In Haiti I practice yoga first thing in the morning. I claim a spot on a concrete slab at the far end of the mission house grounds. I face the sea. The sun rises; the warmth of the day climbs; fishermen drift past in their dugout canoes. I move through the familiar sequence of Bikram poses. I concentrate on my breath; my body grows limber; I come alive. Practicing yoga in Haiti is nothing like it is in Boston, where a session is a full ninety minutes in a hot room (hotter than Haiti) with a diligent instructor. Here I do a half hour, perhaps, of stretching and breathing. The familiar dialogue runs through my head. I could force myself to a more rigorous workout, but, Haiti being Haiti, I am content with less.
By the time I finish with the warm-up and move on to the balance poses, others stir. They climb out the dorm room or their tents, head for the bathroom, pour coffee, move with the quiet stiffness of early morning. No one says anything, but their eyes puzzle over my arched back, my extended leg, my locked knee. I focus straight towards the sea, but I feel their eyes on me; another curiosity in this exotic place.
There are three types of people at the mission house. There are the mega-Christians, and I mean Chrisitans. They have morning prayer and evening prayer, and bible study and every other word out of their mouths praises God and his work. They believe that God directs everything in the world. They come to Haiti to convert people and don’t spend time doing rudimentary things like building houses or teaching children to read. They are here to spread the Word. I find it ironic that these people come to Haiti, where if God had a plan it certainly isn’t playing out very well. Yet I understand that precisely because conditions are so meager, the potential for conversation is high. I interact with these missionaries at my peril. Still, in moments of feistiness I actually seek them out to parry. My favorite conversation, late one night, was with a 23 year old Christian from Pennsylvania studying to be a minister. A strapping kid, serious and cock-sure. After a twenty minutes of trying to convert me to no avail he said, “Okay, let’s start with all the things we do agree on. First, that man is evil and is born into sin.” I looked at this guy, less than half my age, and asked straight out, “Have you ever seen a baby? Can you tell me that a human baby is evil or has any sin?” It was all downhill from there; no one’s convictions budged after more than an hour’s volley. Still it was tremendous fun.
Next are what I call the functional Christians. They believe Jesus is the Son of God and all the basic tenets, but they come to Haiti to help improve the lot of the Haitians in the present. These folks have big hearts and generous spirits; they understand human frailty and may even admit to a few faults themselves. They are here to work on their own Christian souls, to live out their Christian values. They may believe in the next world, but are firmly grounded in this one.
The third type of person at the mission house is me. I am the only person who is not a Christian, unless I bring one of my children, in which case we become a pair of infidels. I actually refer to myself as an infidel when I am Haiti. It is the perfect moniker.
I was irked when I first understood that virtually all missionaries in Haiti are religious. Then I realized my annoyance was displaced. The Christians everywhere. The airport is full of shiny groups in matching T-shirts emblazoned with fish signs that spread out to every corner of this deserving land. True, some are blinded by soul conversion, but many more are doing good work, and if I suspect their motives are less than pure, that is beside the point. The presence of the Christians is not annoying, it is the absence of everybody else. Where are the people who don’t have conversion quotas? Where are the people who can come to Haiti and lend a hand without an agenda to inflict on the Haitian people? Where are the liberals? Home writing checks for causes, I presume. They sure as hell are not at Mission of Hope.
And so I accept that being in Haiti means being surrounded by Christians. Which really is not so bad; they are considerate, polite, and don’t make a lot of late night noise. I am intrigued by the surety of their convictions. The longer I live the less sure I am of the world, while these folks have all the answers. Actually, they have only one answer – Jesus Christ. But since He is the answer to any question, they have covered all the bases. We have enough common ground in our commitment to Haiti to handle a good deal of conversation and we are respectful enough to avoid anything controversial. Unless I bait them, it is not hard to steer clear of politics or creationism, and they are wary enough of my appellation as infidel to avoid any particulars of my life back in the States.
But there is the yoga – they can’t help but see the yoga. I know they are intrigued, a few comment, but mostly my morning yoga is the daily assertion that, “I am here with you, but I am not of you.”
On September 20, 2010 Albert Mohler, the President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, posted an essay on his blog about how yoga is irreconcilable with Christianity. “When Christians practice yoga, they must either deny the reality of what yoga represents or fail to see the contradictions between their Christian commitments and their embrace of yoga.” I went to his blog; I read the essay. I already knew what Albert Mohler would look like, a doughy white guy with great hair and terrific suits, and I already knew that many of his positions would be anathema to me, but regarding the conflict between Christianity and yoga, I admit to being one with Albert Mohler.
He contends that it is possible to do stretch exercises to care for the body, but that it not really yoga. I agree. He states that yoga begins and ends with an understanding of the body. I agree. He even posits that “The physical is the spiritual in yoga, and the exercises and disciplines of yoga are meant to connect with the divine.” I agree.
Yoga is so much more than exercise. It is welding the mind body connection; thereby strengthening each. It ascribes great power to both the body and the mind, power that Christianity denies. Christianity is hierarchical; the individual is told what to believe by a higher authority. Believers call this divine revelation. Non believers call it smooth talking guys with their hands out. Yoga is not compatible with Christianity because Christianity will not allow an individual to connect with their own being in such a powerful way. Often, as I struggle with standing head to knee pose, perhaps the most difficult of the Bikram series, I stare at myself in the mirror and the phrase ‘God is within me’ floats through my head. I have yet to do that pose as a god could, but I continue to improve and some day I may reach that perfection.
In Jesus Christ, Christians have created a god who took on the form of man. In yoga, man pursues the form of god. This is what the Christian missionaries in Haiti confront each morning as I struggle through my postures. Their ultimate goal is to sit at the right hand of their god. Mine is to get ever closer to the god already within me.