March 20, 2021

In matters pertaining to healing, the Church has grown notably weak. In order to see that, let’s start by looking at an area where we’re strong.

What Strength Looks Like

We are strong in basic education. We have always had a substantial number of educated people in our ranks, from earliest days:

  • Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin (John 3:1)
  • Many of the priests were early converts (Acts 6:7)
  • Many of the Ephesian magicians burned their magic books (Acts 19:19)
  • A number of Athenian academics were receptive to Paul (Acts 17:34)

In our the first few centuries after Christ, we rapidly emerged as a cultural leader in education. Today, secular education operates at a higher level than it ever has in human history, and the Church remains a major force to be reckoned with. In many places over the globe, the church/mission school is the only school. In many more, the staff of the government schools are largely Christian, because we’re the ones with a personal sense of mission to the downtrodden and less fortunate, and education is a time-tested vehicle for helping people raise themselves up. We’re such a leader in literacy education, for example, that the (rampantly secular) Rosetta Project used the first few chapters of Genesis as its key text across 1500 languages, because that is the most widely translated text in the entire world. For many languages, they literally didn’t have a choice — nothing but Bible had ever been translated into the language.

Even in the U.S. today, where education is everywhere, Christian schools are a strong presence, and not just for Christians. In many communities, the Christian school is by far the best-quality school in the area. And so in many Christian schools, there is a subset of students that don’t come from Christian families; their parents will cheerfully tell you that their kids are enrolled for the good-quality education. Moreover, our people have been on the cutting edge of training teachers for centuries, from the early monasteries to Laubach literacy training.

This, my friends, is what strength looks like. The world comes to us for the primary product, and for education in producing it, because they need to. Because we’re better at it than they are.

What Weakness Looks Like

Now contrast our track record on education to our track record on human growth and healing. Think about the many needs people have: emotional distress, chronic conditions, acute injuries needing emergency care, long-term debilities that require skilled care, and so on. Where do people go for that? Think about the people who work in health and healing: doctors, nurses, counselors, chiropractors, physical therapists, acupuncturists, massage therapists, and the countless techs — CNAs, phlebotomists, and so on. Where do those people get their education?

Now it’s true that historically, the Church started the  modern healthcare system. We created the hospitals, and the ethic that drives them. Even to this day, many hospitals have a Christian affiliation, even in a notably secular city like Denver. As I write this, the hospital a block from where I’m sitting was started by Lutherans. There’s an Adventist hospital less than two miles away, and another Lutheran hospital further north.

But while some of the institutions are still at least nominally Christian, where do you go to get your education in caring for your fellow humans? Some Christian programs exist, but an overwhelming number of Christians in these fields go to schools run by pagans. Even the Christians who are overtly committed to the Church being the primary agent of healing in society do this. From me (got my bodywork and trauma education from unbelievers) to my sister (counseling degree from Northwestern) on up the ladder to folks like David Field (psychodymanic and person-centered psychotherapy training) and Ed Welch (University of Utah) and (quiet as it’s kept) Jay Adams (Mowrer), the majority of our healing practitioners get their knowledge, and often their credentials, outside the faith. Even more telling, do unbelievers come to the Christian programs because it’s the best education available? They do not.

That is what weakness looks like: we go to them to get certified; they don’t come to us.

What If?

What if we lived in a world where everybody knows that if you really want to heal, you need to go see the Christians? That world once existed, but it no longer does. What has happened, and how shall we remedy it?

What has happened is two things, calling for two different remedies.

First, there’s a sense in which we are victims of our own success. We have shamed the pagans into conforming to our ethic. You don’t have to be a Christian to start a hospital anymore; anybody can see that it’s a good thing to do. That was not obvious to anyone in the ancient world. Back in the day, when the plague came, Galen (the famous Roman doctor) ran for the hills. Christians stayed and cared for the sick, even at risk of their own lives. Doctors move toward the sick today because we taught them to. We did such a good job that now, nobody thinks of doing anything else. Part of what we need to do about this is reclaim credit where it is due. Today’s secular charity is parasitic on two thousand years of Christian values, and we need to point that out. We need to know our own history, and talk about it.

Second, we have gotten lazy. Because we won, because there’s so much cultural momentum behind healing that the church doesn’t have to push it alone anymore, we don’t. But that doesn’t mean there are no frontiers we could be pushing. Where is the existing system failing?

  • Indigent patients who can’t get access to care except at the emergency room, and therefore don’t get any care at all until it becomes an emergency. Can we open a clinic?
  • People with mental health needs who can’t afford care or access to necessary medications. Can we find a way to provide?
  • Long-term care for people with debilitating chronic conditions where the existing medical interventions don’t do much good and frequently come with outsized side effects. Can we bring other approaches to healing?
  • What else? Who are the people around you that are falling through the cracks? What are their needs? Let’s get about it.

An Introduction of Sorts

February 3, 2021

A friend of a friend recently asked me to explain a little about what I do. This seems to be what came out…

Greetings X,

Our mutual friend tells me that you don’t quite know what questions to ask. I sympathize; I have the same problem a lot of the time. Let me see if I can help get the conversation started.  I believe she told you her experience with my work. What I can tell you about that experience, from my side, is that humans are used to being looked at, but we are not accustomed to being seen. When I make myself entirely present to another person, I often know more than I “should” know about the problem, and my hands seem to find their way to helpful places. 

In the same way you can get someone to wash their own face by putting them in front of a mirror, sometimes the human body fixes itself when it’s invited to notice itself. It is very often the case that when I lay on hands and make myself truly present, without doing much of anything, my client’s system responds by reorganizing itself in more healthy ways. There are certainly techniques and disciplines and lots of practice time involved, but how much is human ability and how much divine intervention I couldn’t really say. But then, God never intended us to exercise our abilities without Him, did He?

As to how I might be able to help you, or what your session would look like, I’m afraid I don’t know for certain. Here’s what I can tell you: I will be present. You will of course be present. God will be present. You will be involved, and you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to. I am not a mechanic and you are not a car; this is not something I can do to you; this is something we will do together with God’s help.

The value of direct obedience to biblical teaching is hard to overestimate; I expect to pray, lay on hands, anoint with oil. I usually work general to specific, so I’ll likely begin by establishing contact with your system at your shoulders or your feet, noticing the pulses and rhythms in your body, looking for unusual tensions or movements in your visceral cavity or anything out of balance or that draws my attention for some reason. 

From there, we will proceed as seems best to us and the Spirit.

I know that’s not a particularly satisfying answer. It would be nice to give you a definite protocol, some kind of road map for what comes next. But the people with protocols are telling you they can’t find anything wrong. I’m the guy you call when you’re off the edge of the map, and still have to navigate the territory. I don’t have a map either, but I live here, so that’s something.

I didn’t set out to be this person. When God called me into ministry as a junior in high school, I had a picture in my head of what that would entail: an expository preaching ministry in a suburban Bible church. To that end I earned a bachelor’s in Bible, then a Th.M in New Testament. During seminary, I interned in a suburban Bible church in eastern Washington, training in exactly the kind of expository ministry I expected to pursue for the rest of my life. Upon graduation, I worked as a pastor and seminary instructor.

Then Jesus mugged me, and not for the first time. The first time was when He gave me to faithful Christian parents. I came to know Him early, and hardly remember a time when I did not know Jesus as my Savior. The second time was when, as a very angry 16-year-old, I found my life unlivable, and God taught me to forgive. I came to know Him then as a worker of miracles, the one who made me able to forgive when I simply didn’t have the ability.

This time around, the mugging took the form of a surprise: the small suburban Bible church I thought I was planting turned out to be an exit ministry for people leaving a cult. By the time I realized what I had gotten into, I had bonded to the people and didn’t want to quit. Getting the people out of the cult was hard, but doable. Getting the cult out of the people…well, that was another matter. Fast-forward several years, and this teaching pastor and professor had become, of necessity, a pastoral counselor, worship leader, liturgist, and church history teacher. God was just getting started. 

He brought me next to Englewood, and over a period of years and a series of gigs in youth and city ministry, He taught me to obey some verses that, although I’d known them all my life, I’d never quite seen, if you know what I mean. I learned to sing the Psalms. I learned to pray in the manner of the Lord’s Prayer. I learned to tangibly love my literal neighbors. I learned to rejoice, for real, when people slandered me. 

And then God began drawing my attention to a series of passages that talk about laying hands on the sick, praying for healing, anointing with oil. I’m sure you know the passages as well as I do, but for me suddenly the question bubbled up: why don’t we do these things? What would happen if we did? 

Not too long after that, He led me to enroll in massage therapy school. The entire endeavor was ridiculous; I couldn’t afford the money or the time for even the shortest, cheapest program. I told Him “If we’re doing this, then You’re paying for it, and since I know You can afford anything, I’m going to the best school in Denver.” And you know what? He made it happen. 

Massage therapy led to Trauma Touch Therapy, Cranial Sacral Therapy, and an assortment of other modalities, and along the way I learned a few very important things. 

  1. Human attention heals. When one person–the whole person, body and spirit–sets all distractions aside and rests the full weight of their attention on another person, it is amazing how people can heal, even before anyone does anything. It seems that our systems adjust spontaneously in response to being really seen. 
  2. God shows up. His priorities are not mine; He doesn’t always do what I want Him to. But He always shows up, and He always works.  
  3. American Christians need a radical worldview revision. 

That last one was a real kick in the teeth. Most of us live like the world is what the materialists say it is — matter in motion — and then we add an overlay of heaven, hell, biblical miracles, resurrection, and so on. We’re basically materialists with a whitelist of exceptions that allow us to be meaningfully Christian. But no. The world was spoken into existence and is upheld by the Word of God’s power. Even matter isn’t what the materialists think it is; still less the human person. 

Genesis 2 says God made us out of dust and breath; we are a divinely forged union of body and spirit. When I lay my hands on another person, I’m never just touching a body. That fact raises an interesting question. If you have a sore back, obviously my body can work on your body for your benefit. Can my spirit work on your spirit? The materialists think it’s a nonsense question, but it isn’t, is it? 

I pray. I lay on hands. I anoint with oil. God shows up. This is either the church’s first and worst attempt at healing, a primitive medicine long since overshadowed by modern science, or it is a healing ministry God gave to the church, something we should never have stopped doing. 

I think it’s the latter. I invite you to come and find out for yourself.



Six Movement Sets

December 15, 2016

In the Four Creatures curriculum, the first three movement sets all belong to the Ox, and focus on coherent movement, penetration and percussion, and compacting the opponent, depriving him of space to do…whatever it is he might have in mind. He may be better than us; we’re not going to give him a chance to prove it.

Your first movement set, the triangle exercise, trains you in the basics of strong movement and how to apply it. You will learn useful movements for upper-body and lower-body counterattack, optimal angles for displacement and balance destruction, and fundamentals of both empty-hand and weapon work.

Djuru Satu, your first real form, trains you in the masculine side of Ox, the attitude of the ‘Falling Wall’ — the strong, straightforward tactics that close with your opponent, disrupt his balance, and batter him to the point of incapacitation. Defensively, it introduces the attitude of the ‘Thorny King’ — a way of intercepting attack that allows the attacker to damage himself.

Lanka Dua, your second form, opens up new vistas for the tactical applications of the strong legwork you’ve built in the first two movement sets and introduces the feminine side of Ox, employing evasive handwork and laying a strong foundation for weapons work. The attitude of the bamboo — whiplash and ricochet — is a particular focus, as is sticking to and mirroring the opponent, and a continuous flow of movement.

Getting through those three sets will take two to three years. If you stop there, you have a reasonable technical foundation for a lifetime of martial practice. The truth is, any good form is a fighting system in itself. You could stop with one movement set, spend the rest of your training time cultivating your attitude, and be good for 95% of everything you could ever run into. But there’s a lot in even the first movement set that you won’t discover until you’ve got at least one more form for comparison and contrast — the more you have, the more you can get from each thing you have. So the three Ox forms work together as a very useful base.

If you continue, Four Creatures offers another two to three years of material. The additional three forms — one each for Lion, Eagle, and Man — add additional dimensions to your practice.

Lion focuses on the principle of destruction, ramping up your ability to do incredible amounts of damage very quickly, and cultivating the necessary attitudes. Lion includes a close study of destructive anatomy, and the associated drills cultivate whole-body suppleness and strength, including exceptional finger strength. That suppleness is in turn the foundation for both substantial power generation and the ability to absorb impact without injury.

Eagle focuses on evasion, disengagement and re-engagement, and the single decisive attack. (You aren’t ready to try a single decisive attack until you’re well-prepared to follow up if it fails.) Eagle exercises cultivate tendon and small-muscle strength and coordination, off-timing, sudden speed in any direction, decoying and misdirection, and the “awfully sudden change,” which is as much about your attitude as your physicality.

Every higher mammal avoids seriously injuring its own kind, and we are no exception. But like most species, those instincts cause us to turn fights into contests of raw physical ability. Only after ‘turning off’ our instincts to oppose force with force — a lesson learned in the first three animals — are we prepared to re-engage the goal of subduing an attacker without injury. Man unites the three animals into a seamless whole and refines all their skills to another level, developing the body’s ability to issue and receive force resiliently and at will, and to use those abilities to trap and tangle an opponent while doing minimal damage. Man also cultivates the ability to use our knowledge of anatomy and the body to heal and serve people, not just hurt them. Completing this level includes developing sufficient skill at some form of health and healing practice to benefit your community.

Having absorbed those additional dimensions to your practice, you not only have a solid, diverse foundation for your martial practice, you also have learned how to learn. You have cultivated an ability to absorb radically different forms and focuses into a single unified practice. With that under your belt, you can go wherever you want and learn whatever interests you — for the rest of your life.

Why I Do Yoga

December 8, 2016

I am sometimes asked why, as a Christian, I would choose yoga out of all the forms of exercise out there. Different practitioners have different reasons, but these are some of mine: 

  1. Because to the pure all things are pure. 
  2. Because the Kingdom of God covers all human endeavor, and I believe in playing offense, not hiding in a bunker. 
  3. Because few things I’ve done combine the therapeutic effect for my body and the cognitive challenge of complex movement the way that yoga does. It’s interesting.
  4. Because yoga’s systematic exploration of my range of motion exposes weaknesses I didn’t know I had.
  5. Because practicing an absorbing form of exercise really does provide stress relief and calm. The movement is challenging enough that while I’m working out, it demands my full attention, crowding out everything else. When I come to rest on my mat, my mind is clear, and I find it easy to come into a place of prayer and devotion in a way that would have been very difficult before practice. 
  6. Because it feels good.
  7. Because it’s fun.

Of course, the real backdrop to the question is usually an assumption that there must be something wrong with a Christian practicing yoga. I’ve addressed that elsewhere on this site, but I have something I want to add here, and I admit that there’s a few extra peppers in the salsa this time. When you want to understand financial stewardship, you don’t seek advice from a guy who’s living in a Maytag box under a bridge. When you want pastoral counseling for your marriage, you don’t go to a guy who’s on his third wife. And when you want to know God’s heart when it comes to physical movement, you don’t go to a flabby and dyspeptic purveyor of “discernment ministry” who can barely reach down far enough to tie his shoes. Not every one of yoga’s Christian despisers falls into that category, but quite a few of them do. As far as I’m concerned, those folks have disqualified themselves from the discussion. God gave me a body, and I’m treating it like the good gift that it is. I like the way I move to the glory of God better than the way they don’t.

Losing Ground with Style

July 15, 2015

I recently applied to a school for massage therapy. On the application, they asked the question, “What is your philosophy of wellness and healing?” I had never quite considered the question before. This is what I came up with…

Every common rock is disease-free, but we do not call rocks healthy or well on that account, because we intuitively recognize that health is more than the absence of disease; it is the presence of vitality.
Health is not an accident; it is a gift from God. As with any gift, health calls for gratitude, and gratitude cannot be merely spoken. A child who says “Thank you” to his grandmother for the hand-knit sweater and then never wears it is polite, but not grateful. Saying “Thank you” is appropriate as far as it goes, but embodying real gratitude requires right use of the gift.

Every gift has its right use. A sweater should be worn; an album should be played; a toy should be played with. Even that most generic of gifts, money, is meant to be spent — as is our health. The gift can be stewarded, but not hoarded. We are all spending our capital, and in the end, our last creditor drains the account. In N. D. Wilson’s unforgettable phrase, “death by living” is the best we can hope for. So the question is not whether we will spend our health, but how — and how quickly.

Healing is the art of slowing down, of losing ground with style. We all move toward the edge of the cliff where our last creditor is waiting. Healing is helping someone spin away from the edge this time, helping someone dance two steps forward for every three steps back, helping someone dance instead of just being inexorably dragged toward the edge, clinging in vain to a bean-sprout sandwich. He who saves his life will lose it, as the rabbi said. Might as well dance.

Healing takes in the whole person. It is not enough to say that we require words for the spirit and touch for the body. A living soul is made of dust and breath, body and spirit, coextensively. You have never touched a living body without putting your fingers on a soul. When you touch a spirit with a loving word, watch what happens to the body — pupils dilate, posture and muscle tone shift, cheeks flush, breathing changes. Sometimes a word heals the body. Sometimes a touch heals the spirit.

But in reality, we do not heal people, or even cause healing. Healing is a mystery, a gift. A surgeon can align bones and stitch up a wound, but we say that he set the bone and closed the wound, not that he healed the injury. He can bring the pieces into proximity with one another, but he cannot make the skin join, the blood vessels reunite, the fascia reconnect, the fracture remodel. A counselor can cause thoughts to meet that had been carefully hidden from one another, but he cannot reach in and fill the place where someone tore a hole in his client’s spirit. We remove barriers. We align the parts, hoping for wholeness. We create an opportunity, a container in which someone can receive healing, if it is given to them. And we wait, sometimes for seconds, sometimes for weeks. The work is too fine for any hands but God’s.  

Rank and Advancement

April 27, 2015

Americans think about advancement in martial arts in terms of military rank: rigidly stratified categories marked with visible badges — colored belts, stripes, patches, and the like. In the vast array of martial arts across the globe and over the centuries, that scheme is actually pretty rare. How we came to use it for nearly all martial arts in America is an interesting tale of multiple cultures intersecting, but for now, the point is that there’s nothing inevitable about lining up in rows and wearing colored belts.

In the village arts of Indonesia, advancement works very differently. For one thing, no one thinks of it as “advancement.” They think of it as “learning.” While village society is rigidly stratified, there’s little concern about badges of rank; everybody knows everybody. You are who you are, and whatever skills you have show on the practice floor for all to see. 

In the American iteration of these arts, insofar as we have rank at all, we have teachers, students, practitioners, and practice leaders. Teachers are people who are qualified to accept students. Students are what you think: people who are learning. Practitioners are finished students — the curriculum is finite — who aren’t necessarily teachers. It is both possible and common to learn the art for the purpose of using it yourself without having any aspiration to teach it. The practice leader is whoever is leading today’s practice. Might be a teacher, an upper-level student, or Cousin Eddie from the next village, who has this cool trick he’s willing to share with us.

Even in the same system, different teachers teach differently, and any given teacher will have particular emphases and specialties. The system remains more or less the same, albeit embodied in different people, but the particular curriculum varies widely depending on the situation and the students. Curricula in these systems are not infinite: there is such a thing as a “finished student.” In Four Creatures, it takes four to six years.

Regardless of the curriculum you might be using, the bottom line is that you learn how to learn, and then you learn how to embody the essential principles of the system for yourself. As a practitioner, you’re expected to adapt what you learn to suit your needs. The art contains an ‘old man’s style’ for less able bodies, a ‘women’s style’ for slighter frames, and so on. It must work for you, and only you can choose the styling that suits your situation.

The Redemption of Natural Philosophy

March 7, 2015

In order to understand the place of science in the world, we need to define some terms. 

 Natural Philosophy: an investigation into the way the natural world is and the way it works. In ancient times, philosophers weren’t just concerned with intangibles or ethics or human nature, they were also concerned with how the world worked. So Aristotle, for example, expresses a natural philosophy. 

 Science: born out of natural philosophy, science is a particular way of investigating the natural world that relies on generating ideas about the world, generating predictions from those ideas, testing the predictions through repeatable experiments, and revising the ideas accordingly. 

Scientists object to being lumped in with natural philosophy because they consider themselves vastly more rigorous than the natural philosophers, and insofar as they really are more rigorous, they have a point. But then, many scientists also regard naturalism as coextensive with ‘Science,’ and naturalism is a religious conviction not subject to scientific testing — so they’re natural philosophers. They just can’t help themselves. Religion gets into everything, and there is no neutrality. 

Special Revelation: God telling us something particular. Sometimes questions about the world do address an area where God has spoken. For example, “Is it true that we’ll die if we eat this particular fruit?” As our experience in Eden demonstrates, when God has spoken to a point, it is wise to take His revelation into account.

False religion: various untrue ideas about spiritual things. The principal goal of these ideas is to suppress the truth in unrighteousness, to keep Yahweh out of human awareness. 

We are obliged to hear special revelation. What God has shown us must be taken into account, period.

We are obliged to disregard false religion. We may not bow down to or in any wise serve idols, and ideas that exist to turn us away from Yahweh are to be rejected out of hand. 

Science and natural philosophy, however, are a different matter, and have to be handled differently. Science and natural philosophy are always tied in with an overall worldview, and it matters which one they’re tied in with. Carl Sagan’s science is no more to be trusted than Lao Tzu’s natural philosophy — but no less, either. To the extent that they have observed the natural world accurately, they must be recognized. Paul requires it: “Whatever things are true…think on these things.” To the extent that they have failed to glorify Yahweh and be thankful, they have exalted themselves against the knowledge of God, and they must be cast down. Since we have to do both of these things, we are simply not permitted to discard them, nor to swallow them whole. We are required to seek the redemption of science and natural philosophy, to see these disciplines brought into obedience to Christ. 

In the Western world, we like to lump science on the side of the angels, and demonize natural philosophy. Christians have adopted this into our theological schema very uncritically, such that Western medicine is appropriate for Christians (despite its pronounced tendency to murder babies) and acupuncture is not, because it’s not scientific and tied up with Taoism.

Well, sure it’s tied up with Taoism. Good thinkers always seek a consistent, integrated view of everything, and Chinese natural philosophers didn’t keep their Taoism locked in a box whilst they were observing the natural world. Whaddaya expect? Nor did Carl Sagan keep his atheism locked in a box when he looked through a telescope — but I don’t know even one Christian who thinks that means we should ignore what he saw. If we’re prepared to accept insights about the natural world from the round-eyed observer, then why are we so balky about the slant-eyed ones?

Frankly, I think it’s simple xenophobia. Our M.D. doesn’t believe that we have a soul, and that doesn’t bother us at all, because we’re used to it. An acupuncturist says something about yin and yang, and we lose our minds — without even stopping to find out what he meant. As communication improves and the world comes back together again, we need to learn to listen carefully rather than simply rejecting unfamiliar things out of hand. We might learn something.

God the Gardener

January 7, 2015

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a king who took seeds from a rebellious province and planted them in his garden. Under his care, they grew larger and more fruitful in his garden than they had grown anywhere else. And people came from the north, south, east and west to see what the plants had become, and taste their fruit.

Better Than You Found It

January 2, 2015

I grew up camping and hiking with my family along the Appalachian Trail. Along the trail in various places, you’ll find log lean-to shelters for hikers to sleep in. It saves the hikers having to find tent spots every night, and it saves the environment from the impact of thousands of people every year clearing places to pitch a tent alongside the trail.

Trail shelters require upkeep. Some upkeep tasks are pretty intensive, and require a work crew to carry in tools and materials. Others are pretty easy; you just have to take the time to do them. Mom and Dad didn’t just raise us to clean up after ourselves; they raised us to leave the shelter better than we found it. Muddy footprints would be removed; sleeping areas would be swept clean, and such, of course, but we went further than that. Perhaps an extra roll of TP left in the outhouse. Maybe there was no firewood when we got there, and we had to go cut our own, but when we left, we’d leave a pile of wood, neatly stacked and ready for the next guest. Perhaps one of the ropes for hanging packs was fraying, and we’d replace it.

Approach your training partner in the same way. Your job is not simply to do no harm. Your job is to leave your partner better than you found him or her. Take the time after practice to massage out that cramped muscle. Treat that bruise. Share a little knowledge about this or that. Speak a blessing over your partner.

What we do is inherently risky; there will be days when we all limp home nursing a collection of bruises. That’s fine. But don’t let your partners limp home unhappy and unblessed. Treat what can be treated; heal what can be healed. Bind up wounds, mend broken hearts, do the best that you can do to send your partners home relaxed, full, and at peace.

The Real History of Modern Yoga

December 30, 2014

Pro-yoga marketers, various Hindu sects, and yoga’s Christian despisers all aggressively promote the idea that yoga is an ancient Hindu practice. In fact, this is not true at all, as I will explain below. For further information, read Mark Singleton, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, Elizabeth De Michelis, A History of Modern Yoga: Patanjali and Western Esotericism, and N. E. Sjoman, The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace.

What you get in a yoga class at your local fitness club is not an ancient Hindu practice at all. That is a myth, created in the early 20th century by Indian nationalists and anti-colonialists. In order to understand how the myth grew so popular, we have to grasp a little of what it’s like to live in a colonized nation. When the British colonized India, they brought vastly superior technology — railroads, steam engines, telegraph, better ships, firearms, and so on. India developed a desperate desire to “catch up” with the Western powers, to modernize. Indians began to dress and talk like Westerners, go to college, learn engineering and other technical disciplines, and so on. All that was Western became synonymous with progress, and all that was Indian became synonymous with backwardness. Now that’ll give you a serious inferiority complex, and people can’t live like that for an extended period of time. Eventually the undiscriminating worship of all things Western provoked a backlash, and there was a great desire to point out the ways in which Indian culture was superior and had something to offer to the West.

Part of what the West had brought to India was the physical culture movement, very popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Observers from both cultures noticed that in general, Indians were physically weak by comparison with their Western counterparts. Indian reformers set out to change that through physical exercise. They were aided in the effort by the YMCA, which had branches throughout India and taught a variety of physical disciplines like Pilates, Swedish Vital Gymnastics and other physical culture regimens popular at that time in the West.

At that time, “yoga” was understood to be one of the six orthodox paths to enlightenment in Hinduism, and usually had little if anything to do with physical posture. “Yoga” literally means “yoking” and referred to yoking one’s own consciousness to the divine. There were numerous yoga practices — the yoga of good deeds (karma yoga), the yoga of devotion (bhakti yoga), the yoga of knowledge (jnana yoga), etc. Some of the meditation traditions included instructions to take a certain posture for meditation to achieve certain ends — one text, the Geranda Samhita, has 30 or so postures which are alleged to help attain certain benefits. On the other hand, other forms of yoga taught nothing to do with postures. Popular yogi and lecturer Vivekananda, for example, denounced teachers of postures as hucksters and carnival performers.

In short, modern postural yoga — what happens in a Bally’s yoga class, where you might move through dozens of postures over the course of an hour-long session — does not seem to have much documentable precedent as a religious exercise in classical Hinduism. It was created, and recently — mostly by Krishnamacharya in Mysore. While he never traveled to the U.S. and few people have heard of him, his students K. Pattabhi Jois (Ashtanga Vinyasa), B. K. S. Iyengar (Iyengar Yoga), Indra Devi and T. K. V. Desikachar (Viniyoga) are almost entirely responsible for the popularity of what we now call “yoga” in the West. Even the relatively few yoga lineages that do not begin with Krishnamacharya are certainly influenced by his legacy.

While modern postural yoga has little precedent in classical Hinduism, it does have some precursors in indigenous Indian practices. To find the precursors, we have to leave Hindu meditation behind and look to India’s wrestling tradition. India has a long tradition of producing superb wrestlers, and in texts that describe their training we see some indigenous exercises along that line, including the danda exercises — sophisticated pushup variations — that Krishnamacharya brought into his yoga program as the now-ubiquitous “sun salutation.” Similar exercises are preserved in Kalaripayyat, the indigenous martial art of Kerala in southern India. Swedish Vital Gymnastics and the other regimens of the western physical culture movement are also ancestors of modern postural yoga.

Of course, this sort of exercise is actually pretty common through world culture. From the wresting conditioning of the Persian Zurkaneh to the whip and saber exercises of the Cossacks to the neigong exercises of the Chinese to the djurus, lankas and kembaggan of the Indonesian Pentjak-Silat players, exercise sequences that work the whole body evenly and promote coordination, whole-body looseness and balance are found around the world. The routines look somewhat different from culture to culture, but they’re all designed to do the same thing: cultivate a relaxed, supple body that moves gracefully, freely and strongly through its whole range of motion. (As a Christian, that’s a goal I can get behind. I believe God made the body to do exactly that.)

But back to yoga. What happened to produce the yoga class down at Bally’s? In early 20th-century India, the anticolonial backlash was well under way. Reformers were seeking ways to bring India up to par with the Western nations, and at the same time proclaim the benefits of things that were uniquely Indian. Working as just such a reformer, Krishnamacharya gathered up various exercises from European physical culture movements, combined them with British army exercises, classical Indian wrestling exercises and meditation postures from old texts, and dubbed the result “yoga.” A few others did the same.

By calling their practices “yoga” and linking them to a liberal helping of Hindu religion and philosophy, they were seeking to market their physical culture programs as uniquely Indian and suitably ancient. Because they could point at a few old texts that teach some sort of posture practice — the Geranda Samhita, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and so on — they had enough historical cover to give their efforts a patina of respectability, and they were working in an environment where everybody wanted to believe that it was true. The result of this melange of European exercises, physical culture ethos, meditation postures and Hindu philosophy is what contemporary academics call Modern Postural Yoga. It was spread through the YMCAs and other channels, and became fairly popular in India.

Meanwhile in the West, the physical culture movement all but died. (Classical Pilates — originally known as Controlology — is virtually the only modern-day survivor of the Western physical culture movement.) What remained of the physical culture movement transformed into the fitness industry, and great emphasis was placed on simplicity and isolated movements. Exercises requiring careful attention and complex coordination fell by the wayside in favor of simple exercises like bicep curls, leg extensions and lat pulls.

Yoga (especially in its philosophical, non-physical forms) had been slowly trickling into the West, but the physical exercise that we mean when we say “yoga” today didn’t really begin to be popular here until the 1960s. (Indra Devi was promoting yoga here long before that, and taught such luminaries as Greta Garbo and Marylin Monroe, but teachers were rare in those days, and yoga was still virtually unknown.) By the 60s, modern yoga had been incubating in India for decades, and we had long since forgotten our own roots in the physical culture movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In keeping with the way modern postural yoga had been marketed in India, the yoga gurus of the 60s and 70s marketed yoga here as an ancient Hindu practice of health and spirituality, and Americans bought it.

Over time, Americans who had no interest in Hinduism saw the physical benefits of this kind of gymnastic exercise, requiring careful attention and complex coordination. It improved balance, mental focus, coordination and concentration, helped people relax, improved posture, and much more. These folks recognized that there was a market for this kind of exercise, quite apart from the Hinduism, and began to promote it simply as good exercise. Which it is. This is where the yoga class at your local fitness club comes from.

Now a Christian comes along, looks at that class at Bally’s, and says, “We had Christian aerobics back in the 80s. Why can’t we have Christian yoga now?” Good question.