Despite new confirmation that mind-body practices improve mental health, yoga remains a point of contention for many Christians. Millions of Americans have joined the yoga craze for health benefits, but debate continues about the spiritual dangers of a practice associated with Taoism, Buddhism, and Hinduism.
A new study from scientists Yi-Yuan Tang and Michael Posner shows that mindfulness meditation, also known as integrative body-mind training (IBMT), is linked to actual physical changes in the brain's white matter-a part of the brain associated with mood and mental health.
IBMT meditation involves body relaxation, breath adjustment, mental imagery, and background music in a highly controlled environment. In the study, training coaches led 45 University of Oregon students and 65 students from China's Dalian University of Technology in total of 11 hours of meditation during a four-week period.
Using an MRI technique called diffusion tensor imaging, Tang and Posner found that after two weeks, IBMT increased the number of signaling connections in the brain known as "axonal density." After the full four weeks, imaging showed expansion of myelin, protective tissue in the anterior cingulate region of the brain which could counter mental disorders like depression, ADHD, schizophrenia, and dementia.
According to Tang's website, IBMT is primarily health and research-related. But IBMT originated in Chinese medicine practices that use Taoist ideas of humans in harmony with nature. The site says that the Chinese meditation tradition and culture is not only a theory of being but also a life experience and practice.
For some Christians, the health benefits of mind-body practice are not enough to justify its spiritual association with eastern religions.
In 2010, Albert Mohler, former president of Southern Baptist Seminary, took a stand against yoga with a blog post entitled, "The Empty Promise of Meditation." Mohler objected to the idea that "the body is a vehicle for reaching consciousness with the divine." He later told the Associated Press that yoga was not Christianity.
Bud Press, director of Christian Research Service, a website that discusses issues of "spiritual deception," said that practices such as contemplative spirituality, labyrinth, and yoga are leading to "something darker and more sinister."
Despite such strong criticism, yoga has become a popular practice, even at Christian universities. Van Davis, assistant director for fitness and nutrition education at Baylor University, in Waco, Texas, said that the school offers yoga classes to students for the physical benefits.
"Yoga is offered as a form of physical exercise to improve overall health, strength, flexibility, and balance. The philosophy and history of Yoga are not taught in our classes," Davis said.
Other Christians believe that yoga is not the only option when it comes to enjoying the spiritual fruits of mind-body practice. Kim Todd, a certified PraiseMoves instructor at The Wellness Lounge in West Orange, NJ., prefers a Christian alternative to yoga that incorporates Bible verses and modified poses. Todd admitted that the stretching benefits of yoga are phenomenal, but said she felt uncomfortable with its Hindu roots and with techniques like chanting.
"Yoga teaches you to clear your head totally," she said. "Your head should never be empty. Your head should be focused on God-on what he can and will do-that you will be healed."
Todd explained that the meditation element of PraiseMoves is about breathing and "focusing on God-not gods" and is entirely scripture-based. She emphasized the physical value of meditation as a way "to remove toxic things going in and out of your mind" and as a way for the body to relax after it has been working.
"We're not here to bash yoga, we just want to let people know that there is an alternative," Todd said.
But others believe that yoga can cater to Christian spirituality without modifying the physical elements of the traditional practice.
Susan Bordenkircher, instructor and founder of Outstretched in Worship yoga classes said that yoga was never meant to be associated with one religion.
"It is not a religion, but an approach to deepen your own faith as part of your wholistic wellness," she said.
Bordenkircher believes that yoga has something unique to offer Christians. She said that the discipline, patience, and relinquishment of control that yoga teaches is unrivaled. Bordenkircher admitted that other exercise is fantastic, but yoga touches every part of who we are.
And as for the controversial, meditative side of yoga, Bordenkircher has peace of mind.
"Meditation plays as much a part in yoga as it does in life," she said. "You, as the practitioner, decide how much."