Maranatha Yoga – a Preparation for Christian Meditation
The ultimate purpose of Maranatha Yoga is to prepare us in body, mind and spirit for the discipline of silence and stillness as practised in the tradition of Christian Meditation. It combines the benefits of yoga practice with the healing power of sacred prayers and key Christian texts and, in so doing, creates a bridge between eastern and western approaches to spiritual enlightenment. More than a means to ‘keep fit’ it is also a way to 'keep faith' and a means whereby we may find ourselves at home with the inner Christ who dwells in our hearts. As a preparation for Christian meditation, it aims to balance the active and contemplative aspects of our lives and to bring us to oneness, within ourselves, with others, with nature and with our creator God.
The illustrated handbook is the outcome of my calling to the mission of teaching and promoting Christian yoga to the wider public in an authentic way that is inclusive and open to individuals of all faiths (or none). The introductory chapters of the book explain how I have been developing this way of practising yoga at home for almost 20 years, ever since I was first introduced to the tradition of Christian Meditation by David Wood, a priest in Maryport. He established Christian Meditation in Cumbria as part of the WCCM and it was only when I began to attend the meditation days led by David, that I knew in my heart I was ‘coming home’ to God. I have David to thank, not only for nurturing my Christian faith, but also for helping me to see that my passion for practising and teaching yoga could be harnessed to enrich the practice of Christian Meditation. I started to give workshops, both locally and further afield, and it was David who first suggested I should write a practical handbook to guide the practice of Christian yoga. In 2008 when the BBC programme ‘Songs of Praise’ was featuring a series on the theme of health and well-being, they contacted me to enquire about Christian yoga and subsequently invited me to appear on the programme to explain and to demonstrate this approach. The broadcast generated a wide response and requests for further information which provided added stimulus to write a handbook to guide practice. My aim has been to offer yoga postures and integrated practices in ways that strengthen and deepen an ensuing practice of Christian Meditation. More recently, I have been encouraged and supported by the Christian community in Cumbria under their current diocesan ‘God for All’ initiative and an opportunity has arisen to develop Christian yoga as a ‘fresh expression’ of church. However, for these purposes it was felt we needed to give the practice a new name. Maranatha Yoga seemed the obvious choice because Maranatha is the sacred mantra recommended by WCCM to lead us into the stillness and silence of meditation. The word is Aramaic, the native language of Jesus, and means ‘Come, Lord.’ In this way, Maranatha Yoga has developed to respect the deep traditions of yoga whilst celebrating the Christian message in a way that is open to all.
I am very aware of misconceptions that exist in some parts of the Christian church about the practice of yoga and concerns about its possible links with ‘eastern mysticism’. One of the key purposes of the book is to bridge and reconcile such misunderstandings. Comments on the tensions between the practice of yoga and Christianity have featured regularly in the national press. Statements such as ‘yoga is an unsavoury activity that could endanger your soul’ and the banning of yoga classes from church halls do little to bridge this gap and promote mutual understanding. A core element of friction seems to be the (mis)perception that yoga is an Eastern religion which may, or may not, involve the worship of ‘pagan’ gods. Originating in India, a country with a rich spiritual inheritance, Yoga comprises one of the six orthodox schools of Indian philosophy (darsanas), best described as an existentialist enquiry into the nature of man and his place in the world. In the words of Paul Fox (former Chair of The British Wheel of Yoga (BWY)): Yoga is not a religion: but it is a spiritual practice because it involves looking within and asking questions about who we really are… it predates the world’s great religions and requires no adherence to any particular belief, dogma or creed… it is compatible with (and indeed complements) religious belief. Whilst this might not be a universally accepted view, it is a stance upon which Maranatha Yoga is based. In another article, Gordon Smith, a long-standing BWY member, suggests ‘if there is uneasiness about things Eastern, why not practice Christian yoga as it will be discovered that, as knowledge and understanding deepen, inconsistencies melt away and there will be an awareness of the affinity with best practice and with the Way, the Truth and the Life’.
In its original form, more than 4,000 years ago, yoga was essentially the practice of silent contemplation and the physical aspects of yoga developed subsequently as a tool to prepare the body for such sustained periods of stillness. Many of the more popular exercises seen in modern yoga classes were created within the last 200 years and there is now a danger that the spiritual aspects of yoga could become secondary to the physical. Maranatha Yoga maintains the original concept by preparing both body and mind for the silence and stillness of the practice of Christian Meditation.
I have been struck by many of the parallel teachings between the ancient yoga texts (Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali) and the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. These include: reflections upon universal creation; man being created in the likeness of God; the body as a temple of the Spirit and the concept of seeking and finding God within. Whilst originating from completely different cultures, the commonalities between the texts convince me that yoga and Christianity do complement each other and can be more closely integrated.
A typical Maranatha Yoga session begins with opening prayer and a brief introduction to the chosen spiritual theme, helping people set aside their daily worries, relax and focus on the overall aims. This is followed by a warm-up sequence, the purpose of which is to limber muscles and joints to prepare them for more sustained posture work, also to promote greater ease and steadiness in the time of meditation. In Christian terms, limbering exercises are also a way of celebrating and giving thanks to God for the wonder of our creation and of taking responsibility for the good stewardship and care of our whole make-up. Traditional yoga postural sequences are then practised in synchrony with appropriate scriptural or other religious texts. The latter are recited (silently or aloud) and reflected upon during the different stages of the postures, thereby familiarising us with the words and creating within us a deeper understanding of their meaning. The following examples illustrate how this can be achieved.
● Surya Namaskara, Salutation to the Sun, reveres Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Light of the World. This energising yoga routine, coordinating movement and breath, is practised to the uplifting words of Isaiah, foretelling the coming of Jesus.
● The practice of Ardha Chandrasana, Half-Moon Posture, simulates the changing shape of the moon during its lunar cycle, honouring both creation and the way a Christian life reflects the light of Jesus. It promotes calmness and concentration whilst giving a vital lateral stretch and flexion to each side of the body.
● Christian scripture and yoga texts affirm that the Kingdom of God is both without and within us. Sustained Trikonasana, Triangle Posture, promotes balance, strength and stability and become the means to explore ourselves as temples of God’s Spirit. An apt prayer to accompany this is the Summary Commandments given by Jesus, as recorded in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.
● St Paul teaches us to be prepared to battle against external forces of evil and temptation from within. Similarly, the Bhagavad Gita deals with the tensions between good and evil and how these may be reconciled in our lives. In a Maranatha Yoga practice of Virabhadrasana, Warrior Posture, the lengthened spine becomes analogous to a sword of wisdom as we pray to be Christian warriors and we consciously put on the armour of God to face life’s battles, stand firm and be strong in the faith.
These are just a few of the ways in which yoga postures can complement Christian teachings. Other examples are fully described and illustrated in the book that has been published to launch this new approach. As is normal yoga practice, the posture work is followed by a short period of relaxation in a supine position, Savasana. This allows the body to rest, recover and furthers the process of stilling the mind in preparation for subsequent meditation. This is very much in keeping with the invitation of Jesus: Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30).
In Maranatha Yoga the practice of meditation follows the format of that used by the WCCM. This uses mantra as a tool to lead us away from our own thoughts and concerns, in seeking to be with God. In my experience, those Christians new to meditation are sometimes uncomfortable with the concept of mantra, linking this with eastern religions. They are then surprised to learn that mantra-based meditation has a long history within the Christian church. However, this became restricted to the monastic tradition and was largely lost over time from the mainstream Christian community. The Benedictine monk, John Main (1926-1982), has been largely responsible for re-establishing the practice of Christian meditation, seeing it as a way forward for the renewal of the church and the world. Interestingly, he first learned the mantra method of silent meditation from the yoga master, Swami Satyananda (whom he met whilst on service in the Far East). Following the advice of his teacher to seek this method within his own tradition, John Main’s research ultimately led him to adopt ‘Maranatha’ as his Christian mantra. It is probably the most ancient Christian prayer word and is used to conclude the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians and the last book of the Bible. The recommended meditation time is 20-25 minutes and it is usually performed in a seated position. After a short introductory reading, the practice of meditation begins during which the mantra is repeated silently for duration of the session. It is usual to complete a Maranatha Yoga session with a closing prayer.
To arrive at this point has taken a lifetime’s experience of Christian worship and of yoga practice, teaching and training under the auspices of the BWY. I am aware that the issues considered in this article are (and may continue to be) controversial. My intention throughout has been to provide a platform from which to defuse and reconcile some of the apparent misconceptions about the practice of yoga within a Christian context whilst enabling believers to integrate their faith with their yoga practice in a fresh and creative way. The examples in this article demonstrate the principles of Maranatha Yoga but they ought not to be prescriptive or limiting. Overall there are more than two hundred recognised yoga postures (including variations) which, together with the wealth of teaching and enlightenment in the Old and New Testaments, afford an almost unlimited spectrum of opportunities to create new and engaging ways to worship. I am now in the latter years of my yoga teaching career and one of my goals is to encourage others to take up the challenge of Maranatha Yoga and develop its practice and teaching for the future.
About the Author
Christine Pickering is a qualified yoga teacher and has been a teacher trainer for the British Wheel of Yoga (BWY). She has completed the ‘Essential Teaching’ course run by the WCCM to facilitate the teaching of Christian Meditation. She trained as a Spiritual Director with the Ecumenical Spirituality Team at Rydal Hall, Cumbria.
A practitioner of Hatha Yoga for 44 years, she has taught Christian yoga for many years and now teaches Maranatha Yoga in Cumbria in the UK.
Her new book entitled Maranatha Yoga – a preparation for Christian Meditation by Columba Press (ISBN 978-178218-354-9) was published in February 2019.