How Should Christians Respond to Yoga?
“Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols?” (1 Corinthians 6:14–18 NIV)
Since Swami Vivekananda first introduced yoga to the West more than a hundred years ago, yoga has steadily gained in popularity, becoming as American as apple pie. In fact, you can find classes at the local gym as well as the local church! And according to the Columbia Journalism Review;
Everybody loves yoga; sixteen and a half million Americans practice it regularly, and twenty-five million more say they will try it this year. If you’ve been awake and breathing air in the twenty-first century, you already know that this Hindu practice of health and spirituality has long ago moved on from the toe-ring set. Yoga is American; it has graced the cover of Time twice, acquired the approval of A-list celebrities like Madonna, Sting, and Jennifer Aniston, and is still the go-to trend story for editors and reporters, who produce an average of eight yoga stories a day in the English-speaking world.….Consumers drop $3 billion every year on yoga classes, books, videos, CDs, DVDs, mats, clothing, and other necessities.
With the growing attraction of yoga and its “rock-star status,” I have put much thought into the appropriate Christian response. In short, believers need to “think Christianly” about yoga; to facilitate this understanding, I have created the acronym Y-O-G-A.
“Y” reminds believers that the word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit word “yogah,” which means “to yoke or to unite.” Indeed, the goal of yoga is to uncouple oneself from the material world and to unite oneself with the God of Hinduism, commonly understood to be Brahman, the impersonal cosmic consciousness of the universe. Put another way, yoga is the means by which the user’s mind is merged into the universal mind.
“O” represents the Hindu mantra “Om”—a sacred Sanskrit syllable cherished by Hindu yogis as the spoken quintessence of the universe. Repeating such mantras as Om over and over is a principal means by which participants work their way into altered states of consciousness with the objective of dulling the critical thinking process. As noted by the late Indian guru Bhawan Shree Rajneesh, the mind is an obstacle to enlightenment.
Shockingly, what was once relegated to the kingdom of the cults is now being replicated in churches. In the ashrams of the cults there is no pretense. Despite such dangers as possession or insanity, Hindu gurus openly encourage trance states through which devotees tap into realms of the demonic and discover their “higher selves.” Whether experiencing involuntary movements or encountering illusory monsters, all is written off as progress on the road to enlightenment.
“G” recalls the gurus who developed and disseminated yoga for the express purpose of achieving oneness with the impersonal God of Hinduism. Most noteworthy among the Guru’s is Patanjali—the Hindu sage who founded Yoga around the second century b.c. Of particular significance in the West is the aforementioned guru, Swami Vivekananda, a disciple of the self-proclaimed “god-man” Sri Ramakrishna. In 1893 Vivekananda used the Parliament of World Religions to skillfully sow the seeds for a new global spirituality. Second only to Vivekananda in the Westernization of yoga was Yogananda—proudly hailed as “Father of Yoga in the West.” In 1920 he founded the L.A. based Self-Realization Fellowship, a principal means of disseminating Yoga to multiplied millions of Americans. Finally, of special note is Swami Muktananda, popularizer of kundalini yoga, a method by which divine energy thought to reside as a coiled serpent at the base of the spine is aroused; ascends through six chakras; and aims for union with the Hindu deity Shiva in a seventh center allegedly located in the crown of the head.
Finally, the “A” in Y-O-G-A brings to mind the Hindu word asana. As repetition of the word “Om” is used to work devotees into altered states of consciousness, so too a regiment of asanas—or body postures—are used to achieve a feeling of oneness with the cosmic energy flow of the universe. Coupled with breathing exercises and meditation practices, asana positions are considered to be the pathway to serenity and spirituality. According to the Yoga Journal, “asanas are their own type of meditation; to perform difficult postures you have to focus on your body and breath and relax into the pose.” While multitudes are being seduced into believing that asanas are spiritually neutral, nothing could be farther from the truth.
In sum, while an alarming number of American Christians suppose they can harmlessly achieve physical and spiritual well-being through a form of yoga divorced from its Eastern worldview, in reality attempts to Christianize Hinduism only Hinduize Christianity.