Is Yoga Un-Christian?

Via on Oct 9, 2010

God, I Hope Not.

Recently, a prominent Southern Baptist minister, Albert Mohler, has created waves with his claims that yoga is fundamentally at odds with Christianity. In his essay, “The Subtle Body: Should Christians Practice Yoga?” Mohler expresses alarm that yoga has become so mainstream in America:

When Christians practice yoga, they must either deny the reality of what yoga represents or fail to see the contradictions between their Christian commitments and their embrace of yoga. The contradictions are not few, nor are they peripheral. The bare fact is that yoga is a spiritual discipline by which the adherent is trained to use the body as a vehicle for achieving consciousness of the divine.

Personally, I’m saddened by such a view.

My grandpa was a prominent Southern Baptist minister, and many of my other family members are clergy, as well. Like many people in my generation, while my upbringing was Christian, I discovered yoga and other eastern practices in early adulthood and have found them enriching, challenging, and deeply fulfilling.

Christianity, especially the Puritanical branches most prominent in our country’s history, has struggled to reconcile the transcendent and the immanent — it has usually put the spirit and the body at odds, and any physical impulse has been touted as unspiritual and even cause for alarm.

Mohler continues this tradition, and seems to view the body as inherently un- or even anti-spiritual, which provides the crux of his claim that yoga is un-Christian:

Yoga begins and ends with an understanding of the body that is, to say the very least, at odds with the Christian understanding. Christians are not called to empty the mind or to see the human body as a means of connecting to and coming to know the divine [...] The physical is the spiritual in yoga, and the exercises and disciplines of yoga are meant to connect with the divine.

I asked my wise auntie Paula what she thought about all this. Raised by my Southern Baptist minister grandpa, Paula went on to seminary, herself, and has her own, Episcopalian congregation in Cincinnati. Here are some of her thoughts:

As a person who benefits greatly from years of kara-te do, I expect that the serious practice of yoga would include some larger benefits than some kind of mechanistic repetitions of movement with muscle groups.  But I wholeheartedly disagree with Mohler´s disavowal of the body as a way of learning or entering into communion with what transcends our immediate consciousness.

At its core, Christian tradition, rising from Jewish celebration of the inherent goodness of all that has been created (as it all comes from an ultimate source that is good), further finds the definitive expression of transcendence in a human life embodied in Jesus, to be shared with all who are led in whatever way to follow that path. A difference from some practices (perhaps) being that the path is communal rather than individualistic — although this aspect has sadly been lost on many current commentators who style themselves as Christian leaders.

Mohler of course overlooks the rich legacy of Christian theologians who have been practicing priests and also Hindu or Buddhist teachers. One of the best known, Raimon Panikkar, just died this summer.

I discovered yoga and Zen at a point in my life when I found Christianity lacking.  As I have continued studying and practicing these disciplines, my spirituality has deepened. Paradoxically, perhaps, I now no longer find Christianity lacking, but rather have grown to appreciate Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness as profound and radical. I don’t think that I would have come to this conclusion without my experience outside of Christianity, either.

So is yoga un-Christian? I think the answer to that question depends upon which Christianity we’re talking about. If we’re discussing one that is a literal interpretation of the Bible, accepts only one path to salvation, and is threatened by contradicting viewpoints, then perhaps the two traditions are at odds. But if we’re talking about the kind of Christianity that inspires me, one which teaches courageous love and forgiveness, based upon a transcendence which is also immanent, one which promises that the Kingdom of God is here and now, then far from contradicting each other, I find these two traditions to complement and enrich each other.

I can’t help but wonder what my Grandpa would have to say about this brouhaha. I imagine he’d smile that deep, kind smile of his, and think a moment before expressing his concern and love for Mohler and his entire congregation. And then, I imagine he’d marvel at what a small experience of Christ and Christianity Mohler must have for him to feel it threatened by anything, let alone practices designed to deepen awareness and connection to the divine.

For more coverage of this story, see here, here, here, or here.

About Angela Raines

Angela Raines hails from "America's most dangerous city," St. Louis, MO. She recently moved to Boulder, CO (as one does) to write, do yoga, and sit. So far, this has worked out beyond her wildest dreams. She completed an editorial internship at Elephant Journal and still writes for them when Waylon reminds her. She landed a job at the company of her dreams, Integral Life, and is currently putting her third-person writing skills to work in her own online writing business, Conscious Copywriting. Her main teachers are Jun Po Roshi and Ken Wilber. She is an enthusiast of all things yogic, contemplative, and chocolate.

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41 Responses to “Is Yoga Un-Christian?”

  1. Emma Blue Emmablue says:

    "at what a small experience of Christ and Christianity Mohler must have for him to feel it threatened by anything, let alone practices designed to deepen awareness and connection to the divine."

    Well said. I believe the bible mostly literally, though not inerrant like your Grandpa, and yet the true message is not threatened by chakras and nadis, that stuff is just flavoring particles, to add taste to Love and Grace.

    Well said Angela.

  2. candicegarrett says:

    well done. There are different flavors of Christianity. And some will be at odds with yoga, based on their beliefs. But there are many who won't. Great conversation here!

  3. NRIGirl says:

    I have heard testimonies from people who were once addicted to Yoga, but when they got converted to Christianity they realized it was not in line with their new found faith. Since I have not practiced Yoha myself I can't say anything about it. But then in India people do Yoha as part of a prayer to their idols, which could compromise Christian values.

    In any event prayer works better than Yoha, at least for me.

    If the question still lingers may be studying the Bible will help find the answer. If I come across the friend who shared her testimony of yoha addiction and how she came out of it, I will ask her if she has any reference from the Bible and share it with you.

    While the discussion goes on, any one want to join for some Coffee with Jesus?!

    ~NRIGirl

    • liz says:

      i dunno, i tried prayer for a long time and have found that yoga works better for me! maybe you're just addicted to prayer, NRIGirl…i will see if i can find some sutras to share with you to help you come out of it!

      also, what's yoha?

  4. Tommy Burke says:

    Interesting article, well written. Considering that no Christian faith can account for the whereabouts of Jesus from the age of 14 to 30, that there is very strong evidence placing him in India, and considering that his teachings bear a striking resemblance to those of the Buddha and Patanjali's sutras, I've long come to the conclusion that Jesus himself practiced yoga…..he certainly meditated.

  5. elephant journal elephantjournal says:

    JESUS IN THE LOTUS: THE MYSTICAL DOORWAY BETWEEN CHRISTIANITY AND YOGIC SPIRITUALITY by Russill Paul-excellent book on this topic

  6. Benjamin Riggs BenRiggs says:

    Really enjoyed this article… I also came to appreciate Christianity through Buddhism…

    I agree with Roger above- where is this strong evidence that supports Jesus going to India, that whole story strikes me as the hippie's version of the DaVinci Code… We do not need to say, "Well Jesus was really a Buddhist or a Hindu to validate or explain away the depth of his message… Truth is equally as accessible to everyone, and the Jewish tradition Jesus was born into is more than equipped to introduce someone to this transcendent reality.

    • Sandip says:

      Richard Bock describes a visit to a monastery in Calcutta where a man named Prajnananda
      testifies that he had heard from Abhedananda–”from his own lips”–that the manuscripts
      did exist at Himis in 1922. A few years later, however, those scrolls were no longer
      there.

      “They have been removed,” Prajnananda told Bock, “by whom we do not know.”

      “Dick,” I said, “are they in the Vatican?”

      “Notovitch thought so.”

      “Then why doesn’t the Church…”

      “You have to go back to the early days of Christianity,” Bock interrupted.
      “They wanted a strong church. They thought they had to control the people.
      So they treated them like children who don’t have the capacity to understand
      a deeper significance. They created a religion for ‘commonplace minds’,
      as Notovitch put it.”

      “Where is the Jesus they know in the East?” I asked.
      “Where is the striving, the sense of a personal Christhood, so to speak?”

      “Jesus lives in the hearts of the Hindus and the Buddhists,” Bock said.

      That’s where Jesus really lives–in the hearts of us all.
      And there are a couple of documentaries too!

  7. Benjamin Riggs BenRiggs says:

    Oh and Angela could we get your aunt a gig as a contributor on EJ? Even just once…. I really loved her comments!

  8. D Achilleus says:

    This oversimplification is nearly insulting, but then you did not know my Grandfather. There was an appeal to reason and logic in my Grandfather's theology which was quite substantive and immune from being "threatened" by a mystical tradition.

    Tension between Baptists and Catholics goes back in history to the Roman purges of the Anabaptists in England. And yes, these were murderous mobs doing the work of Catholic clergy.

    Finally, remember to count among your congregation those who "go off" on Buddhism your current Pontiff. I think you are cherry picking your comments here, ignorant at best, deceitful at worst.

  9. D Achilleus says:

    No, that is not missing. We did it in Graduate work for Comparative Theology – the very work you suggest – and we did it more than 10 years ago. I'm not sure why "there is good reason to admire each on its own merits" – this is an unsubstantiated claim, ergo opinion. Taken as an objective analysis there is, in fact, much less to admire. But then as a free thinker I have less on the line…

  10. fivefootwo says:

    Is this person really a PROMINENT minister, or is he last week's balloon boy, or koran burning guy with the weird mustache, or whatever over-hyped distraction we contribute to magnifying? People all around us have ideas uninformed and superficial ideas about yoga and no one ever pays any attention to those opinions, So what did the reverend do to get everyone so riled up about an opinion that is quite common for people who do not practice and do not know people who do? Who ever heard of this guy before we started yapping about him?

    • beej says:

      R. Albert Mohler, Jr. (born October 19, 1959) is the ninth president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Until July 3, 2010 Mohler hosted The Albert Mohler Program, a nationwide radio show devoted to engaging contemporary culture with Bible-based beliefs.

      He is a member of the board of Focus on the Family and a member of the governing body of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. — Wikipedia

  11. Fr Bernard, osb says:

    Over twenty years ago, a French Benedictine monk wrote a book on Yoga for Chrisiians that was extremely well received by clerics and laity. Fr Bernard, osb

  12. D Achilleus says:

    Specificity is in your original comment. I think I stated myself quite clearly: you oversimplified to the point of insult, misrepresent inter-denominational "tension", then you cherry pick examples of ecumenism all while coating your Roman Catholicism as such a wonderful thing. I will not restate or overclarify my comment when all you need do is actually read what you wrote.

  13. AngelaRaines says:

    These are issues that we're all passionate about — please see my comment below..

  14. Ramesh says:

    Great quote from Roger Walsh, Angela. Wilber also uses the terms translative religion and revolutionary religion for basically the same ideas. The first is the the religion of belief, of translating someone else's experience, and the latter is the actual practice and inner experience, which is transformational and revolutionary.

  15. ARCreated says:

    I will continue to see god in the face of hanuman (and my own face to, but that's a whole other discussion) I will hear the voice of angels in kirtan, and I will be happy with being spiritual without the dogma of religion (hey I guess I'm a rebel? what a surprise) as per usual…
    Why can't we all just get along? …seriously is doing yoga and chanting really going to take away from a person's worhsip of god? or are they just worried that when someone is paying for yoga classes they will have less money to donate to the church??? I'm just sayin

  16. [...] American yoga community these days. Please allow me to refresh your memory. First, there was the brouhaha boiling between yoga and christianity. Then there was all the hubbub about sexy yoga ads. Not to [...]

  17. Gary says:

    Jesus was a pragmatist in his spirituality, and he appealed to common sense through his teachings. Far be it from me to predict "WWJD", but I think at the very least he would not shy away from a rational examination of yoga.

    Interestingly, the word yoga is related to the English word yoke. Did Jesus not say, "My burden is easy and my yoke is light?"

    Thanks for the thoughts!

  18. Yoga Goggles says:

    As a Mennonite and a Yoga practitioner/instructor, I find that yoga complements Christianity well, but I also respect that they have many differences and both can stand on there own as sufficient spiritual paths. I liked your article!

  19. [...] The teaching of yoga in public schools has caused considerable controversy, especially among conservative Christians who view the ancient practice as stealth proselytizing of Hinduism. Just weeks ago, Southern Baptist leader Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr. stirred controversy when he proclaimed that yoga was “un-Christian.” “When Christians practice yoga, they must either deny the reality of what yoga represents or fail to see the contradictions between their Christian commitments and their embrace of yoga. The contradictions are not few, nor are they peripheral,” he said. While it is true that yoga is deeply rooted in Hindu spiritualism, the yoga taught to our nation’s schoolchildren is almost always a kid-friendly version stripped of religious meaning. Still, many parents, even some self-professed secularists, are crying “separation of church and state.” On the other hand, many Christians have embraced yoga and have no difficulty reconciling it with their religious principles. Angela Raines, a Christian yogi, believes the two complement each other. [...]

  20. [...] what a year! 2010 has seen some very big conversations go down in the yoga blogosphere. Yoga and Christianity, Hinduism, commercialism, sexism… the whole spectrum! Meanwhile, the bloggers continued living [...]

  21. [...] the words to a sermon that no one will hear… no one comes near…” my Grandpa (a Southern Baptist Minister of formidable conviction) asked me, pointedly, “Darlin’, why do you think they would say such a thing?” [...]

  22. [...] to this day. Yoga begins and ends with an understanding of the body that is, to say the very least, at odds with the Christian understanding. Christians are not called to…see the human body as a means of connecting to and coming to know [...]

  23. [...] for simply existing. Therefore, I generally stay away from organized religion—especially the Christian brand of religion. It might also be that I have never taken kindly to someone telling me how to [...]

  24. Karen says:

    What a wonderful topic. I was raised in the Catholic faith, and fell away from it for personal reasons. I then drifted to Methodism and while I embraced the teachings of Jesus, I did not fundamentally agree with all aspects of Christianity. I was a seeker at a young age; reading all I could and ultimately being drawn to the Eastern Religions, particularly Buddhism. Since taking up yoga as a discipline, I have also begun singing in a kirtan group, befriended and learned much about Sikhism and other faiths I had previously missed on my Eastern study..and have become closer to God than I have ever been. I don't believe there is only one way to salvation; it's that mindset that made me dissatisfied with Christianity. I am of the opinion that if you treat one another kindly, give of your heart, let love be your guide, have compassion for others, and learn the art of forgiveness, you are on the path to enlightenment or redemption or being saved or whatever it is you want to call it. Thanks for a wonderfully written piece.

  25. yogiclarebear says:

    Well done Angela. It is important to keep talking about this. It is hard, but your distinction of "which Christianity" is strong and true, and again, something that needs to be brought more to light. Thanks, great article.

  26. nandop says:

    Alternative title: "Is Christianism un-Yoguic?"

  27. Ken Ciszewski says:

    Ever read Abraham Maslow's "Religion, Values, and Peak Experiences"? This book was written probably 30-40 years ago, and one of its main points is that the founders of the great religions like Christ and The Buddha were connected to and experienced a greater reality that we might call "mystical". He also points out that many "ordinary" people have "peak experiences" that are something like mystical experiences. Further, he points out that religions as organizations tend to be run by people who don't have either mystical or peak experiences–these are the literal, letter of the law types (I like to call them "bureaucratic") who are organizers and managers, but not really spiritual leaders. As such, they cannot teach anyone how to have a mystical or "connected to God" experience. I always thought this explained a lot things about the main stream religions.

  28. Ken Ciszewski says:

    Of course, as I understand it, Buddhism is a "non-theistic spiritual practice".

  29. D Achilleus says:

    I suppose thats an attempt at sardonic humor, but again you come off as a defensive snot. Obviously if your ignorance is confronted with information it must be a grudge match. But its ok – do what ever you – you can always just ask for forgiveness, no? Or, I hear they are selling indulgences again…

  30. beej says:

    It is a spiritual axiom that when we are disturbed by the actions of others, the fault is within ourselves.

  31. fivefootwo says:

    Yikes! I hope that's not as prestigious as having the Good Housekeeping Seal. :) But seriously, thanks for giving me background information I did not have. Focus on the Family huh? Maybe he can replace Dobson? It's been awfully quiet over there lately.

  32. elephantjournal says:

    Thanks for this comment, Manie! As a writer and one of the editing interns, this warms my heart. We don't always catch everything, but we try! ~Angela Raines

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