Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Christian Yoga - The Missing Manual

I first became aware that the Christian college where I work offers a Yoga class back in 2008 so I began researching the topic.  I ended up visiting Yoga classes at the Science of Spirituality, Theosophical Society and the local Hindu Temple to compare their practices and teachings.  The Yoga class at the Hindu temple was the most interesting and that motivated me to learn more about Yoga from the Hindu perspective.  A May 2013 episode (51 minutes) of the Moody Radio show "Up for Debate" on Christian use of Yoga referenced my hands-on research of this topic.

In my initial thinking, I used two arguments that Christians should refrain from Yoga (which I think are still valid, but I now think there is a better way to address this question):

1. Paul argued that while eating meat sacrificed to idols was technically O.K. since idols aren't real (similar to how Yoga is technically O.K. because it is just stretching), he said he wouldn't do it because it could confuse others (my paraphrase).  Also, note that at least two other passages (Acts 21:25, Rev 2:14) seem to condemn Christians eating meat sacrificed to idols.

2. The writer of the book of Kings argued against worshiping God at high places, where the other religions were worshiping.  If you think about it, going up a mountain to worship God requires physical labor (like Yoga), the air is a little thinner so possibly making people at little light headed after climbing (somewhat similar to and including an adrenaline high), and the view is awesome.  Those characteristics help motivate people to think about the big picture (the "mountain top experience", or more simply, a "high"). So it would be easy to think you are getting a spiritual experience on top of a mountain, substituting for a focus on Truth. I like this analogy because it says leaders who were wholly devoted to God nevertheless did not take down the high places, leading to a situation a few generations later where most of the society rejected God.

But I ended up deciding that the best method of addressing this question might be to argue that if you are a Christian considering or practicing Yoga, then I would suggest that you should learn more about the Hindu history and philosophy of Yoga directly from Hindus so that you can make good decisions on this topic.  That is what this blog post is intended to help you do.  So, this is my attempt at a "missing manual" for Christians considering Yoga.

Now, six years later, the college is offering "Lenten Yoga: a contemplative practice for the Lenten Season", which has motivated me to make this updated post.  Also, now I see that there are more Hindu discussions of the meaning of Yoga on YouTube which were not available when I did my initial blog post six years ago.  So, now you can get the information directly from Hindu sources.  If you watch the three following videos, you will understand more about Yoga than probably 99% of westerners.

1. Here is a set of videos discussing the possible future merging of Christianity, Hinduism and Atheism, followed by a discussion of atheists and Christians using Yoga for health benefits at first, then graduating to an understanding of the spiritual meanings/benefits of Yoga (17 minutes).  I also added a video clip on the end of Billy Graham discussing his inclusivist beliefs (which says good people of all belief systems are chosen to go to Heaven, which is similar to but a little different than Universalist beliefs), which C.S. Lewis also shared (the two most honored Christians at the college where I work):

2. Here is a video talking about a panel discussion on the topic from Hinduism Today (15 minutes).  I also added on the end a video clip of Father Keating discussing how his Christian beliefs (step 1) are transcended by Hindu/Buddhist concepts of Oneness (steps 2 and 3 of the "spiritual journey"):

3. Here is a link to buy the below video on Yoga philosophy from the Christian perspective.  This one isn't a Hindu source, and I don't necessarily agree with all the assertions, such as the Yoga moves themselves having actual spiritual/mystical/demonic implications.  Also, I always thought that the idea of Kundalini, being the waking of a sleeping snake at the base of our spine, came from the fact that our intestines look like a coiled snake rather than being a reference to the serpent in Genesis and Revelations.  But in any event this Christian author did grow up in India and the video has some very interesting first hand accounts from the Christian perspective (77 minutes):

If you want more information, check out the Wikipedia article on Yoga, and the origins of the Sun Salutation: "Its origins lie in India where they worship Surya, the Hindu solar deity".  Compare that to Ezekiel 8:15-16 where it says:
15 He said to me, “Do you see this, son of man? Yet you will see still greater abominations than these.”
16 Then He brought me into the inner court of the Lord’s house. And behold, at the entrance to the temple of the Lord, between the porch and the altar,were about twenty-five men with their backs to the temple of the Lord and their faces toward the east; and they were prostrating themselves eastward toward the sun.
I know that most westerners aren't intending to worship the Sun when they do a sun salutation, but at the Hindu temple they did say during our sun and moon salutations that we were "honoring the Sun" and "honoring the Moon".  So I would still suggest thinking about that passage the next time you do a Sun or Moon salutation.

I am a Christian libertarian so I believe that the ten commandments were really talking about how to maintain freedom, through right motivations (don't covet), respect for ownership of yourself (don't kill) and your work (don't steal), and respect for free trade/contracts (no adultery, honor parents, honor God). But to make free choices requires that you have all the information. Now that you have more background information on Yoga you are more free, and also more responsible, to make good decisions.

If you aren't a Christian, then perhaps none of this matters. But if you are a Christian who believes the God of the Bible actually exists, then perhaps Pilates or some other categorization of similar stretches might be a way to obtain the same physical benefits without risking disrespecting God. God gives us freedom to do what we believe is best, but choose wisely.