Online spaces create community for spiritual yoga practitioners

(RNS) — It may come as no surprise that yoga pants are far more prevalent in the United States than people who do yoga. While the stretchy leggings have become so deeply ingrained in our wardrobes that there’s such a thing as “dress yoga pants,” 84% of U.S. adults told Pew Research Center that they seldom or never practice yoga.

Those who do practice yoga reported that they are motivated mainly by enjoyment and a wish to be healthy, but some, aware that yoga is an ancient part of Indian spirituality and its elemental poses are accompanied by philosophical teachings, said they see it as a way of connecting with their “true self” or something bigger than themselves.

While the numbers are still small, some yoga teachers have even begun to organize spiritual communities around the practice, raising the question: Is yoga becoming its own religion?

The question may rile some Hindus who charge that yoga is being misappropriated by Westerners, as well as by those whose yoga practice is entirely secular but who worry it’s incompatible with their faith. But as Americans leave their home faiths or are increasingly raised without one, “yoga churches” are springing up to provide much of the spiritual energy and community a house of worship once did.

Britt Steele, a former hospital administrator, founded her Yoga Church “because, frankly, having been raised Christian, but not practicing,” she wrote on her website, “I wanted a place where I could go on Sundays to ‘pray’ and ‘set good intention’ with like-minded, open-hearted folks.”

At the same time, Steele told Religion News Service, her aim is to “bring divinity into the yoga practice.”

Britt Steele. (Courtesy photo)

Steele, who leads her weekly sessions from her retreat center in the mountain community of Guanajuato, Mexico, attracts an audience of hundreds, including Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims and atheists, she said. The sessions begin with a blend of yoga teachings, Indigenous American practices and other “mother traditions” before moving into a mat practice. 

“Our beliefs are not original to us; our divinity is original to us,” Steele told RNS. “My name, my degrees, whether I’m Christian or agnostic, all of that came after I got here. I was one with divinity before I got here.” Steele believes humans get to a place of love by softening into their hearts and returning to their breath — common phrases you’ll hear in a yoga studio — and sees Yoga Church as a way to offer that to people. 

Jessica Glendinning, a longtime Yoga Church student and writer in Virginia, stepped away from organized religion in the early aughts. Raised Presbyterian, she said she has evolved to be a seeker but originally turned to yoga in 2008 because she heard it was good for stress. The mother of a toddler has been a yoga teacher herself for a decade now. 

“Britt’s Yoga Church is a place for me to show up as I am, to carve out a couple of hours in the midst of a hectic life where I can fill my cup and slough off some of the dirt and dust of the everyday,” said Glendenning, who adds that the Yoga Church’s virtual community, like any other community, gives what she puts into it.

Summer Cushman, who runs another Yoga Church from Bellingham, Washington, was trained in pastoral care and ministry at Earlham School of Religion, a Quaker seminary, but she got the idea for a yoga community in Earlham’s “entrepreneurial ministry” program. In 2018, she built a pulpit on the wooded 15 acres she lives on in Washington state and filmed herself giving Sunday sermons based on Hindu scriptures such as the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras.

Marci Becker, left, and Summer Cushman co-lead a Yoga Church. (Video screen grab)

Marci Becker, left, and Summer Cushman co-lead a virtual Yoga Church. (Video screen grab)

Today, her 30 or so members and her co-leader, Marci Becker, meet each Sunday to listen to her sermon, journal, practice yoga and engage in conversation about how the teachings apply to their everyday lives. 

Mark Chaves, a professor of sociology at Duke Divinity School, said that attempts to organize churchlike communities that lack a formal faith have a long history. Attempts to organize secular humanism over the last century, he said, have always remained small. One example is the decline of the secular congregation Sunday Assembly. 

“Actual religious content seems to be necessary to sustain an effort like this,” he said, referring to traditional dogmas. “These things come and go. No one has figured out how to really attract a lot of people.”

But when religion is used to draw people in, it also drives many away. Both Cushman and Steele acknowledge that the word “church” is triggering for several of their members, but it’s the best shorthand for a Sunday gathering where people learn, move and set intentions. As Steele explains on her website, “I didn’t want the dogma — I just wanted the devotion.”

RELATED: Church for ‘nones’: Meet the anti-dogma spiritual collectives emerging across the US

"Americans do yoga mainly for health and enjoyment, less for connection" (Graphic courtesy Pew Research Center)

“Americans do yoga mainly for health and enjoyment, less for connection” (Graphic courtesy of Pew Research Center)

Those who leave their organized religion, too, may be fleeing the organization more than the dogma. Public Religion Research Institute’s Religious Change report, released in March, found that the vast majority of the religiously unaffiliated appear content to stay that way — only 9% of religiously unaffiliated Americans say the statement “I am looking for a religion that would be right for me” currently describes them very or somewhat well.

“We were struck that so few religiously unaffiliated Americans are actually seeking organized religion or a church experience,” said Melissa Deckman, PRRI’s CEO. Instead, said Deckman, they would rather be “part of a larger community of seekers.”

But Cushman and Becker don’t seem concerned with recruiting large numbers. They laughed when discussing SEO and social media, claiming marketing is not their strong suit. People usually find Yoga Church through their own seeking, often while Googling terms that come up in Cushman’s sermons, the two said. Becker said she loves the “small and sweet” community, who are from all over the world. While they live far away from one another, Cushman said, there’s a sense of relationship. 

In fact, Cushman rejects the idea of being a member of anything, preferring the label “practitioner.” “I’m not a Christian or Hindu or Buddhist, but I am a practitioner of Celtic spirituality and yoga. I study the Bhagavad Gita deeply, but I’m not a Hindu. I study the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, but I’m not a Jew or Christian. I respect ancient scriptures as a really valuable tool as a seeker and practitioner.”

RELATED: What the ancient Indian text Bhagavad Gita can teach about not putting too much of our identity and emotions into work

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