Yoga Redux

Yoga

Last month, I posted a brief note about an article by Albert Mohler arguing that the practice of Yoga is incompatible with the Christian faith. The Associated Press covered Mohler’s article and subsequently set-off a tempest of controversy with Yoga practitioners across the country.

Many Christian Yoga devotees objected to Mohler’s piece and contended that their practice of Yoga had no religious dimension to it at all. For them, Yoga offered no contradiction at all to their Christian convictions. Mohler’s response to that argument was simple. If there’s no religious dimension to your Yoga, then it’s not Yoga. It’s just stretching.

According to today’s New York Times, a group of Hindu leaders seems to be agreeing with Mohler. They aren’t trying to make converts to Hinduism, but they do want people to be more aware than they are about the religious roots of Yoga. Here’s a snippet:

“A group of Indian-Americans has ignited a surprisingly fierce debate in the gentle world of yoga by mounting a campaign to acquaint Westerners with the faith that it says underlies every single yoga style followed in gyms, ashrams and spas: Hinduism.

“The campaign, labeled ‘Take Back Yoga,’ does not ask yoga devotees to become Hindu, or instructors to teach more about Hinduism. The small but increasingly influential group behind it, the Hindu American Foundation, suggests only that people become more aware of yoga’s debt to the faith’s ancient traditions.”

Mohler is quoted in the article, and you can read the rest of it here.

10 Responses to Yoga Redux

  1. Matthew November 29, 2010 at 2:13 am #

    Hmm, the plot thickens…

  2. Timothy November 29, 2010 at 5:43 am #

    It seems incontrovertible that yoga has origins in practices of the religions in the Indian subcontinent. Other fairly widespread practices also have their origins in eastern religion. Martial arts and acupuncture are two obvious examples. The question then arises when does e.g. acupuncture cease to be taking part in eastern religious practices and when does it become something that Christians can legitimately receive or administer. Certainly most Korean Christians would have absolutely no problem about it at all. And very few in the West would have a problem with karate or taekwondo. The coach of the Korean Olympic taekwondo team is or was a Christian.
    Yoga is slightly more complicated because it does have a very lively current place in some of the religions of India and has in this guise had a real presence outside India. So yoga cannot claim to be simply neutral in all cases. But can it claim neutrality among some people? That for me is not so easy to answer as Mohler seems to imply. It may just be “stretching” in Mohler’s terms but the techniques are derived from the religious practice and go far beyond the stretching techniques of the West unless they have been influenced by yoga. Why can one not call it yoga but see it as non religious?

  3. Charlton Connett November 29, 2010 at 10:30 am #

    Timothy,

    You can call “it” whatever you want. You can call “non-religious stretching based off Hindu religious methods” “yoga” but the fact is that historically speaking, and properly describing “yoga,” that is not yoga, it is a form of stretching based off of yoga, but not the same. The primary reason I think we shouldn’t call stretching “yoga” is because of the potential for confusing words and meanings. It would be like calling Jefferson’s Bible a bible. Yes, his “bible” is based off of the bible, but when you take out every miracle and leave only a “de-mythologized” Christ story, that is no longer the bible, it is a distortion.

  4. rastis November 29, 2010 at 12:00 pm #

    “Perhaps a discussion on form and meaning will be helpful. The form is the act under consideration and the meaning is the “theology” or worldview held by the practitioner. While most forms remain the same, or nearly the same, meaning often changes (or at least can be changed). Here are two examples.

    Think about a man who is lost and spends his entire life revolving around baseball. Any, and all, extra time and money go spent on this “idolatry.” Later in life, he becomes a believer and realizes that he should re-prioritize his life around God instead of his own desires–innocuous as they may appear. Is baseball ontologically demonic? Baseball, used as an idol, is demonic in the sense that his affections were inward rather than God-ward. It is the meaning associated with his participation in baseball, not baseball itself that is errant. Could this man ever watch a game, and is it wrong for other believers to participate? We can answer the question in such a way that our answer would betray some kind of actual ontological affirmation of the inherent demonic nature of the sport. As we can all see, this would be absurd.

    That example might be too easy as it is not dealing with something which is overtly religious. Thus, let us look at the same man who also was lost who attended church. From birth, this man attended church. Perhaps this was his way of assuaging his guilt for his other true love–baseball. He attends regularly as a cultural and familial obligation. Certainly this, and other occasional good deeds, is earning him favor with God so that one day God will be able to just kind of look the other way. Then one day the Holy Spirit opens his eyes as he sits under the preaching of the Gospel… Do we want him to abandon his former form of regular church attendance? Probably not. There is now, however, new meaning in this form. The form hasn’t changed, but the meaning of this form being a work to earn merit or favor certainly has. Thus, he should continue in the form, but he should certainly eschew the prior meaning he associated with it.

    So what of Yoga? It is a form. There is nothing inherently demonic with the particular poses themselves. If there is anything demonic then it is with the faulty meaning associated with yoga. This does not mean, however, that one could use yoga, per se, as a form of worship (unless you are simply meaning in the way that everything we do is to bring glory to God and is thus some kind of worship). The world view of yoga and the meaning associated by those who are Hindu, Buddhist, New age, Neopagan, etc. is false. Thus, the content they chant and the meaning they associate with it is false. I think that is where I would personally draw the line in advising believers. The form, I believe, is innocuous by itself. One can do the form without buying into the meaning. In the same way, one can learn martial arts without the aspiration to become an ascended master. One can burn scented candles disassociated from its monistic meaning.”

    Comment #7 taken from: http://goo.gl/sQqFm

  5. MatthewS November 29, 2010 at 12:35 pm #

    I have assumed that much of what passes for yoga offers no more an authentic cultural experience than than do Pizza Hut or Taco Bell, and that many things that are called yoga are really just stretching and breathing exercises. But I don’t have the personal experience to know.

  6. Matthew November 29, 2010 at 12:44 pm #

    @MatthewS, on the whole I think you’re right… my wife took some “yoga” during her second pregnancy and it was about as religious as a game of Twister.

    There was no chanting, no Sanskrit, or even any flowery “new-age” phrasings.

    The terminology was purely descriptive “right foot green, left hand yellow” and the participants seemed far more concerned with flexibility and physical fitness than achieving “enlightenment” through conquering desire.

  7. Ryan November 29, 2010 at 2:13 pm #

    @ Matthew, I think you are right. What often takes place and is called yoga is not actually yoga. Yoga inherently does call for religious aspects.

    But I think the Hindu leaders are right in the NYT article, stop calling something yoga that is not yoga. In many ways sounds like many Hindus are feeling that part of their religious practices are being highjacked and redefined by others. Sounds similar to how some Christians feel about what American culture has done to Christmas and Easter.

  8. Jason Owens November 30, 2010 at 12:27 am #

    Anyone that calls “yoga” just stretching has obviously never done it. It’s a butt-kicking strength and flexibility routine. I view it no differently than running or weight lifting. Extremely intense and an amazing workout. I think the jist of Everyone’s comments are sound in that the heart of the participant is the central matter as it always is. All things are permissible but not all are beneficial. If “yoga” causes religious responses not rooted in Christ than I suggest abstaining. Otherwise get your “yoga” on, but don’t call it just stretching because stretching doesn’t even come close to the intensity level of a “yoga” workout.

  9. Charlton Connett November 30, 2010 at 9:25 am #

    Jason,

    Perhaps I wasn’t clear. Calling “yoga,” “just stretching” was meant only to signify that what we are talking about is simply the physical component of the activity. If you want to divorce the physical activity from the spiritual underpinnings, then whatever you are doing, be it a rigorous workout or simply a couple of positions meant to force you to relax, you are not doing true yoga. Yoga, in its real form, is a spiritual thing, as it has been understood and passed down for centuries. This is the point I was trying to make. It isn’t simply that one can do “yoga” without a religious response, it is that doing “yoga” without a religious response is not doing yoga.

  10. Brad P. December 3, 2010 at 3:11 pm #

    When this first came out, the notice was sent about the Health Far at SBTS. At the fair, they had chiropractors, whose basis is to align the “chakras” of energy in the body. To get back to Timothy’s question, when does something, which is an extraction from something religious, become non-religious? This has implications in martial arts, health care, entertainment, as well as church ministries. Some of our Christmas traditions also had there beginnings in pagan worship. We Christians have a tendency to point to the origins of practices to denounce them if we do not like them but ignore them for practices that we like.

    Where should we draw the line and how can we defend where that line is drawn? I have struggled with articulating that in the past.

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