Just Breathe- An Analysis of Westernized Yoga and How Christians Should React

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“Inhale, then exhale,” the instructor coos. “Look up, and melt your heart to the sun in a sun salutation.” The gentle waves of the ocean methodically lap against the shore. A group of comfortably dressed students, sitting crossed-legged a little way from the beach, serenely follow the instructor’s song-like commands. The sun shines brilliantly in the clear, blue sky. All is peaceful and well. The students chant, hum, and rock to and fro, manipulating their bodies into certain yogic positions. Their goal is ultimate peace. Such sets the scene of countless Western yoga classes, videos, and television programs. More and more people flock to yoga, attracted by the benefits of physical fitness and inner peace. But where does this peace come from? Western culture has interpreted Eastern yogic practices in a number of different ways; are any of these appropriate for the Christian?

What exactly is yoga? The average Western civilian would probably tell you that yoga is a form of physical fitness that sometimes provides spiritual benefits. In reality, however, yoga offers so much more. From the Indus Valley Civilization to the “hot yoga” class at your local gym, yoga in its many forms has benefited people for millenniums and still continues to impact lives today.

Originally, the practice of yoga began in early forms of Hinduism as a spiritual ritual, almost resembling a Christian sacrament. Because it is derived from interpretive Hindu texts called the Upanishads, yoga is as irreplaceable in Hindu religion as prayer or obedience to sacred texts. The word “yoga,” according to author Meagan McCrary, is derived from “the Sanskrit root yuj, meaning ‘to yoke’ or ‘to bind,’ [and] is most commonly interpreted to signify ‘union’” (McCrary 178). Extending back to the Indus Valley Civilization, Hindus have been striving to attain union with their high god, Brahmin, for thousands of years. This goal of union is called “moksha,” which is a “final release from material existence” (Wangu 11). According to author Irving Hexham, “yoga is defined [in the Upanishads] as the ‘mastery or suppression of the mind’” (Hexham 136). The goal of this suppression is to unify one’s soul to the Divine, resulting in a release from the wheel of samsara (reincarnation). Clearly, yoga is much deeper and more significant than many Westerners consider it to be.

Attaining union with Brahmin does not happen in one particular way. In fact, there are several types of yoga beyond what is widely understood as yoga in the West. Hindus know physical yoga, similar to modern exercise yoga, as “hatha,” which is considered the “yoga of force” (McCrary 220, 244). Hatha is manifested through yogic positions called “asana” and breathing practices called “pranayama” (Chopra, Simon 39) (Ryan 137). According to Doctors Deepak Chopra and David Simon, “Asana means the full expression of mind-body integration, in which you become consciously aware of the flow of life energy in your body” (Chopra, Simon 39). Another author, Andrea R. Jain, says: “This system of yoga include[s] a view of the body as a microcosm of the universe and emphasize[s] the practitioner’s ability to channel subtle energy within the body” (Jain). Another important type of yoga is “raja,” the yoga of meditation, control of the mind, and self-realization. A few more genres include “bhakti,” the yoga of love, “jhana,” the yoga of wisdom and philosophy, “karma,” the yoga of selflessness through sacrifice and service, and “mantra,” the yoga of sound, through chanting (Ryan 135-136) (McCrary 230-244). A few of these yoga types have seemingly been thrust together, resulting in some Westernized forms of yoga practice. For the most part, however, yoga practiced in the West is characterized as hatha yoga. Unfortunately, hatha yoga is often mistaken for the only true type of yoga, overlooking practices that go beyond just exercise.

What do these ancient Hindu practices look like today? Essentially, modern yoga instructors have stolen yoga and molded it into a secular form of exercise sometimes accompanied by supernatural cleansing of the mind and body. Modern authors define yoga this way:

Yoga is the union of body, mind, and spirit—the union of your individuality with the divine intelligence that orchestrates the universe. Yoga is a state of being in which the elements and forces that comprise your biological organism are in harmonious interaction with the elements of the cosmos. Established in this state, you will experience enhanced emotional, psychological, and spiritual well-being and will increasingly notice the spontaneous fulfillment of your desires.” (Chopra, Simon ix)

It seems that yoga is no longer a religious practice, but rather a secular practice that is simply a healthy part of life. Gone are the perceptions of Hindu religious customs that considered yoga not just a part of life, but life itself. Author Andrea R. Jain states: “Hindu opponents of the popularization of yoga maintain that postural yoga [hatha] is the product of a profit-driven market featuring the cooptation and corruption of an otherwise authentic, Hindu system.” Later, she says: “…postural yoga repurposed yoga for the sake of modern conceptions of health, beauty, and well-being” (Jain). While some new religious movements have taken hold of the spiritual implications of yoga, most modern instructors mainly teach union and peace independent of a particular religious practice. Still, the question remains regarding whether or not this secular form of yoga is indeed worship. Since the asana positions themselves originated as worship poses used to attain unity with the Hindu god, Brahmin, several yoga critics contend that regardless of secularization, Western yoga is equivalent to ancient hatha practices. Whatever the case, modern yoga instructors fail to use yoga in the correct way—as a religious act of submission.

Unmistakably, the unrefined practice of yoga does not just involve stretching and obtaining physical agility. Yoga’s original intent, in fact, was to attain union with the Divine- regardless of the path used to achieve such unity. Unfortunately, Western yogis have twisted the original purpose of yoga to fit the needs of Western culture. The question still persists, however, like a newborn baby imploring for a bottle: Can yoga be used as a religious practice today?

For Christians, the question of yoga is heated and extremely controversial. On one hand, yoga is believed to be a dangerous practice because of its Hindu roots. After all, Christians do not want to get involved with potentially dangerous, demonic Hindu gods. On the other hand, however, some Christians believe that yoga is simply a religious ritual, similar to prayer, that is easily shared among various world religions. Exploring these two views, one can come to a logical conclusion based on God’s Word, the Bible—not just scholarly opinion.

Is yoga really Hindu? Numerous authors- both Christian and secular- claim that it is. Popular Christian figures such as Mark Driscoll, John MacArthur, and even former pope Joseph Ratzinger and the Catholic church, reject yoga as demonic and thoroughly unchristian (Jain). Even the watered-down, Western version of yoga is considered by some to be extremely dangerous because of its Hindu origin. Author Ramesh Rao, quoted in an article by Andrea R. Jain, “suggests that ‘savvy marketers’ avoid defining yoga as Hindu in order to appease Christians who want to practice yoga and ‘hang on to Jesus’” (Jain). Originally, however, asana postures were used to attain union with the Hindu god, Brahmin. According to author Elliot Miller, standard yoga classes include implicit Hindu rituals, such as the common yogic greeting of “namaste, which means, ‘I honor the Divine within you.’” Quoting Miller, “This is an affirmation of pantheism and therefore a denial of the true God revealed in the Bible” (Miller). In addition, modern yoga instructors give students mantras to chant during certain exercises, which worship Hindu gods and goddesses. Lastly, many yoga professionals admit that the simple performance of hatha yoga postures (asana) can easily lead to a deeper, more spiritual yogic connection. Actually, this connection was the original intent of asana postures in Hinduism. By calming the body and focusing the mind on difficult positions, asana stances were originally created to prepare the mind for meditation (Miller). Miller describes the phenomenon in this way: “The goal [of hatha yoga] is to make the mind more conductive to meditation, mystical experiences, and Eastern philosophy […] The postures of yoga are not religiously neutral. All of the classic asanas have spiritual significance.” This, Miller claims, proves extremely dangerous to the Christian. He maintains that it is virtually impossible to perform asana positions without involving your mind and getting “out of your head.” In his article, Miller quotes the Hindu editor of Hinduism Today, who sheds a frightening light on the subject: “’Hinduism is the soul of yoga based as it is on Hindu Scripture and developed by Hindu sages. Yoga opens up new and more refined states of mind, and to understand them one needs to believe in and understand the Hindu way of looking at God… A Christian trying to adapt these practices will likely disrupt their own Christian beliefs.’” To believe that asana positions are harmless for the Christian in a yoga community, according to various Christian and secular sources, is deceiving yourself. Miller even goes as far to say that putting your body in asana positions at all is sin. Since the Bible does not mandate any form of yoga as a physical practice in order to get “out of your mind” to worship God, Miller considers yoga for the Christian to be against God’s will. He claims that the Holy Spirit is enough to enlighten a Christian without “such mind-altering” yogic techniques. Therefore, because of Hinduism’s original intent and the traces of Hinduism left on modern yoga practices today, Elliot Miller and other Christians passionately believe that yoga is inappropriate for followers of Christ.

On the other hand, there are a huge number of Christian teachers who strongly believe that yoga is a great tool when utilized in such a way as to glorify God. They assert that yoga, in its purest form, can be used as a universal religious ritual resembling prayer. “Why,” they ask, “does yoga have to be strictly Hindu? Why can it not be used to worship Christ?” Brooke Boon, writer of the widely popular book Holy Yoga and leader of a huge movement for Christian yoga among evangelicals, strongly believes that yoga is a practice that can be used to glorify Jesus. In her book, she writes about the physical benefits of yoga followed by the mental and spiritual benefits. When addressing critics who take positions like that of Elliot Miller, she compassionately states:

Some people have expressed a fear that the physical aspect of yoga can lead to a type of body worship. This is a valid concern rooted in historical occurrences, but it need not be a foregone conclusion. There are several other classical disciplines that are physical in nature, and when practiced properly, these do not lead us down the wrong path. […] I’ve found that other people are concerned because yoga adherents claim that their goal is ‘union with God.’ Perhaps it is the word union that is troublesome. While traditional Eastern yoga looks at ‘union’ as meaning ‘becoming one with God,’ Holy Yoga sees it as becoming surrendered to God, devoted to Him, and united with Him in purpose. (Boon xv)

Although extremely offensive to some Christians, many evangelical authors, pastors, and speakers applaud Boon and other founders of Christian yoga for their implementation of a modern craze to use in the worship of Christ.

With so much information accompanied by an enormous barrage of opinions, Christians must study the Bible for themselves and form their own stance according to what is said in God’s Word. First of all, it is important to note that every time the Bible mentions meditation is in reference to meditation on God’s Word. Nowhere does the Word of God tell us to meditate just for the sake of meditating. In fact, the goal of “getting out of your head,” that is stressed in yoga seems to be completely unbiblical. 1 Peter 5:8 says, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (The Holy Bible). By practicing yoga for the purpose of vague meditation, you are not being “sober-minded.” Therefore, you are opening up your mind to the influence of “your adversary the devil.” Despite the many adverse aspects of yoga for Christians, there are some ideas in yoga that must be embraced. The main goal of yoga is to attain union with Brahmin, the Divine, the cosmos, etc. Ironically, the Bible frequently talks about union with the one true God. One example is 1 Corinthians 6:27, which says: “But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him” (The Holy Bible). This verse is in the context of union between a man and a woman after they are married. That is the type of union you should be striving for. This union is unlike union with Hindu gods but rather, like Brooke Boon said above, Biblical union is surrender, not equality. Another positive aspect of yoga is the pure stillness. God commands us in Psalm 46:10 to “Be still, and know that I am God” (The Holy Bible). This tranquility allows Christians to sit back and just breathe, experiencing the peace of God through prayer and Biblical meditation. The International Standard Version of the Bible translates Philippians 4:7 in a way that encompasses this all: “Then God’s peace, which goes far beyond anything we can imagine, will guard your hearts and minds in union with the Messiah Jesus” (Holy Bible). Not only does God desire union with believers, but He also longs to give them his indescribable peace. This is His will. Whether or not a Christian chooses to fulfill God’s will by practicing yoga is a matter of personal conviction and conscience.

While some aspects of yoga are alien and unbiblical, other aspects are beautiful and could help the Christian fulfill God’s will for them. Despite the heated controversy regarding the Biblical practice of meditation and how that relates to yoga, Christians must determine for themselves God’s will for them by comparing yoga practices to Biblical insights with the help of the Holy Spirit.

A young lady sits tranquilly on her back porch, eyes closed, an open Book before her. Her life is stressful—between school, work, church and spending time with her family she does not have a lot of moments when she can simply relax. This morning, however, is different. She has chosen to take the morning to just sit in God’s presence. By reading Psalms aloud to the Lord, she reminds herself of God’s promises as she prays for those in need and listens for direction from the Lord through His Word. By submitting to His will for her life, she attains union with her Savior, which results in an inner peace that “transcends all understanding.” This young lady does not have to chant, manipulate her body into certain positions, or get “out of her mind” to meditate on God’s Word and grasp inner peace and union with her Creator. She understands that peace does not come from anything or anyone except for her Savior.

Consider the difference between this scene and the scene presented at the beginning of the essay. Both reached the ultimate goal of peace, but one did so without any of the controversial forms of Western or Christian yoga. Peace is feasible with or without yoga. The job of the Christian is to determine God’s will for him personally.

Works Cited
Boon, Brooke. Holy Yoga: Exercise for the Christian Body and Soul. New York: Faith Words, 2007. Print.
Chopra, Deepak and David Simon. The Seven Spiritual Laws of Yoga. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 2004. Print.
Hexham, Irving. Understanding World Religions. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2011. Print.
Holy Bible, International Standard Version. Bible Gateway. ISV Foundation, 1995-2014. Web. 5 July 2016
Jain, Andrea R. “The Malleability of Yoga: A Response to Christian and Hindu Opponents of the Popularization of Yoga.” Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies 25. (2012): 3-10. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials. Web. 18 June 2016.
McCrary, Meagan. Pick Your Yoga Practice. Novato, California: New World Library, 2013. Print. *
Miller, Elliot. “The Yoga Boon: A Call for Christian Discernment (Part 3: Toward a Comprehensive Christian Response).” Christian Research Journal    2008 (2008): Christian Periodical Index. Web. 18 June 2016.
Ryan, Thomas. Prayer of Heart and Body: Meditation and Yoga as Christian Spiritual Practice. Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1995. Print.
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2011. Print.
Wangu, Madhu Bazaz. Hinduism: World Religions. New York: Facts on File, Inc, 1991. Print.
 *This book was a kindle edition. Any page numbers included in parenthetical citations are kindle “locations,” not page numbers like those found in a printed book.

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