Should Christians Practice Yoga?
The question came to my mind when I saw that a pre-school operated by a Methodist church is teaching “Yoga for Children.” Of course, I’ve thought about yoga many time before. I have never practiced yoga and would not. I believe yoga is intrinsically linked with Hindu beliefs—no matter how hard some might try to secularize or even Christianize it.
Here I find myself uncomfortably in agreement with many fundamentalist and conservative evangelical Christians with whom I disagree about much else.
For those readers who do not know my credentials, I hold a PhD in Religious Studies from Rice University (Houston) which is a secular research university of great renown. During my time there I also taught undergraduate courses including one called “Deity, Mysticism and the Occult.” Later, I taught a similar course in three Christian universities and took my classes to a major yoga teaching center for dialogue, not practice.
Over the years I have read much about yoga and talked with yoga instructors.
One of the greatest religion scholars of the 20th century was Mircea Eliade of the University of Chicago. According to him, “The ultimate objective of yoga practice is the harmony of body and mind. This balance then leads to the liberation of the soul.” (Quoted in “Why we practice: a short history of yoga in the west” at the web site “Yoga International.”)
In brief, any study of the roots and philosophy of yoga cannot avoid the discovery that it is intrinsically linked with Hindu religion and philosophy.
Now, of course, many Americans (and other Westerners including many Christians) have attempted to divorce Hatha Yoga (a form of exercise aimed at relaxation and health) from its spiritual sources and secularize it. One has to ask, however, if that is ultimately possible.
I well remember taking my class to a “meditation center” in a large urban area near a major state university. The center advertised yoga classes for beginners. I asked the director if one can practice yoga without any spiritual beliefs about it such as Hindu philosophy and spirituality. Of course he said yes. But when I pressed a bit further he admitted that the goal of yoga is to draw the practitioner into a spiritual experience of “oneness” with “the all.” This center was in that place and time THE major center for training yoga teachers throughout the area, many of them Christians.
Today, many Christian churches, especially but not only so-called mainline Protestant ones, hold yoga exercise classes. Now, apparently, children at a Christian pre-school, as young as three years old, will be taught yoga. Will an evangelical Christian family who sends their children there willingly allow their children to participate or sit it out?
I have literally been laughed at by some yoga teachers and practitioners when I have attempted to explain to them the real goal of yoga and its intrinsic links with Hindu philosophy and spirituality (viz., “release of the soul” into some unity with Brahman or “the all”).
I can already predict some of the responses I will read here. I’ve heard them all before. But I can assure you in advance that yoga is a Hindu-inspired exercise with Hindu-inspired spiritual purpose and meaning. I do not believe that, ultimately, it can be separated from that.
A question now. What if a person touched by the Christian charismatic movement attempted to divorce speaking in tongues from its (mostly) Christian roots and present and teach it as simply a spiritual exercise? Would anyone outside of Pentecostalism or the charismatic movement believe that? In theory it’s possible—to do it and claim it has nothing to do with religion. What if a secular pre-school sent home with the children an announcement that the teachers would be teaching children to speak in tongues? Ridiculous. Maybe. Who knows what’s possible in the future? There was a time in America when teaching or practicing yoga was widely recognized for what it is—an incursion of Hinduism into the mainstream, even among Christians.
Yoga, like it or not, agree or disagree, is a spiritual technology intrinsically linked with a particular worldview and philosophy and spirituality rooted in Hinduism. Christians should avoid it.
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