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Yoga and Religion, Part 1

Brian Cooper
Oct 23, 2019 10:55:00 AM

In this series we explore the confusing world of yoga and religion. Is yoga religious? How has it been influenced by western ideas, and are we looking at cultural appropriation?

The word “Religion” comes from the Latin root ligare, meaning to bind, tie, bring together. The basis of religion is to unify, make whole, or re-connect to something. What that something is depends on the particular religion. Using this definition of religion strongly suggests that Yoga-meaning to bind, to yoke, to unify, is also a religion. Like all religion it has a spiritual longing for wholeness and for understanding the role of the human in the cosmos.

Yoga does not have sin but ignorance, which can be removed when the self is re-united with the higher Self. Generally it sees God in all things and all things in God. This is known as pantheism. Yoga describes spiritual or divine attainment in evolutionary terms and as something arising out of human effort and will. Or does it?

‘To him who sees me in everything and everything in me, I am never lost, and he is not lost in me. The devotee who worships me abiding in all beings, holding that all is one, lives in me, however he may be living’. (VI, 30-31 BG).

This verse from the Bhagavad Gita is highly theistic, and one could almost substitute Christ for Krishna, as of course the yogis have done in denoting Christ as an avatar.

Christianity believes in sin and in a single separate god-and is monotheistic. Failure to conform to the standards of a morally perfect god is sin. Salvation from sin can only be received, never earned. Its central tenet is of personal redemption or salvation through Christ. Its emphasis is on Faith, or belief, rather than on any activity such as yoga. Salvation is seen as a gift from God through his Grace.

Here is a description of a meditation technique:

‘Then seat yourself in a quiet cell, apart in a corner, close the door, raise your mind above any vain or transitory object. Then, pressing your beard against your chest, direct the eye of the body and with it all your mind upon the centre of your belly-that is, upon your navel-compress the inspiration of air passing through the nose so that you do not breathe easily, and mentally examine the interior of your entrails in search of the place of the heart, where all the powers of the soul delight to linger’.

This is not a yoga text but taken from Nicephorus the Solitary, 13th century Christian mystic and shows prayer combined with breathing techniques. It is highly likely that the techniques of yoga had spread from India through Persia and to Greece and beyond and had been adopted by religious orders which saw these methods as a valid means to achieving communion with god.

Let’s fast forward to the 21st century.

Rev Tim Jones, the vicar of St. James’s Church told The Telegraph: “Any alternative philosophies or beliefs are offering a sham- and at St James’s Church we want people to have the real thing.

“The Philosophy of yoga cannot be separated from the practice of it, and any teacher of yoga (even for toddlers) must subscribe to the philosophy. As Christians we believe that this philosophy is false and not something we wish to encourage,” he said.

He added “Yoga is encouraging people to think there is a way to wholeness of body and mind through human techniques – whereas the only true way to wholeness is by faith in God through Jesus Christ.”

‘Yoga is dangerous. Yoga is deceitful. The "correct" pursuit of yoga is designed to call upon demonic power and influence; it invites inside us the very separation from God and ultimate destruction it claims to forestall. Yoga is not good for anyone; clearly it is not acceptable for Christians’ (The Berean Call Pub., 2006, p. 159).

In 1989, Pope Benedict, then Cardinal Ratzinger, issued a scathing report against yoga and warned Catholics of "dangers and errors " from "non-Christian forms of meditation." He stated, "The Hindu concept of absorbing of the human self into the divine self is never possible, not even in the highest states of grace".

The above debate was sparked off by the appearance of Christian Yoga, which uses the techniques of yoga, especially asana and pranayama, but avoids the philosophy or theistic elements. Christian yoga has a huge and growing following in the States, and alarm bells are ringing in many conservative and orthodox circles as they fear that yoga –and Hinduism in particular-is infiltrating and debasing their religion.

The other side of the debate for Christians sounds like this: (from a Christian practicing yoga)

But all of this is only a preparation for a "spiritual" aim, which begins to make itself felt in a very short time: "By becoming contemplative in a matter of weeks, my prayer had been given a particular and novel cast." Becoming extraordinarily calm, the author notices "the ease I felt in entering into prayer, in concentrating on a subject." One becomes "more receptive to impulses and promptings from heaven." "The practice of Yoga makes for increased suppleness and receptivity, and thus for openness to those personal exchanges between God and the soul that mark the way of the mystical life." Even for the "apprentice yogi" prayer becomes "sweet" and "embraces the whole of man." One is relaxed and "ready to tremble at the touch of the Holy Ghost, to receive and welcome what God in his Goodness thinks fit to let us experience." "We shall be making our being ready to be taken, to be seized — and this is surely one of the forms, in fact the highest of Christian contemplation." "Every day the exercises, and indeed the whole ascetic discipline of my Yoga, make it easier for the grace of Christ to flow in me. I feel my hunger for God growing, and my thirst for righteousness, and my desire to be a Christian in the full strength of the word."

But what about the opinions on the Hindu side? What do Hindus say about Christians practicing yoga? Professor Tiwari writing in ‘Hinduism Today,' states, ‘In the past few months I have received several calls from journalists around the country seeking my views on the question of whether the newly minted "Christian Yoga" is really yoga.

‘My response is, "The simple, immutable fact is that yoga originated from the Vedic or Hindu culture. Its techniques were not adopted by Hinduism, but originated from it." These facts need to be unequivocally stated in light of some of the things being written to the contrary by yoga teachers. The effort to separate yoga from Hinduism must be challenged because it runs counter to the fundamental principles upon which yoga itself is premised. Efforts to separate yoga from its spiritual centre reveal ignorance of the goal of yoga.

I believe such efforts point to a concerted, long-term plan to deny yoga its origin. This effort to extricate yoga from its Hindu mould and cast it under another name is far from innocent. It is reminiscent of the pattern evident throughout the long history and dynamics of colonizing powers. Firstly, the physical geography of a people was colonized, then their mental arena. Now we are witnessing the next phase, the encroachment on the spiritual territory of Hinduism which began in the last few decades.’

These quotes highlight the current controversy around Christian yoga: Some traditional Hindus would say that this was the infiltration of Christianity into yoga. To do this, the roots of yoga have been denied, its spiritual foundation destroyed, and cultural fabric not acknowledged. This may be true, but the trend is not new and can be traced back to the mid 19th century, not in Europe or the USA, but in India itself. It has become known as replacement theology.


Part 2 will discuss some of the ways in which western religion influenced yoga, firstly in India, and later in the USA and Europe.


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