When Germantown Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn., began offering yoga classes two years ago it was considered "cutting-edge" for the Southern Baptist congregation, recalls Carla Rafferty, recreation ministry programmer at the church.
"We got a little bit of flak for it," she said. She explained that the church uses it as a quiet, gentle stretching exercise without the Eastern philosophy.
The first time an announcement about the yoga class appeared in the church bulletin, staff members received a few complaints from members concerned about the Eastern origins of yoga. But Rafferty said they explained that the church was promoting Christian yoga as an exercise and relaxation tool.
It's now one of the most popular classes at the church, served up four days a week.
Six million Americans were doing yoga in 1994, according to a Roper poll. Yoga Journal estimates today that 15 million Americans study yoga.
In a separate survey on YogaJournal.com in 2001, most yoga practitioners said they did yoga for health and physical benefits, while fewer than a quarter said they practiced yoga for spirituality.
Thirty percent of the 1,555 yoga practitioners who participated in the Web survey indicated that the goal of their yoga practice was to stay fit and toned. Others practiced to reduce stress (21 percent), to remedy a health problem (18 percent), pursue the path to enlightenment (16 percent) and to engage in spiritual practice (15 percent).
Once viewed by many Christians (and by those of other faiths) as a dangerous import from the East, yoga now is taking root in many church health and fitness programs.
It's not something that the faithful enter into lightly. Some people still fear that by doing yoga they are practicing some New Age religion that is not Christian.
Part of the confusion is that yoga means different things to different people. According to World Book Encyclopedia, yoga is both a school of thought in the Hindu faith and a system of mental and physical exercise developed by that school. Most classes in the United States teach hatha yoga, the physical discipline that focuses on breathing and stretching postures or asanas.
Last fall, school officials in Aspen, Colo., introduced the yoga breathing and stretching techniques to students as a way to calm rowdy kids after recess.
But the yoga program was abruptly halted after some families complained that the meditation and chanting that accompany some yoga techniques was essentially teaching religion in class.
But yoga instructors here say fear is unfounded. If anything, they say, the practice of yoga deepens an individual's own beliefs, whatever those may be.
A stumbling block for many people is the chanting of "Om," a breathing sound often used at the beginning of classes.
"The purpose of chanting is only to soften the palate and to open the channels to the body," said Sarla Nichols, who opened a Yoga studio two years ago.
"A lot of times people won't come to yoga because they feel fearful," Nichols said, noting that she once taught a yoga class at a day care center where a parent refused to let her child participate because she said it was anti-Christian.
"Yoga is not the antichrist. It's movement with breath and precision. It's a way for people to pursue their own spiritual beliefs. It deepens your connection to what you believe in."
The Hope and Healing Center in Memphis, Tenn., has been offering yoga classes for about a year now.
"Yoga often becomes associated with a mindset that is not compatible with Christian thinking," said Dr. Scott Morris.
A physician and an ordained United Methodist minister, Morris founded the Church Health Center in 1988.
"That could be true of almost anything. Any form of exercise or meditation can be altered or adapted to something else.
"Can people turn yoga into a religion? Of course they can.
But is it intrinsically religious?
No. It's how you best use it or adapt it."
But Morris said he was "anxious" about adding it to the health center's programming.
"A lot of what we do here may be perceived as on the edge of what might be acceptable," he said. "It was important for me to be convinced. It was important for me that it had support from the medical point of view and that we got the right people to teach it."
Then he worried whether people would come to the classes.
They did. The first classes filled up within five minutes, he said. Now he's a believer.
"God gave us a body for a reason," Morris said. "We're not just supposed to relate to God from the neck up. We've got to find ways to take care of our body if we truly believe the body is the temple of the Lord."