by Clete Hux –
Millions of Americans practice it every day. Some say it is just physical exercise. Others say it is a spiritual discipline. Some say it is a New Age “Trojan horse” from the East. And others say they practice “Western” yoga without accepting the Eastern mysticism attached to it. While many Americans have little idea about these controversies over the true nature of yoga, one thing is certain— yoga is becoming almost as American as apple pie and baseball.
It is not the purpose of this introductory article to settle this controversy or evaluate the pantheistic world and life view from which yoga comes. That task and yoga’s penetration into Western culture is left for others in this issue.1 What I will do is attempt to describe what yoga is and trace some of its historical development. With this background in place, the reader will be better prepared to evaluate yoga from a biblical perspective.
THE NATURE OF YOGA
Yoga is perceived by most people in our culture simply as a form of physical exercise. Of course, yoga does in fact involve physical exercise (primarily in the Hatha yoga school popular in America). This is no doubt why many Westerners have embraced it, adapting the physical aspects of yoga to Western ways of thinking while attempting to divorce it from its religious roots.
However, the word “yoga” is derived from the Hindu Sanskrit word yuj, which means to “yoke” or “bind together.” Simply understood, it implies the ideas of union, harmony, and stability. In its philosophical background, the idea of union reflects yoga’s tradition of joining body, mind, and soul into a unified whole. Thus, yoga is historically a religious philosophy and spiritual practice. Accordingly, Robert E. Van Voorst defines yoga as “a physical discipline to promote knowledge that the individual soul and the world soul are one.”2
It is difficult to separate any yoga practice from its Hindu roots. It can be said that there is no Hinduism without yoga and no yoga without Hinduism. Also, yoga has influenced and been influenced by Buddhism and Jainism. These facts strongly suggest that yoga is primarily spiritual in nature, which is the explicit understanding of its Eastern practitioners as well as many of its Western devotees. It is very interesting to note that India has never produced any gold medal-winning Olympic athletes, even though the appeal of yoga is global. If Indians perceived yoga as primarily a form of physical training, this would seem strange. Christian Indian citizen and philosopher Vishal Mangalwadi, however, explains that “Yoga was never meant to be a fitness regime. In Indian philosophy yoga is a means to salvation or liberation (moksha). The original philosophy behind yoga defined liberation as the soul’s isolation from the body. Obtaining ‘out-of-body’ experiences is still the goal of some popular forms of yoga.”3
Furthermore, yoga is usually synonymous with Eastern meditation. As such, the goal of the yoga practitioner is to unify him or herself with the Divine Self or God-Self. Through yoga meditation, the practitioner attempts to lose contact with the conscious mind for an altered state of consciousness. Such dissociative techniques are often used by the practitioner to detach him or herself from conscious existence so that becoming one with the divine Self or God-Self can be realized. Even those who do not connect such altered states of consciousness with Eastern pantheism have nevertheless shifted in their thinking from a Western world view to an Eastern world view.
The earliest evidence of yoga practice dates back 5,000 years to the beginning of human civilization. It is believed that it grew out of Stone Age shamanism because of the cultural similarities between modern Hinduism and the ancient society of Mehrgahr, a Neolithic settlement in present day Afghanistan. Many of India’s ideas, rituals, and symbols appear to have their roots in the shamanistic culture of Mehrgahr. Early yoga and shamanism both sought to transcend the human condition, eventually evolving into more inward-focused practices.4 The first archaeological evidence is found in stone seals excavated from the Indus Valley and dated to about 3000 B.C. These seals depict figures performing yoga postures (asanas).5
Early written references to yoga are found in the Upanishads, one of the scriptures of classical Hinduism (c. 500 B.C.). They were written to explain the relation of the individual self (atman) to ultimate reality (Brahman). The general idea was that “atman is Brahman”—each human soul is identical with the great world Soul. In one passage from the Upanishads we read:
Holding his body steady with the three [upper parts] erect,
And causing the senses with the mind to enter the heart,
A wise man with the Brahma-boat will cross
All the fear-bringing streams.
Compressing his breathings here in the body, and having his movements checked,
One should breathe through his nostrils with diminished breath.
Like that chariot yoked with vicious horses,
His mind the wise man should restrain undistractedly.
In a clean level spot, free from pebbles, fire, and gravel,
By the sound of water and similar things
Favorable to thought, not offensive to the eye,
In a hidden retreat protected from the wind, one should practice Yoga. . .
When the nature of the self, as with a lamp,
One who practices Yoga beholds here the nature of Brahma,
Unborn, steadfast, from every nature free—
By knowing God, one is released from all fetters!6
The first scripture devoted entirely to yoga was the Hindu classic, the Bhagavad-Gita (200 B.C.). This book had a great influence on Hindu culture and philosophy. Most of the major themes found in Hinduism today are found in its pages: karma, reincarnation, the detached performance of duty, and devotion to Hindu deities.
What we may call “modern (or classical) yoga” was systematized by Patanjoli in his text Yoga Sutra (A.D. 150). He outlined eight steps of classical yoga. Briefly stated, these are:
Mijana (observance of purity, tolerance, and study) Asana (physical exercises)
Pranayama (breath control)
Pratyahara (preparation for meditation)
Samadhi (absorption into the sublime; bliss)7
In the period following the works of Patanjali, different branches or schools of yoga appeared, each with their own unique emphases. To this issue we now turn.
THE MAJOR SCHOOLS OF YOGA
There are many different schools and styles of yoga related to different applications of its inner discipline.8 All of these schools, however, have the same goal: liberation of the soul and oneness with the divine or God-Self. So the various schools are merely named according to the particular Yogi’s (teacher’s) method for self-transformation. Basically, there are six classic schools of yoga. I will describe these and mention a few others.
body, the nervous system can be affected and one’s consciousness altered to a trance-like state. Mangabvadi says that “physical exercises become yoga when they are practiced to alter consciousness or to lose our individual consciousness into an experience called ‘merging into God’”9
The first and most classic school is Hatha yoga, which is the predominant style of yoga practiced in the West due to its emphasis on physical exercise. Hatha yoga combines elements of pranayama (breath-control exercises) and mudras (hand gestures) to help the student to attain self-realization and oneness with universal consciousness. That is, through these exercises one is supposed to experience salvation by “going within” to perceive one’s inner consciousness as God.
Hatha yoga, part of Raja yoga (see below), can be traced back to Gorakhnath, founder of the Kanphata Yogis in the 12th century. The word “hatha” is from Sanskrit and has two roots—“ha” meaning “the sun” and “tha” meaning “the moon.” Together they mean “union of force” between the positive (sun) and the negative (moon) electrical currents.
Second is the school known as Raja yoga (also known as Ashtanga yoga), most closely related to Patanjali’s eightfold system noted above. Raja yoga (from Sanskrit for “ruler” or “royal”—thus the “royal yoga”) adheres to a particular meditative system, focusing on the development and control of altered states of perception of consciousness. Through the physiological manipulation of one’s body, the nervous system can be affected and one’s consciousness altered to trance-like state. Mangabvadi says that “physical exercises become yoga when they are practiced to alter consciousness or to loose our individual consciousness into an experience called ‘merging into God.’”9
Allegedly, Raja yoga offers a comprehensive method for controlling one’s thoughts by channeling mental and physical energies into spiritual energy. Ultimately, through meditation, one is able to merge Self with the universe, reaching the enlightened state called samadhi.
The third school is Karma yoga. The concept of karma has to do with the law of cause and effect. That is, whatever a man sows, he reaps. Accordingly, whatever we reap in this life is a direct result of past life choices. Karma yoga is the path of selfless performance of duty, bringing an individual to a state where he is no longer attached to the outcome of his actions. This yoga enables the practitioner to become one with what he is doing and not be preoccupied with the material results of his behaviors.
“Living for the moment” can be said to be the theme of this school of thought. The individual’s focus is on the present, ignoring the results of his behavior so that he is not preoccupied with the endless cycle of rebirth, death, and reincarnation which he hopes to escape.
Bhakti yoga is the fourth school. This is the “yoga of devotion.” It is more explicitly religious in nature due to its focus on the adoration of the divine. This yoga involves the practice of self surrender to the point where an individual comes to identify with a “higher self.” Such self-surrender is achieved by being totally devoted, volitionally and emotionally, to a particular being. Such devotion (bhakti = “devotion”) puts one in touch with the diving being (Brahman).
Fifth is Jnana yoga, the yoga of wisdom and transcendental knowledge. Yoga tries to be all things to all people and so Jnana yoga appeals to those people who prefer to analyze and research their way through life. This yoga involves seeking liberation by identification with the “real” self (rather than with the body or ego). Such identification is developed by a learning to discriminate between pure awareness and the objects of awareness. Jnana is closely associated with Advaita Vedanta, one of the six philosophies of Hinduism. According to Advaita Vedanta, everything—including you, me, and God— shares (or is part of) a single soul.
Mantra yoga is the sixth of the classical yoga schools. The word “mantra” means “advice” or “suggestion.” A branch of Raja yoga, Mantra yoga is often associated with chanting monks in Tibetan monasteries. Both Transcendental Meditation (TM) and the Hare Krishna movement practice this yoga. The ritualistic and repetitive chanting of “mantras” (e.g., “om”) supposedly helps focus the mind to a single thought until it attains the state of samadhi. Former Beatle George Harrison recited the Hare Krishna mantra in his popular song “My Sweet Lord”:
Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna
Krishna, Krishna, Hare, Hare
Hare Rama, Hare Rama
Rama, Rama, Hare, Hare
SOME OTHER POPULAR FORMS OF YOGA
There are other schools of yoga that have developed. Indeed, yoga schools and styles in the West seem to pop up whenever someone would like a new application to various life situations. We will briefly look at three others that have become popular.
Purna yoga, also known as “Integral yoga,” is a synthesis or combination of many different types of yoga. Purna yoga focuses on the attempt to realize “Supramental Consciousness”—a level of consciousness that transcends the mind’s ordinary ways of thinking—in order to bring about total transformation of the soul into the Divine Self. It has three main stages. These are: (1)
aspiration for the Divine, (2) surrender of the individual soul to the Universal soul, and (3) rejection of all obstructions to the path of total transformation.
Kundalini yoga was brought to the West in 1969 by Yogi Bhajan. The word “Kundalini” in Sanskrit literally means “coiled up” and refers to the potential prana or “life force” supposedly coiled up at the base of one’s spine like a serpent, which can awaken when activated by spiritual disciplines. Practitioners supposedly concentrate on psychic centers (chakras) in the body in order to generate spiritual power known as Kundalini energy. It is purported that when this energy (residing in the first chakra at the root of the spine) is raised up through the rest of the charkas to the seventh and highest (located at the crown of the head), self-realization takes place. This is supposed to induce the blissful state of samadhi.
Finally, Tantra yoga needs mentioning. It is believed that its roots go back to ancient fertility cults in India. Tantra yoga, like Kundalini, is linked to the worship of Shakti, the primordial female energy. Like all forms of yoga, the goal is to merge with the divine, though Tantra yoga seeks this union through the arousal and channeling of sexual energy. Adherents of Tantra claim that in orgasm rational consciousness is transcended in a pleasurable experience of oneness with God.
Clete Hux is the Counter-Cult specialist for the Apologetics Resource Center.
1 See the articles by Craig Branch and Keith Gibson elsewhere in this issue of Areopagus Journal.
2 Robert E. Van Voorst, Anthology of World Scriptures, 4th ed. (Belmont,CA: Wadsworth, 2003), 53.
3 Vishal Mangalwadi, “Five Ways of Salvation in Hinduism.” Internet article found at www.wisdomfromindia.com/wfi_yoga/ft_yoga.htm.
4 Linda Sparrowe, “The History of Yoga.” Internet article found at
5 “A Complete Overview of the History of Yoga.” Internet article found at www.abc-ofyoga.com/beginnersguide/yogahistory.asp.
6 From the Shvetashvatara Upanishad 2.8-15.
7 For more on these steps, see “A Complete Overview.”
8 For more information on the various schools of yoga, see the website
9 Mangalwadi, “Five Ways of Salvation in Hinduism.”
Want to Read More About Yoga and the New Age?
Apologetics in the New Age: A Christian Critique of Pantheism by David K. Clark and Norman L. Geisler (Baker)
Confronting the New Age by Douglas Groothuis (IVP)
Guide to Yoga Meditation by Richard Hittleman (Bantam Books)
New Age or Old Lie? by Kerry D. McRoberts (Hendrickson)
Public Schools: The Sorcerer s New Apprentice? by John Ankerberg, Craig Branch, and John Weldon (Available through ARC)