Saturday, June 11, 2005

Two Christian Perspectives on Yoga

For the past couple of months, two contributors to Christianity Today have offered contrasting views on the practice of yoga and whether Christians should indulge in this activity rooted in Hindu traditions.

It all started with an article titled "The Truth About Yoga" by Holly Vicente Robaina in the March/April 2005 issue of Christianity Today's sister publication Today's Christian Woman. Robaina's article focused on . . . a yoga alternative called PraiseMoves developed by Laurette Willis, a Christian who had been heavily influenced by New Age practices since childhood.

Robaina wrote:

The goal of all yoga, Laurette explains, is to obtain oneness with the universe. That's also known as the process of enlightenment, or union with Brahman (Hinduism's highest god). The word "yoga" means "union" or "to yoke."

"Yoga wants to get students to the point of complete numbness in their minds. God, on the other hand, wants you to be transformed by the renewing of your mind through his Word," Laurette says.

Before she became a Christian, Laurette used subliminal tapes to train her mind to empty itself. These tapes are often used in yoga classes, she says. She also taught yoga classes and instructed her students in astral projection, or "stepping outside" of the body, which Laurette says poses a serious spiritual danger.

"If there's nothing in your mind, you're open to all kinds of deception. After coming to Christ, I wondered who—or what—came into my body when I 'stepped out.' While I don't believe Christians can become possessed, I do believe we can become oppressed by demonic spirits of fear, depression, lust, false religion, etc. These are all things designed to draw us away from Jesus Christ."

But what about
hatha yoga, the less overtly spiritual form of yoga taught at most gyms? Even in this format, Laurette says there are commonly used words and poses antithetical to God's Word. For example, the word "namaste," often said at the close of yoga classes, means, "I bow to the god within you." The sound "om," chanted in many yoga classes, is meant to bring students into a trance so they can join with the universal mind. And the "salute to the sun" posture, used at the beginning of most classes, pays homage to the Hindu sun god. Laurette believes it's impossible to extract Hindu spiritualism from yoga—and she's gotten a bit of confirmation on this from an unlikely source:

"I received an e-mail from a staff member of the Classical Yoga Hindu Academy in New Jersey. The staff member wrote, 'Yes, all of yoga is Hinduism. Everyone should be aware of this fact.' This staff member included that she didn't appreciate my 'running down the great Hindu/Yogic religion,'" Laurette says.

In mid-May, in response to Robaina's article, Agnieszka Tennant countered with "Yes to Yoga" on the Christianity Today Web site. Tennant, who wrote that she is "mostly" evangelical in her beliefs, said that she was embarrassed for her faith when she read a negative critique of Robaina's article posted on the ultra-Liberal Huffington Post blog.

Tennant offered:
. . . it bothers me that people like Willis demonize a healthful exercise regimen, and engage in fear mongering (or is it fear marketing?) among evangelicals. The stereotype of evangelicals they reinforce I'd rather live without. We can leave the spreading of wrong-headed stereotypes about evangelicals to the more experienced bashers—some columnists at The New York Times, for example.

To dispel the stereotype at hand, let me witness that yoga 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.

Need I say that it was Alpha and Omega who first thought of and then created the common graces of oxygen, stretching, flexibility, breathing, and soothing music?

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.

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?

Last week on the magazine's Web site, Robaina came back with a response. In "Take a Pass on Yoga", Robaina explained her own battles with the influences of New Ageism, and she admitted that Tennant has every right to practice yoga and is probably strong enough to overcome any of its negative influences. However, Robaina wondered how a Christian practicing yoga might influence weaker sisters and brothers in Christ:
Agnieszka references 1 Corinthians 8 in her article to illustrate how yoga might not cause a strong Christian to stumble. But she doesn't mention the last part of the passage, where Paul goes on to say:

"Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone with a weak conscience sees you who have this knowledge eating in an idol's temple, won't he be emboldened to eat what has been sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ" (verses 9-12).

And I'll admit it—I loved yoga. Perhaps I'm even a strong enough Christian now to begin a yoga class again. But my decision to say no to yoga isn't just about me. Children are being exposed to yoga's spiritualism at school and in after-school programs. (I remember being taken through a guided meditation as a teen at a youth recreation program, though I had no idea what it was at the time.) And I've read many stories about doctors who encourage the elderly, depressed patients, the mentally ill, and terminal patients to practice yoga for its mental and spiritual benefits—as if there is no better comfort available in the world than yoga.

So even if I'm strong enough, how can I support a practice that seems to be targeting the young and the weak? I take 1 Corinthians 8:13 most seriously: "Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall."

What do you think? Should Christians practice yoga, or should they seek out a Christian-based alternative in order to not tempt themselves or their brothers and sisters in Christ?


At Sunday, June 12, 2005 7:34:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh dear. I cannot imagine living my life in such fear, and worrying so that my relationship with God is threatened by understanding the way other people relate to God, much less worrying about stretching exercises.

At Wednesday, June 15, 2005 3:09:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You might be on to something here. Had a strange experience this morning. It was sort of a trans-religious experience.

I did some stretches this morning and when I went to the mirror I noticed a little bit of a buddha belly. Wonder what that means...

the Heckler

At Tuesday, June 21, 2005 4:42:00 PM, Anonymous Holly Vicente Robaina said...

Thanks for posting the Christianity Today stories.

I believe Christians love yoga because of the stretching. When you stretch, you have to slow down, take your time, let your muscles and brain relax. Yoga is an organized stretching routine with Hindu spirituality.

It's a difficult subject because yoga is the most visible stretching program out there (I couldn't name any others that would be so available), and stretching is good for the body. I believe the middle ground will be found when Christians who are gifted in exercise step up, create, and make available stretching programs that don't incorporate Hindu spirituality. I hope the discussion created by the CT stories will get some thinking about this.

Thanks for providing a forum for thoughts here, and for your own willingness to feel out the subject.

Holly Vicente Robaina

At Monday, April 18, 2011 10:12:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I took yoga classes when I was a young mother--a Christian. When I bowed my head and folded my hands under my chin, I would feel a "check"--a hesitation--in my spirit. I asked the instructor what it meant to bow with my hands under my chin. She said, "You are bowing to the Sun god." Needless to say, I ceased "bowing to the Sun god," and no longer did yoga.

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