October 9, 2010

Is Yoga Un-Christian?

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.

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