By Caryl Matrisciana
Many people try to separate the exercises of Yoga from its spiritual element. The secular, intellectual West has long assumed it can divorce yogic practice from its spiritual aspects simply by ignoring or redefining them.
Similarly, the Western church has come to assume it may safely Christianize Yoga, which it once viewed as a heathen import from the East and taboo for Christians. Yoga is now accepted as benign, and a wave of spiritually-based aerobic workout alternatives packaged in Christian terminology has washed over the Western world. These combine Yoga movements, postures, breathing concentration, and repetitive prayer with Christian themes, music, prayers, and worship, or biblical verses and names.
What’s more, Eastern meditation in general has been given a new “look.” For example, Thomas Keating, in his book, Open Mind, Open Heart, renames Eastern meditation techniques as “centering,” “contemplative prayer,” and “transformed into Christ.”1 To add to this fusion between the East and the West, leading Christian publishers are releasing numerous books and videos on Yoga for Christians.
As a result of this changing attitude toward Yoga and Eastern mysticism, a growing number of Christian churches are offering programs for both the community and their own members that “blend” Christianity and mystical practices such as Yoga.
Time magazine featured an article titled “Stretching for Jesus,” which reported on the controversy over “Christian Yoga.” It featured Cindy Senarighi, a Lutheran pastor and the founder of “Yoga Devotion.” Senarighi teaches Yoga in her Lutheran church in Minnesota. According to Time, such classes are part of a “fast-growing movement that seeks to retool the 5,000-year-old practice of Yoga to fit Christ’s teachings.”2
Although Senarighi receives opposition to her teaching from both fundamental Hindus and fundamental Christians, she says there is “a huge, wide group of people right down the middle who understand Yoga in a different way than either of those groups do.”3 She explains:
They understand the Western practice of Yoga, the physical use, the physical practice of Yoga, being not only good for them physically, but emotionally, and as I said, spiritually–being able to be in prayer and meditation.4
Senarighi believes that if Christian words are used as the mantras (which Yoga meditation requires), or the intent in using Yoga is to reach Jesus, then it is perfectly all right to combine Yoga and Christianity. She says:
One of the ways that I encourage my students to bring their Yoga practice and a Christian spiritual practice together, is to think about a favorite Bible verse or Scripture, or any Christian mantra such as the word “Jesus” or “amen,” and connect that with their body and their mind and their spirit in practice.4
Another Yoga teacher mentioned in the Time magazine article is Susan Bordenkircher, a Methodist from Alabama and the author of Yoga for Christians, a book published by Thomas Nelson (one of the largest Christian publishers). Bordenkircher discovered Yoga in 2002:
“I knew right away I was getting something out of it spiritually and physically, but it felt uncomfortable in that format,” she says. So Bordenkircher prepared a vinyasa, or series of postures, with a biblical bent. Meditations focus on Jesus. She calls the sun salutation, a series of poses honoring the Hindu sun god, a “warm-up flow” instead.5
The Time article reveals that “Yoga purists” (Hindus) are bothered by the idea of “Christian Yoga,” saying that “Hinduism is not like a recipe ingredient that can be extracted from Yoga.”6 At the Hindu University of America in Orlando, Florida, a professor of Yoga philosophy and meditation states, “Yoga is Hinduism.”7
Yoga has entered the Christian church through the notion that it is all right to adapt the Hindu practice of Yoga by using Christian terms and concepts; as long as only the exercises are practiced without meditation, Yoga is safe. Neither notion could be further from the truth. Former Hindu guru Rabi Maharaj, in his autobiography Death of a Guru, states, “No part of Yoga can be separated from the philosophy behind it.”8 Hinduism is totally incompatible with genuine, biblical Christianity–the two cannot be absorbed into one. There simply cannot be any such thing as “Christian Yoga.”
1. Thomas Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart (New York, NY: The Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc., 1986, 1992, 2006); these terms are used throughout Keating’s book.
2. Lisa Takeuchi Cullen/Mahtomedi, “Stretching for Jesus” (Time magazine, August 29, 2005).
3. Yoga Uncoiled: from east to west (Menifee, CA: Caryl Productions, 2007).
6. “Stretching for Jesus,” op. cit.
9. Rabi Maharaj, Death of a Guru (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1984 edition)
Read also: Yoga and Christianity: Are They Compatible?