipline.
  • The atmosphere of the room was genuinely relaxing, and we enjoyed the hour of quiet. It was a nice break from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

But there were also some elements that I found less effective. Those were:

  • The Indian artwork, incense, and music infused a foreign sense to the environment. I felt, very much, on entering, that I had come into a place that was very different from me, my family, and my culture. In other words, the message I received on entering was that, if I were interested in becoming a regular yoga practitioner, I must leave my culture and join another (at least partially).
  • The instructor occasionally used words and phrases that struck me as strange. They were undefined and vaguely uncomfortable. For instance, she said several times something like, “Before I became a practitioner of the way, I…,” and, if I remember correctly, she sometimes referred to yoga as “the Practice.”
  • The instructor led a weird finishing meditation that reminded me of those self-hynosis tapes, and before she started it, she brought Jonan and me blankets, laid them on us, and offered ‘fairy bags’ (beanbags) for our eyes. Weird and a little fruity. As a guy, very uncomfortable. And that leads me to this final observation,
  • The atmosphere seemed slightly effeminate. We were the only guys in the group, and our overall reaction as we departed was, “Let’s go do something manly. Yeah.”

Okay, so what lessons or suggestions for improvement can we take away from these observations and apply to our Christian outreaches? (And, yes, I know that the biggest and most important difference between this Hindu outreach and genuine Christian outreach is the leading and movement of the Holy Spirit. These suggestions are not meant to diminish that reality.) Well, for better or worse, here they are:

  • Find ways to make our outreach events ‘required’ activities. A great argument can be made that the Bible is the foundation of most Western literature. Shouldn’t an introductory course on the Bible be required at the high school?
  • Be friendly and greet visitors.
  • Get contact info, and use legitimate reasons to get it.
  • Dress in an average, normal way, appropriate to the community
  • Interact with visitors in a normal way, emphasizing points of commonality.
  • Provide a relaxing, normal environment.
  • Minimize the ‘foreign’ elements. Visitors to a Christian outreach do not need to feel that they have, somehow, been transported to the Israel of Jesus’ day or to a monastic community in a medieval kingdom.
  • Avoid using insider lingo that will not be understandable to the visitor. Another way of saying that is, avoid ‘Christianize.’ (i.e. “I felt so blessed when I felt led by the Spirit to lay hands on … and beseech God for healing.”
  • Keep the activity appropriate for the age and gender of the anticipated visitors.

So, there it is, some lessons learned at a yoga lesson. I hope we’ll be flexible enough to incorporate them.

NEWS YOU CAN USE

  • Leaving a Legacy of Joy – Erma Bombeck. The author of this short article pays tribute to a great writer, columnist, and humorist. Bombeck’s wisdom and wit is well worth remembering (ah, now that’s alliteration! I wonder what she would have thought?). This article quotes many of her memorable lines, such as: “In two decades I’ve lost a total of 789 pounds. I should be hanging from a charm bracelet.”  Read more at: http://www.healthyspirituality.org/2012/04/leaving-legacy-of-joy-erma-bombeck.html.
  • The Top Five Guiding Principles for Ministries. The author of this short blog post wrote this (he admits) off the top of his head, but he really nailed the important things. I really liked his one-paragraph statement about the need for radical generosity. See his list of top five principles and see if they are the same ones you would have chosen: http://www.whatsbestnext.com/2012/04/the-top-five-guiding-principles-for-ministries/.
  • Seven Common Traits of Breakout Churches. The author of this article identifies the common factors that permit churches with a record of five years of decline to reverse that trend and experience five years of growth. His observations are based on data collected from 50,000 churches. He identifies seven traits. One of those involves a realization that most of the ministries of that church are currently designed for the comfort and desires of the members. Accordingly, leadership team begins to focus more ministries outwardly. (Does that need to happen at Living Hope?) Read more at: http://www.thomrainer.com/2012/04/seven-common-traits-of-breakout-churches.php.
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