I believe that yoga is a neutral vehicle and that it can be used for different ends: this means that different philosophies and belief systems can underpin the practice whether they be Eastern, Christian or secular. I have also found that yoga has benefits not only for the body, but also for the mind and for the soul when it is practised in line with one's chosen foundations. Here's how I find it beneficial.
First, as exercise it is good for you. I have a friend who has a lot of experience in ballet, gynamstics, Pilates and she claims there isn’t a yoga pose she hasn’t encountered in other forms of exercise. There are several distinctive features about yoga as exercise though. It is a more gentle form of exercise than many forms and after years of pushing my body as a regular runner I have really enjoyed being kinder to my joints and I recognise this is an exercise form that I can take all the way into old age with all the wonderful modifications. It doesn’t overuse certain sets of muscles but a good yoga class will engage many sets of muscles meaning the whole body gets a workout. Not only does yoga stretch the muscles, but it also strengthens them and so you can end up with a strong and flexible body which is good in and of itself.
Second, yoga is great for mental wellbeing. Like other forms of exercise yoga enables a release of dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins. But why is yoga different and worth engaging in? The distinctive about yoga is that it is a slow, mindful way of engaging the body. A good class will get the student to bring awareness to the breath, often bringing it line with movement. Simply giving attention to the our breath means the body and mind settle and we can enjoy a relaxed state of being even whilst doing exercise! As well as breath awareness are the regular prompts to be aware of the body: the cues on how to modify a pose, to connect with how a certain pose feels, to notice where there’s engagement, stretching or tension. This means that through yoga we can connect to our body, which can pull us out of our busy minds and stressed souls. When we feel more internally connected – body, mind and soul – this can result in increased inner peace and a sense of wellbeing.
Third, yoga is a great space for spirituality. This is what the Eastern yogis discovered, however this innate possibility is also available to Christians who hold to a different belief system; that they can bring their faith to the yoga experience. Yoga doesn’t make you believe something different per se. What it can do is give you the space to help your own beliefs become more of a living experience. As you relax and connect the different parts of your being, you are more still, more peaceful, more aware and open to God’s presence. An awareness of breath, body and the self, as a Christian can lead to an awareness of the presence of God (with a good teacher) who is always with us and in whom we live and have our being. Yoga classes naturally offer poses that are resting poses, where the experience of internal connection of body, mind and soul can open up to an experience of connection with God. This is done either through one’s own self-guiding or the guidance of a Christian-based yoga teacher or a secular spiritual teacher if that is what is wanted.
I personally believe the tradition and science behind yoga show it to be a wonderfully meditative form of exercise that can strengthen the body, settle the mind and restore the soul.