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Firsthand: A Look at Yoga and Religious Belief

A Buddhist, a Christian, a Jew, and a Muslim share how they blend yoga with their religious beliefs.

By Alan Reder

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."

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