Yoga Body, Yoga Spirit

I have been looking back over what I’ve written on Yoga over the years, and have how people have commented in response, and what stands out for me is the need for Christians to clearly articulate how they understand the mind, body, soul and Spirit.

Yoga, given its Hindu origins, tends to be grounded in a pantheistic (God is all) worldview where no meaningful distinction is recognized between soul and Spirit, humanity and divinity. Christianity, on the other hand, is grounded in a monotheistic (God is one) worldview, where a significant distinction is recognized between humanity and divinity, soul and Spirit, which has consequences for how we understand union / yoga with God. The hurdles to union are not just perceptual and mechanical, they are also ethical and relational. Thus, genuine union goes beyond experience, beyond what we can perceive. And yet, experience of God is not unimportant or inconsequential. It is a blessing to experience. So, how to move forward? For me it is a matter of faith seeking experience.

Authentic yoga, authentic union, begins with faith, begins with entrusting your self, your soul to God, to Spirit. The soul is not essentially equivalent to Spirit, but it is radically dependant on Spirit, a subtle but important difference. Thus, contra Hinduism, authentic yoga is more about soul realignment or attunement than soul deconstruction or denial. Its about entrusting ourselves to Spirit, the Spirit most deeply known through Christ. Christian yoga begins with Christ faith.

Going deeper, from a Hebraic understanding the soul is a mind and body unity, it is the self understood holistically. So there is no mind / body split, but there is a soul / Spirit split. Christian yoga, union with Christ, heals this split through the karmic transferrence he achieved through his death and resurrection.

So what then of experience? Well, faith needs to be exercised. We are called to love the Lord with all our heart, mind, body and soul, so what are we waiting for? Use your body as God intended it, worship the Lord with your whole self. Let go. Trust. Listen. Listen to yourself, listen to your environment, listen to your God, listen with your whole self and not just your ears. It is said the sacred / secular split is a false one, well, what of the split between physical discipline and spiritual discipline? Stretch yourself. Why not explore as you exercise?

 

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.

Yogic Mudras in Christian Imagery

Pantokrator-mundra I was doing some research into Christian mundras (mundra is a yogic word for ritual hand gestures) when I came across an interesting article in Christian Yoga Magazine. Yes, that’s right, there’s a whole magazine devoted to Christian yoga.

Anyway, it explained the Prithvi Mudra and Pran Mudra from a sort of Christianized Hindu perspective which is what I was looking for.

The mentions of the Law of Attraction and Oprah is all you need to figure out where this is coming from theologically. Hopefully that’s all you need to figure out that I don’t endorse it, but I think it could be interesting to chew over.

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.

Yoga: West Meets East

I came across an interesting article on Yoga that I though I would pass on. Entitled “Culture Shock” it relates “How yoga’s popularity in the West is changing the way Indians approach a practice created in their country thousands of years ago.” Also comments on the reified picture many westerners have of the east.

Body Prayers

The alt.worship collective has posted an interesting primer on body prayers:

“Body prayers are prayers in which the whole or parts of the body are used to express feelings and emotions. They are closely related to yoga and meditation as a method of feeling both at peace with oneself and in the presence of God. Some people find these more valuable than spoken prayers as they do not need to find the ‘right words’ to express themselves and communicate with God”

 

Autobiography of a Yogi

autobiography-of-a-yogiOne book I am really getting my teeth stuck into at the moment is Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda.

I find that my cultural context in Western Sydney is more and more drawing me into an engagement with Hindu thought, and having read the Bhagavad Gita and Swami Prabhavananda’s commentary on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras in recent months, Yogananda seems like the obvious next pit stop.

Funny how I went through the New Age Movement in the 90s without ever reading any of this. I was caught up so much in Zen, Gaia and Gnostic mysticism that I virtually bypassed one of the major influences on the New Age Movement. Just goes to show how hard it is to pin down New Spirituality into neat little theological boxes I guess.

Anyway, one of the primary things I am trying to come to grips with is the difference between the Yoga-Vedantic philosophy so popular amongst Anglo seekers and the devotional folk Hinduism of my many Sri Lankan neighbours. So I am also reading up on The Spirit of Hinduism by David Burnett (which Philip Johnson kindly loaned to me last week), Understanding Folk Religion by Paul Hiebert and of course primary source material distributed by the local temple.

I also want to learn a lot more from conversations with our Hindu neighbours but unfortunately deep conversations have been precluded by a number of local family crises in recent months. In particular, one of our neighbours Raja recently returned to India after his brother committed suicide, so the more basic needs of prayer support and neighbourly care have taken over on that front. I’d appreciate it if any of you would care to join me in prayer for them at this time.