Monday, June 8, 2015

Can Yoga be Baptized?

For this week's newspapers, I answered a question about Christians doing Yoga:

Q:  What is the source for Yoga exercise and are there any spiritual components to it?  Are there any concerns that Christians should have with engaging in Yoga?

When many North Americans think of Yoga, the image that comes to mind is the slow movements, static postures, and controlled breathing of demonstration videos and popular exercise classes found in the Western world.  Although this discipline gives a first impression of the foreign and exotic, most would not immediately detect anything obviously spiritual about these exercises. 

However, the origins of Yoga are deeply spiritual.  They originate in India and the surrounding area centuries ago, and served as a method of spiritual advancement in the Hindu religion.  In Hinduism, it is taught that people experience many lifetimes in this world through reincarnation, and their experience of subsequent lives is based on Karma—a measurement of guilt they build up based on their actions in previous lives.

Because adherents to Hinduism desire to have a better life in their next incarnation or to escape the cycle of reincarnation entirely and give up their individual identity and be reabsorbed into the divine, they developed a set of spiritual disciplines called Yogas which they believe will achieve that goal. 

The Yoga exercise with which we are familiar in North America is one of those disciplines, called Hatha Yoga.  There are at least 5 other disciplines that involve meditation, knowledge, work, and spiritual devotion, and a final yoga that uses the methods of the others together to achieve the goal of higher consciousness and realization of the divine. 

Hatha Yoga was originally developed with the understanding that one could use positions of the body to achieve spiritual results.  In particular, by imitating the shapes or postures of elements of nature, Hindus understand that they can appropriate the characteristics of those entities for themselves. 

In light of this, and the growing popularity of Yoga as exercise in our country, many Christians have faced the need to evaluate whether Yoga is advisable for Christians, or whether those who participate are flirting with or actually committing idolatry by engaging in the worship of a non-Christian religion. 

Some have proposed that Yoga can be sanitized of its spiritual elements so that a person can attain the physical and emotional benefits that it claims to offer without concerns of spiritual transgression.  Some have even developed “Christian Yoga” classes that replace the Hindu spiritual elements with Scripture or prayer.  Detractors have responded that athletic science is able to formulate a program of exercise that will achieve superior results without the concerns of the spiritual origins of Yoga. 

Other Christians advocate that Yoga should be avoided completely regardless of emotional or physical benefits it might offer, because it is tainted by its spiritual origins, and that attempts to sanitize it do not render it spiritually neutral.  They argue that because spiritual evil is behind all non-Christian religions, any association with their forms of devotion introduces the risk of spiritual harm, and therefore they are to be avoided. 

They also raise concerns about implications for the witness of Christians to the world, because they believe it gives the appearance of blending religions and communicates that many religions lead to the True God or that divine truth can be accessed apart from Jesus. 

For the Christian, the answer can never be “It’s just exercise, isn’t it?” Instead, it is necessary to contemplate the wisdom of engaging with this spiritual practice of Hinduism in light of their own beliefs about the spiritual world and make an informed evaluation about the effectiveness of sanitizing it of spiritual elements before they conclude how those answers compare to their own conscience as guided by the First Commandment – “You shall have no other gods in my presence.” 

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