Yoga, church, and radical acceptance: An interview with the Grace Cathedral yoga team

Yoga in the church opens the space to all faiths: "In fact, many atheists find yoga extremely rewarding."

Every Tuesday evening, hundreds of people flock to the Grace Cathedral Labyrinth to practice yoga with local teacher Darren Main. With Easter around the corner, SFBG talked to Main and the Rev. Jude Harmon, who manages the program, about how this unlikely class came to be, and why it works so well in San Francisco.

SFBG: Darren, how did you wind up teaching the class at Grace Cathedral?

Darren Main: My friend Jamie Lindsay, a yoga teacher who had been attending Grace Cathedral for years, started the class there. When he moved to New York in 2009, he asked me if I would take the class. I had long admired Grace Cathedral for both its architectural wonder as well as how it has been on the cutting edge of social justice and spiritual equality. Right from the start I could feel something magical happening. What started off as a small group of students has now grown to over 300 people each week.

SFBG: How does yoga fit in at the church?

Rev. Jude Harmon: Grace Cathedral, like the National Cathedral, was established with the founding vision “to be a house of prayer for all people.” We have hosted a wide variety of cultural events that span the spectrum of nearly every kind of diversity imaginable. We were at the forefront of civil rights, welcoming Martin Luther King Jr. to preach here, and we paved the way forward for the embrace of LGBT people in the sacramental life of the Church long before it became the norm at a national level. This yoga class is just a natural extension of our commitment to welcome all people, from every walk of life, and to support them in their spiritual growth.

SFBG: What’s it like to teach yoga at Grace?

DM: Teaching in a church, especially one the size of Grace Cathedral, is an amazing experience. You can’t help but feel something sacred by simply walking through the door. And there is something about being in such an iconic space. It’s like teaching in the Taj Mahal or the Great Pyramid. People come from all over the world just to see this building, walk its labyrinth, and admire the architecture and artwork. I am moved to tears sometimes when I think of how much this cathedral — and specifically doing yoga in this cathedral — represents the magic of San Francisco.

SFBG: Do you have to be a churchgoer to attend?

DM: Not at all. Yoga is a science, not a religion and so it requires no belief to be effective as a practice for quieting the mind, opening the heart, and balancing the body. In fact, many atheists find yoga extremely rewarding. Non-Christians attend the class for the community, the practice, and the beauty of the cathedral.

SFBG: Can yoga enhance one’s spiritual practice?

DM: Yes, because it helps us to more easily access the divine when we have a quiet mind, a balanced body and an open heart. Yoga can also be a way of exploring the same universal questions that religion explores, like Why are we here? and Who are we?

SFBG: Does the practice of yoga connect in any way to the practice of Christianity?

JH: Yes. Early Christians—known as monastics—went to live alone in the desert to train their bodies to perceive the Word of God that is spoken in nature. The ascetic practices they developed to help them are very similar to those employed by yogis. And like great yogis, these early Christian pioneers were sought after for their deep wisdom.

I remember the first time I saw the yoga students ascending Grace Cathedral’s Great Steps in droves on the dusk of a July evening. They seemed like angelic visitors from some Hyperion realm. But they weren’t carrying BCPs in their hands, or hymnals or even bibles—they were carrying yoga mats! While most of them wouldn't dream of setting foot in a church for a traditional Eucharist, I felt my heart bond with them. At some very profound level, yogis and Episcopalians have this in common: an intuitive yearning for deep communion and real presence. At the heart of a yogic practice, just as at the heart of our Eucharistic practice, is the possibility of a self-integration that opens out our consciousness toward the world in compassion.

SFBG: Has the yoga class helped bring lapsed Christians back to church?

JH: I’ve heard a lot of people say that they’re surprised and delighted to see a priest [myself] practicing yoga with them, and that maybe religion, and Christianity in particular, isn’t ‘all bad after all’! The extent to which that translates into people coming to Sunday services is another question. I did issue an invitation to the yoga community to participate in Ash Wednesday services and I saw several of them there. I believe that we must continue to build relationship, and also to build content that is familiar and comfortable, meaningful and simple, and that appeals to both the congregation and the yoga community across contexts.

DM: Over the years, hundreds of students have told me that their experience at Yoga on the Labyrinth helped them let go of past religion-based trauma, and even recognize the beauty in Jesus’ message of compassion and forgiveness. While the yoga class may have brought them into the church, they eventually came to see that Grace Cathedral was not like traditional churches. It welcomes people of all stripes and backgrounds, and only wants people to find spiritual wellbeing on their own terms. Like yoga, Grace is about radical self-acceptance. This radical acceptance can be profoundly healing.

SFBG: What is the yoga class like?

DM: Given that the class is so diverse in terms of age, physical ability, and level of yoga practice, I focus on the more gentle and meditative side of yoga. The cathedral itself invites a more inward and contemplative experience as well, so it is really a perfect fit. Every week, I invite Bay Area musicians who have a transcendent quality to play at class. Artists include Sam Jackson (singing bowls), Kendra Faye (harp), Timothy Das (Native American flute and didgeridoo), and Amber Field, Christopher Love, and Mirabai (Indian chanting).

SFBG: Why do you think a class like this became so popular in San Francisco?

DM: San Francisco has always been known for being open-mined, and that quality makes people open to the unique experience of doing yoga in a church. That said, I would not be at all surprised if we see this idea spreading beyond the Bay Area over the next ten years or so.

SFBG: It’s Easter time. Will your classes this month connect at all with the holiday?

DM: I try to theme my classes around seasons, holidays, and current events and Easter is one of my favorite holidays. While the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection is unique to the Christian tradition, the underlying theme — which is about the endurance of hardship and the opportunity for transcendence and rebirth through that experience—is as universal and inevitable as the sunrise.

Karen Macklin is a writer and yoga teacher in San Francisco -- her On the Om Front column appears biweekly here on


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