October 18, 2010

Further Thoughts on Yoga and Christianity

The idea of yoga being a demonic and ill-fated practice in the eyes of Christian preachers is not a new one. Since Emerson started touting yogic philosophy, there have been strong allegations that polytheistic Hindus were robbing the souls of the righteous. Over the last decade, as yoga is being practiced by an estimated 10% of the American population, resistance from less tolerant Christians has grown, even while niches like “Christian Yoga” and “Holy Yoga” grow legions of verse-laden asanas.

I would not place Albert Mohler, president of Louisville, Kentucky’s Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in the extreme category. His essay, “The Subtle Body – Should Christians Practice Yoga?” is an earnest inquisition into the question proposed. He actually took the time out to read the book he’s discussing, Stefanie Syman’s The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America, offering intelligent commentary regarding the text. This essay proved much more enjoyable to read than watching videos about yoga demons friends of mine mockingly post on Facebook. This does not mean I agree with Mohler’s assessment, however.

His basic contention is that you cannot separate the postures of the practice with the spirituality associated with it. This is not my main contention, though I do disagree. There is the matter of intention. Many of my students come to yoga for nothing more than lengthening and restoring muscles that are tight from weight lifting or marathon training. The idea of merging Shiva with Shakti never enters their consciousness, even if on a subtle level that might be happening. There must be a certain amount of recognition to really ignite the fire, though, and so I cannot conjure one reason that a person of any faith should feel that their beliefs would be undermined by hitting the mat. I’ve had students for years stare lovingly in the mirror rather than focus on an internal bindu.

Mohler’s main contention is summarized thus: “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. Believers are called to meditate upon the Word of God — an external Word that comes to us by divine revelation — not to meditate by means of incomprehensible syllables.”

I’m assuming that by “incomprehensible syllables,” he is referring to OM (since all other mantras have meaning), which to the yogi is in no way incomprehensible. The difference is that the syllable does not have a written definition, which is what I’m guessing Mohler desires. The recitation of OM is not meant to be defined by other words, but it is completely understandable to the student who actually chants it. The sound of that mantra is considered to encompass the entirety of sounds that the human vocal box can make. All words are part of that sound, including favorites of Mohler’s, like ‘god’ and ‘Jesus Christ.’

The goal of yoga, Samadhi, need not be separated from Mohler’s worship of the Christ motif. In Classical Yoga, there are two types. The first, samprjnata-samadhi, translates as “conscious ecstasy.” The yogi meditates on a prop (alambana), something like a mandala or guru. The idea is that through this prop, consciousness becomes identified and absorbed with the figure of devotion or image of contemplation. Many yogis choose Krishna or Shiva; choosing Jesus Christ would just be another image to associate with.

The difference between Mohler’s assessment and yoga philosophy lies here: in Christianity, there is no absorption. The savior somehow stands outside that process to judge the devotee. That is never the case in yoga, especially the second expression of Samadhi, asamprjnata-samadhi, in which there is no prop needed to merge consciousness with absolute. In Vedanta, this is known as formless ecstasy (nirvikalpa-samadhi), and it is generally understood that the first form of Samadhi will lead to the second with patience and discipline. That last word is especially telling: yoga is not a system of believing, it is a system of experiencing. Assuming the faith of your parents is meaningless if you are not putting in the work to realize the philosophy behind it.

The crucial difference between Mohler’s Christianity and yoga philosophy is that in the former, there is an end point resolving in a historical figure. You pattern your life after this figure, in what Mohler calls “faithfulness,” and perhaps at the end of your life, when all your karma is tallied, you might gain entrance somewhere that no one can define. This is slightly disconcerting, given the prior concern over “incomprehensible syllables.” An imagined wonderland that no one living has honestly detailed is perhaps the most incomprehensible of mythologies I’ve studied.

By contrast, yoga is about experiencing the universal through individual efforts, and does not need an end point. There is no need of worrying about a postscript to life, and like the Ten Commandments, yoga offers ten ethical precepts (yamas/niyamas), which offer us salient advice about how to live.

At their best, both Christianity and yoga offer us a way to live peacefully with our kin, and to make sense of our human predicament. Start adding idols and you begin dividing and, inevitably, trying to conquer. As a prop, Shiva and Christ alike can bring you far, but they cannot offer you everything. That you must do for yourself.

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Derek Beres  |  Contribution: 1,000