by Matthew Remski
Luke 17:21 quotes Jesus: “The kingdom of god is within you.” Most yoga practitioners would agree.
But are biblical Christians allowed to believe this?
The recent proclamations of Reverends Albert Mohler and Mark Driscoll on the subject of yoga seem to say “no”. They claim that if biblical Christians use yoga to look within for divinity, they’re more likely to find hell.
It’s been ten months since Mohler issued his mild-mannered fatwa against the seductive creep of yoga into Christian culture. “When Christians practice yoga,” he posted, “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.”
Non-biblically-centered Christians bristled at Mohler’s argument: “Yoga helps my relationship with Jesus – hands off!” Counter-culture yogis scoffed: “Is your faith so fragile that you think a few stretches and chants will tarnish your soul? Grow up!” And the silent majority of “can’t-we-all-get-along?” yogis sighed, lit some more incense, and went back into downward dog.
But one fact has escaped examination so far. Mohler’s posture, sincerely executed according to his training, highlights the intractable conflict between those who value internal truths, and those who distrust and fear them. In this light, the issue runs much deeper than whether or not Christians compromise their allegiances by donning hot-pants and chanting. It’s really about whether humans need to be possessed by a god to be virtuous, or worthy of love, or even safe. Mohler’s warning is leveled at everyone who feels confident in his or her own internal integrity. His post is a rear-guard attack on the foundation of modern personhood and private values. The problem is that his view comes out of a time that predates widespread literacy, democracy, human rights, and self-authorizing forms of spirituality. And it just doesn’t fly anymore.
Here’s the crucial axiom of Mohler’s faith-based theism: human life is valuable to the extent that it is possessed by an external god. Further: the road to perdition is paved with the delusion that you can find meaning in your own way. You have fallen into this fallen world through your own fallen nature, and you can’t learn your way out. You need a saviour, and a book. And you’d better choose wisely, because there’s only one of each.
Modern globalizing yoga, which is gradually extracting itself from a Indian religious heritage that in some of its forms holds some of these same values, is saying something completely different. It says that human suffering comes from habitual patterns of broken relationship – to your body, breath, emotions, others, and environment – and that you come pre-equipped with the ability to resolve these patterns through daily practice. Your innate healing wisdom can be tripped into action by any errant fragment of inspiration.
This is where the real conflict lies. Not between King James and Sanskrit mantras, nor between “Hatha Flow” and “Praise Moves”. It’s not about what religious jersey you wear. The conflict is between a positive vision of personhood, and the picture of the doubt-prone, passively dependent person that certain religious biases create. The critical question is: Does each of us possess a highly-nuanced self that lives and grows naturally through the dynamism of relationship, environment, and improvised creativity? Or are we broken vessels to be fixed and filled? Are we inert hardware to be programmed? Puppets for the hand of god’s will? Criminals requiring redemptive social control?
“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. Believers are called to meditate upon the Word of God — an external Word that comes to us by divine revelation…”, says Mohler.
The bible-centered Christianity of Mohler asserts that knowledge and authenticity come from a specific allegiance to a specific religious-historical person and event. It asserts that deviating from this authorization opens a doorway to peril. (The existentialists partially agree with biblical Christians: once a human does assume self-authority, he is damned. Damned to self-responsibility. Damned to bravely fashion an authentic life out of his wondrous and uncertain web.)
Mohler’s Christian cannot be self-defined nor self-possessed. She may be permitted to stretch her muscles with the thought of having been made in god’s image, but must stop before her body becomes her own source of pleasure or even revelation. Mohler can’t let his followers practice mindfulness, lest their minds become their own source of wonder. His Christianity works through the powers of church and god owning and directing the internal reality of believers. If there is pleasure, it comes from god, and not within. If there is mental peace, it comes from god, and not within. Mohler’s Christian seems to be forbidden from that which many of us hold dearest: personal agency that effects self-improvement.
Personal agency seems to be highly toxic in biblical Christianity – indistinguishable, perhaps, from demonic possession. Recently, in a post called “Holy Yoga or Demonism?” in anticipation of a “Holy Yoga” Conference in Washington, D.C., Mohler-supporters verbally crucified fellow Christians who are drawn to what they value as an embodied form of worship, and a way of honouring the “temple of the Holy Spirit”.
Following Pastor Mark Driscoll’s lead in the post’s interview (“If you just sign up for a little yoga class, you’re signing up for a little demon class”), the yoga-averse faction fills the comment-thread with obvious complaints: yoga is not Christian, yoga is a syncretistic tumour of global blasphemy, etc. But their subtler line of reasoning gets to the heart of the matter: the danger of self-reliance in a world assumed to be a spiritual battleground in which the human is helpless.
“The danger of Hindu yoga [sic]”, writes one David Sherman from Minnesota, “is that it teaches you to empty your mind in an attempt to connect with Brahman [sic]. A vacant mind wide-open like this is like ‘a house swept clean’ (Matt. 12:43-45) and makes one vulnerable to demonic activity. This ‘content-less’ meditation is a deception of Satan to prevent focus or meditation on God. It is the subtlest form of idolatry because it teaches man to focus inward and to seek transcendence on his own merits.”
In other words: in a blank-slate state (if this can ever be achieved), you have no positive internal personhood to anchor you against malicious possession. Your only protection is to commit yourself to the continued possession of the god you believe will protect you from, er, yourself, as it were.
Yoga does not threaten the theology of Mohler or Driscoll because it involves stretching muscles or physical worship or chanting in an unknown language. (Speaking in tongues involves all three.) Yoga is a threat because one does it oneself, imbued with a sense of growing personal empowerment, and often alone, in an experimental fashion that often yields novel results. Yoga locates authority in personal experience, and so will naturally magnify the rich complexity of internal life.
A radiant internal life requires an externalized god less and less. If you possess yourself – through analysis, dreams, art, freedom of expression, and evidence that you can share with a community of others – you no longer need to be possessed by a god to feel safe or loved, or righteous.
Yoga is adding to religious mentality what science has been trying to add to faith: a way of personally verifying what is true. Much separates yoga and science, but they share a method that depends on the independence of personhood, and that trusts free people to make conscious decisions.
Mohler and Driscoll are hawking an ancient need to be owned. To close the deal, they must continue to imply the timeworn and self-flagellant image of the human as infantile, dependent, incapable of original thought or virtuous will. The message of modern yoga culture couldn’t be more different.
We also can’t ignore the subtext of misogyny. It is no secret that the vast majority of contemporary yoga practitioners are women. Mohler, apparently tone-deaf to his constituency, openly complains that 90% of the critics of his post are women. Yoga culture today is women’s culture, and Mohler waded right into it.
Women’s stewardship of modern yoga shows that freedom from godly or doctrinal possession comes most sweetly to those who have been most possessed. Women are the particular beneficiaries of modern yogic self-authorization, and Christian women are no exception. They are unlikely to surrender this new freedom to Mohler and Driscoll. The Reverends surely know this, and are predictably digging deeper into their Pauline trenches. “Let a woman’s head be covered,” etc., etc.
In the coming years, Mohler and Driscoll may face ever greater rebellions from Christian women who, inspired by yoga and other arts of self-authorization, reject doctrinal ownership over their personal agency. One may wonder whether this will influence the struggle for reproductive authority. Those whose minds are free tend to demand their bodily freedom as well. The physical culture of modern yoga gives them a head start, because it locates presence, meaning, and growth in bodily experience. Through asana, “spaciousness” and “grace” are felt as properties inherent to each personal life, and not the fickle gifts of an external god.
Everyone who is interested in this issue would do well to ignore the smoke-screen of religious sectarianism and recognize the position of Mohler and Driscoll for what it is: an attack on the “internal kingdoms” of personhood and agency, tinged with subconscious misogyny. Seen in this light, their view might help to amplify the hopeful question that modern yoga poses to everyone through its explosive globalization:
After millennia of possession, can we finally be ourselves?
Matthew Remski is an author, yoga and ayurvedic therapist and educator, and co-founder of Yoga Community Toronto. With Scott Petrie he is co-creator of yoga 2.0, a writing and community-building project.
yoga 2.0: shamanic echoes, is now available for kindle and other e-readers.