December 8, 2010
Can Yoga be Christian?
Mohler, Driscoll, and others weigh in on the controversy.
A few months ago, Al Mohler set off a firestorm when he pronounced yoga to be incompatible with Christian faith. The comments came in a review the Southern Baptist leader wrote about Stephanie Syman's book The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America. Mohler said:
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. Believers are called to meditate upon the Word of God -- an external Word that comes to us by divine revelation -- not to meditate by means of incomprehensible syllables.
To his surprise, Mohler received a significant backlash from Christians who use yoga as part of their exercise routine as well as those who believe the practice can mesh with Christian forms of reflection and meditation. But Mohler would have none of it. He wrote, “Most seem unaware that yoga cannot be neatly separated into physical and spiritual dimensions.” In other words, those who merely use yoga as a form of stretching and muscle strengthening are mistaken. He continued:
Christians who practice yoga are embracing, or at minimum flirting with, a spiritual practice that threatens to transform their own spiritual lives into a 'post-Christian, spiritually polyglot' reality. Should any Christian willingly risk that?
Not to be ignored amid a cultural controversy, Mark Driscoll added his $.02 into the discussion. In this video the pugnacious pastor calls yoga “absolute paganism” and says it opens the door to demonism. But he adds this caveat: “Is it possible for a Christian to do stretching and read scripture and pray and do so in a way that is exercise that is biblical? Yes, it is possible. But if you just sign up for a little yoga class you’re signing up for a little demon class.” (BTW, Driscoll also warns against watching Avatar…the “most demonic movie ever.”)
Of course not everyone agrees with Mohler and Driscoll. David Sapp, senior pastor at Second Ponce de Leon Baptist Church in Atlanta says the form of yoga taught at his church has "sort of been de-religionalized.”
"What we do is yoga as stretching, exercise and relaxation technique," he said. "We don't do yoga as Buddhist philosophy." Sapp also believes that when yoga stretches and breathing techniques are combined with Scripture meditation, it can be used as a way of communing with God."I believe that God can come to us in all experiences in life," Sapp said. "God has lots of ways of revealing himself to people, and if he chose to do it through yoga, he could sure do that."
Dayna Gelinas, a Christian yoga instructor, also sees a benefit in combining yoga with Christian themes. "It's very different from getting on a treadmill,” she says. Gelinas has replaced any association with Hinduism or Buddhism in her yoga instruction with signing or chanting Scripture.
"My yoga practice is just something I do to enhance my faith," Gelinas said. "I don't see how you can separate your body from your mind or spirit."
Many of the responses Al Mohler received to his original column were from people who do yoga stretches while forgoing any of yoga’s religious elements. Mohler took issue with this bifurcation. "My response to that would be simple and straightforward: You're just not doing yoga.”
Mohler received support for his view from a surprising souce—a Hindu. Rajiv Malhotra wrote a column for The Huffington Post on the question of “Christian yoga.” He said:
While yoga is not a "religion" in the sense that the Abrahamic religions are, it is a well-established spiritual path. Its physical postures are only the tip of an iceberg, beneath which is a distinct metaphysics with profound depth and breadth. Its spiritual benefits are undoubtedly available to anyone regardless of religion. However, the assumptions and consequences of yoga do run counter to much of Christianity as understood today. This is why, as a Hindu yoga practitioner and scholar, I agree with the Southern Baptist Seminary President, Albert Mohler, when he speaks of the incompatibility between Christianity and yoga, arguing that "the idea that the body is a vehicle for reaching consciousness with the divine" is fundamentally at odds with Christian teaching.
With the popularity of yoga among all people, including Christians, getting a better understanding of the issue is important for pastors responsible for giving spiritual guidance. What Mohler, Driscoll, and even Malhotra agree on is that the philosophical/religious origins of yoga are incompatible with Christian belief, AND if those elements of yoga are stripped away what remains (the stretches and breathing practices) cannot be rightly called “yoga.”
So what are we to do? Christianity has a long tradition of adapted pagan symbols and practices and filling them with biblical meaning. Even Christmas and the celebration of Christ’s birth near the winter solstice is an extra-biblical tradition rooted in the pagan rituals of Scandinavian and Germanic tribes. The Puritans were so disturbed by the Christmas holiday that they refused to acknowledge it.
What do you think? Is it possible to take pieces of yoga and adapt them for non-religious or even Christian use? Or are Driscoll and Mohler right—are we flirting with the demonic?