ἴama Yoga, a new worshiping community in Sacramento, embodies Christian spirituality through yoga
by Tammy Warren | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — In the Presbytery of Sacramento, ἴama Yoga, a 1001 new worshiping community in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will soon rise up to connect people to God and one another through the Christian spiritual practice of yoga.
In addition to being a tool to revitalize the broader faith community in Sacramento, California, ἴama Yoga will provide a safe space for people who are not affiliated with a church or who, due to past experiences, have come to believe they are done with church.
ἴama (ee-yah-mah) is a Greek noun (ἴαμα) for “healing” — holistic healing is a goal of this new worshiping community.
“I believe that through quieting one’s body, mind and soul, one can experience God’s presence,” said Rola Al Ashkar, organizing pastor of ἴama Yoga and ministry assistant for Outreach and Christian Education at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Sacramento. She will be ordained as an evangelist and new worshiping community coordinator during an in-person and livestreamed service on April 25. “I have a wonderful team comprised of three church members — Nan Fitzpatrick, Allyson Sage and Blakely Nordman — who will help me get things started,” she said.
“I love yoga and a lot of my life experience here in Sacramento has pointed me in the direction of wanting to do something for unchurched people,” Al Ashkar said. “It’s been a year of thinking that this is what I should be doing, and at the same time, I started meeting God on my [yoga] mat. Yoga has been so healing for me, not only physically and mentally, but also spiritually. So why not offer that kind of healing for people with any or no faith?”
Al Ashkar, who is from Lebanon, also serves as a member of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board. She previously served two years as a pastoral resident at Parkview Presbyterian Church, a congregation in downtown Sacramento founded by Japanese immigrants and focused on being a welcoming, cross-cultural ministry among people of all ethnicities.
Growing up in the Middle East, Al Ashkar noticed that all her life the church tried to teach her to forget about her body and focus on her mind and her spirit. “When I started practicing yoga, I did it merely for the physical exercise,” she said. After a while she realized that more in her was changing. “I’m this uncontrollable, all-over-the-place kind of person. It’s hard for me to sit and focus and be still.” Yoga, she said, calmed her down and changed her.
As an Arab woman, Al Ashkar felt conflicted and shamed by the church because of her dancing. She felt the church was encouraging her to give up the dancing, which she loved, and just focus on her mind and her spirit. Practicing yoga helped her reconcile this and experience wholeness and healing. This healing is what she wants for others who are part of ἴama yoga.
The ἴama yoga community will meet one hour each week for yoga practice and a Christian-based meditation and monthly for a fellowship meal. The yoga sessions will take place in the courtyard or an indoor space at Westminster Presbyterian, 1300 N Street in Sacramento. Al Ashkar also plans to offer classes for church people and others in the community during the week, plus build a vibrant online community through Facebook and YouTube.
Al Ashkar said she knows several people who feel like they don’t need the church. “I feel like there is a lack of wholeness,” she said, “Like I’m doing well, I have money, and there isn’t enough attention paid to mental and spiritual, in addition to physical well-being.” One specific person, she said, told her “’My friendship with you is almost like reconciling with God.’ She’s been rejecting God for so long because of the way she’s been raised and the way she thought the church was for her.” Al Ashkar added, “I feel like there is a lot of spiritual lack in the society. There is an attempt to fill that gap with other things like: I have a good job. I have money. I have friends. I’m good. But everyone — everyone — is looking for spiritual depth and everyone is looking for meaning in their life, whether they know it, whether they admit this or not.”
“I want it to be a place of healing for everyone,” Al Ashkar said.
The Rev. Dr. Mary E. Westfall, Transitional Presbyter at the Presbytery of Sacramento, sees this time in the life of the church as pivotal. Coming out of a pandemic and working to merge the Presbytery of Sacramento and Presbytery of Stockton into the North Central California Presbytery offers opportunities to be “faithful, bold and imaginative,” she said.
The pandemic has proven “hybrid church can work for worship, Bible study and yoga,” Westfall said. “It’s evangelism at its finest.”
Establishing 1001 New Worshiping Communities such as ἴama yoga (2021), Sacramento Uganda Fellowship (2016) and Intercultural Fellowship of Mosaics (2013) and a new Spanish-speaking congregation currently being organized, are all examples of revitalization in action. “They are all joining in the new thing God is doing,” Westfall said. “I want the church to be relevant and engaging on issues that matter — racial justice, environmental justice. The work of justice is what Jesus calls us to.”
Westfall expressed her sincere gratitude for all the collaborations that have come together to make these and other new worshiping communities possible in the presbytery and throughout the PC(USA). “We are the body of Christ,” she said. “Not every church has to start their own new worshiping community on their own.” Legacy churches like Westminster, she said, can partner to help support creative, innovative multicultural communities, along with presbytery support and across the denomination, including Mission Program Grants through the Racial Equity & Women’s Intercultural Ministries through the Presbyterian Mission Agency and benefits grants from the Board of Pensions.
“When the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) launched the 1001 New Worshiping Communities movement in 2012, it was to be a whole church endeavor — with every part of the denomination bringing resources and imagination,” said the Rev. Nikki Collins, coordinator of 1001 New Worshiping Communities. “The Organizing Pastor and Evangelist Grants program with the Board of Pensions of the PC(USA) demonstrates our collective commitment to sharing the gospel and removing barriers to both membership and service within the denomination.”
By age 17, Al Ashkar knew she wanted to study theology, but it would take another eight years before she enrolled in seminary. After earning a bachelor of science in computer sciences and working for a software development company, she became a flight attendant for Middle East Airlines, a folk dancer with a professional zaffa group and a part-time seminarian at the Near East School of Theology (NEST) in Beirut. Then she transferred to attend Princeton Theological Seminary full-time, earning a Master of Arts in theological studies from Princeton in 2016 and a diploma in theological studies from NEST in 2017.
“I think people always turn back to God when in crisis, and in life you are always either in a crisis, coming out of a crisis or heading toward a crisis,” Al Ashkar said. “So, if not now, at some point people are going to search for that whatever they want to call it, that higher being; that there’s more to life than we can see and feel and touch.”
ἴama Yoga received support from the Presbyterian Mission Agency in the form of a Mission Program Grant made available through Racial Equity & Women’s Intercultural Ministries. The grants support the transforming work of new worshiping communities and mid councils.
In 2012, the 220th General Assembly of the PC(USA) declared a commitment to a churchwide movement resulting in the creation of 1001 worshiping communities over the next 10 years. At a grassroots level, nearly 600 diverse new worshiping communities have formed across the nation.
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Categories: Evangelism & Discipleship, Mental Health, Worshiping Communities
Tags: 1001, 1001 movement, benefits grants, board of pensions, christian yoga, connecting with god through yoga, Near East School of Theology, new worshiping communities, north coast presbytery, organizing pastor and evangelist grants, parkview presbyterian church in sacramento, presbyterian mission agency board, presbytery of sacramento, Presbytery of Stockton, Princeton Theological Seminary, rev. dr. mary e. westfall, rola al ashkar, seed grants, westminster presbyterian church in sacramento, ἴama yoga
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Ministries: 1001 New Worshiping Communities, Evangelism, Mental Health Ministry 2021