Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Wheaton College Yoga Class

The Initial Encounter

(Note: see my updated 2014 article called "Christian Yoga - The Missing Manual" for a better summary)

My wife and I are overweight, so we were thinking that this new school year we would take an aerobics class to Christian music at the Christian college where I work. So, on Monday evening my wife went to the gym to get more information on the class we wanted to join. It turns out that the class we were interested in is actually a Hatha yoga class.

The class is called "Renew" on the college web site and is described as "invigorating stretch and light weight work while incorporating Scriptural meditation for a holistic workout experience". But on the flyer at the gym (at the left) it is called a yoga class (at the same time and location). The student at the desk confirmed this was a yoga class and made the case that the yoga class was in a Christian context and it was just exercise, so there was nothing to be concerned about.

As far as calling the class "yoga" on the flyer, I applaud the person who decided to call the class what it is. Surely they were aware of the controversy that this kind of class could cause at an institution such as Wheaton and it takes a certain courage to be honest in the face of potential controversy (something I am quite aware of in writing open and honest articles for this blog). It would be easy to avoid this conversation by changing the name of the class and saying it isn't yoga but rather something else instead (something that I hope does not happen in response to this article). So, I applaud the honesty since that is necessary before a discussion like this can take place.

This is the first time that I have been personally confronted with a Christian organization that I highly respect offering yoga classes, so I am in the process of researching yoga and it's relation to Christianity. And I am actually glad that this discussion is raised here, since I have been repeatedly impressed by the wisdom and humbleness of the faculty and staff of Wheaton College, and I am confident in the college's ability to come to a well reasoned and biblical position on this issue. So, I checked out three Yoga videos and ordered the best selling yoga book as listed on (Light on Yoga) as well as the recent Articles on Yoga and Christianity from the Christian Research Journal. I also found a Christianity Today article supporting Yoga use by Christians (interestingly Christianity Today is located in Wheaton next to the Aldi grocery store where I shop, so I see their building every time I go to the grocery store). But most importantly, I looked at the Bible verses that seem to have the most to say about this kind of question. I'll update the blog as I finish my research, but I think my conclusion is becoming clear, so I can't help but share what I have found so far.

Agreement with the Pro-Yoga Argument
First, let me agree with the basis of the common pro-yoga arguments. I do agree that yoga moves in and of themselves are harmless and likely useful, much as some eastern martial arts moves seem to be the best moves available, even if they might have had a mystical link in their origin. After all, there are up to 908 yoga moves in some references, so "Hatha yoga" can pretty much cover almost any exercising and stretching you could possibly do. But I have two objections to yoga and to understand the objections better, first you need a little background about yoga.

What are the Hindu Beliefs about Yoga
Of the six original schools of Hinduism, only two are active today, Vedanta and Yoga. Yoga is actually a general term including various forms, all with the goal of stilling the mind and becoming unified with "Brahman". But the term "Yoga" as used today in the most western English speaking countries actual refers specifically to "Hatha yoga":

From looking at Wikipedia, here is a rough breakdown of the classification of Hindu practice:
1. Vedanta, opposing Vedic ritualism in favor of mysticism and following Hindu gods.
1.1 Vaishnavism - Followers of Vishnu
1.2 Shaivism - Followers of Shiva
1.3 Shaktism - Followers of Shakti, thought to be Brahman
1.4 Smartism - Followers of derivations of the vedic texts
2. Yoga, a school emphasizing meditation closely based on Sankhya
2.1 Raja Yoga - more focused on the mind and meditation
2.1.1 Yama - Code of conduct - self-restraint
2.1.2 Niyama - religious observances - commitments to practice, such as study and devotion
2.1.3 Asana - integration of mind and body through physical activity
2.1.4 Pranayama - regulation of breath leading to integration of mind and body
2.1.5 Pratyahara - abstraction of the senses, withdrawal of the senses of perception from their objects
2.1.6 Dharana - concentration, one-pointedness of mind
2.1.7 Dhyana - meditation (quiet activity that leads to samadhi)
2.1.8 Samadhi - the quiet state of blissful awareness, superconscious state
2.2 Raja Yoga - from Bhagavad Gita
2.2.1 Karma yoga: The yoga of right action
2.2.2 Bhakti yoga: The yoga of love and devotion
2.2.3 Jnana yoga: The yoga of knowledge and wisdom
2.3 Hatha Yoga - focuses first on the body in order to ultimately bring the mind into union with Brahman, traditionally came from Lord Shiva, Raja Yoga categories are sometimes listed under Hatha yoga as well
2.3.1 Asanas - postures (84 traditional with 10 listed as most important; 908 or more variations have been cataloged), naturally brought out by kundalini during meditation
2.3.2 Mudras - poses, symbolic gestures
2.3.3 Pranayamas - controlled breathing
2.3.4 Meditation - turning attention to a single point of reference
2.3.5 Moral disciplines
2.3.6 Shatkriyas - purification procedures
2.3.7 Nadis - channels that carry life energy (prana) that connect at special points called chakras
2.3.8 Chakras - seven energy centers along spine
2.3.9 Kundalini - unconscious, instinctive force; sleeping serpent coiled at the base of the spine; the goal of yoga is to awaken kundalini

To best understand yoga, we should go to the original sources. The oldest references to yoga in general are in the vedas. A discussion of yoga in general is found in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. More commonly used references are in the Bhagavad Gita. Here is what the Bhagavad Gita says about yoga (yoga in general, not specifically Hatha yoga).

Those references are for yoga in general. Here are three original references specifically discussing Hatha Yoga:
Hatha Yoga Pradipika
Gheranda Samhita
Shiva Samhita

A key question we need to answer is what parts of Hatha yoga are compatible with Christianity and what parts should we be aware of as indicative of a Hindu belief system. When your yoga class gets off the topic of stretching and exercise and starts talking about the following, then you know you are going beyond exercise and entering into Hindu philosophy and belief: becoming closer to God, controlled breathing, focusing on one item of thought, energy flows in the body, energy centers, or awakening an instinctive force.

Comparing "Christian Yoga" with Hindu Yoga
Now that we have a better understanding of the Hindu concept of yoga, lets compare that to what Christians believe about Hatha yoga. From the Christianity Today article mentioned previously:

" has never had any negative influence on me, and it doesn't trigger any harmful religious impulses. Just the opposite is true. The three hours a week I spend doing yoga not only make me more flexible, tone my muscles, and relax me. They also draw me closer to Christ. They are my bodily-kinetic prayer."

So, this article isn't arguing that Christianized Yoga is religion neutral. Rather it is arguing that the meditation inherent in yoga can be used to "draw people closer to Christ" and is a form of "prayer" and that yoga will trigger helpful "religious impulses".

"My natural response to any deep-breathing exercises is an emotionally felt love of God. Soon after I take off my socks and do a couple of poses, spontaneous prayers soar to Christ. Give me five minutes of yoga, and my mind immediately goes to the metaphor of God's spirit being as omnipresent and as necessary as the air."

Why would stretching make someone think of God as omnipresent and like air? Could it be that, in addition to stretching, the Christian doing yoga is also thinking in a pantheistic mindset, but then converting that mindset into Christian terms?

"In the same way that measured breathing is essential to yoga, the Spirit—which in both biblical Greek and Hebrew also means breath—is indispensable to my soul. Breathe in. Breathe out. Holy Spirit in. Anything that's not from God out. Come Holy Spirit. Renew my mind. In. Out. Thank. You. As I twist my body into places it hadn't been before, I can't help but pray this. Why fix what ain't broke?"

If yoga is only stretching and exercise, why is measured breathing essential? And why does the practitioner relate breathing to "renewing their mind". Again the concept of God the Holy Spirit seems to be more pantheistic here, obtained by exercise and breathing rather than study and submission to what God wants you to do. And it is interesting to note the parallel between the fact that the practitioner "can't help but pray" and the Hindu concept of instinctual Kundalini.

Note that Biblically we become "closer to Christ" by learning what He taught and submitting to his example, not exercising and relaxing. We do prayer by saying intelligent sentences to God, not by relaxing our mind during exercise and stretching.

"The closest any of my gym's several yoga teachers get to religious utterances is by bowing and saying "Namaste" at the end each class, which can be translated as "The soul in me honors the soul in you" or "The image of God in me honors the image of God in you." I like it! It just reminds me that, as C. S. Lewis put it, there are no mere mortals."

Yes, that is one selective meaning for Namaste. Other meanings are definitely pantheistic. And if that is the case why not say what you mean rather than saying a foreign word with multiple meanings, including meanings that are in opposition to Christian belief. One of the key methods that cults use to win converts and support from Christianity is to use the same words as Christians do but then pour different meanings into them.

By the articles own description there does seem to be some Hindu concepts creeping into the "Christianized" version of yoga. Compare the previous list of Hindu concepts in yoga to the "Christianized" concepts listed above: draws closer to God, controlled breathing is essential, extra focusing on breathing, and spontaneous prayer. The only Hindu concepts that seem to be missing are the energy channels and energy centers, which clearly have to be rejected on anatomical grounds (or spiritualized). So, there does seem to be significant inclusion of Hindu concepts into "Christian" yoga exercises.

Also, note that from the results of a 2003 Harris Poll, 80% of Americans believe in the resurrection of Jesus, but 21% of those self proclaimed Christians also said they believe in Reincarnation. So, the mixing of Hindu and Christian concepts in our society is happening at a significant rate that should not be ignored. If you aren't convinced of that, see Christian Yoga Magazine.

But even if, in a given situation, the instructor was meticulous to insure that there was no mixing of Christian and Hindu concepts, I still would have two objections to "Christianized yoga".

One Pragmatic Objection
My first objection is a practical one. I have all of my boys, who are home schooled, take martial arts. But we specifically looked for a martial arts school that chooses the best moves from all the various martial arts methods available. So, what they do there is based on what seems to actually work the best in a street fight rather than just following one ancient eastern school of martial arts thought and tradition.

So, I would argue that the best Christian approach to Yoga would be to choose a comprehensive set of moves systematically and medically, rather than just following ancient Hindu traditional moves. Some of the moves might be the same, but we would be doing them based on what is best for our body rather than doing something out of tradition that might not be the best possible option (some of the advanced yoga moves do not seem to increase health). It is interesting to me to consider that many people who might like the concept of Christian yoga also are likely against following many Christian rituals, such as from the Catholic tradition. Yet they follow yoga traditions without the same concern because they are getting a health benefit from the ritual.

One Biblical Objection
My second, and more important, objection comes from the Bible. The closest correlation in the Bible I can find seems to be the question of whether Christians should eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols (and the pro-yoga article listed above seems to agree with that assessment). It is interesting that supporters of Christian yoga use this passage to support the use of yoga, when in actuality Paul is arguing against Christians eating meat sacrificed to idols (the parallel that relates to doing yoga). Again, it is amazing to me how people can read a passage and take part of the message and omit the conclusion and the reason for the whole passage.

Look and decide for yourself:

Acts 15:19-20,28-31 - Abstaining from meat sacrificed to idols was considered a minimal, basic requirement for all Christians.

1 Cor 8 & 10 - The core passages on the topic. It seems like some in the Corinthian church were arguing that they should be allowed to eat meat sacrificed to idols, since idols are not real. Paul agrees that idols are not real, but argues that they should still not eat meat sacrificed to idols unless they do so unknowingly (and don't ask if you don't know).

Acts 21:25 - Chronologically after the first letter written to the Corinthians. This is a quick mention, and reconfirmation, of the disciples decision that gentile Christians should at least abstain from meat sacrificed to idols

Rev 2:14-16 - To the church in Pergamum: "14 But I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols..." "16 Therefore repent; or else I am coming to you quickly, and I will make war against them with the sword of My mouth".

Look at the specifics of the response from Paul on the subject in Corinthians:

8:1-2,7 - Knowledge that eating meat sacrificed to idols is O.K. makes people decide this issue arrogantly, when they should decide this issue based on love (so they shouldn't do it).
8:4-8 - We know idols are nothing, so eating meat sacrificed to idols in theory is O.K.
8:8-13 - Eating meat sacrificed to idols can be a stumbling block for others, so do not do it
10:12-14 - Turning to idolatry is a real temptation even if you think you are a strong Christian, therefore flee idolatry
10:16-20 - Just as Christians sharing communion links us together, eating meat sacrificed to idols causes us to share in the idolatry
10:22 - Eating meat sacrificed to idols provokes God to jealousy
10:23 - All things are lawful, but not all things edify
10:24-30 - If you don't know whether something has been sacrificed to idols, don't worry about it
10:32 - Eating meat sacrificed to idols would be an offense to the disciples
10:32-33 - Don't eat things sacrificed to idols because it may cause your brother to stumble

So, the short answer from the Bible: if you are a Christian, even if it is considered technically O.K., still don't eat meat sacrificed to idols...

The short answer from the Christianity Today article was "In other words, yoga is like the meat that had been offered to idols. Can I put it on my sandwich?" She then quotes some of the verses listed above and says: "As for me, put that meat on my sandwich! Yummy! Thank you, Jesus!"

Do you see any discrepancy there???

If the Bible had a passage on Yoga, what would it say?
In case you aren't getting the full view of what Paul is trying to say, let me replace the concept of meat sacrificed to idols with the concept of Yoga and Hinduism in the relevant passages (NASB translation). Note that this is not a direct parallel and I would argue that doing yoga is actually more concerning than eating meat sacrificed to idols. Hinduism is very broad and includes pantheism (everything is God, including you) as well as polytheist (many gods). Hatha Yoga is considered one method to help you realize your own godhood, so in a sense it is a physical ritual/sacrifice to yourself as God. So, eating meat sacrificed to idols is eating the leftovers of a ritual/sacrifice, but doing yoga is actually participating in the ritual/sacrifice but then assigning it a different meaning.

With that caveat in mind, please take a look at how the passages on eating meat sacrificed to idols would likely look if it were talking about yoga (italics denote places changed to refer to yoga and hinduism):

Here is some background on the first letter to the Corinthians. The first letter to the Corinthians seems to include responses to a few questions/issues that were raised to Paul. So, Paul probably got a letter from the Corinthians saying that they know idols are nothing, therefore they should be free to eat the meat sacrificed to idols (with yoga being the parallel). Therefore Paul's agreement with the apostles was a mistake and should not be binding on them. This issue ran the risk of separating the gentile Christians from the Jewish Christians. It could have become the first great split in the church, but notice how skillfully Paul handles the question.

Chapter 8:
1 Now concerning yoga, we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies.
2 If anyone supposes that he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know;
3 but if anyone loves God, he is known by Him.
4 Therefore concerning the practice of yoga, we know that there is no such thing as Hindu gods in the world, and that there is no god but one.
5 For even if there are so-called gods whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and many lords,
6 yet for us there is but one god, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.
7 However not all men have this knowledge; but some, being accustomed to Hindu gods until now, practice yoga as if it were honoring Hindu gods; and their conscience being weak is defiled.
8 But exercise and stretching will not commend us to God; we are neither the worse if we do not stretch, nor the better if we do stretch.
9 But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.
10 For if someone sees you, who have knowledge, doing yoga in a yoga class, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be strengthened to do yoga?
11 For through your knowledge he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died.
12 And so, by sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.
13 Therefore, if exercise causes my brother to stumble, I will never do stretches again, so that I will not cause my brother to stumble.

Chapter 10:
19 What do I mean then? That yoga is anything, or that Hindu gods are anything?
20 No, but I say that the way Hindus do yoga, they offer to demons and not to God; and I do not want you to become sharers in demons.
21 You cannot exercise in a Christian way and exercise for demons; you cannot stretch in a Christian way and stretch for demons.
22 Or do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? We are not stronger than He, are we?
23 All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable All things are lawful, but not all things edify.
24 Let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbor.
25 Exercise in any way that is done in the normal gym class without asking questions for conscience' sake;
27 If a Hindu invites you to exercise with them in a general exercise class, exercise in any way that is set before you without asking questions for conscience' sake.
28 But if anyone says to you, "That move is a Hatha yoga move," do not do those exercises, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for conscience' sake;
29 I mean not your own conscience, but the other man's; for why is my freedom judged by another's conscience?
30 If I partake with thankfulness, why am I slandered concerning that for which I give thanks?
31 Whether, then, you exercise or stretch or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.
32 Give no offense either to Jews or to Hindus or to the church of God;
33 just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit but the profit of the many, so that they may be saved.

Note that this is the same tact that Paul takes with the Corinthians concerning "speaking in tongues" later in the book. Basically his response is that, even if it is technically O.K. it is best to do something else that helps others instead.

Read the passage for yourself and decide if this is a valid parallel between a Christians eating meat sacrificed to idols and Christians doing Hatha yoga. If so, then the answer is clear. For which ever reason you choose, whether you think this does in fact link you to Hinduism or whether you think it is only exercise, the answer is still the same. Paul says if you are truly a Christian and know you are doing Hatha yoga then do not do it... If you can make the case that I am misapplying what Paul wrote, that is one thing. But if you are a Christian and you agree the parallel is valid then you have only one option available to you.

Mahariji's "Knowledge" and it's relation to Yoga

Last year, after receiving an email from Elan Vital, I went through two of their six keys towards "knowledge". The six keys are the introductory sets of videos working towards learning Mahariji's "Knowledge". "Knowledge" seems to actually be four meditation techniques that are somewhat related to Hatha Yoga. Listening to Prem Rawat (Mahariji) is somewhat like listening to some of the Christian and management training tapes I have been through, but it is very repetitive and takes many hours of watching videos to get through all six keys in order to get to the "Knowledge" level. To be persistent enough to get though all six keys with all the repetitiveness pretty much assures someone getting to the Knowledge level must idolize Mahariji (in this case, literally). "The peace is inside of you"... At least in the first two levels, that must have been said at least many dozens of times and he discussed breathing a fair amount. I mention this in this post because I could make a case that most of what Mahariji says is actually quite helpful if you assume you are looking inside to the Holy Spirit, and that his "Knowledge" is just another form of Hatha yoga which is also acceptable to Christians. Christians could learn from the parts of Mahariji's yoga ("knowledge") to help them find peace and relax and then translate the pantheistic concepts into Christian terms. If I accepted the pro-yoga arguments then it seems like that might be acceptable for Christians. Listen to what a former Hindu, now a Christian apologist, Ravi Zacharias whose yearly conference meets at Wheaton College, says about Yoga.

Local Yoga Alternatives in the Wheaton Area
If you live in the Wheaton, Illinois area and want to take a yoga class, then I would suggest going to the source and taking either the class at the Chicago Hindu Temple or the Theosophical Society in Wheaton. I am not saying that to cast dispersions on those two societies, both of which I have visited in the past to better understand their beliefs and practices (which I do not share). What I am saying is that at least at those locations there is no conflict between yoga and their beliefs. And, given that the Hindu gods do not exist and we are not really gods, there isn't really that much difference between what they do there and what Christians do in a Christian yoga class (though the Christian class may meditate on the Bible or say Bible verses and the Christian class would omit the mystical beliefs about the benefits of yoga). The terms the Hindu temple and Theosophical society use in their yoga classes could be mentally "translated" to refer to Christian concepts. And they probably openly accept Christian participation and Christian meditation since in their belief system Christianity is one of the many, though longer, paths to enlightenment.

In Summary: A Suggested Christian Response to Yoga
Since yoga does have some physical benefits, Christians should have the freedom to obtain those benefits. But it is clear from reading Paul's letters that we need to make sure to not be seen as participating in the rituals of other religions in any way. The current Christian response to yoga seems to be to add the reading of Bible verses or to listen to Christian music, or to relate the stretching moves to Christian meanings (in the same way Hindus may relate the moves to mystical meanings). Those are noble attempts to separate out the physical benefits and replace Hindu philosophy with Christian meaning. But none of those methods address the core issue. You cannot put new wine in old wine skins. The Hindu concepts still bleed through the Christian veneer.
Instead, I would argue that we should evaluate all forms of stretching, gymnastics, isometrics, weight training, etc.. from first principles, i.e. from our body mechanics and what would anatomically give us the best physical benefit for all our body. Then when we do those sets of moves, even if some of them are the same as yoga, we will know we are doing the best for our bodies rather than doing things that may not be best but were derived from old traditions. For one such attempt, see the Royal Canadian Airforce Exercise Plans.

That is the true meaning of Christian freedom. We are free to look into the first principles that underlie the laws and rituals that have been handed down to us. We can give a more well thought out and nuanced approach that fulfills the appropriate goals of the laws and rituals of the past. So, putting a Christian face on a non-Christian tradition does not live up to the high calling we have as Christians. We can and should do better. Hindu wisdom and inclusiveness, where it differs from Christian beliefs, will not prevail against the Christian emphasis on truth, reason and true freedom.


Dave said...

Hi Bro, thanks for leaving a thotful comment at the agora! :) Good analysis on the yoga topic