Since the 1960’s the United States has seen a steady rise in the interest in and acceptance of Eastern forms of thought and philosophy. One of the evidences of this is the virtual explosion of centers teaching yoga. It is being taught at YMCA’s, community centers, hospitals, physical therapy clinics, schools and even in churches. Yoga is touted primarily as an exercise regimen designed to increase function, strength and mobility while at the same time decreasing stress.
One of the persistent claims of many Western proponents of yoga is that it is non-religious and therefore compatible with any religious system. Consider the following statement from the book Meditations from the Mat, “You will find nothing in the Ancient texts that contradicts the precepts of any religion. Instead you will find a step-by-step guide to right living, a guide that complements the goals of any spiritual condition.” (1) Yoga enthusiasts are not above taking scripture out of context in an attempt to Christianize the practice. Ann Kent Rush writes, “Meditation is the exploration of the pauses between thoughts. The mind can find balance that is considered more real, that is, more divine than thinking. The spiritual harmony beyond thought is described in the biblical phrase, “the peace that passeth understanding”.” (2)
Many Christians have uncritically accepted these claims without stopping to examine the beliefs that form the foundation for the system. When one does investigate these beliefs, one finds that they are deeply rooted in Eastern religious thought. A more honest assessment of Yoga’s religious connection comes from David Life and Sharon Gannon who write, “Yoga is not a religion; it is a school of practical philosophy. Yoga practices however are inextricably linked to the development of both Hinduism and the philosophical schools, including Yoga, Vedanta, Samkhya, Jainism, and Buddhism, which developed in ancient India. Their codevelopment in the modern era has commonality in language, myth, root teachings, practices, and beliefs.” (3) (emphasis mine)
It will be the purpose of this article to review some of the major religious tenants supporting yoga and to evaluate them from a Christian worldview. Attention will be given to assessing whether yoga practices, specifically asana’s (postures) and pranayama’s (breathing exercises) can be safely separated from their religious heritage.
The origins of Yoga reach back into the ancient history of India. It first begins to emerge in the Upanishads (1000-500 B.C.) Included in these writings are many of the practices as well as the goal of Yoga, union with the Absolute. The word itself appears repeatedly in the Bhagavad Gita (500-400 B.C.) However, it is the writings of Pantanjali, the Yoga Sutras (150 A.D.), which are normally credited with developing Yoga as a system.
The first difficulty one encounters when trying to evaluate Yoga today is that the system is not monolithic. That is to say, there is not one single mode of thought to which one can point and say, “This is yoga.” In reality, yoga has a variety of schools of thought as can be seen from the following statement by Anne Kent Rush; “There are many different Yoga schools today. Kundalini practices deep breathing and strenuous exercises. Astanga, outlined in Power Yoga (Beryl Bender Birch, Fireside), combines variations of hatha postures with its own form of breathing and continuous fast-paced movement. Tantra focuses on couple exercises and sexual energy. Raja heightens spirituality by subduing body sensations in order to allow the mind to dominate.” (4) Yet in spite of the diversity, there are some beliefs and goals that all schools share in common.
The word Yoga comes from a Sanskrit word meaning roughly “to yoke or unite”. The goal of Yoga is Samadhi, enlightenment or union with the Divine. This is one of the constants seen in every school as can be demonstrated by the following statements;
“Yoga is the union of the individual psyche with the transcendental Self.” (5)
“Samadhi is the technique of unifying consciousness [with the object of meditation] and the resulting state of ecstatic union with the object of contemplation.” (6)
In a chapter entitled, “Yoga is Your True Nature: Union with the Divine Self”, Gannon and Life state, “The various yoga practices are like the yoking mechanism: they put you on the path, and direct you as you walk toward God. They make you available for the possibility that you might experience a graceful dissolution of the yoke and the merger with the Divine called Samadhi.” (7)
Upon reading these quotes some observations should be obvious to the Christian. The first is that the basic assumptions Yoga makes about the nature of God are completely foreign and incompatible with the Christian belief system. The god of Yoga is spoken of as the Absolute, Higher Self, Ultimate, Divine Consciousness and a host of other titles that speak of an impersonal, pantheistic deity that is in all things, though transcendent beyond them. How this impersonal deity can emanate in personal beings including humans and how humans can relate with this impersonal god are two of the logical inconsistencies within Hinduism. Relationships involve multiple personal beings. Real love demands both a lover and a beloved.
Most practitioners of Yoga are either qualified nondualists or complete nondualists in their understanding of the relationship between god and the physical world. Qualified nondualists see themselves as being qualitatively one with god, though not equal with god. For a good example of this system consider the following statement by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, “Similarly, we are all qualitatively one with God. The word qualitatively means that whatever we have as spirit souls, God also has. There is no difference in quality. For example, suppose you take a drop of water from the vast Atlantic Ocean and you chemically analyze the ingredients. The composition of the drop of water is the same as the composition of the vast Atlantic Ocean. So qualitatively the drop of water is equal to the vast mass of water in the Atlantic Ocean. Similarly, you are a spirit soul, a spark of the supreme spirit soul, God. You have all the spiritual qualities that God has.” (8) In other words, qualified nondualists see themselves as emanating from the Absolute though not identical with the absolute.
Nondualists see themselves as one with god. This oneness is not recognized because of their preoccupation with the physical world. The physical world is maya, or illusion. Only that which does not change is real. At the essence of each person is divinity. True enlightenment is reached when the illusion of distinction between the individual and god is shattered and the soul realizes its true identity. Life and Gannon provide an example of this belief, “What is liberation? It is when the jiva [soul] realizes that it is not individual but Absolute.” (9) And again, “The realized soul is Atman. The Atman sees all; it is the indwelling witness. It is pure consciousness, in a state of absolute joy. It is unborn and deathless, not subject to growth and decay….It is unchangeable and eternal and is not destroyed when the body is destroyed. Atman is I-AM.” (10) Similarly, Feuerstein gives the following quote ascribed to the Hindu sage Shankara,
Om. I am not reason, intuition (buddhi), egoity (ahamkara), or memory.
Neither am I hearing, tasting, smelling, or sight; neither ether nor earth;
fire or air. I am Shiva, in the form of Consciousness- Bliss. I am Shiva.
Feuerstein summarizes the meaning of this mantra with the comment. “Thus he or she affirms “I am the Absolute””. (11)
Another issue of distinction that should be becoming clear is that the great need of man and thus the solution to this need is radically different from Christianity. In Yoga, as in Hinduism, the great need of man is to rid himself from karma, the cumulative effect of the good and bad things done in a persons life that are paid for during the next life when the soul transmigrates into another body. The yoga practitioner seeks to reach the point of enlightenment or Samadhi when union with the divine is accomplished and the individual ego or person is dissolved into the Absolute. “With enlightenment there is automatic liberation from all karma. The jivanmukta is freed from all past, present and future karma-all actions from beginningless time are dissolved.” (12) And again, “Most people are not truly interested in disturbing the illusion of separation between the small self and the universal Self. It can be frightening to contemplate the dissolution of your personality, of your ego, of yourself.” (13) Karma is undoubtedly one of the cruelest teachings ever devised by man. It does nothing to solve the ultimate question of evil as Hindu philosophers claim. Karma teaches that every evil thing that happens in a person’s life is payment for some bad action taken in a previous life that can’t even be remembered. It makes the individual personally responsible for any reprehensible action taken against them. For instance, a woman who is brutally raped is ultimately responsible for her attack because of some action taken in a past life. The absurdity goes even further for to help this woman would ultimately be bad for her since it would prevent her from purging herself of this negative karma. The problem is magnified even further when one understands that most traditional schools of Hinduism teach that our existence is eternal. (14) This means that there was no original choice of rebellion against God that brought the race under sin and condemnation. So the original karmic debt was unmerited. It would also seem, since each of us continue to sin, that with each passing life a person’s debt would continue to increase. There seems to be no way to win. And one must ask how enlightenment frees one from karmic cause and effect? How is it that the enlightened one automatically receives a “get out of jail free” card and is no longer responsible for past or future actions? This essentially teaches that the truly enlightened individual can no longer sin.
In fact, sin is not truly addressed within Hinduism and its Eastern cousins. One of the tenants is nonjudgmentalism. Consider the advice of Anne Rush when discussing meditation, “If you can observe your thoughts as neither good nor bad, just there and identify the calm between your thoughts, your moods and perspectives will become more balanced.” (15) She continues by discussing the path that should be pursued in life. “One of the choicest fruits of meditation is that your participation in the world becomes more peaceful and constructive. See if you can develop the same nonjudgmental response to others that you are cultivating toward yourself during meditation.” (16) Among the eight-fold path of Yoga is a system of right and wrong as well as a call to pure living but one must ask where this comes from. How can an impersonal deity impose law? And how is this compatible with the nonjudgmental attitude of teachers like Ms Rush? Doesn’t advocating pure living assume an absolute standard that exists somewhere outside of the individual person? Who determines what this standard is? The questions are much the same as one would ask any postmodernist.
Christianity teaches that the great need of man is not to recognize his essential deity but his sinfulness. Man in his sin has offended a holy, righteous, personal law giver. This violation of law demands a penalty. The penalty demanded is death. However, God, in His infinite mercy, paid the penalty for the sin of man in the person of Jesus Christ and offers forgiveness to those who will repent and place faith in His finished work. In Christ, the justice of God is satisfied and the believer is declared righteous in Him. The goals of Christianity and Yoga are neither compatible nor complementary.
Additionally, while at first, the Hindu belief that each person is essentially divine may appear to exalt man, it in fact undermines the worth of each individual. The individual is said to be only illusion. The goal of uniting with the Self actually involves the breaking down and dissolution of the individual personality as a separate entity. Not only that, but the pantheistic view that god is in everything makes it impossible to state that humans have any more inherent value than slugs or mosquitoes. Swami Prabhupada states, “When we were babies we depended on milk, either our mother’s breast-milk or cow’s milk. Therefore the cow is also our mother. Just as we drink breast-milk from our mother, we drink milk from mother cow. You must not kill your mother; that is a great sin.” (17)
Can We Just Exercise?
The issue still needs to be addressed as to whether or not the physical techniques of yoga can be separated and practiced apart from the spiritual dimensions. This is difficult to assess because Yoga was not intended to be practiced in this manner. In fact, many teachers would indicate that in merely performing the positions, one is not truly practicing Yoga at all. “Yoga is full of surprises. The first surprise was that it is not simply exercise. Yoga is a moving meditation, a system for developing the mind, the body and the spirit in unison. This holistic approach is what makes yoga feel different from Western sports training.” (18) Feuerstein would agree, “Unfortunately, both Indic and Western practitioners of Hath-Yoga do not always respect the spiritual goals or even the ethical foundations of this approach and often tend to pursue Hatha-Yoga as a kind of calisthenics or body cosmetics.” (19) Gannon and Life give one of the strongest statement, “…the intention underlying all our practices must be clear. The motivation underlying the yoga practices must be Yoga, union with the Divine Self. For any practice to be a yoga practice, one must consciously and continuously cultivate the desire for Self-realization.” (20)
It must also be kept in mind that the various practices of Yoga were designed to produce a pagan and occult experience. Therefore the person practicing yoga simply for exercise may find him or herself experiencing things that are unintentional. Ignorance is not always bliss. For a moment, let us consider the postures and breathing techniques in greater detail as these are the first steps to which the average consumers are commonly exposed.
The asanas, or postures, are given a variety of purposes within the various schools of yoga but it should be noted that all of them are spiritual. B.K.S. Iyengar, the founder of the most popular form of Hatha-Yoga in the U.S. states, “The third limb of yoga is asana or posture…asanas have been evolved over the centuries so as to exercise every muscle, nerve and gland in the body… But their real importance lies in the way they train and discipline the mind… The yogi conquers the body by the practice of asanas and makes it a fit vehicle for the spirit…The yogi frees himself from physical disabilities and mental distractions by practicing asanas. He surrenders his actions and their fruits to the Lord [Brahman] in the service of the world. The yogi realizes that his life and all its activities are part of the divine action in nature, manifesting and operating in the form of man.” (21) Other authorities site the purpose of the postures being to overcome one’s physical bodies which are maya and get in touch with one’s “subtle body”. This is a person’s true body that is spiritual and is not touched by death and decay.
Some authorities see the asanas as sufficient to produce a meditative state in and of themselves. “Asana is a two-way street. Once the mental attitude has been created, it can then be spontaneously expressed as an asana; if one takes on the external form of an internal attitude, soon that attitude moves through the body into the mind, thus creating it there. Whichever way one works, the results are the same. Asana is thus both a preparation for meditation and a meditation sufficient in and of itself.” (22)
It should also be noted that the asanas, as well as most other meditative practices such as breathing techniques, have been known to be dangerous in certain cases and among a certain percentage of the population. An article entitled, “Hatha Yoga for Beginners” contains the following warning, “Finally it should be noted that asanas are a serious component of tantric yoga practice. One should treat asana practice with care. Some asanas can be dangerous or are contraindicated for some persons and in certain combinations. No one should practice asana without permission of an experienced and properly trained Acharya (teacher).” (23)
The Christian wishing to use yogic postures merely as a form of exercise should seriously consider these statements. The posturing alone may lead them, unintentionally, into a trance-like meditative state that may include occult experiences. Asana practice is also medically hazardous to certain portions of the population. The person practicing yoga merely as a form of exercise may find that they are getting far more than they bargained for. Yoga was not intended to be practiced merely as exercise. It is, at best, unclear whether the postures can be completely divorced from their underlying philosophy.
Pranayamas are the breathing techniques employed in Yoga. Prana is believed to be the spiritual energy that encompasses all things. Pranayama is a means of controlling this vital energy through breathing. The combination of pranayama and asana is intended to induce the practitioner into an occultic and altered state of consciousness. The practice of breathing techniques is an integral part of all Eastern meditative systems. An extensive German study on the effects of meditation found negative side effects among 70% of the participants. (24) It should be remembered that Biblical meditation is a focused concentration upon the word of God and the person of God. In Biblical meditation the mind is active. It is not an inward focus that includes the emptying of the mind.
At this point it would be well to discuss the subject of kundalini arousal which is one of the main goals of Hatha-Yoga leading to illumination. Kundalini means, “she who is coiled”. In Yogic belief, kundalini is a power that is resident at the base of the spine and is represented as a sleeping serpent curled three and a half times. Space will not permit a thorough discussion of the techniques used for kundalini arousal. Physiologically however, the yogi’s body temperature may drop measurably in the limbs and trunk while the crown of the head feels as if it is on fire and becomes warm to the touch. As the experience increases the practitioner may have a feeling of leaving their body and being absorbed into the divine.
This practice has been known to have severe side effects and even avid practitioners warn of dangers if kundalini is aroused incorrectly or unexpectedly. These side effects can include sensations of intense heat, light, sound, pressure, pain, splitting headaches and even psychotic episodes. These have been known to last for days.
Conclusion: Buyer Beware
It can clearly be seen from all of the above that Yoga practice is rooted in Eastern, pantheistic religious thought. This belief system stands in complete antithesis to the doctrines of Christianity. This reason alone should cause the Christian to pause before becoming involved in the practice. Additionally, it is at best unclear as to whether the postures of Yoga can be successfully separated from their religious moorings. There is also reason to be concerned that a person attempting to use yoga merely as exercise may experience undesired side effects that include occultic altered states of consciousness. Lastly, many of the techniques of yoga bring the potential for doing physiological and psychological harm to the practitioner. It seems best to err on the side of caution. There is a definite need for exercise within the American culture but the Christian should consider alternative methods that do not bring with them the religious baggage associated with Yoga. The unsuspecting Yogi may find they receive far more than they desired.
1. Meditations from the Mat, Rolf Gates and Katrina Kennison, Anchor Books, New York, New York, 2002 page 3.
2. The Modern Book of Yoga, Anne Kent Rush, Byron Press Visual Publications, New York, New York page 13
3. JivaMukti Yoga, Sharon Gannon and David Life, Ballantine Books, New York, New York 2002 page 8.
4. Op cit Rush page 8-9
5. Yoga-Yajnavadka 1.44 qoted in “The Yoga Tradition. Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice” by Georg Feuerstein, PH.D. Hohm Press, Prescott, Arizona, 1998, xviii
6. Ibid, page 3
7. Op. cit. Gannon and Life page 3.
8. The Quest for Enlightenment, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Bhaktivedanta Book Trust International, Inc. Los Angeles, CA 1997, page 15
9. Op. cit Gannon and Life page xvii
10. Ibid. page 29
11. Op cit Feuerstein page 5
12. Op cit Gannon and Life page xvii
13. Ibid. page 4
14. “Reason for the Hope Within”, Michael J. Murray, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999, Grand Rapids, MI page 184
15. Op cit. Rush page 13
16. Ibid page 13
17. Op cit Prabhupada 216
18. Ibid page 3
19. Op cit Feuerstein page 29
20. Op cit Gannon and Life page 5
21. Light on Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar page 40-41 as quoted in an internet article by John Weldon entitled “Yogasanas: physical postures, spiritual method or both?” www.apologeticsindex.org/y06aa.html
23. “Hatha Yoga for Beginners”. www.abhidhyan.org/Teachings/Asanas.htm. by Anatole.
24. “The Various Implications Arising from the Practice of Transcendental Meditation: An empirical analysis of pathogenic structures as an aid in counseling. www.freedomofmind.com/resourcecenter/groups/t/tm/tmgerman.htm