Not Such a Thing as Christian Yoga


The word, ‘Yoga’ has become a very marketable offer in the competitive marketplace of health and fitness. Many metropolises in the United States of America have been attracted to Yoga recently. The allies in those metropolises are decorated with commercial hoarding boards of Yoga centers. They seem, to great extent, succeeded to lure people by promising to change our lifestyle inward as well as outward through Yoga practices. In this enticement, not even churches are exception subscribing to Yoga without understanding its deeper meaning, purpose, and significance. Thence, Yoga has been adopted as a trendy idea of physical exertion among the Christians which has, in fact, surreptitiously invaded the Christian conscience as a counterfeit spirituality. Yoga cannot be taken as a mere form of ‘working out’ without the aspects of spirituality deeply founded in Eastern Vedic theology and Yoga philosophy.

Generally, Yoga is understood in terms of the system as a practical discipline that keeps our physical motors running in good condition through the techniques Yoga prescribes to its practitioner. In the west, it is largely viewed as the form of physical and mental exercise. And it is easily welcomed in the Christian communities in the pursuit of physical well-being. The common notion of Christian believers is that Yoga can be a better form of workout, since it is all about stretching limbs and controlling respiration through different body postures.

Before assessing whether Yoga can serve Christians without forging its core objectives, the fundamental principles of it should be discussed. The meaning and origin of Yoga, its potential adverse influence in our lives, and its adaptation and adoption throughout the ages in the Hindu Philosophy are the important areas of study that we need to pay attention afore we embrace the Yoga system.

Regarding the origination of Yoga, the Hindu god Shankara or Mahadeva is acknowledged unanimously as the originator. As the Hindu mythology claims, Shankara expounded the knowledge of Yoga and imparted this knowledge to Dattátraya, a great sage.[1] Another version of story also mentions Shankara revealing the yogic knowledge – the greatest of all science – to his goddess wife, Parwati for the holistic purpose of easing human pain and suffering.[2] Later, the Upanishads – the Vedic texts – also widely recognize Yoga in their teachings. The word Upanishad, as Mikel Burley states, is translated as ‘secret teaching’ or ‘esoteric doctrine’ that seeks to explain the spiritual philosophy of Vedas.[3] The inclusion of Yoga in the Vedic texts here ought not to be overlooked while studying Yoga. If we look into the Vedas, Yoga is classified distinctively and given a higher respect in the Upanishads.

Yoga originated from the Sanskrit root yuj which literally means ‘joins’ or ‘unites’.[4] The word ‘Yoga’ now simply means union or joining together with matter or substance. In general, it is assumed that Yoga is the union between human soul and the Purusha, the Supreme Soul.[5] The V.S. Apte’s The Practical Sanskrit-English Dictionary provides the whole hosts of meanings of Yoga as ‘joining, union, contact, fitness, an endeavor, fixing, devotion,’ etc. etc. According to Tookaram Tatya, Yoga is synonymous to “junction, meeting, conjunction, connection, etc.” that engages to unite the human soul with the Supreme Spirit, or the Para Brahma.[6] He is ‘the Absolute’ with whom we are to unite ourselves after waking from the deep spiritual slumber through Yoga.

In contrast of popular definition of Yoga, the founder of the Yoga system who also authored the basic text, the Yoga Sūtra, treats yoga as Concentration. It is “the hindering of modification of the thinking principle.”[7] By means of ‘hindering the modification of the thinking principle’ is entirely suppressing ones’ thinking principle in the Patañjali Yoga system.  For Patañjali, “Yoga is a methodical effort to attain perfection, through the control of the different elements of human nature, physical and psychical.”[8] You gain full control of your thinking principle explicitly or methodologically, so that you become single-mindedness by disintegrating and disorganizing thoughts and images through mental processes.

Right here, we see the conflict between Christian teaching of ‘original sin’ and need of Savior alongside the human effort to liberate self from the world. The very beginning of Yoga starts by denouncing God by removing him methodologically from the picture and aligning humankind in the place of God. The above statement makes clear that there is no fall in the world; man is a perfect creature who can make things work in the world by controlling his very own nature.

Monier Williams construes Patañjali’s ‘methodical effort to attain perfection’ act as the fixation or concentration of the mind in abstract meditation in order to prevent the modifications of the thinking principle.[9] It is, therefore, a mode of constraining the mind from modifying by overpowering desires through spiritual exercise. But for the Christians, the ethical issue whether Christians can practice or not lies in the deep surface of its definition. Is it possible for a Christian who adheres to Yoga to attain purely empirical mind that is perfect and not tainted by sin apart from deeper relationship with Christ?

Speaking roughly about Yoga, it is noteworthy to mention about the two principal parts – Hatha and Raja Yoga. These two are the most influential form of Yoga that is saturating the churches. The former Yoga is the epitome of all other forms of Yoga, as it is the most widespread and most accepted in every culture. Most people tend to think only of Hatha Yoga than other existing forms of Yoga when someone talks about Yoga.

Having said about Hatha Yoga, Svātmārāma standardized it for Yogis[10] in order to obtain salvation just as Patañjali systematized the six schools of Yoga. Hatha means “to stick fast, to be devoted and to hold closely or firmly.”[11] Though Hatha Yoga is a part of soteriology in the Hindu philosophy, it is usually related with physical postures and techniques that are applied for physical and mental relaxation. Burley argues that Hatha Yoga has to offer far more than just physical fitness and mental stress management.[12] Since it has the soteriological aspect, attributing only physical and mental relaxation to Hatha Yoga is far from perversion of its objectives; hence it would be unjust to treat it that way.

Herbert Stroup suggests that “Hatha Yoga as salvation through physical culture or exercise,” where Ha refers to the sun and tha refers to the moon. “The sun and the moon symbolize the two principles that are apparent in every human being.”[13] Thence, the Hatha Yoga is a dualistic system. It endeavors to cultivate qualities like determination, single-mindedness and perseverance not only to maintain physical well-being but also channeling the human mind for achievement of soteriological principal objective.

As we look at Yoga as a whole, we can now see the very root, practices, motivation, and objectives of Yoga. The very object of Yoga system is salvaging the human soul – freeing the human soul from miseries of rebirth – and enabling man to reach the highest spiritual development.[14] The dualistic conception of Yoga tries to harmonize the soul with the spirit. It is considered as the pure form and has potentiality to obtain vast array of knowledge and spiritual power.

The careful study of Patañjali’s Yoga Sutra can be an eye-opening event for serious Christian believers who are into Yoga. Patañjali lays the basic requirement for a Yogi to attain Yoga through the Ishwara Pranidhāna, or worship of God.[15] Later, the Yogi is to cultivate Sraddhā or faith in Yoga. The compulsion of Sraddhā generates Vairāgya or undesirableness[16] – cessation of the mind – which is the preliminary preparation for a man to practice Yoga. Yogi must go through purificatory acts as well to begin Yoga. Thence, the admission process of becoming a Yogi heads gradually in the direction of removing God of the Bible from the scene first.

Our soul is competent to gain ‘discriminative knowledge[17] which is the perfect knowledge. This kind of higher form of knowledge leads to liberation. “The soul has “qualities of omniscience and omnipotence, and the object of Yoga are to develop them fully.”[18] The author is saying that the human soul has unlimited power and infinite knowledge. A man can return into this state through ‘Self-realization’ by virtues of Yoga which liberates a man.

Now we, as a Christian, need to answer this very question whether the Bible stands on this line. We need to ask, if we are sincere Christians, whether we have been ascribed with omnipotent and omniscient Gunas or qualities those are parallel to the divine nature of the Lord, God. When we believe ourselves to be omnipotent and omniscient, we no longer need God. Now, we are God.

Talking about the motivation of Yoga, Yogis are encouraged to identify their own sense organs with the Supreme Being by focusing on his own sense organs, such as tip of tongue or nose, ear drum, etc. He has to move his internal sense perception to external visible material objects. “He should so completely associate them with the Being they indicate, that he at last finds himself mentally in the presence of that Being.”[19] As Pranayama, one of the stages of perfecting Yoga, suggests Yogi to mutter the names and attributes of the Deity.

In this case, many Christians defend that they do not mutter any names and attributes of any deity when practicing Yoga. How can a Christian concentrate on his own sense organ and identify himself with the Supreme Being or the Lord, God? Some people claim that they, instead of concentrating on their sense organs, concentrate on the Word of God or the Holy Spirit. Has the Bible made a single reference to focus on something in and out of the self and identify the self with God? Nevertheless, someone does truly concentrate on the Word of God, then the question is, if Yoga a necessary medium to reach out to God for interpersonal relationship with him!

Another aspect of Yoga Sutra, which describes the dualistic process of uniting Yogi’s soul to the Brahma, directly violates the First and the Second Commandments of the Law. Patañjali writes that Yogi can be a free and master by completing the grand cycle of psychic evolution through Yoga. “Thenceforth neither matter, time, nor space can obstruct his quest after the highest knowledge. He knows Brahma – he is Brahma.”[20] When he knows Brahma, he, in fact, is identifying himself with the divine. Now, I wonder how a Christian practices Yoga by divorcing the principles and objectives which make Yoga, the Yoga! When the matter of physical exercise turns to be the act of worshiping the god of our imagination, or worshiping false god or worshiping the True God in the false way, negative spiritual consequence ought not to be miscalculated.

If we look into the highest state of Yoga that Patañjali has discussed in his Sutra, any Christian needs to really deviate from this state to prevent mysticism and syncretism in Christianity.  One ought to know where he or she is being led by Yoga while practicing. As it is written:

The state of emancipation is the highest state of yoga before the soul is actually re-absorbed into the Supreme Being. The body still exists, and of course the soul exists within it, but its connection with it is supposed to be entirely broken, and the soul can consequently quit and re-enter the body, and wander about where and as it lists. In this condition it is supposed to attain the remaining eight transcendental powers.[21]

Where do we draw a distinctive line in order to prevent the elements of Yoga Sutra being synched into Christianity? One may argue that we can still involve in Yoga as long as we avoid these elements like: muttering the names and attributes of Deity or focusing on the sun, moon, or something else. He may go further to vindicate his practice saying that his pure motivation is to apply Yoga as a mean of exercise. Or, he is likely to say that he does not move towards union of his soul with the Supreme Spirit. A person with such apologias must answer how he can deny himself from becoming Brahma while he supposedly fixes his thoughts or concentrates or meditates on God, or the Word of God, or the Holy Spirit.

As I have already mentioned, the Yoga practitioner (subject) is completely identified with the object – the thing he considered to be the point of his reference to focus in Yoga system. By which means, the practitioner is identified with Yahweh if his focus point is Yahweh. The same way, he could be rock, elephant, ant etc., if these are the focus points of his Yoga. This is the violation of man as the image-bearer of God.

Assessing the process and practices of Yoga, all the processes and practices do not seem damaging to us just from the outward look. We saw Yoga as the human health oriented glitter that helps us to maintain our physical and mental health. But every element has a deep spiritual root in the Hindu philosophy. There is a risk for anyone from different faiths other than Hindu and Buddhist to slip into this counterfeit spirituality.

Finally, we look into the hidden agenda of Yoga. It has succeeded to corrupt Christian minds by portraying itself as a form of exercise with body postures. But the truth is far from what it tells us. The first chapter of the Pātāñjali’s Yoga Aphorisms reveals its real application:

Abhyāsa, the application of the mental acquirements of Sraddhā, etc. and Vairāgya, the consequent cessation of the mind from objects of distraction, lead to the extinction of all our mental states and of final release. When a man is well developed he may rest contented with his mental actions alone, in his Abhyāsa and Vairāgya, in his Dhāranā (concentration), Dhyāna (meditation), and Samādhi (trance), which may be called the Jyānāyoga.[22]

This is the way of salvation through the Higher Knowledge. The message is very clear that Salvation is available apart from faith in Jesus Christ. To sum up all, the point is: there is no such being as personal God other than the Supreme Being. We are gods in need to be awakened from the sleeping mode. Yoga is the way that can encompass the truth that we are identical to Purusha. Through Yoga, we can enjoy union with Purusa.

Therefore, there is no such a thing as Christian Yoga. Any Christians practicing Yoga does not make it a Christian Yoga. Just as someone eating bread and drinking grape juice cannot be ascribed as the Holy Communion; the same way Yoga remains purely Yoga without ascribing any prefixes to it.

When Yoga begins with creating one’s own god through imagination and worshiping it in one or another way as it is a prerequisite for admission in the Yoga school, then I doubt if Christian Yogi has put his faith in the Lord undividedly. The reason is obvious that Yoga requires undivided faith from Yogi and demands from him to restrain self from the world or stopping thinking about the phenomena of the world but focusing only in inner self for perfection. If this is the case, there is no win-win situation for Christian Yogi. Either God has to vanish from the scene or Christian will not be a Yogi anymore.

Yoga, for me, is completely incompatible with Christian faith. The boundary line between Christianity and Yoga philosophy will be crossed very easily once it is welcomed. When we embrace Yoga, all the elements connected to Yoga also come along with it in a package. Some are heavily connected with sorcery and magic. So, how do we then discern where to draw the line, as they are much interconnected? It is a systematically developed theology and philosophy. Before joining Yoga or learning some Aāsanas or postures, one must ask himself or herself, without any excuse, why he or she is going after Yoga. What is the motivation of Yoga? We should be very careful because what we do, that we become. If Yoga is solely for exercise, where do you divorce the boundary line between Christian ethics and Yoga? We ought not to trade praise and worship of our God to any other gods.

Ironically, we feel like loathing meditating and concentrating upon the Word of God. We are haste to label someone as legalist when we see them praising and worshiping God with bodily postures. But we covet the postures of Yoga so much that we even do not hesitate to trade off the glory we are to give our God with Yoga. When the Bible summons us to fix our thoughts on Jesus, do we have the same zeal that we have for Yoga to fix our thoughts on Jesus?[23]

We become so ready to swallow the teachings of Yoga without giving a second thought. Do we have an enthusiasm to meditate on the Word of God for, at least, five minutes a day? Are we not deviating from our callings when we choose counterfeit spirituality to true God? He also summons us to meditate on his Word. Why do we not practice meditation and concentration on the Word of our living God? God is with us and in us. We do not have to seek the “real-self” or unite ourselves with the Supreme spirit. The Word should burn out heart to fix our mind and soul upon him and rest in him, because true salvation comes only from him.

My supplication and plea to Christians are to step up in the higher ground and achieve more from Sovereign God than the world has to offer. This is the true spirituality that is able to counter any forms of spirituality world has offered so far. It transcends all knowledge, spirituality, and understating of the world. “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:8-9). God-Jesus is the ultimate truth. He is the noble. He is the ultimate just and pure and holy. His is the sacrificial love and admirable. Do we need to find any other attributes elsewhere to meditate? The answer is: NO.


Bibliography

Burley, Mikel. Haṭha-Yoga: Its Context, Theory, and Practice. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2000. Print.

Dasgupta, Surendranath. The Study of Patanjali. Calcutta: University of Calcutta, 1920. Print.

Padinjarekara, Joseph, and Don Richardson. Christ in Ancient Vedas. Burlington, Ont.: Welch Pub., 1991. Print.

Patañjali, John Murdoch. Yoga Sastra: the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali Examined; with a Notice of Swami Vivekananda’s Yoga Philosophy. London: Christian Literature Society for India, 1897. Print.

Patañjali. The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali. Trans. William Q. Judge. California: United Lodge of Theosophists, 1920. Print.

Stroup, Herbert. “Philosophy.” Like a Great River: an Introduction to Hinduism. 1st ed.

New York: Harper & Row, 1972. 60-80. Print.

Svātmārāma. Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Trans. Hans Ulrich Rieker. New York: Herder and Herder, 1992. Print.

Tatya, Tookaram, ed. The Yoga Philosophy: Being the Text of Patanjali, with Bhoja Raja’s Commentary; with Their Translations in English by DR. Ballantyne and Govind Shastri Deva, an Introduction by Col. Olcott and an Appendix. Trans. J. R. Ballantyne and Govinda Shastri Deva. 2nd ed. Bombay: Subodh-Prakash, 1885. Print.

“Yoga.” A Source Book in Indian Philosophy,. Ed. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Charles A. Moore. New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1957. 453-85. Print.

Footnotes:


[1] Tookaram Tatya, ed. The Yoga Philosophy: Being the Text of Patanjali, with Bhoja Raja’s Commentary; with Their Translations in English by DR. Ballantyne and Govind Shastri Deva, an Introduction by Col. Olcott and an Appendix. Trans. J. R. Ballantyne and Govinda Shastri Deva. 2nd ed. (Bombay: Subodh-Prakash, 1885), ii. Print.

[2] Svātmārāma. “Forword.” Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Trans. Hans Ulrich Rieker. (New York: Herder and Herder, 1992), 3. Print.

[3] Mikel Burley. Haṭha-Yoga: Its Context, Theory, and Practice. (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2000), 30. Print.

[4] Joseph Padinjarekara, Christ in Ancient Vedas. (Ontario.: Welch Pub., 1991), 187. Print.

[5] Patanjali, John Murdoch. Yoga Sastra: the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali Examined; with a Notice of Swami Vivekananda’s Yoga Philosophy, 1 ed., (London: Christian Literature Society for India, 1897), 4.

[6] Tookaram Tatya, ed. The Yoga Philosophy: Being the Text of Patanjali, with Bhoja Raja’s Commentary; with Their Translations in English by DR. Ballantyne and Govind Shastri Deva, an Introduction by Col. Olcott and an Appendix. Trans. J. R. Ballantyne and Govinda Shastri Deva. 2nd ed. (Bombay: Subodh-Prakash, 1885), ii. Print.

[7] Patañjali. The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali. Trans. William Q. Judge. (California: United Lodge of Theosophists, 1920), 1. Print.

[8] “Yoga.” A Source Book in Indian Philosophy,. Ed. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Charles A. Moore. (New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1957), 453. Print.

[9] Patanjali, John Murdoch. Yoga Sastra: the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali Examined; with a Notice of Swami Vivekananda’s Yoga Philosophy, 1 ed., (London: Christian Literature Society for India, 1897), 4.

[10] Yogis are the Yoga practitioners.

[11] Svātmārāma. “Forword.” Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Trans. Hans Ulrich Rieker. (New York: Herder and Herder, 1992), 3. Print.

[12] Mikel Burley. Haṭha-Yoga: Its Context, Theory, and Practice. (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2000), 1. Print

[13] Herbert Stroup, “Philosophy.” Like a Great River: an Introduction to Hinduism. 1st ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), 71. Print.

[14] Tookaram Tatya, The Yoga Philosophy. i.

[15] Surendra Dasgupta The Study of Patanjali, (Calcutta: University of Calcutta, 1920), 166. Print.

[16] Ibid, 131.

[17] Patanjali’s Yoga Aphorism, Book II defines it as the perfect knowledge that springs up in the soul which behooves us to understand it beyond limits.

[18] Tookaram Tatya, The Yoga Philosophy. Xii.

[19] Patanjali’s Yoga Aphorism, XXXIII.

[20] Ibid, VIII.

[21] Ibid, XXXV.

[22] The Study of Patanjali, 135. (Abhyāsa –  practice or exercise; Sraddhā – faith; Vairāgya – undesirableness)

[23] Hebrews 3:1

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10 thoughts on “Not Such a Thing as Christian Yoga”

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