SANTA ANA, Calif. — Worship requires neither proper place nor proper clothing. For believers, the same could be said of God’s grace.
It requires no invitation and is necessitated by no particular Sunday morning ritual. It can sometimes show itself ostentatiously on a Monday morning or slyly reveal itself entirely unbidden on a Thursday at 3:15.
And sometimes it can show up when you are in an uncomfortable yoga position where you started by doing a push-up, then your left knee dropped to the floor near your right hip and your forearms lowered to the mat and then your right leg fell to the floor and your right foot’s circulation is about done and you’re supposed to be lifting your chest up at the same time.
And there it is. What everyone here has come for, really. That moment that “I’m with God by myself,” explains Courtney Scantlin, a working mother of two from Lake Forest, Calif., who is not so unfamiliar with God’s grace that she is blinded by the fact that she is also multitasking while doing Holy Yoga at Mariner’s Church in Mission Viejo, Calif., on a Tuesday night.
But, say its adherents, Holy Yoga is hardly an attempt to make worship more convenient for the overtaxed 21st-century fitness-minded set. Imagined 10 years ago by Brooke Boon, a yogi before she was a Christian, its mission statement is designed to put a halt to those Christian groups that might find the traditional Eastern practice of yoga somehow suspect as a vehicle for Christian reverence.
“Holy Yoga,” the statement reads, “is experiential worship specifically created to deepen your connection to Christ. Our sole purpose is to combine world-class yoga with a Christ-honoring experience that offers an opportunity to believers and nonbelievers alike to authentically connect with God. We do this by integrating His Word, prayer, worship and the physical practice of yoga to contemporary and Christian music.”
With their hair banded, barretted and bandeaued into place, 17 women of varying ages join two brave men for 90 minutes of this unique brand of yoga led by instructor Brooke Thompson in a room that’s painted to resemble the interior of a submarine. Suffice to know, it’s the exact exercise experience you’d expect if you know yoga. Tonight, we’ll downward dog, strike the warrior and tree poses, form a bridge with our bodies and make like a pigeon — see circulation loss, above.
All while Thompson exhorts and leads like a normal instructor.
Except for this, for starters: The class begins with a prayer.
Thompson is bouncy and fun, fit and encouraging. She was once a runner. “I was running away from my house,” the mother of three daughters laughs. Thompson says her first Holy Yoga session was one she “went to reluctantly. Yoga looked boring to me.”
It turned out to be “the most powerful experience of worship I’d ever had,” Thompson says now. “I cried through half of it. When I got back in the car, I told my sister-in-law who went with me I wanted to become an instructor.” Within two weeks, she’d signed up. Within two months, she’d taken daily training and was ready to teach a beginning-level class.
She calls this “full-body worship,” but is emphatic that she is not a pastor.
“I’m not interpreting Scripture,” Thompson wants made clear. “I give a life story. Or I read a devotional. Sometimes, when we strike a pose, I suggest that each of us thank God for 10 things instead of counting to 10. I remind them not to compare themselves to others, that God accepts us as we are. I remind them to leave things on their mat. I also tell them that in a balance pose, choose a focus point that does not move. They can take that with them in life. Focus on God, the one who does not move.”
The yoga is gentle at first, then more intense, if you’re willing. The breathing is rhythmic.
“In our culture,” Thompson said earlier, “we like to compartmentalize our lives. Books are for the mind. Spirituality is for church. Fitness is in the gym. You can let them out of their boxes here. You can place them all in one bowl.”
“Downward dog,” she instructs, and is then on to the next move. She reminds that no one is keeping score. No one is timing anyone. “No one is looking but God, and he doesn’t care how extended your leg is.”
Ten minutes in, Thompson begins to discuss I Chronicles, Chapter 4, better known these days as the Prayer of Jabez: “Oh, that you would bless me and expand my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I may be free from pain.” And God granted his request.
Thompson talks, throughout the 90 minutes of continual exercise and stretching and posing, about Jabez and his lesson. About “bless, in the biblical sense.” About asking God for more of what he wants for you.
The class ends the usual way, with back-bend, lights dimmed, a cool-down — and another prayer. This one is more a challenge to use your newfound strength to be more like Jabez, to ask for more blessings from God, to not just drink from the cup of water offered by the riverside but to jump into the river and experience that which is life.
It’s what fitness is supposed to be about, says Thompson. So, too, what a spiritual life can and should be.
“Extend, extend further,” she has said repeatedly through the session.
Amen to that.