Holy Hamstring, Batman!
It’s so mainstream these days, but I’ve always been a bit leery of the idea of Christians practicing yoga. I’ve even seen books in the store for “Christian Yoga”. “But, isn’t it just stretching & breathing exercises and ‘meditating’? And doesn’t it relieve stress and make you healthier?,” you ask. Actually, there’s a bit more to it than that.
The practice of Yoga is primarily based in Hinduism, and the different positions — aka postures, or asanas — and reasons for them are rooted in Eastern mystical beliefs. Simply put, those beliefs are counter to the worldview and associated teachings of historical, orthodox (or, “traditional”) Christianity. In many cases, the views & purposes of yoga/Hinduism and Christianity are not just different — they are diametrically opposed.
A few weeks ago, Dr. Al Mohler, a respected Christian leader, theologian, and president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, published an article in which he brought up precisely these concerns. What prompted the article was his having recently read a fascinating book called The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America, by Stephanie Syman. In fact, he interviewed Ms. Syman on his radio show, where they discussed her findings on when the discipline came to America, by whom, and what their purposes were. (Mostly, yoga and related teachings — e.g., New Thought — were specifically sought as a “spiritual” alternative to Christianity.)
Mohler gives some of the basics:
“The bare fact is that yoga is a spiritual discipline by which the adherent is trained to use the body as a vehicle for achieving consciousness of the divine. Christians are called to look to Christ for all that we need and to obey Christ through obeying his Word. We are not called to escape the consciousness of this world by achieving an elevated state of consciousness, but to follow Christ in the way of faithfulness.”
“Yoga begins and ends with an understanding of the body that is, to say the very least, at odds with the Christian understanding. Christians are not called to empty the mind or to see the human body as a means of connecting to and coming to know the divine. Believers are called to meditate upon the Word of God — an external Word that comes to us by divine revelation — not to meditate by means of incomprehensible syllables.”
After his interview with Syman, Mohler spoke with his next guest — Douglas R. Groothuis, Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary and a respected specialist on the New Age Movement. Dr. Groothuis warned Christians that yoga is not merely about physical exercise or health.
“All forms of yoga involve occult assumptions, even hatha yoga, which is often presented as a merely physical discipline….
“Hinduism is a very big tent, but all forms of Hinduism advocate as a necessary spiritual discipline some type of yoga, and yoga involves physical practices such as postures and breathing and chanting. [But,] the essential point, the goal of yoga is not the purification of the body or the beautification of the physique. [T]he point of yoga is a change in consciousness, a transformation of the consciousness wherein one finds oneself at one with the ultimate reality, which in Hinduism is Brahman.”
“While most adherents of yoga avoid the more exotic forms of ritualized sex that are associated with tantric yoga, virtually all forms of yoga involve an emphasis on channeling sexual energy throughout the body as a means of spiritual enlightenment.”
Anyone with a little education and discernment should recognize these practices and the goals they serve as being contrary to Biblical teaching.
“There is nothing wrong with physical exercise, and yoga positions in themselves are not the main issue. But these positions are teaching postures with a spiritual purpose. Consider this — if you have to meditate intensely in order to achieve or to maintain a physical posture, it is no longer merely a physical posture.”
“I have heard from a myriad of souls who have called me insane, incompetent, stupid, vile, fundamentalist, and perverted. Some others are best left unrepeated. These souls claim to be Christian, but offer no Biblical argument, nor do they even acknowledge the basic fact that yoga, as a spiritual practice, runs directly counter to the spiritual counsel of the Bible.”
“I have heard endless claims that there is no incompatibility between yoga and Christianity because it makes people feel better, it helps spirituality, it is a better way to know God, etc.”
Lots of things make people “feel better”, at least for a time, but that does not mean they are truly good/healthy for them — physically, emotionally, and/or spiritually. (Consider substance abuse, for one.) “Spirituality”, which has become such a nebulous concept, is not always good. The Bible teaches that there are “false spirits” and false teachings about “other Jesuses” and alternative spiritual practices. As for yoga being “a better way to know God”: Better than what? Better than orthodox Christian doctrine? Better than that boring stuff they make you do/say/hear in church? A true Christian should know better. (No pun intended.)
“Not one -– not a single one -– has addressed the theological and Biblical issues. There is not even a single protest communication offering a theological argument.”
Sad. I tend to think that this is evidence of many being in stubborn denial, intellectual laziness, or just ignorance of solid Biblical teaching on such things. (Yeah, we’re all guilty of this from time to time.) There is a shallowness to many so-called Christians’ faith, a lack of discernment, and a misunderstanding of what Christianity (i.e., being a true, faithful follower of Jesus Christ) means & requires. According to Mohler, “The embrace of yoga is a symptom of our postmodern spiritual confusion, and, to our shame, this confusion reaches into the church.”
So, what if one were to strip off all the heathen, mystical stuff? What if the only things one meditated/concentrated on were Biblical truths, Scripture verses, the character of God, etc.? Can one perform yoga-type poses, getting the beneficial, physical effects, without seeking any non-Biblical “enlightenment”? Well, since I don’t believe that particular physical positions inherently and by themselves put one at risk of demonic possession or any such thing, then I think such a proposition is OK. But then, as Mohler says, “You’re just not doing yoga.” Call it PraiseMoves(TM): The Christian Alternative to Yoga.
In fact, Mohler asked a similar question of Dr. Groothuis toward the end of their discussion. Here is the exchange:
“Mohler: [C]an you make a division between, say, some of the physical exercises that lead to greater health potentially for the body from the theological, spiritual and, well, intellectual commitments of yoga?
Groothuis: Well, if something is truly yoga, it has that spiritual basis and that spiritual direction and that spiritual essence. Now, are there bodily postures that are similar or maybe even identical to some yoga postures that have some health benefits? Yes, but I always tell people when they ask me this question, any health benefit you could derive from yoga, you can get from outside of yoga, such as through Pilates or physical therapy or something like that. Yoga means being yoked with Brahman, essentially, and you don’t want to submit yourself to that alien spiritual practice. So, if there are limited physical benefits, they can be obtained outside of the practice of yoga itself.
Mohler: I think that’s very well stated, and I think the other side to that is that, if you have to get into some kind of meditative state in order to assume some kind of posture you are defining as exercise, you’re kidding yourself if you think it’s mere exercise.
Groothuis: Exactly, and that is the point of yoga. It is the transformation of consciousness from the finite to the infinite, and only God is the infinite personal Creator. We are the finite personal creatures, and yoga wants to blend those two into this one, faceless, non-personal thing, and yoga is the means to achieve that.”
Meditating on God’s Word: Good.
Now, pardon me, but I’m late for Tai-chi class. (Just kidding…)
As a complete aside, the AP story about this states:
“Yoga fans say their numbers have been growing in the U.S. A 2008 study by the Yoga Journal put the number at 15.8 million, or nearly 7 percent of adults. About 6.7 percent of American adults are Southern Baptists, according to a 2007 survey by the Pew Research Center Forum on Religion & Public Life.”
What the heck does the second statistic (about Southern Baptists) have to do with the first (about yoga proponents)? Sure, the percentages are close, but there is no evidence given of how much overlap there is. Other than perhaps being an interesting statistic in itself, the latter has no relevant connection to the story. Sloppy journalism or intentional conflation & misdirection? You decide….