Yoga is known for its physical benefits, but Amy Secrist has found it to be much more than a good form of exercise. The Mansfielder says it’s strengthened her spirituality.
And no — not in the context of Hinduism, as yoga is commonly associated with. Rather, her faith in Jesus.
The 41-year-old identifies as “The Catholic Yogi,” a name she adopted at the encouragement of a friend who insisted that she chronicle her journey as a Catholic and a yogi.
The dichotomy between these titles was something Secrist had wrestled with for years, based on other’s comments and out of self-doubt, she said.
"As I reflect on this period I realize that the struggle created a space for me to practice discernment through intense prayer, which massively strengthened my relationship with God,” she said.
“Finally, I came to the conclusion that practicing yoga and loving God bring me joy, and that God is big — bigger than any doubts, bigger than any conflicts, bigger than anything we can conceive.”
Secrist, a mother of four, was introduced to yoga 21 years ago at the Mansfield Art Center.
“I initially signed up for the class to see if yoga was as weird as seemed,” she said. “Turns out, it wasn't, and I never stopped.”
She was hooked and found another class at the old YMCA taught by Claudia Cummins.
“She is a wonderful teacher and has shared so much wisdom with me over the years,” she said.
It was through one of Cummins' yoga workshops that she discovered Martha Marcom and the other founding members of Yoga on High — Marcia Miller and Linda Oshins.
She took a yoga teacher training course at Yoga on High, a yoga studio in Columbus’ Short North, “without any intention of becoming a yoga teacher,” she said. She received her teaching certification in ashtanga yoga in March of 2003 and has been teaching ever since.
Currently, she holds classes at No Limits Studio in Lexington and the Butterfly House in downtown Mansfield. In the summertime she teaches outdoors on the lawn at the Mansfield Art Center.
She said her personal yoga practice has gone through many phases over the years, from weekly classes, to no classes, to home-based online classes. She aims to practice daily, whether using a guided online session one of her own design.
“I find that yoga practice, for the most part, brings my mind and body into fuller states of health and wellness, and into stillness, into a state of calm alertness, which feels like happiness and wholeness,” she said.
“I'm sure the spiritual experience of yoga practice is different for everyone, but I find that my spirit is much more open to God's presence and loving action when I have a regular/daily yoga practice than when I don’t."
She said yoga has acted as a magnifying glass on her Catholic tradition.
“I began to realize and to see that as many jewels as I found in yoga, so, too, were there that many jewels in Christianity,” she said. “It was only that I hadn't been shown what they were, nor had I been taught how to discover them. My study of yoga informed, supplemented and inspired my study of Christianity.”
She’s found the predictability and rhythmic movements of the sun salutations and the ashtanga primary series comforting, the sound of the ujjayi breath, (breathing with sound) grounding.
"The ashtanga primary series and the celebration of Sunday mass are similar in that they each stay exactly the same no matter where in the world they are practiced,” she said. “A mass in Rome and a mass in Mansfield are very much the same. A primary series practice in Shelby is the same as a primary series practice in India.”
She feels God has gifted her with yoga.
“Truly, I see yoga as one of the greatest blessings in my life, “she said. “I also feel that because I found yoga at a relatively young age, it's as if I've grown up a yogi, just as much as I've grown up a Catholic.
“Interestingly, I was raised Roman Catholic, but now find myself identifying as simply Catholic, meaning universal, all-inclusive and without boundaries. And I feel like I was raised an ashtangi, but now identify as simply a yogi, meaning one who practices yoga, or one who practices surrendering to the divine, embracing the divine will, which I see as benevolent.”
Secrist studies the works of Fr. Richard Rohr, a Fransiscan Catholic priest and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation who described yoga as it exists in Hinduism, as well as Bryan Kest, a founder of Power Yoga.
“Bryan Kest grew up, like I did, studying ashtanga yoga. Then he evolved his practice into Power Yoga (like an alternative ashtanga). This speaks to the way I used to identify as a Roman Catholic but now just Catholic. I used to identify as an ashtangi, but now just a yogi,” she said.
Asked how being The Catholic Yogi impacts how she practices and teaches yoga, Secrist said there’s no short answer — in fact she could write a book on this question alone.
“‘Being the Catholic Yogi hasn't changed anything about the way I practice or the way I teach, but walking around with this name as my identity has, indeed, had an impact on me as a person,” she said. “The name holds me accountable; it implores me to maintain my integrity as a teacher through daily practice of movement, prayer and meditation, no matter what. It's also been a wonderful conversation-starter."
More than anything she hopes the label will open people’s hearts and minds.
“My presence in the world shows Christians that yoga can strengthen one's relationship with God, and it shows yogis that the Christian God might not be all that bad if a yogi is also a trinity-lover,” she said.
“But even beyond the labels of Christian and yogi, I hope my presence in the world inspires all hearts to be even just a little bit more open and embracing of fellow human beings, regardless of their given or chosen identity.”