Using the “G” Word in Yoga Class


photo credit: Ian Sane

What’s the “G” word? The image that hovers above whispers the answer in your ear.

Okay, I’ll redirect and be direct (I am southern by birth, which can mean speaking politely is more important than being getting to the point): Is it okay for the yoga teacher to incorporate the word God during a yoga class? Or should Yoga, too, be separated from Church? Incongruity of that statement aside, what might it mean to the “average” student (outside of an ashram) to hear the teacher talking (teaching) about God?

The first time I heard a yoga teacher talking about God, it was Erich Schiffmann. Coming from a lineage of Yoga-Taught-in-a-Health Club, it sounded a little…odd. God? And while I am loath to adopt pop parlance, Really? You are talking about God during a yoga class? This is yoga, not God in his church. I had a lot to learn.

I am spiritual, it came to me naturally. It is part of my very psyche. But I had yet to disassociate the word from its Christian connotation. I still thought of God through the lens of children’s Bible books. While my family’s church attendance was hardly religious ( I mean that in both senses of the word), and I had not thought of myself as “Christian” since my teens, I still thought “God” referred to who Michelangelo painted him to be. I let it go at that, and went about my business of not thinking about that God, and meditating daily on supreme consciousness and a more amorphous Divine.

Popped Creative Commons License photo credit: carterse

“Wash your mouth out with soap.” 

It was during a teacher training I did with David Life in 2001. With these words, Life, a gentle man devoted to “no harm,” was adamant, almost forceful. He told us this in no uncertain words. The setting was a quaint, elderly YMCA Retreat on Lake George, New York. There about 65 of us in his six day training. I was living in Montana at the time, and the east coast was very exotic to me. First, most people there were from Manhattan (New York, not Montana). I was a bit more rustic. Not a rube, but neither was I accustomed to hotly dressed yogis, or to a steam-room full of women talking about the extent of their laser hair removal.

“As a teacher, don’t ever say you want to attend a yoga class just for yourself. If you do, wash your mouth out with soap!” He added, “Every time you step on your mat it is sacred.” Oh. I got it. It’s about reverence. In other words, God=the One=Source=the Divine=interconnection, it even equals me. God as the feeling of connection.

I was ready to be righteous about it. To go bold, and fearless, to talk about this open source God in my classes. It felt natural, after all, I was referring to nothing more (or less) than the exquisite flavor of being alive with devotion. It was, Bhakti Yoga. This became even more clear when I was blessed with one of the most marvel-ous yoga retreats of my multi-page dossier of yoga workshops. This time the setting was literally on a mountain top–the phenomenal Inner Harmony retreat center at Brian Head, Utah.

The week with Shiva Rea and Jai Uttal was extra-ordinary. It was Bhakti-fying. It deserves a post in itself, but suffice it to say, I came to realize I was not born to teach “just poses.” I knew that for me to present yoga that focused on physical anatomy alone would be wrong. It would mean not sharing who I am, that is, leaving my essence and most meaningful knowledge aside.  It would be selfish.

IMG_1809 Creative Commons License photo credit: fabola

Mother Theresa was once asked,

“When you pray to God, what do you say?”

She replied, “I don’t talk, I listen.”

“Then, what does he say to you?”

“He doesn’t talk. He listens.” 

On one level, yoga is about being present with “what is.” It is being in a state of awareness. I fervently believe yoga as “state” and “church” can be seamlessly aligned. To be in One, not two and separate. Of this I want to sing to my students. But often I hold back. I spared my students my heartfelt views of oneness (it sounds too much like that hotdog vendor joke), of awareness being aware of itself, or of Purusha, and highest consciousness. I didn’t want to possibly trigger anyone’s past negative, or sacrosanct, visions of “God.” (I once had a student turn in an evaluation that said while she loved my class and that I was clearly knowledgeable and passion about yoga, my “spiritual” talks went against everything she “held dear” vis-a-vis her church.

How do you feel about using the “G” word in yoga class? Should it be guised within yoga’s spirituality, or avoided altogether least it turn someone off, or offend them? Or, first amendment-like, should it be left out of the classroom completely, the separation of Church and State?


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- who has written 41 posts on Yoga Modern.

Barbra Brady is the Art Editor at Yoga Modern. She holds an MA in Museum Exhibition Theory & Cultural Studies, which she has exercised as a museum curator of contemporary art, nationally published writer, leader of a venerated nonprofit yoga retreat foundation, and now, yoga with a slant on channeling creative energy. When not practicing or teaching yoga in the tradition of her teacher, Yogarupa Rod Stryker (as a Certified Level IParaYoga teacher) or as an iRest Yoga Nidra practitioner, Barbra practices the yoga of “curiosity.” The curiosity that fuels her imagination may be through writing, curating, a turn of leaf or phrase, cinema, a century ride on her road bike… She’ll be sharing her curatorial picks and original musings, as she whispers in the ear of the Yoga Modern community: “Hey, look at this!” She lives in Sonoma, California, an Eden which naturally prompts her reflections on nature, food, and yes, wine (in meaningful moderation).

7 Responses

  • harikirtana says:

    I never hesitate to use the word "God" in my classes, but I make an important distinction between the western religious idea of a creator "God" as he appears on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the devotional yoga conception of the personal form of the Absolute Truth, which includes us as infinitesimal parts of an infinite and complete whole with whom we have an eternal relationship. I make it clear that theistic devotional yoga is non-sectarian; something that you can apply regardless of what form your faith takes off the mat. Not everyone is into yoga as a spiritual practice or a yoga philosophy that insists on a transcendental yet heirachical duality. Those folks don't come to my class and I'm fine with that. The people who do come to my class (and there are plenty of them) are enlivened by the insights into yoga philosophy that I'm sharing; they've made it clear to me that it's one of the reasons they come to my class.

    • Barbra Brady says:

      Right on, Harikirtana. Exactly. It is fortunate when we have classes filled with "the choir," but I at least, don't always. I have one class in a health club, and others where new people drop in. I do want to impart what I know, and why I think it is important, it's just that I have known people who, for instance, had a bad experience within their religious upbringing. Let's say, of a judging God, or with mean nuns in Catholic school. I have known people who could not differentiate *that* God from the more universal/all-one God we mention in yoga. That is, they have a "blind ear" toward hearing the word at all. I am wondering about that…

  • harikirtana says:

    You can try a different word: I usually refer to the Supreme Being, the Paramatma, the personal form of the Absolute Truth, etc. as a way to make it clear that the God they're used to hearing about and the God I'm talking about are not exactly the same idea. The concept of God and the concept of the Absolute Truth are two different things (see for my favorite explanation of the difference). A lot of students in my classes are disaffected Catholics or people who rejected an orthodox or fundamentalist family religion and they are often amazed and relieved to hear that they can have a personal relationship with a non-judgmental supreme deity within the context of yoga.

  • Michelle K says:

    i have struggled with this very question! i enjoyed your blog and the comments below, i feel i now have a new way of trying to explain thisdifference (between the Christian "God" and the yoga "God") to my students – namaste x

  • I think it's important to know your audience there are classes where I don't hesitate to use the word God while in other classes I tend to use a more universal language. So far so good. I think if you come from a place of genuine love for your students and embrace their faith and choice that this will come across despite language. I also think there is a huuuuuge difference between preaching and teaching. There has been times where I have been turned off of a class because of a preachy attitude even though I agreed with the teachings behind it, and I've also been incredibly interested in classes because they shared their spiritual practice in their teachings even though it wasn't inline with my personal philosophies.

    • Barbra Brady says:

      Thanks, YoginiPatience. Yes, Know your audience. I was teaching in a health club yesterday, the day before Easter, and wanted to share something about the space of Easter “Saturday,” when it seems all is lost and gone, and we do not know yet that the next day will be filled with joy and upliftedness. I simply broached it by saying I meant it metaphorically without reference to one religion or another. Everyone was smiling, so I think that worked!