Yoga at Duke Chapel

September 18, 2017

Yoga Chapel?

Recently Duke Chapel at Duke University in North Carolina tweeted photos of yoga exercises on the floor of its majestic worship space as part of Healthy Duke Week of Wellness. Built in the 1930s as a Methodist sanctuary in the style of a Gothic cathedral for what was then a Methodist affiliated school, Duke Chapel is now nondenominational.

There are Evangelicals and Catholics who critique yoga as wrong for Christians because its mantras originate in eastern religion. Setting aside that concern, should worship space be open to recreation and “profane” (i.e., secular) activities? Tai-chi? Kickboxing? Karate? Spinning? Ballroom dancing? Salsa? Hip-Hop? Ballet? Volleyball? Badminton? If not, why not?

Catholic and other liturgical traditions generally consecrate their worship spaces and open them to profane activities only after decommissioning. There is an understanding that the place where the Eucharist is served and the Word proclaimed is in some sense sacred, meriting reverence, dignity and protection.

Lower church Protestants and Evangelicals don’t always attach the same sense of lofty spirituality to their worship space. Many congregations, especially new ones, don’t own property, instead worshipping in rented school gymnasiums or theaters. Other congregations convene in multipurpose rooms with folding chairs, where space shifts from worship to meals to gymnastics or basketball.

Most traditional Protestant churches even if not very liturgical still have formal worship space filled with pews, faced by pulpit and altar, with walls adorned with Christian symbols. This space, while perhaps sometimes used for non-worship meetings, is still usually accorded respect and not host to recreation.

Worship space for many modern non-liturgical churches, while not hosting recreation, often resembles theaters without much if any sacred adornment, often purposefully so, ostensibly to avoid discomfiting unchurched visitors. Worshipers there, and increasingly in more traditional spaces, are often quite casual, wearing shorts, flip flops, baseball hats, carrying lattes or other drinks. These worshipers will often conform to more formality when attending weddings, funerals, graduations or other ceremonies they deem deeply significant.

This casual attitude at church should provoke reflection. Isn’t worship deeply significant and meriting respect? Shouldn’t Gospel proclamation, reading of God’s word, and the Lord’s Supper always together inspire awe, reverence and celebratory solemnity, no matter the surrounding architecture? And shouldn’t ideally that architecture itself point Godward, conducive to worship? Shouldn’t the space itself be deemed special, with expectation that God Himself is present, recalling that when Moses met Him in the wilds he removed his footwear in respect?

Duke Chapel, built as a medieval cathedral with such a sacred sense of God’s presence in mind, was intended to inspire appreciation of divine awe and mystery. It’s not a multipurpose room or gymnasium. There are plenty of places on the extensive Duke University campus for yoga practitioners and other exercisers to perform their craft.

But exercising and sweating in tights on floormats in a soaring cathedral beneath its stained glass and carvings of saints and martyrs seems to detract from the sacredness of that place. Moses in God’s presence did remove his footwear and fall prostrate, but not to stretch and grunt. Today’s sanctuaries may not equal Mt. Sinai or King David’s Temple, but they should point in spirit to the same God, with consequent respect for His holiness from all who enter. This reverence honors God while also helping us to know Him a bit better.


16 Responses to Yoga Chapel?

  1. Byron Alexander says:

    The Gospel message left Duke Chapel a long time ago. As an alumni and graduate of Duke Divinity School the Chapel is nothing more than a architectural icon for whatever events the school wishes to host. The sad part is that there are catacombs below the chapel which had yoga taking place overhead.

  2. Bill Reincheld says:

    Once you worship among the trees in a rural African setting, and experience God in a place where you do not even know the language well, and an occasional cow meanders through the assembly, all these Medieval European ideas of “worship space” become petty irrelevant. They were, in fact contrived to intimidate and manipulate the masses, after all. Where is all this architecture and lofty space in the book of Acts? Nowhere.

  3. Lee says:

    Isn’t Yoga a series of poses to Hindu gods?

  4. Bill Bouknight says:

    As a Duke alumnus, I weep over the desecration of the beautiful Duke Chapel. Originally it was consecrated as a Christian worship center. But in recent years it has become a multi-purpose building for religious exploration. Buddhist and Islamic worship services are held there and same-sex unions are celebrated. What a commentary on Duke University!

  5. james says:

    I wonder if the Savior checked to see if all of those thousands who flocked to listen to Him were dressed in their Sunday best? For sure the religious leader of the day dressed with “pomp and circumstance.” The best apparel to approach Father/Son/Holy Spirit with is a contrite heart, a humble spirit, and a soul that has been washed in Flood of His Sacred Blood……………

    • Scarborough says:

      True, out in the dust of the streets, or on the steps of the temple, Christ surely didn’t ask the clothing police to check people. On the other hand, there are numerous places in the Old Testament that point to what an important place the temple was. In fact, only a very few were allowed to enter the inner sanctum, proof that is was extremely holy and subject to a different standard than the outer areas.

      Personally, for me, I think of it like this:
      If I were invited to dine with the president, would I dress down? (not interested in anybody’s opinion of the current POTUS. that’s a different conversation.) Then why should it be any different or less if I’m going to God’s “house”? But, that’s just me. I truly agree with your assessment of “contrite heart and humble spirit”, and no one should be turned away from God because they are wearing flip flops, but if we don’t teach that some things are holy, then nothing winds up holy or due any respect and we wind up with yoga classes in the sanctuary and a God that isn’t due the awe and majesty he deserves.

      There is a time and a place for everything under heaven. Yoga in the sanctuary ain’t it.

  6. David Preston says:

    Well said, Mark. But it wasn’t as if some Wellness Week scheduler was looking for available space for a yoga class and thought “There’s room in this building.” The Duke administration (at some level… probably mid-level administrative…) knew exactly what it was doing. The eastern mystic origins of yoga make it the perfect foil for the secular academy to make its point: the Chapel is not sacred and should not be a sanctuary for believers of Christ. It is utilitarian space, they aver, and should not be reserved for worship by followers of one or the other gods or prophets. It is a subtle but intentional denigration of the faithful.

  7. Don Zlaty says:

    Alas, the argument of what is tue church comes to mind. If we are so locked into buildings and tradition that we are unable to function as the church, i believe we are doomwd to fail. While i have a sympathetic ear to what is said about the sacredness of the space, i am more concerned about tue lack of awe we have of God in our hearts. This is a much more important challenge to the faith than sweat pants and yoga in any building. Peace to you all.

  8. Joan Sibbald says:

    Yoga in church is another step in Progressive’s agenda to transform America from God, Family and Country into Marxist atheism. Satan smiles!

  9. MarcoPolo says:

    Having been raised in a large family that regularly attended the Methodist Church, and being the son of the Churches (early service’s) Music Director, we were always in our “Sunday Best”.
    However, my Catholic friends routinely attended their respective church in almost anything they had on, and to me, at that time, that seemed somewhat disrespectful of the building, it’s purpose and it’s congregants.

    I understand the preferred desire for modesty inside such places, (even as a lifelong nudist), and the propriety of sacred reverence to respect it’s purpose, so I actually agree with Mark Tooley, in that those other activities would best be done in the Fellowship Hall or other space.

  10. Wilda McWilliams says:

    We are losing all respect today of anything sacred. It saddens my heart. When our generation is gone all respect will be gone. It is so evident in the Methodist Church.

  11. Frederico Moretz says:

    Perhaps that historic and spiritual place was the only location on campus that would project the all important inclusive message of our church?

  12. John tomky says:

    Yoga isn’t exercise, it is eastern in origin so the person can channel their inner god consciousness and is completely against Jesus and his teaching. Salvation through the blood of Christ or ascension through consciousness. Resurrection or reincarnation? It is a total blasphemy

  13. Dorothy Manning says:

    As one more alum, I also agree, in principal with Mark Tooley. I also am concerned with the secularization of our society. It is time for the pendulum to swing the other way, toward conservatism, respect, and standards. However, may I allay your concern about the church becoming like a theatre. “Worship space for many modern non-liturgical churches, while not hosting recreation, often resembles theaters. . .”. In fact, the church is the very place where theatre was born. People were illiterate, so priests and retinue acted out Bible stories. And, it is time we stand up to the secularization of all aspects of our culture, say “nay” to the PC crowd who are “offended” when we decry what they do. Thank you for writing this. Dorothy, PhD in Humanities/French.

  14. April user says:

    What takes place within the heart is often reflected in how one carry themselves. Not always but often a person projects how much they care for the moment or event or even those around them by by how they present themselves outwardly.

  15. Rev. Vaughan Hayden says:

    I have always believed that what makes the worship space holy is when two or three are gathered in Jesus name, and Jesus is in the midst. I too remember having to dress in my Sunday best each week, and while it made going to church special, it also made it uncomfortable and a place where I couldn’t be myself.
    I think God would rather have me be myself.
    I understand the general sense of awe at Duke Chapel, just standing in the place kept my mouth gaping, and I get that there are a hundred other and more appropriate places for doing yoga, but perhaps the architecture will do what it is intended to do and allow those within its walls to notice the God who literally surrounds the place.
    I am unsure how I feel about consecrated spaces, since that was an Old Testament, temple thing and I believe the veil was torn in two upon Jesus death because God was breaking out. The New Testament doesn’t list any place as consecrated for worship or church, instead the met in each others homes and were being saved daily. Maybe if we did more of that, the buildings would be too full to be used for any other purposes.
    Nonetheless, the discussion seems to remind me of Amos 5:21, “I hate all your show and pretense.”
    Let’s reach people for Jesus no matter where they are, or what they are doing.

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