I have discussed in previous posts (1) some of the objections raised against the practice of yoga by Christians. Specifically, I pointed out that Dr. Albert Mohler's argument against yoga on the basis that (he says) it uses sexual energy, while the body/sexuality is unspiritual, clearly has its roots in ascetic gnosticism rather than orthodox Christian theology, and denies the goodness of God's creation and the fundamental premise of the Incarnation, not to mention the sacraments. My readers responded that they really weren't at all concerned about the Southern Baptist's opinion of yoga or of sexuality, nor were they particularly interested in nit-picky theological distinctions about the Incarnation.
Later I addressed comments by a retired priest who, it turns out, was not in fact speaking as a representative of the Vatican when he said at a film festival that yoga is Satanic, in that it allegedly leads to Hinduism (i.e. demon worship) and a belief in reincarnation. Upon further investigation, I was relieved to learn that according to the official Vatican documents which actually discuss yoga, among other spiritual practices, there is nothing satanic about it per se, so long as caution is exercised and the focus is kept on God rather than the ego. My readers, however - including the Catholics - yawned and informed me that nobody gives a damn what the Vatican says anyway.
I have also discussed the idea that God is both immanent and transcendent (panentheism - God is the omnipresent Source and everything is in God) and its implications for experiencing the presence of God in meditative practices. As Paul said, "He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being." (Acts 17:27-28). This concept, which was embraced by Vatican II and subsequently rejected as heresy by "traditionalist" Catholics as well as fundamentalist evangelicals, who insist that God is not, in fact, within us, failed to generate much enthusiasm either way among my readers.
I suppose I should have learned from these previous endeavors that such discussions are a moot point, since essentially nobody cares about the opinions of fundamentalist Christians with regard to yoga. But, as a Christian minister and a yoga teacher, I care. Or rather, I am concerned about the potential negative impact on Christians who might otherwise benefit from doing yoga but may hesitate based on these erroneous claims.
Today I will address Pastor Mark Driscoll's assertion that yoga is demonic, "a spiritual act to a being other than the God of the Bible."
Like Dr. Mohler, Pastor Driscoll deserves credit for correctly pointing out that yoga is actually more than mere physical exercise. He quotes Elliot Miller of The Christian Research Journal as stating the root word is "yoke" and that "union is desired with nothing less than God or the Absolute, and yoga is the system that Hindus have developed to achieve that end." So far, so good. Driscoll then goes on to say, "The history of yoga is overwhelmingly spiritual in practice and the postures of yoga are only one aspect of yoga, and they are part of a broader system aimed at union with God and attaining enlightenment." Again, this is true.
However, according to Driscoll this is a bad thing, because he believes that yoga is a purely Hindu practice which can only lead to union with Hindu gods. He supports this position by pointing out that some Hindus have formed a movement to "take back yoga" as part of their religious heritage which has been stolen and secularized by the West. He states that yoga cannot be separated from its Hindu roots. He alleges that for some reason yoga won't "work" in relation to the Christian God, and instead will open up practitioners to possession by Hindu gods, i.e. demons.
And this, I believe, is the source of the confusion. Only the fundamentalists - whether Christian or Hindu - treat yoga as a "religion" devoted to certain specific gods. In fact, the whole premise of there being "different gods" running around competing for our worship, like politicians campaigning for our vote, is alien to yoga. Yogis understand that God is One, there is only God, and that religious mythologies are simply the sociocultural context in which we relate to the various aspects or manifestations of Divinity. On a side note, I cannot help but find it slightly ironic that a Christian pastor who is worried about "other gods" has named his church (Mars Hill) after the temple of a Roman deity, the god of war.
Be that as it may, Driscoll quotes Romans 12:1, "“Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” But, that is exactly what we are doing when we practice yoga as whole-body prayer!
Yoga is a system of techniques which can be used by a person of any religion, directed to whatever God they worship in the context of their own cultural tradition and beliefs. Doing the asanas (postures) does not invite "other gods" to take over your body. Nor is it necessary to use Hindu mantras such as "om shrim shriyai namaha" (an invocation to God as the Divine Feminine). Christians can use mantras such as "om Jesus Lord namaha" ("Eternal Word, Jesus, I bow to You.") "Om," by the way, refers to the primordial sound or original vibration of creation, which for Christians is synonymous with Christ as the Eternal Word, "through Whom all things were made." If, however, one wishes to avoid Sanskrit language entirely, "amen Jesus Christ the Lord," "Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me," or other biblical or liturgical phrases may be used instead.
Driscoll's other arguments against yoga are based on a shallow understanding, or misunderstanding, of Vedic theology, perhaps confusing it with New Age thinking. He interprets "union with God" as the ego identifying with God. Yogis, however, know that technically the only reality is God, to Whom the ego must surrender, much as St. Paul says in Galations 2, "It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me." Driscoll also states that Hindusim, and therefore yoga, is an "autosoteric" system (salvation based on self-effort) which denies the grace of God. Nothing could be further from the truth. While Hindus would agree with James that "faith without works is dead," a central premise of Vedic scripture is that God is ultimately the only doer, and that only by God's grace are we saved. "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." (Bhagavad Gita Ch. 18:61-61)
Driscoll further argues against Hindu theology on the basis of its being "oneism," monism or panentheism, which he says is incompatible with the Christian understanding of God, although as we have seen, not all Christians would agree with him. He then goes off on a tangent regarding the use of spirits, demons, magic, spells and rituals in order to manipulate reality, which of course has nothing to do with yoga at all, nor with mainstream Hinduism. Regardless, the practice of yoga - asana, pranayama and meditation - does not require a belief in any specific doctrine whatsoever.
In fact, the aim of yoga, or as it would be called in the Christian context, "practicing the Presence," is to transcend dogma, quiet the mind, and simply "be still and know that I am God" - to rest in God's peace and His Love. When we are in that state we are not concerned about theological arguments or doctrinal disputes. We simply enjoy the presence of God, Who is beyond religion and cannot be contained in a man-made box constructed by fundamentalist preachers.
Not that anyone was probably worried anyway - but just in case you were, well, here it is. Enjoy your yoga practice!