Firsthand: A Look at Yoga and Religious Belief


By Alan Reder  |  

Andrea Cohen-Keiner

Andrea Cohen-Keiner, 47, of West Hartford, Connecticut, wandered into her first yoga class in the 1970s, seeking to quench a spiritual thirst that typified much of her baby boom generation. But unlike many young seekers of that time, she hadn’t cut the last thread to the religion of her youth. Raised as a Conservative Jew, she first learned yoga on campus at the University of Minnesota where she was an undergraduate. When she did the Hindu mantra meditation that closed the class, a little voice inside would nudge her about the Torah’s law against idolatry. For Jews, idolatry means worship of anything besides the One God. “I, of course, had no idea what [the mantra] was saying, and I did kind of look around and say, ‘Is there a blue elephant in here somewhere?’” she laughs.

Cohen-Keiner practiced her yoga only casually in those days and strayed far enough from her family’s religion to explore Christian mysticism among other sacred traditions. Today both Judaism and yoga play a much more prominent role in her life. In July, 2000, she was ordained as a rabbi in the Jewish Renewal Movement, a sort of grassroots Judaism with a coterie of socially progressive and spiritually inquisitive leaders like Cohen-Keiner. For the past six years, she has also studied yoga with M’eshyah Albert, a teacher at Elat Chayyim (a Jewish Renewal retreat center in the Catskills) who integrates yoga with Judaism.

“The mythic stories of the Hindu tradition probably do look like idol worship to traditional Jewish eyes,” she says, “but here’s how I understand it: I believe that God is oneness. So that ultimately all the filters we look at that ultimate reality through are nothing more than creations of our mind. Those creations don’t limit the Creator.”

Anna Douglas

When it comes to blending her yoga and her Buddhism, Anna Douglas feels it’s simply a matter of getting one’s priorities straight. “My Buddhist practice is primary,” she says. “I see yoga as a support for that, so I’ve never gone into the philosophical implications of yoga. I’ve only used it as a physical and energetic discipline.”

But Douglas, who lives in Fairfax, California, is clear that yoga helps her be both a better Buddhist and a more comfortable one. She discovered early on that unblocking her body with yoga deepened her meditation by unblocking her mind. She also found that her yoga-flexed body stood up better to the physical discipline of meditation, especially on three-month retreats. A teacher at Spirit Rock, the prominent vipassana meditation center in Woodacre, California, she took her discoveries public in 1990, developing a Friday morning class that combines yoga and meditation Douglas-style. “It’s too hard for the average American to go right to sitting still,” she says. “Yoga helps them relax, helps them connect with the body, helps the body itself to open energetically. Plus, the energy that comes up in yoga teaches people to handle the increased levels of energy from samadhi (heightened awareness). Learning how to handle samadhi is a big part of meditation practice.”


Raised as a Presbyterian, Douglas, 60, began pulling away from her family religion at the age of 8. “I asked the minister ‘Who wrote the Bible?’ and I could tell it upset him,” she recalls. “I began to wonder about the whole deal.” She started doing yoga in 1973 in Berkeley, California, after moving from New York a few years before. A doctoral intern in psychology at the time, she was counseling high-risk clients who were pushing her own stress to risky levels. When a friend suggested yoga for some relief, she tried a class in her neighborhood, got what she came for, and has been doing it ever since. She got her toes wet in Buddhism after meeting a Tibetan Buddhist monk whose fathomless presence made her profoundly curious. After a rigorous tour through Zen, she attended a vipassana retreat led by American teachers Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Hearing the Dharma from people of her own culture and age group made all the difference. Mindfulness meditation became her spiritual practice. Now, it’s her career.

So, Buddha-like, Douglas waves off supposed clashes like the Hindu chanting in yoga class. “I just allow the experience to be felt and don’t worry about the rest,” she smiles.

John Monastra

John Monastra, who converted to Islam in 1984, prays to Allah five times a day as commanded in the Koran. He also fasts for the 30 days of Ramadan and, with his family, has already made his Hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca, required of all Muslims once in their lifetime. Clearly Monastra does not do things halfway. So when he says that Islam and his yoga practice complement each other beautifully, you know he’s considered the matter with great care.

“The essence of all religions is to devote your whole being to God, even in the midst of worldly life,” notes Monastra, 41, a library science data analyst in Herndon, Virginia. “Islam gets us to do that by having us pray five times a day and otherwise remind ourselves of the presence of God. As Patanjali says, yoga is the stilling of fluctuations in consciousness to concentrate on the object of concentration. For a religious person, that’s God.”

A Sicilian-American, Monastra drifted away from his family’s Catholicism when he started college and tried on a succession of spiritual traditions for size, including yoga. While in graduate school in international studies, he befriended a number of Muslim students from other countries. Impressed by their “refined courtesy,” he suspected that their gracious demeanor was based in their religion. Recently divorced and ready for a new life, he began reading the Koran and it called out to his heart. Before long, he found himself formally converting at a mosque.

In 1998 Monastra also resumed serious yoga practice. To his mind, yoga is not an outside interest; it serves his faith completely. “You become a better person by having your body in good shape, your breathing and your mind all integrated together,” Monastra observes. And he applies the mantra meditation techniques he learned in yoga after every daily prayer. In the Sufi tradition that Monastra follows, one sits for a while after praying, feeling oneself in the sacred presence and invoking the name of God. Monastra does this semi-yogically by substituting “Allah” for a Sanskrit mantra and doing yogic breathing. “I don’t think of yoga as a religion,” he says. “I think of it as a technique that helps anybody do their own religion better.”


Tom Jacobs

Tom Jacobs was only 6 when a defining moment at his Catholic school in Atchison, Kansas, started him down a more inclusive spiritual path—one that would eventually encompass yoga. In Jacobs’ religion class, a nun asserted that only Catholics could be admitted to Heaven. Jacobs was horrified. Although mom qualified for a blessed afterlife, his Jewish dad was doomed. At dinner that night, Jacobs was inconsolable. He finally told his parents what was bothering him; as the words spilled out, they sounded utterly wrong-headed to him. “The nun’s teaching,” he recalls, “didn’t feel like the mind of God.”

Jacobs, 46, is quick to note that the Second Vatican Council in the mid-’60s broadened the Church’s attitude toward salvation to include even non-Christians. And he still largely practices his Christianity as a Catholic because he was raised as one and “it’s in my blood.” Indeed, for four years in the early ’80s, he served as a Benedictine monk, although he left the order before taking final vows. But his own ecumenicism preceded the Church’s. In part, that’s because his parents were of different faiths, he says. Just as important, however, were the lessons he pulled from the life of Jesus: “Jesus was a man for all peoples, with no distinctions. And as a Jew, he taught that people should stretch beyond the rules, make it a connection from your heart.”

Jacobs first studied yoga with a teacher at a spiritual retreat community where he lived from 1976 to 1977. He began teaching it in 1989 in Kansas City. He currently lives in nearby Drexel, Missouri. Besides his yoga classes, he also makes his living today by leading meditation workshops and performing as a singer-songwriter. To his mind, all his work serves the same end and underscores the reason he left the monastery: “I realized I didn’t need to be a monk to minister to people.” Indeed, his yoga students jokingly call the relaxation period at the end of class when he talks about how yoga relates to daily life, “The Sermon on the Mats.”

Jacobs teaches meditation Judeo-Christian-style and minimizes the more overtly Hindu aspects of yoga in his classes—not to accommodate his Catholicism so much as to accent his universalism. “I honor the Hindu path, the Buddhist path, the Sufi path,” he states with Midwestern matter-of-factness. “I do not think that Christians have a monopoly on paradise.”