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Instructor finds yoga, Christ do mesh (video)

By Jennifer Lee Preyss
April 19, 2013 at midnight
Updated April 19, 2013 at 11:20 p.m.

Yoga Chicks owner, Danna Garland does a warrior yoga pose inside her studio. Garland is certified in Hatha yoga and has been instructing for two years.

Yoga Chicks owner, Danna Garland does a warrior yoga pose inside her studio. Garland is certified in Hatha yoga and has been instructing for two years.   Jennifer Lee Preyss for The Victoria Advocate

Editor's note: This is Part 2 of a four-part series on the spirituality in India.

A symphony of chimes and wind drifts through the speakers of Danna Garland's stereo as she unfolds her body from a seated hamstring stretch.

Her breath is slow and continuous with each graceful movement. She moves more like a dancer than a 65-year-old yoga instructor.

She's alone on her mat, barefoot and wearing snug but comfortable charcoal-colored yoga wear. Yoga clothes befitting even the girliest of women are easier to come by in major retailers these days, she said. Her matching stretchy outfit, recent blond highlights and purple nail polish pedicure show off Garland's brio.

She has the studio to herself for an hour or two until her class of evening yogis begins filing through the door.

Straightening her back, Garland grabs her ankles and folds her legs beneath her.

Eyes closed, she places her hands, palms down, on either knee and touches index fingers to thumbs.

"I always end up sitting like this when I'm on the floor," says Garland, breathing in a faint scent of fresh paint, open space and previously-burned aromatherapy candles.

"It's so ..."

She says, inhaling.

Letting her breath go, "... Relaxing."

It's also spiritual, she said.

Growing up Pentecostal - and now non-denominational - she's familiar with the whispers in some Christian circles about the practice of ancient, Indian-written yoga. She's heard dialogue among fellow Christians, questioning if yoga goes against the faith.

Garland doesn't see it that way.

A late convert

Garland never thought she'd own Yoga Chicks, a quaint, one-room yoga studio in a small retail complex along East Red River Street.

When she retired from a stressful career in corporate finance, she needed something to keep her busy. She'd always been active, a long-distance runner, a gym rat. But yoga wasn't the fad of her generation. It wasn't always viewed as an activity for all people.

When yoga settled into pop culture, and every major gym in America, it was inevitable Garland would mosey into a class.

"Yoga became a lifeline for me. I didn't start until I was in my 50s," she said. "I've learned to relax from yoga. I've learned patience from yoga."

She also learned the healing and strengthening powers of yoga poses and ways to use the exercises to unite mind, body and spirit. To her, it never seemed like a conflict of religion.

There was no praying to Hindu gods or questioning the divinity of Jesus.

There was only enjoyment in exercise - and peace through posing.

The more Garland moved away from beginner status to advanced yogi, she heard the questions raised more often about yoga and American Christianity.

At one point, she asked herself the question: "Can yoga and Christ mix?"

She decided, unequivocally - they can.

"I've heard some of the things people say about yoga. I've heard people have discussions about it and question whether it's against their religion. I know of a yoga class in town that isn't allowed to use the word 'Namaste' because they don't want to make anyone uncomfortable," Garland said, placing her hands at heart center. "All of it is really unnecessary. We say 'Namaste,' but we don't promote any religion here. It's just a blessing, a way to wish someone a good day."

But she understands the dialogue about yoga among Christians. It's identifiably Eastern. It indeed has ties to Hindu deities and the worship of ancient gods.

Vedic yoga, the earliest form of practiced yoga, yokes the 5,000-year-old physical poses with Brahman sacred scriptures, the basis of modern Hinduism. In Sanskrit, yoga means, "to yoke or join."

But does stretching on a spongy blue yoga mat in Victoria Secret pink-and-white-striped yoga pants qualify as a religion-seeking experience?

Some think it might.

Southern Baptist Seminary President Albert Mohler in a blog titled "The Subtle Body - Should Christians Practice Yoga?" Mohler said, "To a remarkable degree, the growing acceptance of yoga points to the retreat of biblical Christianity in the culture. Yoga begins and ends with an understanding of the body that is, to say the very least, at odds with the Christian understanding."

Mohler isn't alone.

Earlier this year, a group of Encinitas, Calif., parents protested the school district when five of the nine Encinitas schools implemented Ashtanga yoga classes in their physical fitness curriculum. The parents protested and filed a lawsuit against the Encinitas Union School District, citing the classes included religious prayer and worship of the sun.

"Most people I know who do yoga see it as going to the gym. It's not spiritual for them. They look at it like they would be going to a spin class or anything else," said Garland, who previously instructed spinning at area gyms.

While listening to the chimes induce a state of zen in her studio, Garland says the spirituality of yoga is palpable. It's calming, and often associated with the practice of oms, Hindu mantra chanting. The oms are meant to promote unity and harmony within a person and all that exists.

Garland has practiced oms, but she does not teach them at Yoga Chicks.

Yoga is exercise. It's a lifestyle. And it doesn't make her any less of a Christian.

"Yoga is spiritual, but not in a religious way. It's not Catholic or Baptist or Hindu. It's internal. It's about learning to love yourself," she said. "I'm Christian - and I practice yoga."

Yoga in the West

Yoga hasn't always been on the menus of American health spas, gyms and wellness centers. It took several progressive pioneers to catapult the yoga craze into the American mainstream.

Garland's Yoga Chicks studio would have never been founded without the help of yogis like Richard Hittleman, who helped introduce millions of New Yorkers to nonspiritual yoga in the 1950s.

Hittleman's books and TV programs about the health benefits of yoga, through the decades, helped popularize and spread the ancient Eastern phenomenon into studios nationwide.

As Garland's studio might suggest, most yogis in the United States are chicks. About 20 million Americans practice yoga, a $27 billion industry, and 82 percent of yoga practicers are women.

Ashley Martinez, 30, a Yoga Chicks instructor, mother of two small boys and member of All Saints Orthodox Mission in Victoria, said yoga doesn't conflict with her own Christian persuasion.

Martinez said she discovered yoga in college as a method of improving flexibility for dance. She was enchanted by the fluidity of movement, and later, by the way yoga made her want to love people, and herself, more.

"It's a great way to do an exercise class and feel close to the things we are," Martinez said. "In other types of exercising, the muscles bulk. But in yoga, you feel like your flesh and bone are closer. You're training your body how to - be."

Martinez said she's had many teachers through the years who have demonstrated different styles of yoga, some more spiritual than others. Some practice oms and mantra chanting; others practice for health benefits.

She, like Garland, never forces religion or religious dialogue on their yoga students.

That's not part of what they do, they said.

"I have one lady in the class, and I can sometimes tell she's doing an 'Our Father,' during (meditation) and it's fine. ... Everyone is bringing in their own backgrounds," Martinez said.

Both yoga instructors agree the fears and unknowns of yoga among religious groups are often misguided.

Some may use yoga to encompass elements of Hinduism. But as it remains in pop-culture America today, it's a fad of the generation.

"Sometimes we have a fear of anything that's not part of what we know," Garland said.

"These fears end up dividing us," Martinez added.

Indian Christians do yoga

Inside the Rev. Roy and Elsie Jacob's living room bookshelf, a collection of wooden, hand-carved elephants decrease in size from largest to smallest.

The elephant mementos are traditional of their home state, Kerala, India, and one of the few residential indications the family originates overseas.

After 20 years of living in the United States and three years in Victoria, they've made an effort to assimilate as much as possible to American culture.

"We dress in Western clothes most of the time," said Elsie Jacob, each word echoing a distinct Indian-British accent. "I don't like to wear all that (traditional garb). It's so uncomfortable to wear sari."

The pastor, a lab analyst for DuPont, and Elsie Jacob, a homemaker, were born into the Indian Orthodox tradition of Christianity that claims a pure bloodline to ancient Syria and the teachings of St. Thomas, one of Jesus' 12 apostles, who Christianized Kerala in 52 A.D.

The pair abandoned their Orthodox tradition years ago for the theology of Protestantism and are today self-proclaimed born-again Christians.

Roy Jacob helps lead worship at Faith Family Church and spends much of his free time studying and teaching the Bible.

They have dreams of returning to India one day to plant churches and lead some of their countrymen to Christ.

Even though there's a high number of Christians in Kerala, Hinduism remains the dominant faith throughout India.

Christianity represents about 20 percent of the population in Kerala. Christianity in India is about 3 percent overall.

The large presence of Christianity in Kerala, therefore, allows for cultural and religious crossovers.

Yoga is one example, they said.

Even though it's a Hindu tradition, it's widely practiced by many Indians of various faith backgrounds. It's not considered a conflict of religion because it's a normal part of Indian culture - like chai and spicy cuisine.

"Yoga is good for your health. I believe yoga is good for everyone," she said. "If we do it, we are not worshipping gods."

Roy said he is aware the original meaning of yoga poses were formed to worship Hindu gods, but for exercise purposes, yoga is perfectly healthy and beneficial to the body.

"In ancient times, all the moves they do in yoga, each of those moves is a worshipping move of yoga," he said. "But if you're not doing it to worship gods, then I have no problem with it. If it is for health, it's good."

As for using the word "Namaste," a common Indian greeting, which in Kerala is said, "Namaskaram," he said there's no reason to avoid using the word in yoga classes.

"Those who fear it don't know what it means. It is a respectful way of greeting someone," he said. "We have a relationship with God, and I say 'Namaste' to any Indian."

Of the pair, Elsie participates in yoga more often than Roy, and said if there's a time for meditation during yoga, she prays to the God of Christianity.

"There is only one God and he's the living God. (Hindus) are serving gods that are dead. We shouldn't be scared of dead gods," she said. "If there's meditation in yoga, I'll be praying to my God, the Holy Spirit and Jesus."



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