I’d like to interrupt our regularly scheduled program to talk about an interesting and, apparently, hot topic right now: the Christian and Yoga.
Recently, Al Mohler posted this article giving a very detailed and historical overview of yoga within its original and intended context, as well as how it has “crossed over” into the mainstream of American consciousness and perception. Mohler writes:
“Most seem unaware that yoga cannot be neatly separated into physical and spiritual dimensions. The physical is the spiritual in yoga, and the exercises and disciplines of yoga are meant to connect with the divine.”
I have to say, as someone who has practiced yoga in the past, I never really considered the implications of the poses and their significance. Granted, my foray into yoga was never serious and my instructor was a Christian who didn’t use any of the meditative aspects of the practice. I’ve been considering yoga as a practice for quite some while, especially after taking a class on Indian and South Asian Art. It sounds strange that an art history class and yoga would correlate but, they have more in common than you think.
You see, in Indian culture and religion, specifically that of Hinduism, the divine is interpreted through a variety of physical and tangible ways, such as art. Therefore, studying the art of that culture means studying the religion. There is no way around it. And Mohler is right – the physical is the divine within that religious system. Take, for example, the concept of Hindu religious art. We would refer to it as idols. You see, the act of worship and interaction with the deity is through the physical senses, thus the need for sight, taste, sound, etc. In studying the art, I actually ended up learning quite a bit about the physical concept of yoga within that religious system. In our contemporary society, many people want to separate the physical practice from the Hindu religion.
This simply cannot be so. Yoga was developed as a Hindu way of worship. Even without the concept of meditation, the poses are meant to reflect spiritual disciplines and facets of that religion. This is often difficult for the western world to understand. Often, we don’t comprehend that the concept of worship isn’t limited to anything internal or, in the Christian sphere, singing. Worship takes many forms, across all of the religions. Hinduism happens to make their “act of worship” into an exceptionally physical one.
What does that mean for the Christian? Well, it implies a variety of things. As a Christian, I don’t dabble in the religious traditions that I don’t believe in. It wouldn’t make much sense for me to worship at a mosque or celebrate the winter solstice with the Wiccan community. So why, therefore, is it considered appropriate for our culture to consume a religious practice in the name of physical fitness? Health practitioners argue that yoga has benefits that transcend religious connotations, such as lower stress levels and weight loss. To be frank, most physical activity has those same benefits. There are a multitude of alternatives to consider: pilates, rock-climbing, swimming. All of these have the same fitness results without the spiritual compromise.
As Christians, we are called to be separate from this world, while still abiding within it. How can that be our testimony when we are, frankly, engaging in the worship activities of another religion? Fitness benefits aside, this issue must be taken much more seriously within the Christian community. While there is nothing inherently sinful about the physical pose of the “downward facing dog”, one must consider the cultural and religious implications of such a practice.
I write this as someone who really genuinely likes the idea of yoga. But to be honest, the compromise of faith is too great a price to pay. If it were possible to fully extricate the physical discipline from the spiritual practice, I’d be the first one in the class with a mat. But since that does not seem to be the case, I think I’m better off taking up another fitness activity.