Friday, May 2, 2014

Is Yoga Un-Christian?

I didn’t really expect to be writing about this issue today. Sure, when I began studying yoga back in 1976 it was still considered by many Americans to be alien, strange, occult, possibly evil or at the very least, suspicious. I do remember hearing some folks, mainly fundamentalists, suggest that doing yoga was “dangerous” in that it would invite evil spirits to take over your body. Merely doing certain poses such as “the tree” amounted to worshipping idols (the druid gods?). Equally important, the deep breathing exercises in harmony with the postures could, if you were lucky, still the mind, which was bad because an empty mind was the devil’s playground. If you succeeded in stopping the perpetually churning thought factory for even a moment, demons would rush in to fill your head with all manner of evil ideas. And God would, for some reason, allow them to do this. Those of us who were blonde would probably be at an even higher risk of such demonic takeover.

At that time I, however, was not concerned about this because I was an atheist, having abandoned my childhood faith in God as a result of my fundie private school education. My understanding of “Christianity” could essentially be summarized as: “everything that is fun is bad,” and God was ready to send us to hell for the slightest infraction despite the fact that He had already killed His own son on our behalf to appease His righteous wrath on account of the predictable sins of creatures which He, being omniscient, had endowed with free will. Moreover, He was going to send little children in Africa to hell for the sin of not converting to Christianity, since they had not heard the gospel, and it was our parents’ fault for not giving more money to the church’s missionary projects. They told us that listening to rock & roll was a sure highway to hell, especially Elton John, for reasons which were unclear to me at that tender age, but I knew in my heart of hearts that it couldn’t be true, rock & roll could not possibly be evil. So I threw out the Baby with the bathwater. If yoga was indeed occult and unchristian, all the more reason I would have liked it back in 1976, in my rebellion against the church!

But times have certainly changed, I have meanwhile become a Christian years ago, Elton John is now Sir Elton, having been knighted by the Queen, and today yoga has become so mainstream that it is offered in every gym across the country and promoted by the First Lady to children on the Whitehouse lawn. Therefore I would assume that everyone is by now vaguely familiar enough with yoga, at least in theory, that we are no longer afraid of this alien, heathen and possibly demonic practice.

Apparently, this is not the case, as I discovered recently while reading, "Kissing Fish: Christianity for People Who Don’t Like Christianity” by Roger Wolsey.* I ran across a footnote regarding an article by Southern Baptist leader Dr. Albert Mohler in 2010 stating that yoga is incompatible with Christianity.

Dr. Mohler discusses the “occult” nature of yoga, an objection I had heard about back in 1976, based on the premise that any form of working with energy, i.e. “prana” (or as it is called in martial arts, “chi” or “ki,” or “ruach” in the Hebrew or Essene tradition) is automatically “occult” or even “demonic.” I disagree with that premise and it is unclear on what basis the energy flowing through our body should be considered “occult.” Mohler’s primary concern seems to be that, “virtually all forms of yoga involve an emphasis on channeling sexual energy throughout the body as a means of spiritual enlightenment,” and he objects to “the role of sexual energy in virtually all forms of yoga and of ritualized sex in some yoga traditions.”

It could be argued that this is a bit of an exaggeration, in that “sexual energy” is just one expression of the “prana” or “vital breath” which pervades the universe and manifests as heat, light, magnetism, gravity, etc., and the vitality in all living things, which is not “sexual” unless you want to say that all energy in the universe is sexual. In our basic hatha yoga classes we merely visualize prana as sunlight flowing into the body with the breath. Directly channeling sexual energy per se, tantric yoga (what Mohler refers to as “ritualized sex”) is a specific technique which is much more advanced and, as he acknowledges, not widely practiced. Like hatha yoga, tantra has been enthusiastically embraced by some Americans, but usually not for its original intended purpose (but that is a whole ‘nother topic for a separate blog entry). But perhaps this is mere semantics; let’s say for the sake of the argument that the energy channeled in yoga is sexual. If so, why would this be a problem?

Well, certainly it is a problem from the Southern Baptist standpoint since, as I learned in my fundamentalist education, sex is bad except possibly within marriage and for the purpose of procreation (not pleasure) and even then it is something to be ashamed of and best gotten over with quickly. Presumably it would be a sin for a married couple to practice tantric yoga because they would be using their sexual energy for a purpose other than procreation while enjoying a prolonged state of ecstasy, which understandably cannot be tolerated by a religion in which even dancing is forbidden.

But lest we blame Hinduism for promoting some kind of occult heathen orgy of sensuality, in fact the fundamentalist Hindu tradition is at least as uncomfortable with sex as its western counterpart. Historically most yoga traditions have enforced strict celibacy outside of marriage, and sex within marriage for procreation only, and orthodox Hindus generally regard tantra as “occult” and rather scandalous, not something to be discussed in polite company. Given that the majority of yogis adhere to the tradition of celibacy (which also forbids masturbation) and indeed, “channel” their sexual energy inwardly, one would think that yogic chastity would win brownie points from the Southern Baptist perspective! After all, what else is the celibate person to do with their sexual energy, if not sublimate it? Or perhaps one would best stuff it away deep down inside and ignore it – but, as we know from modern psychiatry, repression can have unhealthy consequences.

In any case, Dr. Mohler correctly states that people who are doing “yoga” only as a form of physical exercise and ignoring the energy/spiritual aspect (“sexual” or otherwise) are not really doing yoga. This is quite true, as I have pointed out in my blog, “What is yoga?”  Yoga traditionally is a way of life wherein one offers everything up to God: our heart, our mind, our body and our activities. Yoga is sometimes referred to as “body prayer.” It is a spiritual practice intended to promote consciousness of the Divine in and through our experience as embodied souls. Mohler acknowledges this: “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.” Curiously, though, he says that this is a bad thing and we ought not to be doing it! “Christians are not called to… see the human body as a means of connecting to and coming to know the divine.”

Really? If our body is not a means of connecting to and knowing the Divine, then why are we here as physical beings on this earth? Weren’t we created to know, love and glorify God? We are told in I Corinthians Ch. 6:19-20 “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?... Therefore honor God with your body.” And in Romans Ch. 12:1-2 “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship.” It is through our physical senses that we learn the word of God – reading with our eyes and hearing with our ears. With our lungs, vocal cords and lips we praise God in speech and song. With our hands we do the work of God in this world.

Mohler goes on to say, “We are not called to escape the consciousness of this world by achieving an elevated state of consciousness, but to follow Christ in the way of faithfulness.” However, according to Romans 12:2, we are indeed to elevate our consciousness in order to better follow Christ: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

He further states, “Christians are called to look to Christ for all that we need and to obey Christ through obeying his Word.” Christ himself incarnated in a human body, the Word made flesh. Moreover, he gave us his own body and blood to be consumed in the physical ritual of Communion: Luke 22:19-20 “And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.’” Christ commanded us to celebrate this ritual in which we commune with him intimately in our bodies, and it is central to our Christian worship.**

Whence, then, comes this disdain for the body? I believe that this attitude reflects the insidious influence of ascetic gnosticism in the church, an influence which has been present to some degree from the very beginning, as we can see in some of St. Paul’s writings, and which is considered heretical according to the Creeds. The gnostics believed that spirit is good and matter is evil; this world was created by an evil demi-god who seduced our souls to become trapped here in matter, and Jesus came from the world of the Spirit to free us from the evil material world. Gnostics did not believe that Jesus was literally God incarnate because (agreeing with Judaism and Islam), it would be blasphemy for the infinite Spirit to be clothed with a corrupt human body. They had to deny the humanity of Christ because the flesh is evil. Orthodox theology, on the contrary, states that God created the material world including our bodies and our sexuality and called it good. God created us as physical beings and breathed the spirit (ruach) into us. Jesus is both true God and true man, and by his incarnation he has reaffirmed the blessedness of our humanity. Therefore, objections against yoga based on its use of the body as a vehicle for, or an expression of, spirituality arise from gnostic dualism and are inconsistent with orthodox Christianity. For Christians, the practice of yoga can serve as a means to overcome this gnostic divorce of the flesh and spirt, to reclaim our body and our sexuality for God.

As for me, thankfully, what began as an atheist’s experiment with mere physical and mental exercises eventually enabled me to believe in God again, as a result of my experience of the Divine in yoga and meditation which I could not continue to ignore or explain away. And thanks to my friends of the Hindu faith, which proclaimed the Incarnation of God a thousand years B.C., I was finally able to get over my fundie childhood mis-education and appreciate Jesus Christ. They helped me to get a fresh perspective on God – not a vengeful old man on a throne in the sky poised ready to strike me with lightning for dancing ballet naked to rock music or some other forbidden activity, but the nearest, the dearest, in whom we live and move and have our being, Who became man to live among us, to teach us, to love us, to play with us, even to die for us. My yoga practice is an offering to Him.

The Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Hindu text, describes the essence of yoga thus:
“The Supreme Lord is situated in everyone’s heart and is directing the wanderings of all living entities. Surrender unto Him utterly and by His grace you will attain transcendental peace and the supreme and eternal abode.” Surrender to God – unchristian? I don’t think so.

* A wonderful book which I wish had been written back in the day when I left the fundie church, not knowing that any other type of “Christianity” existed!

** In many fundamentalist churches the Communion ritual which Christ instituted is observed only infrequently and, unlike other parts of scripture, is not taken literally.

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