With this text, I risk sacrilege. In most households, the Christmas trees should already be standing and the gifts already purchased. Last Christmas or the Christmas Oratorio has probably been roaring through the house for weeks. But I still do not raise the crib or tinsel to the thing of the month, but the yoga mat.
Funny, you might be thinking now and putting another piece of stollen in your mouth. But it’s not so strange: the yoga class has long since replaced the service for many. The new temple is the yoga mat. Admittedly, this is especially true of a certain demographic, and I happen to belong to that group: educated young city dwellers.
My grandfather is a Protestant priest, just as my great-brother and two of my grandmother’s sisters are priests. As a kid, I used to be a part of it. There was no Christmas service last year because of Corona. But I still would not have gone. I no longer kneel before Jesus, but before Mady or Adriene. That’s the name of my YouTube yoga gurus. For me, my morning begins with them on the yoga mat. Before I even exchange the first words with anyone, I roll them out, open my laptop, and start a video. Then I stretch and stretch for at least ten minutes and the day is good to go.
Yes, I’m a cliché. But I’m not alone. Yoga teacher Adriene has 10 million subscribers on YouTube and one of the most popular teachers in Germany, Mady Morrison, has more than 2 million. According to the professional association of yoga teachers in Germany, about five percent of Germans practiced yoga regularly in 2018 – mostly women and most singles. This number has been rising for years. The number of churchgoers, on the other hand, is declining. In the same survey year, 14 percent of Germans indicated that they went to church regularly. In 2007, it was still 21 percent.
Corona made me a yogi
I took a kids yoga class in the early noughties, which was my first attempt at tree balance (fixation on a point in the distance!) And headstand. Unfortunately never the handstand. I found the exercises quite boring. I preferred to go to a karate club. Just three years ago, my yoga mat was gathering dust. I did not even see it as a fitness machine because that was what I should have used it for. Only when the corona pandemic started did I roll it out again. Yoga after getting up made my home office easier as a morning ritual. And as the months went by, it became more and more important to me.
I knew the ritualized sequence of movements from worship services, where standing, sitting and speaking alternate with song and silence. There is no yoga class without a sun salutation, just as there is no worship without the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed. And the thousands, millions of repetitions of movements, of words, of song burden them with their own weight.
Just the right dose of spirituality
Although the yoga mat only differs from a fitness mat in terms of its thickness – yoga is still more than “just” a sport. Because meditations are not an addition to yoga practice, but a basic part. Like focusing on the breath. But first and foremost, the yoga mat makes the whole package look like a sport. And it makes it easier for people like me who were not actually looking for a new religion to access it.
Of course, there are many, many people who make the downtrodden dog or warrior two in the gym once in a while without feeling like a yogi. KR member Elisa writes: “I practice yoga more like someone sometimes watches a football match on TV without being passionate about a particular club.” Just like some people go to church out of habit to chat with the sweet Sabine afterwards, or because that’s how it is done for Christmas and Easter.
Not everyone who goes to church could write theological treatises on Job’s sufferings in the Old Testament. Not everyone who rolls out the mat once in a while is in search of enlightenment. But they exist: the people for whom their mat is the sacred ground that founds them, gives them support, and carries them. I guess I’m somewhere in the middle there. But the practicality of yoga is that it gives me just the level of spirituality I need.
The level of spirituality for worship varies slightly from Sunday to Sunday, with the possible exception of the Easter vigil. On the yoga mat, I can choose for myself how much and for how long I dedicate myself to the search for self-discovery and immersion. Yoga is a choose-yourself-adventure variant of spirituality and fits perfectly into our time.
Strength from the community – or from yourself
When I do yoga, I sit or stand alone on this piece of non-slip plastic and focus on my breathing. I do not share a bench with other congregation members as I am the only member of my personal yoga congregation. And that’s why it’s not such a big loss that I almost never go to yoga classes because of the pandemic and only share the moment with Adriene on screen. I do not need the others at all. I spend the hour finding myself and not others.
Of course, worship services are also broadcast on television, and there are also some recordings on YouTube. But the experience is something along the lines of comparing a visit to a concert with a recording of the concert: At best, one is a little jealous that the others had such a good experience. But you’re not in the middle. It is because of the power that can only come from one group. In a worship service you get strength from the congregation, in yoga you get strength from yourself.
A millennial tradition?
In the church, apart from God and Jesus, nothing is as important as shrines. Although the altar sometimes just looks like a wooden table, it is one saint wooden table. Then there is the cross, sometimes with, sometimes without Jesus, and on the walls centuries-old images depicting Jesus and his disciples, Jesus and Mary or other saints. Churches radiate devotion, even to the atheist tourists who visit them. Little has changed in the last few centuries.
The history of yoga, on the other hand, is a complicated back and forth of influences from East and West. The gymnastics of a Swedish nationalist played a role, as did traditional Indian wrestling. In its modern form, it is only about a hundred years old. Today’s yoga has about as much to do with its origins as Maggi’s ready-made Bolognese does with a ragú that has to cook for six hours. But for me it is not relevant. Because unlike the church, yoga has evolved with those who do. It has adapted to us. Presumably Jesus would also practice yoga these days.
The yoga mat is the false proof of this, it is after all nothing more than a soft piece of plastic that sells well. There are, as far as I know, no reports that the sacred mats of famous yogis have been passed down from one generation to the next (although there are $ 3,000 mats for sale on the internet, the existence of which cannot really be explained otherwise).
And yet I need her.
The yoga mat is as much a fitness device as it is a place of worship and therefore an all-rounder. I do not have to read quotes from a holy book. I do not have to worship a crucified man. I do not have to recite centuries-old prayers. I do not need to worship any sanctuary at all. The only sacred thing in yoga is one’s own body.
At the end of my yoga class, I lie in Shavasana, with my arms and legs stretched out on the mat and remain silent. In this moment, the mat serves to ground me. “Thank you and your yoga practice,” Mady Morrison says when we’re done, nodding to me.
The pastor would have blessed me in church. Here I bless myself, roll up the mat, take a deep breath again and start my day.
Editor: Lisa McMinn, final editor: Susan Mücke, photo editor: Till Rimmele; Audio version: Iris Hochberger