Yoga and Christianity: Are They Compatible?


See also: Christians and Yoga

Written by Michael Gleghorn

arm668~mukesh-in-a-yoga-position-postersWhat is Yoga?

What is yoga? For many in the West, yoga is simply a system of physical exercise, a means of strengthening the body, improving flexibility, and even healing or preventing a variety of bodily ailments. But if we inquire into the history and philosophy of yoga we discover that “much more than a system of physical exercise for health, Yoga is . . . [an] ancient path to spiritual growth.” It is a path enshrined in much of the sacred literature of India.{1} Thus, if we truly want a better understanding of yoga, we must dig beneath the surface and examine the historical roots of the subject.

Before we begin digging, however, we must first understand what the term “yoga” actually means. “According to tradition, ‘yoga’ means ‘union,’ the union…of the finite ‘jiva’ (transitory self) with the infinite’…Brahman’ (eternal Self).”{2} “Brahman” is a term often used for the Hindu concept of “God,” or Ultimate Reality. It is an impersonal, divine substance that “pervades, envelops, and underlies everything.”{3} With this in mind, let’s briefly look at three key texts that will help us chart the origin and development of yoga within India.

It appears that one can trace both the practice and goal of yoga all the way back to the Upanishads, probably written between 1000-500 B.C.{4} One Upanishad tells us: “Unite the light within you with the light of Brahman.”{5} Clearly, then, the goal of yoga (i.e. union with Brahman) is at least as old as the Upanishads.  In addition, the word “yoga” often appears in the Bhagavad Gita, a classic Hindu text possibly written as early as the fifth century B.C.{6} In chapter 6, Krishna declares: “Thus joy supreme comes to the Yogi . . . who is one with Brahman, with God.”{7} Finally, in about A.D. 150, the yogi Patanjali systematized yoga into eight distinct “limbs” in his Yoga Sutras. These eight limbs are like a staircase, supposedly leading the yogi from ignorance to enlightenment. In order, the eight limbs are: yama (self-control), niyama (religious observances), asana (postures), pranayama (breathing exercises), pratyahara (sense control), dharana (concentration), dhyana (deep contemplation), and samadhi (enlightenment).{8} It’s interesting to note that postures and breathing exercises, often considered to be the whole of yoga in the West, are steps three and four along Patanjali’s “royal” road to union with Brahman.

We see that yoga is an ancient spiritual discipline deeply rooted in the religion of Hinduism. This being so, we may honestly wonder whether it’s really wise for a Christian to be involved in yoga practice. Next, we’ll continue our discussion by examining some of the important doctrinal differences between yoga and Christianity.

Yoga and Christianity: What are the Differences?

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Many people today (including some Christians) are taking up yoga practice. We’ll later consider whether yoga philosophy can truly be separated from yoga practice, but we must first establish that there are crucial doctrinal differences between yoga and Christianity. Let’s briefly look at just a few of these.

First, yoga and Christianity have very different concepts of God. As previously stated, the goal of yoga is to experience union with “God.” But what do yogis mean when they speak of “God,” or Brahman? Exactly what are we being encouraged to “unite” with? Most yogis conceive of “God” as an impersonal, spiritual substance, coextensive with all of reality. This doctrine is called pantheism, the view that everything is “God.” It differs markedly from the theism of biblical Christianity. In the Bible, God reveals Himself as the personal Creator of the universe. God is the Creator; the universe, His creation. The Bible maintains a careful distinction between the two.{9}

A second difference between yoga and Christianity concerns their views of man. Since yoga philosophy teaches that everything is “God,” it necessarily follows that man, too, is “God.” Christianity, however, makes a clear distinction between God and man. God is the Creator; man is one of His creatures. Of course man is certainly unique, for unlike the animals he was created in the image of God.{10} Nevertheless, Christianity clearly differs from yoga in its unqualified insistence that God and man are distinct.

Finally, let’s briefly consider how yoga and Christianity differently conceive man’s fundamental problem, as well as its solution. Yoga conceives man’s problem primarily in terms of ignorance; man simply doesn’t realize that he is “God.” The solution is enlightenment, an experience of union with “God.” This solution (which is the goal of yoga) can only be reached through much personal striving and effort. Christianity, however, sees man’s primary problem as sin, a failure to conform to both the character and standards of a morally perfect God. Man is thus alienated from God and in need of reconciliation. The solution is Jesus Christ, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”{11} Through Jesus’ death on the cross, God reconciled the world to Himself.{12} He now calls men to freely receive all the benefits of His salvation through faith in Christ alone. Unlike yoga, Christianity views salvation as a free gift. It can only be received; it can never be earned.

Clearly, Christianity and yoga are mutually exclusive viewpoints. But is every kind of yoga the same? Isn’t there at least one that’s exclusively concerned with physical health and exercise? Next, we’ll take a closer look at hatha yoga, the one most often believed to be purely physical in nature.

What Is Hatha Yoga?

1yogaHere we’ve learned that yoga is an ancient spiritual discipline rooted in a belief system that is utterly incompatible with Christianity. But is this true of all yoga? Isn’t hatha yoga simply concerned with physical development and good health? Hatha yoga is primarily concerned with two things: asana (physical postures) and pranayama (breathing exercises). But it’s important to realize that both asana and pranayama also play a significant role in Patanjali’s raja (or “royal”) yoga. In the traditional eight “limbs” of Patanjali’s system, asana and pranayama are limbs three and four. What then is the relationship of hatha to raja yoga? Former yoga practitioner Dave Fetcho states that yoga postures “evolved as an integral part of Raja . . . Yoga.”{13} He points out that the author of the famous handbook, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, “presents Hatha . . . solely and exclusively for the attainment of Raja Yoga.”{14} He also cites a French yoga scholar who claims, “the sole purpose of . . . Hatha Yoga is to suppress physical obstacles on the . . . Royal path of Raja Yoga and Hatha Yoga is therefore called ‘the ladder to Raja Yoga.'”{15} Fetcho concurs, noting that the physical postures are “specifically designed to manipulate consciousness…into Raja Yoga’s consummate experience of samadhi: undifferentiated union with the primal essence of consciousness.”{16} These statements should make it quite clear that hatha, or physical, yoga has historically been viewed simply as a means of aiding the yogi in attaining enlightenment, the final limb of raja yoga.

This is further confirmed by looking at Iyengar yoga, possibly the most popular form of hatha yoga in the U.S. The Web site for the Iyengar Yoga Institute of San Francisco states: “BKS Iyengar studies and teaches yoga as unfolded in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjaili [sic] and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika among other classical texts. Thus Asana, or postures, are taught as one of the eight limbs . . . of yoga defined by Patanjali.”{17} In fact, the ultimate goal of Iyengar hatha yoga is precisely the same as that of Patanjali’s raja yoga.{18} Both aim to experience union with “God,” Brahman, or universal consciousness. If all these things are so, it seems increasingly apparent that hatha yoga may ultimately involve its practitioners in much more than physical exercise. Although it may not be obvious at first, the ultimate goal of hatha is the same as every other form of yoga: union of the self with an impersonal, universal consciousness. We must remember that the Bible never exhorts Christians to seek such an experience. If anything, it warns us of the potential dangers in doing so. Next, we’ll consider whether yoga practice might, in fact, be dangerous–and why.

Can Yoga be Harmful?

Despite its touted health benefits, there are numerous warnings in authoritative yoga literature which caution that yoga can be physicallyICP, mentally, and spiritually harmful if not practiced correctly.

For instance, Swami Prabhavananda warns of the potentially dangerous physical effects that might result from yoga breathing exercises: “Unless properly done, there is a good chance of injuring the brain. And those who practice such breathing without proper supervision can suffer a disease which no known science or doctor can cure.”{19} In addition, many yogis warn that yoga practice can endanger one’s sanity. In describing the awakening of “kundalini” (coiled serpent power) Gopi Krishna records his own experience as follows: “It was variable for many years, painful, obsessive…I have passed through almost all the stages of…mediumistic, psychotic, and other types of mind; for some time I was hovering between sanity and insanity.”{20}
Finally, however, from a Christian perspective it seems that yoga could also be spiritually harmful. To understand why, let’s return to the experience of “kundalini.” Yoga scholar Hans Rieker declares, “Kundalini [is] the mainstay of all yoga practices.”{21} But what exactly is kundalini and why is it so central to yoga practice? Swami Vivekananda summarizes the kundalini experience as follows: “When awakened through the practice of spiritual disciplines, it rises through the spinal column, passes through the various centres, and at last reaches the brain, whereupon the yogi experiences samadhi, or total absorption in the Godhead.”{22} And researcher John White takes the importance of this experience even further declaring: “Although the word kundalini comes from the yogic tradition, nearly all the world’s major religions, spiritual paths, and genuine occult traditions see something akin to the kundalini experience as having significance in “divinizing” a person. The word itself may not appear…but the concept is there…as a key to attaining godlike stature.”{23}

Reading such descriptions of the kundalini, or coiled serpent power, the Christian can almost hear the hiss of that “serpent of old…who deceives the whole world.”{24}In Eden, he flattered our first parents by telling them: “You will be like God.”{25} And though Christianity and yoga have very different conceptions of God, isn’t this essentially what yoga promises?
Swami Ajaya once said, “The main teaching of Yoga is that man’s true nature is divine.”{26} Obviously this is not the Christian view of man. But if the goal of yoga is to realize one’s essential divinity through union with “God,” then shouldn’t the Christian view the practice that leads to this realization as potentially spiritually harmful? Next, we’ll conclude our discussion by asking whether it’s really possible to separate yoga philosophy from yoga practice.

Can Philosophy and Practice be Separated?

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We’ve seen that yoga is an ancient spiritual discipline whose central doctrines are utterly incompatible with those of Christianity. Even hatha yoga, often considered to be exclusively concerned with physical development, is best understood as merely a means of helping the yogi reach the goal of samadhi, or union with “God.” Furthermore, we’ve seen that all yoga, including hatha, has the potential to be physically, mentally, and spiritually harmful. In light of such evidence, it may appear that this question–“Can yoga philosophy be separated from yoga practice?”–has already been answered in the negative. And this is certainly the view of many yoga scholars. Dave Fetcho, formerly of the Ananda Marga Yoga Society, has written, “Physical yoga, according to its classical definitions, is inheritably and functionally incapable of being separated from Eastern religious metaphysics.”{27} What’s more, yoga authorities Feuerstein and Miller, in discussing yoga postures (asana) and breathing exercises (pranayama), indicate that such practices are more than just another form of physical exercise; indeed, they “are psychosomatic exercises.”{28} Does this mean that separating theory from practice is simply impossible with yoga? If one carefully looks through an introductory text on hatha yoga,{29} one will see many different postures illustrated. A number of these may be similar, if not identical, to exercises and stretches one is already doing. Indeed, if one is engaged in a regular stretching program, this is quite probable. This raises an important question: Suppose that such beginning level yoga postures are done in a context completely free of yogic philosophy. In such a case as this, doesn’t honesty compel us to acknowledge at least the possibility of separating theory from practice?

While I hate to disagree with scholars who know far more about the subject than I do, this distinction does seem valid to me. However, let me quickly add that I see this distinction as legitimate only at the very beginning of such practices, and only with regard to the postures. The breathing exercises, for various reasons, remain problematic.{30} But this distinction raises yet another question, for how many people begin an exercise program intending never to move beyond the most basic level? And since by the very nature of yoga practice, such a distinction could only be valid at the very earliest of stages, why would a Christian ever want to begin this process? It seems to me that if someone wants an exercise program with physical benefits similar to yoga, but without all the negative spiritual baggage, they should consider low-impact or water aerobics, water ballet, or simple stretching.{31} These programs can be just as beneficial for the body, without potentially endangering the soul. In my opinion, then, Christians would be better off to never begin yoga practice.

About Jian Ming Zhong

In short, I am a five point calvinist, amillennial, post-trib rapture, paeudobaptistic (not for salvation), classical cessationism , and covenantal. I embrace Reformed Theology and subscribe to the WCF 1647. I do not break fellowship with anyone who holds to the essentials of the faith (i.e., the Trinity, the Deity of Christ, Jesus' Physical Resurrection, Virgin Birth, Salvation by Grace through Faith alone, Monotheism, and the Gospel being the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus) but does not affirm Calvinist Theology in the non-essentials. I strongly believe that God's grace and mercy are so extensive that within the Christian community there is a wide range of beliefs and as long as the essentials are not violated, then anyone who holds to those essentials but differs in the non-essentials is my brother or sister in Christ. Romans 11:36 "For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To whom be Glory forever. Amen!"
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