Many Christians employ meditation and yoga practices in their lives. The congregation where I worship has a well-attended “Holy Yoga” program. I don’t do yoga or meditate but these have always interested me, so I took some time to read more about the subject.
In an article called “Is Yoga Hindu?” (myhindupage.org/index.php/is-yoga-hindu), Guhanatha Swami hopes to clear up a misconception that yoga is an exercise with nothing to do with spirituality. “Yoga is part of Hindu religious tradition and teachings, however yoga itself is a universal practice that is not the monopoly of Hinduism or any other religion.” Thus, he writes, gurus have never restricted its use.
He provides a helpful distinction: the path of enlightenment via yoga is called Ashtanga Yoga, which involves eight steps. But the yoga exercises themselves are not Ashtanga Yoga, but rather the third of those eight steps—called Hatha Yoga. Thus, Hatha Yoga is indeed a spiritual program (not just a way to exercise) but Hatha Yoga is not the whole of the Hindu path to enlightenment.
As a Hindu, he does believe in the Hindu philosophies within yoga: “For those who are doing hatha yoga ‘just as an exercise,’ they too will get the benefits of stimulation of spiritual awareness and relief from negative karmic burdens though they may not recognize these as such and instead call it ‘wellness’ or ‘being at peace with oneself’ or just feeling stress free. One does not have to believe in the theories behind yoga for it to be effective.”
But “there’s the rub”: what about the philosophies connected with Ashtanga Yoga?
In an article, “The Trouble with Yoga,” Michelle Arnold argues a Roman Catholic perspective. Roman Catholics may practice yoga postures “but with caveats.” (catholic.com/magazine/articles/the-trouble-with-yoga) She worries that Christians who are unclear about Christian spirituality may be attracted to Hindu teachings which are indeed different from Christian doctrine.
For instance, she notes, some Hindu philosophies are monistic, the philosophy “that holds that all that exists is one. Rather than the communion that exists between God and his creation that Christians hold to be true, the monist believes that any distinction between God and the universe is illusory and that the enlightened person will become ‘one’ with the divine without any distinctions between persons.” She quotes a document by Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), where he writes that the physiological benefits of yoga could possibly be mistaken for the mystical ecstasies of Christian mystics. But Catholic Christians should not thereby jump to the conclusion that the peace they’re achieving in yoga is related to the spiritual experiences of someone like St. Teresa of Avila.
Altogether, Arnold writes, “While Christianity stresses the importance of detachment from all that separates the believer from union with God… the purpose of detachment is relational. It brings us into communion with the Triune God and with the saints in glory. The union is forged by love, which gives and receives—not drowned into an impersonal divine but freely shared between the Persons of God and the persons of his saints.”
Hinduism is by no means a unified and simple religion; it contains and accepts many philosophies, not just the monism of the philosophy called Advaita Vedanta. But apart from her discussion of the saints, which of course is her own Roman Catholic perspective, she does describe a basic difference between Christian trinitarianism and the monism of Vedanta. While Christianity is not a radically dualistic religion, Christianity does posit a distinction between God and creation, as well as a relational aspect in the affirmation of God’s grace that comes to us from God, rather than an identity with God within (Brahman-atman), which we can discover via the removal of illusion (maya) via meditation and other practices. In most Christian theologies, God’s substantial indwelling with our souls is understood as a gracious gift rather than a panentheistic ontological identity.
Some Christian theologians have been monistic—Paul Tillich is a notable example—but anyone writing from an evangelical perspective is likely to dismiss yoga as something unbiblical.
For instance, R. Albert Mohler of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is more adamant than Arnold: “When Christians practice yoga, they must either deny the reality of what yoga represents or fail to see the contractions between their Christian commitments and their embrace of yoga…. The embrace of yoga is a symptom of our postmodern spiritual confusion, and, to our shame, this confusion reaches into the church.” (albertmohler.com/2010/09/20the-subtle-body-should-christians-practice-yoga) More strongly yet, Mark Driscoll of the Mars Hill Church writes in an article—“Christian Yoga? It’s a Stretch”—-that he considers yoga “demonic” and inappropriate for Christians to practice (http://pastormark.tv/2011/11/02/christian-yoga-its-a-stretch) He believes that yoga (he goes on to discuss several kinds) introduces non-Christian values and theologies into Christian practice.
In my opinion, Jill Fisk answers very well concerns about Christians practicing yoga, on her website about “Holy Yoga”:
“Holy Yoga is a ministry dedicated to facilitating the intentional practice of connecting our entire being: body, mind and spirit with God — the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In complete reliance on God’s Word and prayer, the Holy Yoga experience is a time of worship, praise, and connection to Christ practiced to music that will shift our awareness to our Creator. Breathing and moving and having our being in Christ, we find ourselves lost in the flow of the fullness of joy that has been promised to us…The ‘holy’ comes from inviting the Triune God into the physical practice of prayer that called yoga. ‘Everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.’ (1 Tim 4:4-5) ….
“In Holy Yoga we practice with our minds set on whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy (Phil 4:8) and not with our minds emptied. We meditate on the wisdom of God’s Word (Psalm 119:9-16, 26-27) and not on the wisdom of man. We seek the transcendence and glory of God and not of ourselves.” (http://jillfisk.com/holyyoga/holy-yoga-faq/)
The point is still valid that Hindu monism is different from Christian trinitarianism—-and it’s very much worth contemplating that difference in a positive way that leads to respectful interfaith understanding, as well as clarifying one’s goals in prayer, meditation, and religious practice.
But although I don’t personally attend Holy Yoga classes, I appreciate Jill Fisk’s explanation of the goals of this kind of yoga. A conservative like Mohler would probably say, This is no longer yoga. (He did indeed say that: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/10/07/albert-mohler-southern-ba_n_753797.html ) But if you keep the Swami’s distinction of Hatha Yoga and Ashtanga Yoga in mind—the former being a spiritual exercise practicable by anyone, and the latter being a whole journey toward enlightenment within Hinduism—-you’ve come a long way toward accepting yoga as potentially a positive thing to introduce into Christian practice.
My pastor also raises an excellent point. In an email to me after I sought her wisdom on this subject, she pointed out that “as Christians, we are incarnational, meaning that the body cannot/should not be ignored. To do so, is to practice the heresy of Gnosticism… My understanding is that yoga was created to allow people to meditate longer….to surrender to the body’s need for stretching so that one might sit and contemplate longer.” To paraphrase Fisk, in yoga you’re stretching and thus calming your physical body and your mind, as you pray to the Triune God and seek God’s free and loving grace into your life and your prayer.
I hate to see anyone limit the power and serendipities of the Holy Spirit. I’ve seen the Spirit work in my life and other people’s lives in so many, surprising ways, that I gave up long ago thinking I could predict how the Spirit can draw us closer to God. And our personalities and experiences as Christian human beings are so diverse, that I never think we should disdain something that’s different from what we’d prefer. Churches try to do that with music—the choir director or pastor prefers one style of music, and so that’s the style of music everyone should enjoy. It’s the same with prayer and other spiritual practices.
Christianity has adopted non-Christian things within Christian life over the centuries. Our two major Christian holidays are an example. You might argue, “Eostre is an Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, dawn and fertility, and if we name the holiday of Jesus’ resurrection after her, we are confusing non-Christian fertility practices and pagan spirits with the new life of Christ. We don’t want to confuse people who’d mistake Jesus as a fertility god, or who would worship fertility deities alongside Jesus.” But the church did indeed adopt “Easter” as a Christian holiday, as well as the sun-related festival of December 25th observed in ancient Roman, Anglo-Saxon, and Norse religions. So the concern that people will become confused in their spiritual goals is a valid one, but nevertheless we see in Christian history that the church has adapted aspects of non-Christian cultures to good effect.
Two related points. Years ago, when I taught at Northern Arizona University, a student in my world religions class told me he was very interested in Hindu Tantra and the chakras—the locations of energy and power within our bodies, from the end of the spine to the top of the head—and he wanted to demonstrate. He was a small man, and we found a volunteer in the class who was a tall student with muscular arms. The small student asked the tall student to hold his arm outstretched as strongly as he could, and of course the small student could not budge the arm. Then the small student touched the tall student’s chakra near his neck—he said he was interrupting the energy flow—and the small student easily lowered the tall student’s clenched, outstretched arm. The tall student was quite shocked!
Although I’ve not studied the chakras very much in the intervening years, the demonstration was convincing that there is something to the teaching about these loci of energy. Because the chakras are not taught in the Bible, I can’t imagine that this aspect of eastern philosophy will ever be incorporated very wide-spread within traditional Christianity. But as I read the Swami’s point above—that yoga can inculcate benefits even when one disagrees with or does not understand the original philosophy—I thought of this student’s convincing demonstration of this aspect of the body, interpreted by tantic and yogic Hinduism as well as Vajrayana (Tibetan Buddhism).
The last point: This past week, as I was beginning to think about this post, I read an op-ed piece in the New York Times, “The Morality of Meditation” by David DeSteno. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/07/opinion/sunday/the-morality-of-meditation.html?_r=0
David DeSteno criticizes the “mindfulness” training programs that use meditation “to augment individual performance, leadership and productivity,” noting that “[g]aining competitive advantage on exams and increasing creativity in business weren’t of utmost concern to Buddha and other early meditation teachers.” He quotes to Buddha whose express purpose was simply to address and end suffering. “The heightened control of the mind that meditation offers was supposed to help its practitioners see the world in a new and more compassionate way, allowing them to break free from the categorizations (us/them, self/other) that commonly divide people from one another.”
DeSteno continues that an experiment was conducted at his lab, to see if persons who attended a course on meditation (newbies to meditation) indeed showed compassion after meditation—and, indeed, there was significant increase in the compassionate response of the participants. He writes, “Although we don’t yet know why meditation has this effect, one of two explanations seems likely. The first rests on meditation’s documented ability to enhance attention, which might in turn increase the odds of noticing someone in pain (as opposed to being lost in one’s own thoughts). My favored explanation, though, derives from a different aspect of meditation: its ability to foster a view that all beings are interconnected… The increased compassion of meditators, then, might stem directly from meditation’s ability to dissolve the artificial social distinctions — ethnicity, religion, ideology and the like — that divide us.”
While Arnold (above) noted that Christian trinitarian theology is relational, DeSteno argues here that meditation is, too—not from specifically trinitarian reasons, but in terms of psychological growth. But I can see how the resulting psychological growth toward empathy and compassion would certainly be commensurate with the Christian affirmation that the Spirit inculcates “fruit” within us: love, kindness, gentleness, self-control.
Needless to say, Christian faith does not always increase the compassion of many churchgoers. I hate to sound so jaded, but if you’re like me, you’ve probably met a certain number of unloving, gossipy and otherwise negative Christians who seem to have little sense of interconnectedness with others. Perhaps, like me, you’ve struggled to deepen your own loving attitudes and your compassion, when you catch yourself feeling unkind in your judgments of others.
Thus, I wonder if yoga and meditation might not be extremely Christian things to incorporate into our religious lives (at least as an option, within a variety of other spiritual practices, the regular participation in corporate worship, and so on). Perhaps these practices could help some of us become more receptive to the Holy Spirit’s fruit of love, kindness, gentleness, and the others.