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Yoga ministry: Where the mats form a cross

23 February 2024

A Christian minister’s yoga ministry aims to encourage well-being during Lent; and she has written a book, Sarah Meyrick finds


EMBODY LENT is quite unlike most of the reflective guides to the season on offer this year. Spiral-bound for reasons of practicality, and peppered with stick-figure drawings, it is an exploration of Lent through a series of 29 yoga postures, based on a passage from Ecclesiastes.

The book is the work of a Church of Scotland minister, the Revd Pauline Steenbergen, who lives in Carlisle and co-leads a fresh-expressions ministry, Maranatha Yoga UK. How did it come about?

The Revd Pauline Steenbergen

“I’m a minister and a yoga teacher. Those two things are quite an unusual combination,” she says. “I’ve been working away quite quietly online, as an ecumenical pioneer. Last Lent, I created the material for a cohort of adults on Zoom.”

She felt that the material was worth sharing. “There’s never been more need for embodiment, right now, amongst Christians, but also amongst people of all faiths and none.” This is essential in an increasingly digital world, she says, which has worrying consequences for our mental health.

She is well aware that this synthesis of Christianity and yoga is seen by some as controversial; her inbox is testament to strongly held views. She hopes that the book will “ignite conversations about yoga and the intersection with Christian spirituality”. There is, she believes, “a silent majority of people in the UK who are accessing yoga because of health, fitness, well-being, but maybe finding it hard to be honest about that in their Christian circles. I want to give people confidence and courage, and a resource to support their practice.”

Ms Steenbergen was ordained in Dundee in 1996. It was some years later that she came across yoga. A knee injury brought on by running sent her to a sports physiotherapist, who suggested that yoga might help her to stretch her muscles. The knee recovered — but she noticed other benefits, too.

“The breath awareness which I discovered in those classes was a surprising bonus, giving me a treasure-box of tools to manage anxiety and stress,” she writes in the introduction to the book. “Around the same time, a retired vicar and her friend taught me to meditate using a single word mantra, ‘Maranatha’ [‘Come, Lord’].”

At the time, she had a demanding job as a hospice chaplain, and a young family. “Getting space and time was really tricky. I could see burnout coming,” she says.

“My yoga mat was my space, six feet by two feet, somewhere I could slow down. I began to listen to my body, to what was going on emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. And, as I began to do that deep listening on the mat, I began to realise that this is a place where I can listen more to God.

“There was something about the slowness, the quietness, the uncrowded feel of it all. I started bringing my Bible to the mat; so I would move from yoga practice into Bible-reading, and I found lots of parallels. Suddenly, I was noticing how many references there are in the Old Testament and the New Testament to the body, to our physicality. ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul, your mind, and your strength.’”

Once she started to connect her body, mind, and spirit, she began to see it as a spiritual practice. The breath is central to yoga, and her Christian faith is underpinned by a belief that God is the breath of life.

Ms Steenbergen felt the stirrings of a calling to train as a yoga teacher, which she did part-time with Yoga Scotland, alongside her work.


YOGA is now a way of life for her, as she divides her time between ministry and teaching. Her regular hatha yoga classes are not overtly Christian. “It’s spiritual, but it’s not religious. But people know that I’m a Christian, and my green mats are in the shape of a cross. I’ve lived in Carlisle since 2007; so a lot of people know me from the hospice, or they’ve seen me around with my dog collar.”

Pauline SteenbergenMs Steenbergen’s cross-shaped yoga mat

The pandemic opened up surprising opportunities. Because of the restrictions on travel, she could no longer cross the border into Scotland, where she had been working as a locum minister. Concentrating on the yoga initially felt like a fall-back position. Now, she believes it was God-given.

“I couldn’t have done it without the support of the diocese, and that’s also quite unusual, in that I’m not an Anglican,” she says. She pays tribute to the Rt Revd James Newcome, then the Bishop of Carlisle and the Church of England’s lead bishop on health and social care in the House of Lords, for his encouragement. During the pandemic, in a TV interview in front of the Cumberland Infirmary in Carlisle, he said: “Our bodies matter to God.” “He really got it,” she says.

Ms Steenbergen began teaching alongside Christine Pickering, an Anglican, who had founded Maranatha Yoga. (Bishop Newcome later authorised Maranatha Yoga as a fresh expression, and granted Ms Steenbergen permission to officiate.)

Then the pandemic struck, and everything was transferred to Zoom. Thanks to the British Wheel of Yoga, and Yoga Scotland, yoga teachers pooled their experiences with tips for teaching online.

And it worked: classes that once drew just a handful of people suddenly had participants from far and wide. “At our highest point, we had engaged 193 people,” she says. “There was such a hunger in the pandemic for well-being, and to have some sort of framework for the spiritual life.”

At this point, Ms Steenbergen also made contact with Cross Yoga, a European body of Christian yoga practitioners, and Christians Practising Yoga, an American association. “I’m still really good friends with a number of people I’ve never met,” she says. “They’re my sisters in Christ, and we help each other out.” She knows of at least seven other yoga teachers who are ordained or in training for ordained ministry.

As a white Christian, she emphasises that she strives to avoid cultural appropriation. She has engaged with people from South Asia who come to her classes, to check that her teachings are respectful, and has also travelled to India to study the discipline. She uses Sanskrit terms for postures, and frequently speaks of the origins of yoga.


THE sequences in Embody Lent are designed to be inclusive of people of all ages and abilities, offering a range of postures that can be practised from a wheelchair or a hospital bed as well as on the mat. “I’m really proud of that,” she says.

She has focused on Ecclesiastes 3.1-8 (“There is a time for everything . . .”); the postures are designed to bring the verses to life. This is the text that she would take to a desert island. “I love the sense that they are relatable to people of all faiths,” she says. “Those life experiences of birth and death, love and hate, war and peace, losing and finding, breaking and healing, are universal. . .

“I truly believe that Jesus would have known Ecclesiastes 3 off by heart. Apparently, it was used in the festivals in Jerusalem on an annual basis. And I imagine that those words would have served him well in the desert wilderness.”

The Revd Pauline Steenbergen at her ordination in Dundee in 1996

The book is an attempt to teach people ways of embodying Lent “with their whole being, slowly, gently, and reflectively”, she writes. Although she is drawing on a long history of embodiment — the theological understanding of the body as a sacrament or holy mystery — she is aware that attitudes to the body are not always positive in the Church, made worse by what she calls “the tidal wave of sexual abuse”.

Centuries of mind-body dualism have not served us well in the West, she writes. “In any sector [this] is dangerous, but in religious communities it is toxic.”

What does she mean?

She refers to the influence of Greek philosophy on the New Testament, and the idea that the mind was superior to the body: something later reinforced by Descartes. “I think we’ve really suffered from that, both men and women, but particularly women,” she says.

“Yet if we’re truly made in the image of God, then we are a whole. Everything is connected and interconnected. And, through my anatomy and physiology studies as a yoga student, I’m so aware of the fascia, the connective tissue that wraps everything up.” The alternative is “toxic and dangerous”, because it divides “what should be home” and separates “what should be one”.

She gives the example of some work that she did with a group of asylum-seekers. About 100 largely young women in their twenties and thirties, a mix of Christians, Muslims, humanists, agnostics, and atheists, arrived in Carlisle from Eritrea, Sudan, and Iran, in 2022. The welcome from local people was not universal.

Ms Steenbergen offered the women yoga classes. None had English as a first language; it took weeks before they could have even the most basic conversation.

“The slow simple phrasing, body postures, breath awareness, relaxation exercises, and silent meditation by candlelight [created] an interconnectedness,” she writes. At the end of the sessions, she suggested that everyone say the word for “peace” in their own language.

“It was so amazing. I don’t know their stories. They don’t know mine. But we always said each other’s names, and we always said ‘peace’.”

This was true interfaith ministry, she says. “I’ve spent years in meetings thinking, how do we have services of Christian unity? How do we negotiate our liturgies, our communion, our theology, even just as Christians? But here we were with the simple toolbox of yoga, and it was offering us a united experience.”

Embody Lent is published by Wild Goose Publications at £10.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9.89); 978-1-80432-321-2.

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