Christianity vs. yoga?

I’m always surprised at how many people don’t know the relationship of yoga to Hinduism. The Washington Post/Newsweek “On Faith” had a piece on the topic a few months ago. In “The Theft of Yoga,” Aseem Shukla, an associate professor in urologic surgery at the University of Minnesota medical school and co-founder and board member of Hindu American Foundation, wrote:

Yogis say that the dedicated practice of yoga will subdue the restless mind, lessen one’s cravings for the mundane material world and put one on the path of self-realization-that each individual is a spark of the Divine. Expect conflicts if you are sold on the exclusivist claims of Abrahamic faiths — that their God awaits the arrival of only His chosen few at heaven’s gate-since yoga shows its own path to spiritual enlightenment to all seekers regardless of affiliation. Hindus must take back yoga and reclaim the intellectual property of their spiritual heritage.

I subscribe to the Hindu American Foundation news and this is a common theme. They really want non-Hindus to understand that yoga is a Hindu practice. They send out quotes, announcements about temple openings — complete with an explanation of and workshops for yoga and its philosophy — and snippets of stories where Hindus are defending the practice of yoga.

OK, so Southern Baptist Seminary President Albert Mohler reviewed “The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America” last week. While he gave the book a favorable review, he agreed with the view of the Hindu American Foundation and others who say that the exclusivist claims of Christianity are at odds with yoga. You can imagine which side Mohler stands on.

And then all hell broke loose.

I first heard about the essay over at Peter Smith’s blog. He’s the religion reporter at the Louisville Courier-Journal. He simply quoted a brief excerpt from the column and got more comments than he normally gets. And even though Mohler is a prolific writer, the Associated Press even noticed this particular essay and wrote about the controversy:

Other Christian leaders have said practicing yoga is incompatible with the teachings of Jesus. Pat Robertson has called the chanting and other spiritual components that go along with yoga “really spooky.” California megachurch pastor John MacArthur called yoga a “false religion.” Muslim clerics have banned Muslims from practicing yoga in Egypt, Malaysia and Indonesia, citing similar concerns.

Yoga proponents say the wide-ranging discipline, which originated in India, offers physical and mental healing through stretching poses and concentration.

“Lots of people come to yoga because they are often in chronic pain. Others come because they think it’s a nice workout,” said Allison Terracio, who runs the Infinite Bliss studio in Louisville.

And some yoga studios have made the techniques more palatable for Christians by removing the chanting and associations to eastern religions, namely Hinduism and its multiple deities.

The article is about the controversy, not the underlying issue. As someone who has done a bit of yoga, I think the topic of whether the exercises can be secularized and adopted by non-Hindus is tremendously important and fascinating. But I was still shocked that no Hindus were quoted in the piece. Many would say that removing the religious aspect from the exercise makes it something completely different — something like rigorous stretching exercises.

Mohler, in a follow-up, notes that he’s been deluged with mail, but that none of it dealt substantively with his criticisms of syncretizing yoga and Christianity. Part of that could be because — apart from the Washington Post “On Faith” discussion I mentioned earlier — it’s rare to see a good debate on the religious dimensions of yoga and what it means, in a religious sense, to practice yoga. A story about the controversy Mohler caused is a good start but perhaps a few Hindu voices would have been preferable to the Pat Robertson and “spooky” quotes above.

Print Friendly

  • Ivan Wolfe

    Not totally related to the coverage, but this post made me think of the P90X video workouts. At the end of the Yoga workout, the host says something like “Okay – time to do Ohms. It’s not creepy. It’s not religious. It’s not a cult. It’s just Ohms, people.”

  • Jon in the Nati

    I can’t help but wonder why it is only now that the conservative Christian community has spoken out against yoga, because it seems to me that the western world has successfully purged yoga of its Hindu religious significance long ago. Twenty years ago, they might have had something to bitch about; now yoga is just another workout option, and they come across as being over-concerned and making much ado about nothing.

  • Mike Hickerson

    Really? That might be true of some yoga studios, but nowhere near all of them. I, too, am in the ‘Nati – Boone County, in fact – and my library offers a yoga class that includes meditation. We recently checked out a “yoga for kids” DVD that had all kinds of spiritual ideas. Now, the spirituality might be Americanized, but it’s still rooted in Hindu concepts. It’s common for religious language to change when it enters a new culture. Whether or not it matters that yoga practitioners are aware of the Hindu roots depends on your view of religion. You don’t have to be a conservative Baptist to think that actions can have spiritual significance beyond their intended result.

  • other Chris

    Christianity has yet to meet a natural religious practice it can’t accommodate. Western culture has encountered few religious practices it can’t reinterpret in materialist terms.

    Mollie’s last point is most pertinent to our blog though. The so-called Big Three are not the only traditions which are exclusivist.

  • Dave

    Mollie, I too have done some yoga, as an exercise regimen in my 30s and, in my 40s, to prepare for a stamina contest with people half my age if my company had had a strike. I must say it works nicely. (There was no strike.)

    Mohler says:

    There is nothing wrong with physical exercise, and yoga positions in themselves are not the main issue. But these positions are teaching postures with a spiritual purpose. Consider this — if you have to meditate intensely in order to achieve or to maintain a physical posture, it is no longer merely a physical posture.

    Many athletes must do mental exercises to bring forth their best, to get their “head in the game.” Is this, too, a threat to their religion if they are Christians?

    This is a serious question if one takes all elements of this story seriously, not just the Other-ness of yoga. It’s a question that some journalist should be asking Mohler.

  • Jerry

    Part of the problem here is ignorance. What people refer to as “yoga” is really hatha yoga. They are ignorant of the real meaning of the word. There are many forms of yoga, of which hatha yoga is one. For example, karma yoga refers to the path of doing good deeds as a matter of duty. A Christian who, for example, builds houses for the poor is in essence doing karma yoga without using that name and Hindu theology because they consider it their Christian duty to help others.

    And as others have pointed out, hatha yoga in the West has in some instances been stripped of its Hindu roots and recast as a form of exercise. Those who want to return hatha yoga to its Hindu roots and those who want to oppose hatha yoga assuming it necessarily retains Hindu roots form a natural polarity.

    It might surprise, shock or even horrify some that recently when I had physical therapy for a back problem, I was given exercises to do which included three hatha yoga postures but with other names. I suppose some would object to this on the basis that the exercises originated in hatha yoga.

    More clarity on the part of teachers as to whether or not their classes contain the Hindu roots or are being used as Westernized exercises would be helpful, of course. This would allow the consumer to choose based on their theology and other preferences.

  • Mike Hickerson

    Dave wrote,

    Many athletes must do mental exercises to bring forth their best, to get their “head in the game.” Is this, too, a threat to their religion if they are Christians?

    I don’t want to put words into Mohler’s mouth, but I suspect he would say “yes,” if those mental exercises contained “un-Christian” content. (Say, a football player who psyched himself up by imagining graphic violence against his opponent.)

  • H. E. Baber

    Leave aside yoga as pure exercise. Whether yoga as a spiritual practice is compatible with Christianity or not, it is COMPETITION. Americans looking for “spirituality”–for meditation, for religious experience, for a sense of the holy look to non-Christian religions. Most don’t know anything about the long and distinguished history of Christian mysticism.

    Why don’t churches offer meditation sessions, teach the Jesus Prayer, discuss the writings of Christian mystics, do liturgy conducive to religious experience? People are looking for that but for the most part they’re not getting that from Christian churches so they look elsewhere.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Anything is preferable to Pat Robertson quotes. He is thrown in to make sure an article never reaches the level of having substance.

  • Dave

    I think it’s because they’re set in their ways at a basic level. They’ll experiment within the parameters of an established worship form but are — what? — unready? afraid? of what would transpire if the parishoners suddenly started opening up spiritually.

    In their defense, many parishioners would prove equally wedded to set routines and might object to greater spiritual depth as an unsought burden.

  • Ivan Wolfe

    Dave -

    Many athletes must do mental exercises to bring forth their best, to get their “head in the game.” Is this, too, a threat to their religion if they are Christians?

    My dad was a high school coach, and he actually set aside time during practice to have the team do mental exercise and focus. Several Christian students refused to participate because their pastor had declared such practices evil.

  • Norman

    H.E. Baber:

    I could not agree more, especially in regards to “on-line” Christianity. It is too often politicized, or is a rules-based shell that devolves into arguments about who knows doctrine better, or who has memorized the catechism in the most precise detail. There is a long tradition of Christian mysticism that most people are not aware of. I wish there was more discussion of prayer and meditation in public Christianity and less of a defensive focus on the controversies of the day.

  • H. E. Baber

    Thank you, Norman. Now my question is how do we promote the discussion of mysticism, prayer and meditation?

    I’m reading a thread on the demise of Christianity in the UK in the Guardian Comment is Free here: There are over 300 comments, most of them hostile to religion, and to Christianity in particular. Not a single commentator seems to get the idea that religious belief is anything more than killjoy puritanism and a package of implausible beliefs that have been shown to be empirically false. Not a single one even gets why religion could possibly be of any interest to anyone. And if all I knew of Christianity was what was publicly accessible I’d think the same thing.

    Why are churches so reluctant to show their stuff–religious experience, mysticism, the numinous? How can we exert influence, get churches to do this, and publicize it?

  • Phil Goldberg

    To add my two cents, here is a recent Huffington Post column of mine:

  • Jerry

    H. E. Baber, you raise a wonderful point. Technically the Jesus prayer is a mantra. Saint Theresa taught contemplation on, for example, a religious statue. One choices in this matter are due to theology or psychological preferences, but the mental and spiritual processes are the same.

    Phil Goldberg, thanks for the column that has actual history that helps put this topic into some perspective.

    Both of you illustrate the importance of breaking out of the typical frame-of-reference of stories like this to examine the issue from a more well-rounded perspective and one that is not tied to an extreme theology.

  • joye

    I’m surprised that coverage of this issue rarely touches on another aspect on “the other side”–that of cultural appropriation.

    Really, why wouldn’t someone be upset if a tenet of their religion was seized by another group, stripped of its entire purpose, and repackaged for profit, essentially? That’s the angle where I, personally, have always objected to the whole “secular yoga” phenomenon.

    I mean, how would I, as a Catholic, feel if someone suggested chanting the rosary in Latin, but only in order to “relax”, and that the meaning of the chant doesn’t matter, because “it’s just sounds”? Or they’ll make the rosary “more palatable” by suggesting that you make up your own chants to use with the beads, and replace the crucifix with a token that is personally meaningful to you?

    I think that’s the same way that “it’s just ohms” sounds to many Hindus. I think it’s extremely rude and presumptuous.

  • Norman

    That is a huge topic H.E., and one which might be best suited for the Coffeehouse.

    I think anyone who wishes to proclaim Christianity in public should challenge themselves with the words “And I live, now not I: but Christ lives in me.” We are at the point of having to reclaim the spiritual core of Christianity. In my own denomination I see it lost on both sides. The Church is conceived as an agent of secular power, and the goal is to align it to serve liberal or conservative ends within this world. I find the controversies and arguments within my own church as being anti-spiritual in this sense.It is easy to despair, and it is those on ones own “side” who often most horrify.

    I think anyone who takes their Christianity in the public sphere must be certain to live an active spiritual life, something that gives me pause in my many periods of dryness. I have thought at times that those most in the public eye- talking about the internet now- would be well-served to band together into like minded groups and agree on a set of spiritual practices- almost like an unofficial order- to follow,and see what comes from that. Because the answer to a spiritual crisis must be in part if not predominantly spiritual.

    But there is a great need to get back to the spiritual underpinnings of Christianity, the necessity of dieing to self and taking on the mind of Christ, and to restate the faith for the present age. And there is some great need to discern whether other public voices are doing so. I ramble; this might be a bit big for me.

  • Norman

    Hmm, all that and I didn’t make the point I started out to make. The way has to be pointed to, and the treasury has to be opened by, those who are living truly spiritual lives. I see it as a challenge to individuals and not as a need to pressure institutions. If we do live authentically Christian lives than that will be the pressure that makes the difference.

    We have to actively do this as individual Christians. We have to rediscover and reformulate the message in The Cloud of Unknowing or The Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love or On Loving God for people today, but in a way that gives a countervailing message to dominant opinion and does not pander to the times. Practices like the Jesus Prayer, or Lectio Divina, or Mental Prayer, have to be presented in a contemporary way to contemporary people. This is on us, and we have to walk the walk to make it happen. We can’t think in terms of institutions and wait for some entity to do something or other, or to hold our breath until some “they” bends in our direction.

    Still not sure I hit it.

  • Ray Ingles

    I mean, how would I, as a Catholic, feel if someone suggested chanting the rosary in Latin, but only in order to “relax”, and that the meaning of the chant doesn’t matter, because “it’s just sounds”?

    Well, there are people who think that religious rituals and rules ‘work’, but not quite in the way or for the reasons that religious people do. (E.g. the Jewish rule about not mixing meat and milk; it enforces a strict separation in storage that was very useful before refrigeration.)

    Thinking yoga poses work as excercise, or that rosary chanting (and other forms of meditation) can have a focusing and calming effect, may inevitably be offensive to some if divorced from the religious context they originated in. But just because MAOIs have been used in tribal rituals for centuries doesn’t mean they can’t be powerful antidepressants.

    Still, there’s a question of sensitivity and courtesy, and I agree the coverage so far hasn’t touched on that.

  • Julia

    Why are churches so reluctant to show their stuff—religious experience, mysticism, the numinous? How can we exert influence, get churches to do this, and publicize it?

    It’s interesting to see the very things that are most often mocked in traditional Catholic practice now seen as having worth. Rock stars wearing rosaries as jewelry and Protestants re-inventing church-floor mazes.

    I often watch respectful anthropology-type shows on cable about the esoteric practices of strangely-dressed exotic people who live far away. But the same or similar things that exist today in the US are derided as “men in dresses” and priests mumbling “mumbo jumbo” and deluded Catholics in the pews bedazzled by “smells and bells”.

    Life is truly strange and ironic in this country.

  • H. E. Baber

    I realize this is off-topic. Is the Coffeehouse to which Norman refers an online thing? If so could someone direct me to it?

    Forgive me though for continuing off-topic

    I often watch respectful anthropology-type shows on cable about the esoteric practices of strangely-dressed exotic people who live far away. But the same or similar things that exist today in the US are derided as “men in dresses” and priests mumbling “mumbo jumbo” and deluded Catholics in the pews bedazzled by “smells and bells”.

    In fact the general public doesn’t see Catholic “mumbo jumbo” or “smells and bells.” Since Vatican II, and liturgical revision in other denominations, what they see are boring, prosaic services, smarmy sentimentalities, and endless dull moralism. Liturgical churches have been so embarrassed about doing fancy high church and being open about mysticism and religious experience that they’ve abandoned or hidden the stuff lots of people want–the stuff that sends them seeking to Eastern religions and contrived pagan practices.

    Secular people simply don’t understand the appeal of Christianity because all they see is dull moralism and smarmy sentimentalities. I want to find a way to show people the good stuff–the mysticism and religious experience, the ceremonies, the costume drama, the attractive stuff of Christianity. This stuff isn’t for us to enjoy in private; it isn’t esoterica for the initiated. It’s the stuff for evangelism. I’ve tried at my local church but they don’t go for it. I’ve tried for years and years. Where and how can I get this across?

  • Jon in the Nati

    H.E. Baber:

    A-men. A-freaking-men.

  • Mollie

    Folks — have your off-topic conversations over at the coffeehouse!



  • Kris D

    When I was taking a class on practices on Catholicism, the instructor was lecturing on Thomas Merton & the influence on Buddhist practice on his meditations. One of my classmates asked whether this could be considered “anti-Christian,” & our instructor mentioned the long history of meditation in Christian cultural practice. Much of this “controversy” could be alleviated if people were more aware of their own spiritual & historic heritage. Is the Eucharist an appropriation of the Passover Seder or did it become something else in Christianity?

  • Julia

    I’m only 66 and I remember learning and practicing meditation as early as 3rd grade. People still say the rosary publicly at my parish.

    However, HE Baber is right that most Catholics have been shamed into giving up our “exotic” heritage. That’s part of what I was getting at.

    This is not just for the off-site discussion place. It is very relevant to how religious practices occurring in this country are covered and described by our media as opposed to the respectful treatment of say, the religious practices and garb of the Dalai Lama. I wonder why he isn’t quizzed on why there are no female lamas, for instance. Or why aren’t those Russian Orthodox with their beards and funny hats quizzed about the lack of Russian Orthodox priests or married Patriarchs. Maybe women are being “ordained” in boats on the Volga and our press just isn’t interested.

  • Jeri

    Don’t focus on Yoga – there’s nothing incompatible with most religions to reflect and meditate. Kudos to the practice of Yoga to be able to teach it and refine it to an art. Most religions encourage people to reflect on themselves.

    The problem is the intolerance attacking Yoga. What is outrageous is the narrow isolationist mentality that’s threatened by the influences of other cultures.

  • Mollie


    Please keep comments focused on the journalism.

    Also, it’s apparent that very few people actually read Mohler’s review of the yoga book. It might be worthwhile to read that and see how well the media summarized his views.

  • MJBubba

    To H.E.Baber (# 13):
    Why do the heathen rage?

  • MJBubba

    Mollie, I read the Al Mohler book review. I wonder if the book mentions the show “Lilias Yoga and You,” which ran on many public television stations in the 1970s. It was mostly an exercise show about stretching and positions and breathing. It used Sanskrit names for positions, and did not dwell on meditation. It was an amazing vehicle for mainstreaming Yoga as strictly an exercise program stripped of religious content, brought to (formerly) Christian America by PBS.

  • John Pack Lambert

    For the author to talk to real Hindus would be to treat this as other than a chance to make fun of, mock and ridicule the Southern Baptists. The whole point of bringing up Southern Baptists on the part of the MSM is to do these things.


    Your point about re-packaging the rosary does seem to have some validity.

    I am not sure if yoga ever involved the sacred in a comparable way, but what is more clear is that the author of the article for the AP never even thought it might involve such things in a comparable way.

    The very fact that people have to periodically protest that yoga is not religious makes its non-religiousness suspect. It is the classic quote from Shakespear “methinks she dost protest too much”.

    Anyway, the point of such media articles should be to present the sides of an argument, not force one conclusion. The Hindu side of the whole equation should be considered.


    More interestingly, Mohler does interact both with Hindu views and with New Age views. He does not explicitly recognize there are full-fledged Hindus in Amerca, but he is writting a book review so this oversight is different than in a news article.

    This quote though shows he did engage the views of those who see yoga as a spiritual thing. “Douglas R. Groothuis, Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary and a respected specialist on the New Age Movement, warns Christians that yoga is not merely about physical exercise or health. “All forms of yoga involve occult assumptions,” he warns, “even hatha yoga, which is often presented as a merely physical discipline.” While most adherents of yoga avoid the more exotic forms of ritualized sex that are associated with tantric yoga, virtually all forms of yoga involve an emphasis on channeling sexual energy throughout the body as a means of spiritual enlightenment.”

  • Stan

    Interesting that Yoga came up in the Frontline documentary ‘God in America’, in the context that there are increasing number of Americans who are spiritual but not religious, preferring to avoid organized religion especially with religions involved politics. Yoga is used to illustrate to diversity of religious practices in the our melting pot country. They go on to say that yoga fits the traditional American spiritual value developing a relationship with God without organized religion. I’d guess it far better than being involved in organized religion without the spirituality.

    Excellent documentary. Particularly appropriate with surveys confirming most Americans are illiterate about religion.