Meeting God on the Mat
Jill Wondel is a yoga teacher, who has been practicing for 16 years and teaching yoga for 12 years. Her specialty is holy yoga, combining prayer and poses to calm the mind and focus on God. We caught up with Wondel to chat more about yoga's benefits, for both body and soul, and how to incorporate practice in our daily lives.
Describe the health benefits of yoga practice.
You're going to get a good stretch. It's great for people who do a lot of strength training, running and activities where you're contracting your muscles. A lot of professional sports teams practice yoga because it helps prevent injury and encourages flexibility. It makes you more body aware, so you're less likely to move in a way that's harmful.
How did you start combining yoga with prayer and spiritual practice?
Yoga philosophy is already tied into some spiritual practice, not Christian necessarily, but the original creators developed these physical practices in order to prepare themselves for meditation. Moving, in this case stretching, helps your mind to settle. I think that's how yoga helps move you into a place where you're prepared to hear God's voice because you're less distracted and more quiet-minded.
What are the spiritual benefits of a yoga practice?
You learn how to be present and how to calm your mind. Yoga helps you quiet down. Being free from distraction is huge, especially when we always have our phones in front of us, the TV's always on, people have access to you at every moment. It gives you the mental strength to put that stuff down and to set it aside. Sometimes in the beginning of class, I'll say, “Whatever list you have going in your head, just take that and set that off to the side. And if you want it when we're done, you can pick it back up, but for now, we're just going to be here.” I think where God speaks to us most is in our present moment. God meets us where we are. But if we can't get our mind where we are, if our mind is off on something else, then we're not prepared to meet God.
What would you say to folks who question whether Christians should practice yoga?
The physical practice of yoga is only one part of the yoga philosophy. A thousand years ago, they figured out that if you moved in a certain way, it helps to calm your mind so that you'd be prepared to pray and meditate. As a Christian practitioner, we're taking the benefit of that physical practice. There's not something inherently spiritual about the physical elements of yoga except that it helps prepare you for a spiritual practice.
What encouragement would you give to someone new to yoga?
If you go to a yoga class and you don't like it, try again with someone else or somewhere else. Yoga has a wide variety of styles of practice, so maybe you don't like that style. One of the things I find valuable in yoga is the physical practice is really individualized to you.
There are all kinds of modifications you can make. A lot of times I will say, “If I tell you to move your arm in a particular way, and that doesn't feel good to you, move in a different way.” You don't have to look exactly like the instructor. Do what works for you. In an aerobics or dance class, the goal is to follow the teacher and do exactly what the teacher is doing. Yoga is more the teacher trying to guide you into discovering what works for you.
If I’m not physically able to do yoga, how can I still incorporate the practice in my life?
I have some students who have conditions like fibromyalgia or back problems where they can't do everything we do as a class. I always encourage them that even if all you can do is sit on your mat and breathe, there's a benefit in that. Every movement you make counts; Every breath you take counts. If you can even just take five minutes and pay attention to your breath, you're going to find a mental, spiritual and physical benefit to that.