Washingtonville — The only light inside St. Anne's Episcopal Church this Monday night is that of a small lamp next to a CD player emitting a composition of flute and electronic keyboard music.

Standing next to the lamp on an exercise mat is Linda Dougherty, instructing her students to bend forward with legs apart and arms outstretched.

"Think: 'Oh God, let me bow down in front of you in honor of you,'" she said.

Such pronouncements pepper the entirety of the 45- to 50-minute session of bending, stretching and meditating that Dougherty teaches at the Washingtonville church each week. It's part of a growing Christian yoga movement that has recently entered our region, joining Eastern techniques in health and spiritual fitness with the West's largest religion.

The rise of the trend in 2005 brought criticism from Christian and Hindu purists, who believed the Indian spiritual roots of yoga were irreconcilable with the West's religion. Pope Benedict XVI had once even signed a Vatican document warning Catholics to beware of Eastern traditions like yoga, which "can degenerate into a cult of the body."

Groups such as the American Yoga Association, however, deride such extremism. According to the nonprofit's Web site, the practice does not involve the worship of a deity nor conform to any one world religion.

"Many American Yoga Association students who practiced yoga intensively for many years continue to follow the religious traditions they have grown up in or adopted without conflict," the organization said on the Web site.

The controversy involving yoga and Christianity never came up at St. Anne's, where Dougherty introduced the classes in December, she said.

Dougherty was training with Yoga Mountain in Cornwall-on-Hudson for more than a year before mentioning her interest in the practice to her priest. A school social worker in Suffern, she noticed the health and mental benefits of the practice on her students. She received the priest's blessing to begin the teachings to other parishioners as part of Advent, the season leading up to Christmas.

The students enjoyed it so much, they asked Dougherty to keep it up, which she did.

A $10 donation is requested to help with expenses, as well as an offering to the church. Class membership varies from five to eight students.

Yoga opens the mind to one's inner spirituality through meditation, Dougherty said. "As you're moving through the postures and breathing, you also get the added benefits of good health."

By John Sullivan

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