How (not) to Christianize Yoga

There are good ways to Christianize a non-Christian practice … and there are not so good ways. Care to see an example of how NOT to Christianize Yoga? Let me introduce you to Scripture Yoga.

But first, read this article by Mike Frost on Risky Negotiation.

Done? Ok, let’s proceed. Here is what Scripture Yoga has to say for itself:

Scripture Yoga is a form of Christian yoga with Biblical scripture verses recited during the stretches and postures. The scriptures are based on themes like Peace, Angels and Prayer.

Does the mere insertion of verses make a practice Christian? If I highlighted the scriptural references within Metallica’s “Creeping Death”, could I use it as a worship song?

Christian yoga allows you to practice yoga in a Christian environment. If a secular yoga class is not completely separated from its eastern religion and philosophy, then you may be exposed unintentionally to a non-Christian environment. Therefore, Scripture Yoga provides a Christ-centered alternative to secular yoga.

Scripture Yoga allows the practice of posturing and meditation in a Christian context devoid of eastern religious influence.

Does the mere environment, the mere context, make a practice Christian or Christ-centered? If I sang the Mr Hankie song in church, would that make it Christian?

Scripture Yoga is different from secular yoga because you listen to God’s Holy Word as it is recited during the yoga class.

How secular is secular Yoga? Is there such a thing? How deeply does this instructor understand Yoga philosophy?

The postures for Scripture Yoga are the same as those used for Hatha Yoga. The difference primarily lies in the purpose and focus of the meditative session. If secular yoga is not completely separated from its eastern religion and philosophy, it could expose participants to spiritual forces that are not of God.

Does this instructor not recognize that the asana poses and pranayama breathing exercises flow directly from Hindu spiritual practice, that pneumatology is an issue in all of it, and not just the meditation session? And more, even if it were possible to completely secularize it, is secularity any more philosophically neutral than Hinduism?

The most popular type of yoga in the United States is Hatha Yoga in which the Eastern religion and philosophical portion of yoga is completed separated from the yoga class.

Completely? It may not be explicit … but not even implicit? Surely you jest.

Ok, enough critique, what can I constructively add?

  1. Well, if you refer back to the Mike Frost article again, what is lacking here is an exegesis of Yoga, an exploration of Yoga. In particular, differences between Hindu and Christian understandings of Spirit and the mind-body link need to be explored and understood.
  2. What is also lacking here is an exegesis of scripture. Insertion of verses is insufficient. A theology of Yoga needs to be developed, a Christian philosophy that engages with the Hindu philosophy. So, not just Bible verses but Biblical thinking. How would a Christian pneumatology potentially reshape the practice?
  3. Next, the asana and pranayama themselves need to be critically examined. Do some poses and breathing exercises themselves need to be rejected or modified? May some alternative exercises need to be introduced to balance things out?
  4. Finally, it all needs to be integrated.

In summary, I am not criticizing attempts to Christianize Yoga per se, I am just saying let’s try for something with more substance, that’s not so superficial.

10 thoughts on “How (not) to Christianize Yoga

  1. I think Creeping Death can be used to highlight how popular and spirituality interact.
    But I think there are also some basic questions to be asked here about how we use music in church. For example, just because U2 weave Christian themes into their songs, does that mean we can use their songs, uncritically, as worship songs? If we say yes, then why not Metallica also? If we say no to Metallica, then how is the use of U2 justified? If we say, because not everyone likes Metallica … well, hey, not everyone likes U2 either. Is popularity of style the most important issue here? If we say, because U2 actually are Christian, I might say, fair enough, but is the mere fact of their Christianity enough? I’d like to drive the questioning deeper.

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  2. I think the pneumatology of yoga is ripe for Christians to create a rich theology about it. After all in the Hebrew the word for breath and spirit are ruach. Rob Bell kind of goes into this in one of his nooma (pun on the greek word for spirit or breath) vids called “Breathe.” Scripture clearly gives us imagery in Torah (particularly Gen.) and in Ezekiel of God breathing into man his Spirit and giving life. In Genesis we have the imagery of God bestowing the Divine Image upon man as he breathes the breath of life into him. What if breath and spirit are more connected than we westerners think? What if the way the ancient Hebrews and Indians and Buddhists see it isn’t all that wrong? Is God the source of all life and every breath the result of him breathing life into us (clearly this is theological and not scientific but I’m not of the opinion that the Bible is a science book)

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  3. In the Hindu tradition there are many debates – yoga stems from a particular hindu view (some forms are monotheistic, others are nontheistic, some a pantheistic). Different yoga traditions have different systems. There isn’t a sense of “orthodoxy” – either in yoga or in hinduism.
    As a Christian, and a yoga teacher, I come up against the fear people have that yoga might sneakily convince them of something they don’t want to believe. I find this paranoia slightly juvenile.
    I agree that there is lots of work to do with pneumatology, but i would begin with the incarnation. The Christain tradition (more than any other!) affirms that God became human, and in becoming a body, somehow transformed the world.
    It strikes me as bizarre that so many Christians are suspicious of a practice that builds awreness of the body, increases our capacity to heal and establishes movement patterns that prolong health as we age.
    So many ministers and clergy live as though their whole existence was as a brain hovering two metres above the ground! If God chose to be human, we should explore what it means to be fully embodied too.

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  4. Ben, there may not be a sense of orthodoxy in Hinduism, but there is in Christianity and, by extension, any form of yoga that can authentically be labelled “Christian”. I am not seeing conspiracies with the above example, I am seeing sloppiness. I am not saying avoid yoga. I am saying, as we engage with yoga, let us do so with more integrity. I agree the incarnation provides a solid basis for seeking mind-body integration, but a pantheistic pneumatology is in clear violation of Christian orthodoxy, so its an elephant in the room that cannot be avoided. For be yoga to be practiced in an authentically Christian way it would need to be grounded in a monotheistic pneumatology. And we are not going to arrive there without some clearer thinking than I see in the above example. What I am saying is, here is how we might get there.

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  5. Hmmm… I think I see what you’re getting at Matt. But my issue would then be with the idea of Christian Yoga, or the need to “Christianize” it. That whole idea seems odd to me.
    Yes, yoga as an art / science was developed in the context of a Hindu world view.
    Western medicine has been largely developed in a rational-scientific worldview that excludes/diminishes (or at best) ignores God. Yet no Christian tries to “christianize” an understanding of the use of antibiotics, or whether wisdom teeth should be pulled without anesthesia. We accept the benefits of the way this worldview has lead us, and see our personal choices as valid. (Given, we debate new developments as moral issues, but once the benefits become widespread… we move on).
    I am just wondering why yoga is not afforded the same chance for people to experience, and then judge it based on the fruits of their experience.
    I am one of those people who finds orthodoxy a little dull, and is energised by the talk about orthopraxy. As someone who often experiences grace through generous support of matter and gravity… i struggle with caring about labels like pantheism, orthodoxy etc and whether my experience is correct. I know it is true.

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  6. Well, many within the emerging-missional conversation, which this blog engages with, would content that the modernist split between sacred and secular is every bit as problematic as the split between mind and body that you yourself object to. In fact, they would contend that, looked at deep enough, they are different aspects of the same problem. You seem to be assuming that the rational-scientific worldview is value neutral. Many post-modern thinkers (Christian and non-Christian) would beg to differ and have come to question the neutrality Enlightenment-style rationalism.
    And, I must ask, why do you adopt an either / or stance towards orthodoxy and orthopraxy? Is that self consistent with a rejection of the mind and body split?
    You see, if Christ is Lord, then we need to explore Christ-centred ways of thinking about everything, not just churchy things, and Christ-like ways of practicing everything, not just churchy things. So, just as we need Christ-like ways of wrestling with church and prayer and worship, so too we need Christ-like ways of wrestling with economics and philosophy and medicine and, yes, yoga. If Christ is Lord then Jesus changes everything. Is there an area of life that Christians can afford not to Christianize? Is a more holistic approach to life not preferable?

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