Sometimes, in a desire to not make waves and find points of contact with the world so we can reach them, we embrace things that we haven't thought through. Perhaps Yoga is one of those "bridge" issues that Christians need to give more thought to. [Bold emphasis added]
The Subtle Body — Should Christians Practice Yoga?
When Christians practice yoga, they must either deny the reality of wh
atyoga represents or fail to see the contradictions between their Christian commitments and their embrace of yoga. The contradictions are not few, nor are they peripheral.
Monday, September 20, 2010
Some questions we we ask today would simply baffle our ancestors. When Christians ask whether believers should practice yoga, they are asking a question th
atbetrays the strangeness of our current cultural moment — a time in which yoga seems almost mainstream in . America
It was not always so. No one tells the story of yoga in
better than Stefanie Syman, whose recent book, The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America, is a masterpiece of cultural history. Syman, an engaging author who is also a fifteen-year devotee of yoga, tells this story well. America
Her book actually opens with a scene from this year’s annual White House Easter Egg Roll. President Barack Obama made a few comments and then introduced First Lady Michelle Obama, who said: “Our goal today is just to have fun. We want to focus on activity, healthy e
ating. We’ve got yoga, we’ve got dancing, we’ve got storytelling, we’ve got Easter-egg decor ating.”
Syman describes the yoga on the White House lawn as “sanitized, sanctioned, and family-friendly,” and she noted the r
ather amazing fact th ata practice once seen as so exotic and even dangerous was now included as an activity sufficiently safe and mainstream for children.
In her words:
There certainly was no better proof th
atAmericans had assimil ated this spiritual discipline. We had turned a technique for God realiz ation th athad, atvarious points in time, enjoined its adherents to reduce their diet to rice, milk, and a few vegetables, fix their minds on a set of, to us, incomprehensible syllables, and self-administer daily enemas (without the benefit of equipment), to name just a few of its prerequisites, into an activity suitable for children. Though yoga has no coherent tradition in , being preserved instead by thousands of gurus and hundreds of lineages, each of which makes a unique claim to authenticity, we had managed to turn it into a singular thing: a way to stay healthy and relaxed. India
In her book, Syman tells the fascin
ating story of how yoga was transformed in the American mind from a foreign and “even he athen” practice into a cultural reality th atis widely admired and practiced.
In telling this story, Syman documents the ties between yoga and groups or movements such as the Transcendentalists and New Thought — movements th
atsought to provide a spirituality th atwould be a clear altern ative to biblical Christianity. She traces the influence of leading figures such as Swami Vivekananda and Swami Prabhavananda, along with Pierre Bernard and the now lesser-known Margaret Woodrow Wilson. Each of these figures played a role in the growing acceptance of yoga in , but most were controversial America atthe time — some extremely so.
Syman describes yoga as a varied practice, but she makes clear th
atyoga cannot be fully extric ated from its spiritual roots in Hinduism and Buddhism. She is also straightforward in explaining the role of sexual energy in virtually all forms of yoga and of ritualized sex in some yoga traditions. She also explains th atyoga “is one of the first and most successful products of globaliz ation, and it has augured a truly post-Christian, spiritually polyglot country.”
Reading The Subtle Body is an eye-opening and truly interesting experience. To a remarkable degree, the growing acceptance of yoga points to the retre
atof biblical Christianity in the culture. Yoga begins and ends with an understanding of the body th atis, to say the very least, atodds 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 medit ate upon the Word of God — an external Word th atcomes to us by divine revel ation — not to medit ate by means of incomprehensible syllables.
Nevertheless, a significant number of American Christians either experiment with yoga or become adherents of some yoga discipline. Most seem unaware th
atyoga cannot be ne atly separ ated into physical and spiritual dimensions. The physical is the spiritual in yoga, and the exercises and disciplines of yoga are meant to connect with the divine.
Douglas R. Groothuis, Professor of Philosophy
atDenver Seminary and a respected specialist on the New Age Movement, warns Christians th atyoga is not merely about physical exercise or health. “All forms of yoga involve occult assumptions,” he warns, “even h atha yoga, which is often presented as a merely physical discipline.” While most adherents of yoga avoid the more exotic forms of ritualized sex th atare associ ated with tantric yoga, virtually all forms of yoga involve an emphasis on channeling sexual energy throughout the body as a means of spiritual enlightenment.
Stefanie Syman documents how yoga was transformed in American culture from an exotic and he
athen practice into a central component of our n ational cult of health. Of course, her story would end differently if Americans still had cultural access to the notion of “he athen.”
ation of is almost manically syncretistic, blending worldviews over and over again. But, in more recent times, India has developed its own obsession with syncretism, mixing elements of worldviews with little or no America attention to wh ateach mix means. Americans have turned yoga into an exercise ritual, a means of focusing attention, and an avenue to longer life and gre ater health. Many Americans attempt to deny or minimize the spiritual aspects of yoga — to the gre atconstern ation of many in . India
When Christians practice yoga, they must either deny the reality of wh
atyoga represents or fail to see the contradictions between their Christian commitments and their embrace of yoga. The contradictions are not few, nor are they peripheral. The bare fact is th atyoga 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 th atwe need and to obey Christ through obeying his Word. We are not called to escape the consciousness of this world by achieving an elev ated st ate of consciousness, but to follow Christ in the way of faithfulness.
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 medit
ate intensely in order to achieve or to maintain a physical posture, it is no longer merely a physical posture.
The embrace of yoga is a symptom of our postmodern spiritual confusion, and, to our shame, this confusion reaches into the church. Stefanie Syman is telling us something important when she writes th
atyoga “has augured a truly post-Christian, spiritually polyglot country.” Christians who practice yoga are embracing, or atminimum flirting with, a spiritual practice th atthre atens to transform their own spiritual lives into a “post-Christian, spiritually polyglot” reality. Should any Christian willingly risk th at?