I’ll start by laying my cards on the table, and say that I am no theologian or Indologist; however in the distant past my first career choice was to be a Minister of Religion, and although it’s not often I grace the doors of a church these days, my Christianity burns strongly still. Likewise, alongside the nuts and bolts of training as a yoga teacher, I’ve been drawn into studying more about the philosophical roots of yoga – alas I suspect I’ve only just scratched the surface.
In some respects, matters of religion – especially Christianity – are like the third rail of Yoga; touch at your peril.
- “Christianity and Yoga are incompatible”
- “You have to be a Hindu to do Yoga” (from Christians)
- “The West is corrupting our religion” (from the East)
- “Western Yoga is watered down clichéd spirituality”
And yet many people say Yoga helps their faith and belief, and I know of people from all religions, including Christianity, and none practising Yoga..
How do I reconcile this? Well, what follows is my understanding and rationalisation; I make no claim to authority other than experience.
First, from the perspective of Hinduism – are Hinduism and Yoga synonymous? My understanding is that the concept of “Hinduism” is comparatively new – it was a term imported by Colonists to describe a disparate selection of local beliefs in India. This flows through to many streams of modern day Hinduism, of which Yoga is one.
However there is “Yoga” and “Yoga” – most Yoga outside of India stems from Hatha Yoga, which in turn is an offshoot of the modern day Yoga stream within Hinduism. There are a number of overlapping circles here – the commonality within the differing streams of Hinduism; the Hindu stream of Yoga and Hatha Yoga overlapping; even the overlap between classical Hatha Yoga (c1400 CE based on likely authorship of Hatha Yoga Pradapika) and modern Hatha Yoga.
Put simply our modern Yoga practice has the same roots as Hinduism, but they are not synonymous.
Of course, opinions differ – despite its Colonial roots, the authenticity of Hinduism and its passionate defence has been adopted as a rallying cause by some Indian nationalists, and the complaint is sometimes made that Western Yoga has stolen their religion. Interestingly though, there are plenty of Hindu’s more than willing to share the common aspects of their faith with Yogis in the West. I’m neither Hindi nor Indian, so probably not best placed to offer much further comment.
Moving on, how does the Christian Church see Yoga? With confusion I think! There are a number of church halls that host Yoga classes, I know of ordained Ministers who practice Yoga. Yet equally many churches condemn Yoga and refuse to host it – I found this to my cost when trying to find a venue to establish classes.
From what I can discern some of the common objections are:
- Yoga is Hindu and therefore fundamentally not Christian
- Yoga requires the belief in, or worship of, other Gods
- Yoga requires clearing the mind, which is incompatible with Christian teaching
- Yoga teaches a different route to salvation
I could go on.
You can google many articles on this if you feel so inclined. I’ve no wish to get into a line by line rebuttal of content in such articles – “someone is wrong on the internet” is a well-known meme and a not a path to equanimity! – however to address the points above, which I think summarise the main objections.
Yoga is Hindu and therefore fundamentally not Christian
Well, as covered earlier – Yoga and Hinduism have common roots, but are not synonymous. Christianity and Judaism have common routes but are not synonymous.
Faith and belief matures and sometimes doesn’t restrict itself to neat packages.
I’ve sometimes used the analogy of Yoga with the jack that is supplied with a car – the jack may have “Ford” emblazoned on it, but you can use it to jack up a Vauxhall – and so the tools of modern Yoga may come from Hindi roots but, in my view, are just as relevant to Christianity.
Yoga requires the belief in, or worship of, other Gods
Exodus 20:2/3, the first of the Ten Commandments, reads “I am the Lord your God … You shall have no other gods before me”. I see in there no rule about the interpretation of that God, and, read literally, no prohibitions on other lesser Gods. At this stage, I’m sure I’ll be accused of writing out of context!
The Old Testament God was known as Jehovah or Yahweh, but in the New Testament Christianity God becomes the Trinity – God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit.
Yoga, from its Hindi roots, interprets God as Brahman, and has a multiple of other Gods and Goddesses as incarnations of Brahman.
Here I see parallels – The God of the Old Testament is interpreted in the New Testament in a different way; Yoga interprets God in a different way. However neither interpretation necessarily changes the underlying belief.
Taking this a step further back, in Exodus 3 versus 13 et seq:
Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”
God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’
“This is my name forever, the name you shall call me from generation to generation”.
So, even God says it’s only a name!
I doubt whether anyone will win a my-god-is-the-only-god argument, so I won’t try. Personally I see no conflict – I may pray to God the Father, I may pray to Lakshmi – they are, to me, incarnations of the one Godhead.
Yoga requires clearing the mind, which is incompatible with Christian teaching
This objection seems to stem from some yogic meditation practices, such as Pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses, or Dharana the first level of meditation sometimes interpreted as introspective focus.
Much of modern Christian teaching depicts a battle between good and evil, God and the Devil, and the objection to emptying the mind is, I believe, that a clear mind is open for the Devil to enter. Much Christian metaphor is about battle (“Onward Christian Soldiers!”), and the battle requires active engagement to keep the mind pure.
Yoga talks in fighting analogy as well – Warrior poses – virabhadrasana – and the whole of the Bhagavad Gita for example. The Yoga practices such as Pratyahara and Dharana are not about clearing the mind for the sake of it – they are to withdraw from worldly distractions and to free the mind for self-improvement. Again, I see no conflict here – Yoga doesn’t teach an abandonment of morality and an ethical free for all – there are a collection of practices within the eight limbs of yoga (another days writing) which work together.
I can only speak as I find. Pratyahara and Dharana have enhanced my spiritual focus not released it.
Yoga teaches a different route to salvation
The eighth limb of Yoga is Samadhi – sometimes described as liberation, enlightenment. It is the highest plane of meditation – oneness, or absorption, with the subject of meditation. Salvation is another term. But is it a different route?
Christianity at its most basic requires belief in God and repentance from sin. Yoga teaches that this highest limb, Samadhi, is a oneness with Brahman and a release from the restraints of worldly existence. To me these are common ways of interpreting the same requirements – the Yogi doesn’t mediate in a void, or on his next meal or next million dollars – he meditates on the highest plane of the universe – heaven in other words.
Certainly yogic concepts like reincarnation and the wheel of life don’t sit easily in Judeo-Christian teaching, but I’m not sure either tradition is definitive The essence of liberation or salvation by oneness with the deity and removing worldly bars to this – which Christianity teaches are sin – seems a common enough path to me.
You can split hairs and argue all day; doubtless I would lose any argument with a Theologian or Philosopher who took a view against me, simply as that isn’t my training.
But I write from the heart – the heart of a Yogini, the heart of a Christian. I tread both paths and see no conflicts.
I sometimes wonder if the Church’s objections stem from control? When I was active in Church membership, in fairness from an Evangelical strand, there was a distinct dislike of free and independent thinking – the “flock” should turn up, pray up, and sing up – not necessarily think for themselves. I’m sure that was a slightly narrow experience, but in general I think it’s fair to say that liberalism in belief isn’t generally common place in the modern Christian Church. This is a shame, as there is much commonality, and much to learn by opening hearts and minds.
Both Christian belief and Yoga have had a part in my spiritual path. I am a Yogini. I am a Christian.