Christian Yoga

I was having a look for articles on Christianity and Yoga the other day just to see what was out there. Here were some of the popular ones.

Surveying the Field

Reading these articles, the big dissappointment for me was that none of them approached the subject of Christian Yoga from a missional-incarnational perspective.

On the one hand there were plenty of critical responses that focused on theological and spiritual boundary maintenance, which I admit has its place. But amongst these there was no critical reflection on why people were being attracted to yoga, no critical reflection on why Christian disciplines were not satisfying and, even more concerning, no development of a positive witness. It was all about keeping Yoga contamination out, there was nothing about Christians becoming more contageous themselves.

On the other hand there were also a number of feel good responses that focussed on the positive aspects of Yoga, which also has its place. But amongst these there was preciously little to be found in the way of deeper thinking and philosophy, it was all about feeling and experience, the irony here being that Yoga is traditionally a discipline which aims at integration of mind and body.

Towards a Missional-Incarnational Response

What I feel is despirately lacking here is a deeper exploration of Yoga that takes full stock of both the compatabilities and the incompatabilities with Christianity, of both where we can learn from Yoga practitioners and teachers and where they can learn from us and our teacher, Jesus, in what it means to find union.

And one of the critical issues I feel needs to be explored here is the mind-body link, or to put a more theological spin on things, Christian anthropology and pneumatology in relation to spiritual discipline. The resurrection affirms a crucial link between mind body and spirit that has, unfortunatley, not always been fully appreciated by Western theologians and philosophers. The popularity of Yoga should goad us into a deeper exploration of, firstly, the role of the body in spiritual practice and, secondly, of the relationship between Spiritual awareness and self awareness. I would posit that Christian practice must begin with the understanding of self being radically dependant on Spirit, and of both body and mind being the locus of Spiritual training. What emerges – would it be fair to call it Christian Yoga or not – that’s a second order issue for me.

13 Comments

  1. I’m with you on this. I think that I could envisage (and be minded to do in appropriate circumstances) running a yoga class with a Christian slant. A missional incarnational perspective would need to engage with the way that yoga is actually used in a western cultural milieu. As such an analysis of the actual use and construals is an important first step. As such there are a few further thoughts in an old blog posting of mine at http://nouslife.blogspot.com/2005/02/yoga-and-western-psycho-culture.html
    and as such addressing a wholistic approach to spirituality is important. In principle we have the theology, but the quasi-gnosticism of many Christian attitudes is a heritage that we need to unpick thoroughly but carefully.

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  2. Andii, thanks for that link. Interesting reflection that the personality type of practitioners also needs to be considered.
    And yes it is the quasi-gnostic dualism of many western Christians that I wish to confront here. I don’t think its enough to either (a) dismiss exercise as religiously irrelevant or alternatively (b) slap Christian labels on whatever practice takes our fancy. Deeper integration work is required.
    I think many of the practices can be redeemed and much of the theological work has been done elsewhere (in other ages, other places and other denominations if not necesarrily within our own) but there is a huge problem with language, and thus, helping people to join the dots between the two in such a way as split level thinking is transcended.

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  3. I just read an article on this, forwarded to me by one of the other members of Zadok’s editorial team…I’ll find out where she got it from and where it was published, otherwise you might just have to wait for the next issue of Zadok. 😛 It’s a really good piece, written by a Christian pastor from Nagaland who points out the cultural bias inherent in the paranoia about yoga.

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  4. John, I am familiar with Bede Griffiths and have one of his books. Not entirely comfortable with his approach but he was certainly a pioneer in this area. Thanks for the link to Swami Abhishtkitananda, I’ll check him out.

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  5. Matt, yeah that’s it – I thought it was quite a good article – not deeply academic obviously, but one for a broad audience.
    I’ve had people express concerns at my interest in pilates, because it’s “like yoga” (which is incredibly ignorant – its origins are nothing like that of yoga!)

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  6. I’m a Christian (more or less) and I love yoga. I practice both Kundalini and Anusara yoga, and I view it as part of my spiritual practice – not just exercise. I’ve found it profoundly healing. For some people, yoga is just exercise and stress relief. For me, it helps me connect with God and with myself.
    As for the question of whether Christianity and yoga are compatible – I suppose it depends which brand of Christianity and which brand of yoga. The idea of “Christian yoga” annoys me a little bit – it seems like cultural appropriation. To cut yoga off from its Hindu roots is to make it something that it’s not, and some forms of yoga – like Kundalini – can’t really be Christianized anyway, because the Hindu concepts are so deeply entertwined with the practice.
    I haven’t found ANYTHING within the Christian tradition that integrates mind & body the way that yoga does, and I think Western Christians have much to learn from Eastern traditions, thought, and practice. I don’t really know what a “missional incarnational perspective” is, but since I tend toward the mystic side of things, I don’t experience a conflict between yoga and Christianity. (But then, I may be entirely heretical, so I might not be a good example.)

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  7. Christy, I try to get to know people before I burn them at the stake so no need for worry just yet 🙂
    As for difference between incarnational Christianity and mystical Christianity, the incarnational approach takes it leave from John 1:14 and Philippians 2:1-11 amongst other things, emphasizing holism but being orientated more towards descent into the ordinary than ascent into the extraordinary. I practice meditation myself but seek to ground it more in everyday life than is typical for say, mystics like Pseudo-Dionysius. To use an eastern analogy, this is more like Vipassana than Samatha.
    I was just doing a little reading on Anusara yoga. Sounds intriguing. Can you tell me more of your experience of it?

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  8. I practice Tai-Chi, and a little yoga, and as a Methodist Minister consider myself a Christian 😉 …
    I keep promising to write more… it is on my list, but I really must agree with Matts concern for a truly incarnational prescence .
    For me through these practices I embrace a holistic spiritualiy often neglected in the Western Church, I think the problem is our discomfort with the physical and sensual side of who we are in Christ, if we can limit spirituality to our minds we feel safe. Slightly more challenging is engagement of the heart… but mind body and spirit- run quick that is too much….
    Matt I promise to post something SOON!!!

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  9. Matt –
    Hmmm…the truth is that it’s a bit hard to explain my experience of anusara yoga without giving too much information about my personal history, but the nutshell version is that it has been tremendously helpful in getting me back into my body, helping me stay present in the moment, and teaching me to breathe. (I know breathing doesn’t strike most people as particularly difficult, but I’ve been shocked at how big a difference it’s made.)
    It’s very painful sometimes – emotionally more than physically (although I did throw my back out once because I let my ego get in the way and did a pose that was more than I could do.) But the pain it triggers is worth it because although Christianity (and a few other things) taught me to hate and distrust my body, yoga teaches me to listen to my body, respect where and who I am in that moment, and is in general fifty times more body positive than what I grew up with.
    It sounds a little Oprah-ish, I know, but it has been very powerful for me to find spaces where my body – and by extension me – is not a problem. It’s hard to put all of it into words.
    And I wasn’t worried about being burned at the stake – I’ve let go of the need to be theologically orthodox, so if someone thinks I’m heretical, I don’t much care. Nice of you to reserve judgment though:-)

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  10. I have said before that the breath / spirit conjunction is one of the issues we really need to delve into deeper, Christian teaching wise. And listening to my body is very much part of my own meditations. I find tension in the body is usually symptomatic of emotional and spiritual stuff I have to work on with God. I suppose I would encourage you to join us in this journey of seeing where theological orthodoxy and holistic practice may not be so intrinsically incompatible as some of our Western heritage has led us to believe.

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