By Craig Branch –
(The introduction article to The Aeropaus Journal Stretching the Truth Volume 4 Number 4, July-August 2004)
This issue of Areopagus Journal is devoted to providing an understanding of yoga and the current yoga phenomena in our country. The most common questions on a popular level are, “Can a Christian practice yoga?”; “Is yoga a religion?” or, “Can one just do the yoga exercises without any spiritual component?”
Areopagus Journal will respond to these questions but will help its readers in discussing some broader issues and implications surrounding the yoga craze. For example, what can the Church learn about herself with regard to spiritual priorities, goals, and levels of discernment? What can we learn about those whom we are trying to reach with the gospel? What can we learn about the culture? Is it legal for yoga to be part of public school curricula? Is it ever dangerous physically or spiritually? What is there to learn about the deceiver who sometimes appears as an “angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14)? What can we do about the negative influences of yoga on our society?
AMERICA: YOGA’S GREENHOUSE
Yoga has stretched, considerably, from India to America, and especially in the last decades has reached new depths of integration in the wider social arena. In 1994 there were some 6 million yoga practioners, but today there are about 18 million! That is a 50% increase even from 2002!
As a feature story in the Christian Science Monitor relates,
In the past five years, yoga has blossomed from a new age pastime to an all-American power fad. More than 18 million people from Hollywood starlets to corporate titans, from suburban mothers to steelworkers, now practice the 5000 year-old art according to recent surveys. It’s estimated that more than a million more start each year.1
In addition, subscriptions to the premiere Yoga Journal have climbed from 50,000 in 1990, to 90,000 in 1998 to 300,000 in 2002. A survey conducted by Yoga Journal, indicates that 30% of yoga practitioners did yoga to stay fit and toned, 21% to reduce stress, 18% to remedy a health problem, and 31% to pursue spiritual enlightenment.2
Why this explosion of interest in yoga, especially since it has historically been identified with gurus and strange mystical practices and beliefs? That question may be asked by Christians and other American traditionalists because they tend to isolate themselves from what is going on in the US culture. The New Age Movement has been steadily growing in America since the 1960’s. Today an unprecedented 30% of Americans believe in reincarnation. In addition, Barna studies have recently revealed that 91% of Americans have identified having good health as their top priority in life for the past 10 years – a higher priority than even having close personal friends, a clear purpose for living, or one marriage partner for life (all of which come in at 75%). Being part of a good local church declined in priority from 50% to 42% in the last 10 years.3
The point is that the lack of Christian engagement with the people, ideas and institutions of our culture has left a vacuum that Satan has been filling with counterfeit spirituality. This counterfeit acts as a placebo that gives people a measure of relief from the stresses and anxieties of life. It also provides a semblance of fulfillment for those who seek meaning in self-centered sensuality. Yoga is one of the primary vehicles of this New Age placebo.
It is no wonder, then, that 75% of all health clubs in America offer yoga, especially when media celebrities (shallowly idolized in our culture) help to promote it. For example, Melanie Griffith, Kristin Davis, Mariel Hemmingway, Jacqueline Bisset, and Ricky Martin all recently promoted a yoga fundraiser for GAIAM Yoga for Life directed by Tara Guber. Celebrities like Madonna, supermodel Christy Turlington, and even Chief Justice Sandra Day O’Connor are visible, active, yoga practitioners. Moreover, popular new age doctors like Dean Ornish make some pretty audacious health claims related to yoga. And of course new age celebrity enabler, Oprah Winfrey regularly promotes it as well.
Today your doctor may recommend yoga and your insurance company may p ay for it. A Fortune 500 company might offer it during lunch hour. Your local YMCA or YWCA will probably have it, too. Your psychotherapist may recommend it for reducing stress or anxiety. Yoga is being conducted in AIDS hospices, corporate boardrooms, and even in churches.
Of particular concern is the strategic focus on youth who are particularly vulnerable because of their innocence and lack of wisdom. They also are a good market since they are the “future generation.” Yoga organizations are developing entire programs for children. Yoga promoters are capitalizing on the “stress of school” and the fact that so many families are dysfunctional. They claim that yoga relieves stress, increases concentration and heightens self-esteem.
Most significantly, yoga organizations are implementing yoga programs into public schools. The Yoga On the Inside Foundation claims that it “works with school administrators, teachers, and educational leaders to make yoga an integral part of their students educational experience.”4 The US Yoga Association states that “there are many ways to implement yoga in schools. . . . Training is provided for an entire faculty and principal so students will have a consistent program from year to year.”5 The association has a 30-hour internship program designed to teach teachers how to implement yoga in the public school curriculum.
ARC has on file numerous news stories demonstrating these illegal New Age programs that are cropping up all across the country. For example, a New York Times story describes how seven public schools in San Francisco practice “OM schooling,” which is a “yoga break which has taken its place beside typical school rituals such as recess and the Pledge of Allegiance. . . .[I]t is increasingly becoming part of the physical education curricula nationwide.6 Even in the conservative South we find that students at South Park Elementary School in Vicksburg, Mississippi are learning breathing techniques and posture through yoga.”7
A criminal court judge in Houston ordered a man convicted of battery to take yoga classes as p art of his one-year probation. The yoga instructor stated, “Yoga can help us get rid of many emotional issues we might have. It s a spiritual cleanse.”8 Even here in Birmingham, a 40-page monthly magazine is published advertising yoga classes all over town especially at the New Age Unity Church, the Oasis Women’s Counseling Center and Deepak Chopra’s Spa Moksha.
Most disturbing is that we find various churches advertising and conducting yoga classes, calling it Christian yoga. For example, Emily Cobb, a minister’s wife in Matthews, N.C., started Christian Yoga classes because she wanted Christians to feel okay about participation. Cobb said she was inspired by an Alabama instructor who bases her “Christian” yoga classes on Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God.”9
Birmingham Christian Family magazine is a local Christian publication here in Alabama. It recently featured a promotional ad titled “Christian Yoga” in the Healthy Living section. The ad led with the pacifying disclaimer, “Although yoga is not intrinsically religious it provides the perfect time to spend with God in prayer and is an ideal way of enhancing faith.” The class featured instructor Susan Bordenkircher who is “known for bringing recognition to the concept of Christian yoga through her classes at the YMCA in Mobile.” But notice how she perverts the concepts of Christianity in trying to syncretize the two religious concepts: “As students inhale, she encourages them to think about breathing in the Holy Spirit, and to let Him fell you from head to toe.”10 This is far from what the Bible means by being filled with the Spirit. Also, the classes were conducted at Spa Moksha, owned by Deepak Chopra, one of the most prominent New Age leaders in the world. By the way, I wrote the editor of the magazine and explained the conflict between yoga and Christianity. So far we have not seen any more such ads.
Let me say here that “Christian Yoga” is an oxymoron. It is nave at best and spiritually harmful to mix the two. The three articles in this journal issue by myself, Keith Gibson, and Clete Hux amply establish this fact.
YOGA’S AMERICAN ROADTRIP
In 1924 the US Immigration Service imposed a quota on immigrants from India. So, for many years, only a few radicals journeyed East to study yoga. And some of them returned to share their experiences and lessons with fellow Americans. According to the Yoga Journal, “The person who introduced more Americans to yoga than any other in those days was Richard Hittleman.” He sold millions of books, introduced Yoga to television in 1961, and “influenced how Yoga has been taught ever since.”11
A 1965 revision of US law removed the 1924 quota on immigration which opened the floodgates for a new wave of Eastern occult teachers and gurus. By the 1970s, you could find yogas spiritual teaching everywhere. Yet as interest in yoga grew, Americas commercial and entrepreneurial spheres also embraced it. “Orthodox” yoga teachers and gurus bemoan the fact that “some of the yoga presented to the American public is in many cases misleading in terms of historic authenticity.”12
Integral Yoga Magazine recently interviewed “prominent Yoga teachers” on the “State of the Union” of Yoga. Speaking of the emphasis on exercise and athleticism, Lilias Folan responds, “Remember our roots. . .athleticism is fun. It is interesting. But that is the smallest part of what this is all about.” The follow up question to Shri Yogi Hari was: “What do you feel about teaching yoga in settings such as fitness centers or other places where they don’t want the teachers to chant or speak of the spiritual aspect of these practices?” He answered,
It is the teacher s responsibility to make the students understand that yoga is a highly spiritual practice. The reason it is spiritual is because you are a spirit. . . .the soul, the Atman functioning through these bodies. We are teaching yoga so that you will experience your Higher Self. If you want to have good health, if you want to experience happiness, you can only experience that when you can touch who you are, the Self…then they can see that Yoga is not just a physical thing.13
As one yoga leader said, “Yoga without a spiritual component is just gymnastics.” So can one just do stretching exercises and mild deep breathing? Sure, but then it is not yoga. Yoga purists fume at the “yuppification” of yoga that is attempting to change the ancient spiritual discipline into a fashionable caricature.
The issues and questions raised at the beginning of this Veritas are very important and have significant implications for the Church and for the cultural vineyard, in which we are called to minister. Study the following articles and let us be armed and equipped with God’s truth in the power of the Holy Spirit to make an imp act in the lives of those in our path. Remember the weapons of our warfare are not carnal like yoga (2 Cor. 10:3).
Craig Branch is the director of the Apologetics Resource Center in Birmingham, Alabama, and one of the authors of the book Public Schools: The Sorcerer s New Apprentice?
1 Alexandra Marks, “In schools, gyms, even planes, yoga hits new heights,” Christian Science Monitor (October 24, 2002). Internet article found at www.holisticbenefits.com/hbs/articles/yoga-csm.htm.
2 Jacinthia Jones, “Yoga, religion work hand in hand” Scripps Howard News Service (August 23, 2003). Internet article found at
3 See the report by George Barna at www.barna.org.
6Patricia Leigh Brown, “Latest Way to Cut Grade School Stress: Yoga” New Y ork Times, (March 24, 2002).
7Bob Kellogg, “Yoga Promoted in Miss. Elementary School,” Family News in Family News in Focus, (April 16, 2002). Internet article found at www.family.org/cforum/fnif/news/a0020362.html.
8 Andrew Tilghman, “Man ordered to take yoga class as part of probation,” Houston Chronicle (January 21, 2004).
9 Karen Garloch, “Yoga gaining popularity with Christians,” Billings Gazette (February 22, 2003).
10 See Birmingham Christian Family (February 2003); p. 21.
11 Holly Hammond, “Yoga’s Trip to America,” Yoga Journal (Sept/Oct 2000). Internet article found at www.yogajournal.com/wisdom/467_1.cfm.
12 M.R. Smith, “Yoga in America, What went wrong?” (April 2003). Internet article found at www.morning sideyoga.com/yogainamerica.pdf.
13 “Yoga in America: Forecast for 2004,” Integral Yoga Magazine (Winter 2004). Internet article found at http://iymagazine.org/iymag_articles/winter04/yoga_winter04.html.