Sitting across from Bethel Lee in a Kitsilano cafe on a Sunday afternoon, she seems like any other young Vancouver mom.
She sips her mango lassi smoothie and talks about the affordability of family-friendly housing in the area and why she loves her neighbourhood.
But ask her about yoga, Jesus and how the two go together and the conversation takes a turn for the lively – and deep.
Lee is the creator of Yoga Chapel, a Christian yoga ministry that is the result of her own faith journey and is unique in Vancouver.
A lifelong, committed Christian in the United Church tradition, she says prayer was for her always a “proactive thing, talking but not listening,” and the body was seen as a place of potential sin and therefore ignored.
That changed when Lee’s sister introduced her to yoga as a form of exercise while in university. “I hated it... I felt like I was going to go crazy just being still,” Lee recalls.
But, not one to quit on the first try, she kept going back and trying different types of yoga and eventually found classes that she liked.
Over time, yoga became a “nurturing, centring practice” that helped her connect with her body and pray in a new way. “It became a number one way of being with God,” she says.
Yoga works well to facilitate prayer because, according to Lee “the mind, body and emotions are connected. We need to work with the body to help us come to a place where we can be centred.”
After attending Duke Divinity School and becoming an ordained minister in the United Church, Lee obtained her yoga teacher certification. She also started asking questions about her ministry work and why young people were not coming to church. Specifically, she began asking: “Are we not reaching people because we could do it differently?”
In 2011, Lee applied for a grant from the United Church of Canada’s New Ministries Formation Fund. She received a grant that allowed her to pursue advanced teacher certification and launch Yoga Chapel.
“I just created something that I wished would have been there for me,” she says.
By spring 2012 she was teaching a series of classes at a local church. From there, things grew and various churches around the city asked her to teach classes for their members.
The classes were always held inside the church itself, not in the basement or the church hall.
Since having her first child 18 months ago, Lee has stopped teaching classes in person, although former students have tried to lure her back into the sanctuary. Instead, she has shifted into making Yoga Chapel classes available online and adding to the reflections, sermons and podcasts that are available on her website. She sees this shift as just another way of breaking down the barriers that keep people from walking into churches.
Lee has recorded six series of class videos (each series consists of either four or seven classes) that are available on demand on Vimeo. Her classes combine Gentle Flow, Hatha, Yin and Restorative yoga styles.
Each class is based on a biblical theme, such as light and darkness or Lent, and begins on the yoga mat with breathing exercises that are done while listening to a short Bible passage and reflection. From there, the class moves into the usual poses.
Some of the terminology is modified. For example, bringing your hands together and raising them up over your head is called “high prayer.” The class ends lying on the mat again, breathing and listening to a short reflection.
If the numbers are any indication, her class offerings are finding a receptive audience. Her six class videos have been played over 1,300 times in the short time they have been online.
Lee says while she would love it if people would turn to Yoga Chapel for their yoga classes and spiritual nourishment, she thinks there is great benefit to trying any yoga class.
“Try a few different classes until you find one that works for you. I’m not offended if someone doesn’t like my style.”
The idea of Christian yoga is not without its opponents. Lee says she received “letters of concern” from some Christians when she launched Yoga Chapel.
In the U.S., “Praise Moves” was developed as an alternative by Christians who feel yoga is incompatible with Christianity. Many more have embraced incorporating yoga into their prayer lives. There are now “yoga chaplains” like Lee in Florida and Los Angeles.
Lee’s Christian yoga classes are available for purchase online at yogachapel.com. Podcasts on Christian and yoga themes are also available for free download on the website.
• After graduating from Simon Fraser University with a degree in communication, Alicia moved to Rome, where she got an unexpected start covering religion. Stints in Toronto, Madrid and Toronto followed, culminating with her return home to the West Coast. Alicia has worked as a television producer and host, and is currently a freelance writer for Aleteia and Catholic News Service, as well as Leap of Faith, the Westender's blog on faith and spirituality in Vancouver.