As the practice of yoga becomes more and more entrenched in our culture, efforts to legitimize it, even by Christians, become all the more persistent.
However, this doesn't change the bottom line - attempts to merge pagan belief systems, whole or in part, with Christianity is known as syncretism. This practice is a hallmark of the New Age which aims at creating One World Religion.
Unfortunately, this plan is achieving success because of a general lack of knowledge about yoga and Christianity which results in a hopeless blurring of the lines.
Everyone who participates in yoga, especially here in the West, needs to understand that the physical exercises of yoga are only one of eight limbs of this practice, none of which are designed to be isolated from the others. Yoga is all one big package designed to achieve "Kaivalya" (ultimate freedom) by releasing the soul from the chains of cause and effect (karma) which tie the person to continual reincarnation.
Yoga employs physical postures (asanas) along with the seven other limbs - moral restraint, religious observance, breath control (pranayama), sense withdrawal, concentration, meditative absorption and enlightenment (Samadhi) to achieve this goal. This complex ancient science of self-purification and development is all aimed at yoking the practitioner to the Hindu God known as Brahman.
But what has happened here in the largely Christian West is that people wanting to cash in on the yoga-craze either to fill their pockets or their pews (or both) have fallen into the trap of thinking they can simply substitute Christian teachings for these Hindu concepts and thereby render them Christian. Unfortunately, it's not that simple and major mistakes have been made by some of the leading proponents of Catholic or Christian yoga.
The late Elliot Miller, who served as editor-in-chief and research specialist in Eastern religions for the Christian Research Institute, lists several major contributors to the field of Christian yoga in the U.S., all of which base their teachings on flawed understandings of either yoga, Christianity, or both.
The most influential is Nancy Roth, author of An Invitation to Christian Yoga (Seabury Books, 1989) and an Episcopal priest with "an ecumenical ministry in spirituality" Roth claims she would use the relaxation and visualization time at the end of class to focus on Jesus even though the class was chanting "om" and all their exercises had Hindu names. Eventually, she came to the realization that "there needed to be a new Christian asceticism that respected the integration of body and mind and reflected both the newest research in psychology and physiology and the wisdom of other, even more ancient spiritual traditions." Christian yoga was her answer to this problem.
As Miller writes: "Roth's words appear to reflect an inclusivist theology that is common in mainline churches such as the Episcopal church. Inclusivism holds that salvation is through Jesus Christ alone, but Christ's salvation can extend even to those who do not consciously believe in Him, imparting to them gifts of grace or spiritual riches that can benefit those of other faiths, including Christians."
As a result, "Roth's interfaith exploration and synthesis of East and West laid the conceptual and practical foundations for Christian yoga, and the marks of her influence are evident throughout the movement," Miller writes.
Two more recent authors who admit to being influenced by Roth's work are Susan Bordenkircher (Yoga for Christians, 2006) and Brooke Boon (Holy Yoga, 2007). Both of these writers believe yoga can be redeemed and made into a holy practice to the Lord, even without a major revamping of yoga, Miller writes.
In studying their writings, he found significant theological flaws. For instance, knowledge of one's true self is the ultimate goal of classical yoga, but has never been the goal of Christian spirituality. In order to "baptize" this major difference, Boon reconstructs the yogic goal of "acquiring the deepest knowledge of oneself" to "acquiring the deepest knowledge of oneself in Christ" and thinks she has fixed this problem.
However, as Miller points out, "Adding Christ into the equation does not make the pursuit of self-knowledge in "Holy Yoga" any more of a Christian practice than adding sprouts to a greasy hamburger makes it health food."
This is exactly the same error made by those who think they can "Christianize" the concept of a universal life force energy (chi, qi, ki, prana) simply by calling it the Holy Spirit. We can no more call chi the Holy Spirit than we can call a dog a cat. Why not? Because you can't change the nature of something just by changing its name. Chi will always be chi, a dog will always be a dog, and yoga will always be yoga, no matter what you call it.
Profound errors are also found in Bordenkircher's work. For instance, she does an awkward job of "Christianizing" the Hindu concept of bodymind (the idea that the body and mind are a single entity) a pantheistic belief that has no basis in Christianity.
"Because of this teaching, not only are the postures of yoga created for the end result of mind control, but it is also believed that the mind or soul cannot reach its potential if the body is beset with weakness," Miller explains.
This non-Christian concept is found in the Christian yoga espoused by Bordenkircher. She writes "As your range of motion decreases, your ability and desire to do certain tasks will likely be affected. Your attitude may be negatively affected . . . your relationships may even suffer as you struggle with self-image and esteem."
Even though the Bible does teach that our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit and that they must be kept healthy in order for us to follow the Lord more effectively, "it is not true, however, that our moral decisions are determined by our bodily condition or that Christian sanctification flows from, or depends on, a sound body," Miller points out.
These are just some of the flaws Miller uncovered in these works which are fueling the "Catholic" and"Christian" yoga craze in the U.S. Notice how subtle these errors are. One needs a theologian to point them out. And many of them - such as our pastors - don't catch them either! So how can we expect the "average Joe" in a yoga class to understand all this?
My advice to anyone who has a problem with yoga showing up in their parishes or schools is to attempt to educate the parties responsible about yoga. My book, The Learn to Discern Compendium: Is It Christian or New Age, deals extensively with this subject. We also have a brochure on yoga that answers the most common questions about the practice and is available in PDF form upon request. Just send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will send you the brochure which you are free to copy.
Regardless of what steps you decide to take, make sure your efforts are backed by continual and persevering prayer. Pray until the situation is resolved - even if that means praying until the day you die.
This article by Elliot Miller may also prove helpful, particularly to pastors: http://www.equip.org/articles/yoga-exercises-and-christianity
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