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

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."

Tonight, Das shares a thought from chapter 6, text 28 of the Bhagavad Gita about the spiritual philosophy of yoga.

"Self-realization means knowing who one really is in relationship to the supreme truth — God," Das says, looking over his wire-rimmed glasses at the students. "Whether we know him by Jehovah, Elohim, Krishna, Allah, he is the same — the source of everything."

Das reminds the students they are spiritual beings and thus the goal in this life is to renew their relationship with God, which was forgotten when they came to earth. Yoga, with its breathing techniques, meditation and stretching positions helps individual in their quest to control the senses and thus become open to God's presence.

He closes the book and puts away his glasses, and the students pull out colorful mats to begin the poses.

"If we can learn to tolerate a yoga position longer than we thought, than we can tolerate the material world longer," Das says, leaning forward onto his forearms, his legs and ankles hovering above his mat.

As the group wriggles into the positions that stretch previously unknown muscles, Das explains that the first level of concentration is to focus on breathing and body balance, but eventually, the goal is to focus and meditate on God.

Nancy Roth wasn't so sure she'd be able to focus on anything spiritual when she attended her first yoga class in her old high school gymnasium in Scarsdale, N.Y.

"But I found that by the end of the class … I was in such a centered place and I was very aware of God's presence, even though the place still smelled the way it used to," jokes Roth, an author and assisting priest at Christ Episcopal Church, Oberlin in Ohio. "That's when I first recognized for myself that (yoga) was useful."

Since that class in the late 1980s, Roth has taught yoga in downtown New York for executives on their lunch breaks, in workshops and in her church. She's even written a book on the topic called "An Invitation to Christian Yoga."

For Roth, yoga is a way to connect with God, as well as a constant reminder that the body and breath are powerful, holy gifts from God.

"The body is the temple of the spirit, and we (should) take care of it just as we take care of our places of worship," Roth said.

That's the same point LeAnne Tolley brings up when neighbors give her quizzical looks after learning she does yoga — looks that say, "You're a Mormon and you do yoga?"

"I believe that this physical body is a direct manifestation of who God wanted us to be, but (too many people) spend their whole life hating it," said Tolley, who teaches yoga in Highland and directs free weekly classes at her LDS meeting house where an average of 60 people come. "If yoga doesn't do anything else except teach us the eternal nature of our body along with the eternal nature of our spirit, that's all yoga needs to do."

Tolley also explains that in her faith, members are taught to seek after truth and anything that is "virtuous, lovely or of good report or praiseworthy."

For her, yoga has deepened her spiritual foundations, not threatened them, as she has enjoyed increased flexibility and strength, as well as a greater appreciation of the body/spirit relationship.

"But sometimes we're afraid that we won't be able to separate out someone's opinion, interpretation … (and) find the truth," she says. "I think that's what people are scared of (with yoga)."

To ease some fears, some Christians call their yoga practice "Christian yoga" or change the names of poses — "Sun salutation" to "Son Salutation," referring to Jesus Christ — or add Bible scriptures to their classes.

However, there are still some individuals who believe yoga is too deeply imbued with eastern religious beliefs to be safely practiced. Catholic leadership has expressed concern with practices such as yoga or Zen, worried that members may unknowingly blend "Eastern mysticism … with their Christian faith" and end up "in a syncretic mess — perhaps not the portal of hell, but not good for one's Christian spiritual growth either," writes Dan Connors, editor-in-chief of Catholic Digest: The Magazine for Catholic Living.

Roth has heard such fears, but they don't bother her anymore. To her, yoga done by a Christian becomes Christian yoga because of that person's foundation.

"You could call it Jewish yoga if it was a Jewish person doing it," she said. "What I found in yoga was the Christian God as I know God through Christ."