The majority of Christians can be convinced rather easily that raja yoga is incompatible with Christian faith. There is much less consensus when it comes to hatha yoga. Even the most vociferous critic of hatha yoga hardly can deny that the spiritual harm that comes to a Christian who practices it can sometimes be negligible. No one can deny that yoga imparts physical benefits. Why then bother to make this a discernment issue for Christians? Aren’t there more crucial battles for Christian discernment ministries to wage?
To assent that some Christians can practice yoga with little or no spiritual harm is not to assent that all Christians can do so. The reason why yoga looms large as a discernment issue for Christians at this time is because of its pervasive presence and strong appeal in Western culture. If fifty, twenty-five, or even ten percent of Christians would fall into deception and idolatry by practicing yoga, that amounts to a staggering number of spiritual casualties for the body of Christ to sustain. This therefore is not an issue that Christians should gloss over. The Western church really needs to look at the implications of practicing hatha yoga and determine if the spiritual risks involved are worth the physical benefits, especially when alternative forms of stretching exercise are available (see below). Let us look, then, at the reasons for concern and caution.
There are some rather sneaky elements in hatha yoga that help explain why enrolling in the neighborhood yoga class would be a dubious decision for the Christian. First, teachers and students typically greet each other with the Sanskrit namaste, which means, “I honor the Divine within you.” This is an affirmation of pantheism and therefore a denial of the true God revealed in the Bible. Furthermore, hatha yoga classes typically conclude with “a 10-15 minute relaxation period to relax the body and still the mind.”1 As part of this process students often are given a mantra to repeat in meditation or chanting. Hindu mantras are generally the names of Hindu gods or goddesses. The Christian who thought she (or he) was just concluding her yoga session with a relaxation exercise will be shocked to learn she has invoked a false god and broken the First Commandment. Finally, promoters of raja yoga believe that participation in hatha yoga tends to lead practitioners into raja yoga. I will devote the remainder of this section to explaining my reasons for holding the same view.
Stairway to Samadhi
Once a person begins to practice yoga, even if only assuming its postures, she becomes a part of the yoga world. She now identifies with other practitioners and friendships are likely to develop. Her sympathies will tend to align with the practice and its practitioners. Such psychological developments naturally occur when someone incorporates a discipline into her lifestyle, and objectivity can suffer as a result. Furthermore, there will not always be clear lines or warning signs separating the physical from the spiritual in yoga, and there will be subtle social and psychological pressures to progress further into the discipline (e.g., to move on to doing chants or meditation).
In an article on how “belonging to a community of like-minded souls is essential to the practice,” Yoga Journal asked author Sara Powers, “Does community require a shared philosophical frame, or can it just evolve within a group of asana [posture] practitioners?” Powers replies:
It can start wherever you enter the path. Asana seems a likely doorway for the larger community because people from all different backgrounds feel safe doing asana-it doesn’t ask them to question their underlying beliefs. But even so, when people enter the path of yoga they begin to change. Sometimes this makes them feel lonely because no one else they know is watching their breath and becoming more mindful. Sharing these discoveries with family and friends can be alarming.
And that is where sangha [i.e., community] comes in. I always suggest that all new students begin making friends in yoga class to support one another through the changes that inevitably take place. (emphases added)2
Engaging in practices that have established spiritual purposes within Hinduism or other Eastern religions can easily lead to confusion and a possible embracing of those concepts on some level. For example, one could come to accept the reality of prana (universal life force), since prana is central even to the theory of hatha yoga. Prana implies and is based on pantheism, so now the Christian has elements of conflicting worldviews in her belief system. Belief in prana would make the concept of chakras (psychic centers in the body) seem much more reasonable, and from there kundalini would not be a large leap. Suddenly, she is a Christian-Hindu syncretist3 at best.
Recall the words of Svatmarama cited in part one, who introduced his classic text on hatha yoga by describing it as a staircase that will enable the blind masses to ascend to the high pinnacle of raja yoga.4 One who practices yoga is participating in a system that deliberately was designed to lead participants ultimately to samadhi or union with Brahman, the Hindu deity. When dealing with a practice that is potentially idolatrous, should the Christian have the confidence that she will be able to avoid those elements? How can she be sure that she will always be able to recognize them? Won’t there be times when her guard will be down and she won’t realize what she’s getting into?
Even if the Christian is confident she can avoid moving into raja yoga, does she really want by practicing yoga to send the message that yoga is OK to weaker Christians and nonbelievers? They could be drawn through practicing hatha yoga into the Eastern spirituality that underlies it, even if she is not. This, of course, would violate the principle of love that should lead a Christian to sacrifice something she herself could do without sin if it would tempt a weaker brother or sister to sin (see Rom. 14).
The magazine Body and Soul expressed similar optimism that the practice of hatha yoga eventually draws the practitioner into the spiritual heart of yoga:
Operating on the theory that an open body leads to an open heart, yoga starts with a renewal of the body and leads to a rejuvenation of the spirit. The three main aspects of yoga practice-postures, or poses (asanas), breath control (pranayama), and meditation-make up a gradual focusing inward, body to mind, toward stillness and serenity. According to yoga philosophy, the alteration of purely physical habits-your body awareness, the way you move and breathe-will naturally alter the way you use your mind.”5
The Spiritual Basis of Asana and Pranayama
As we saw in part one, the first goal of yoga practice is to still the mind so as to free it from its captivity to the three gunas. Everything in yoga, therefore, including the postures and the breathing exercises, is calculated to “alter the way you use your mind.” The goal is to make the mind more conducive to meditation, altered states of consciousness, mystical experiences, and Eastern philosophy.
According to Yoga Journal, if you are practicing hatha yoga you are already practicing meditation in its beginning stages:
You may already feel a sense of peace from your yoga practice. You may feel that you’ve already attained some of the other meditation benefits described above. There’s a good reason for this: In Buddhist terms, asanas are their own type of meditation; to perform difficult postures, you have to focus awareness on your body and breath and relax into the pose. Being mindful of your body as you occupy it is a classic technique prescribed by the Buddha.
In classical yoga, too, meditation and postures go hand-in-hand. “It’s actually the same thing,” says [yoga scholar Stephen] Cope. “With postures, you’re also training equanimity [composure], and you’re training the mind to become focused. You’re using the body as the object of that focus.
“You’re also training awareness,” he adds. “You’re conditioning the mind to scan to see how things shift, to see the ebb and flow of energy in the subtle body. These are the same skills we’re training in meditation.”6
The postures of yoga are not religiously neutral. All of the classic asanas have spiritual significance. For example, as one journalist reports,
The sun salutation, perhaps the best-known series of asanas, or postures, of hatha yoga-the type most commonly practiced in America-is literally a Hindu ritual.
“Sun salutation was never a hatha yoga tradition,” said Subhas Rampersaud Tiwari, professor of yoga philosophy and meditation at Hindu University of America in Orlando, Fla. “It is a whole series of ritual appreciations to the sun, being thankful for that source of energy.”
To think of it as a mere physical movement is tantamount to “saying that baptism is just an underwater exercise,” said Swami Param of the Classical Yoga Hindu Academy and Dharma Yoga Ashram in Manahawkin, N.J.7
It is likewise impossible to get involved with pranayama practice without getting involved substantially-not just indirectly-with Hinduism. Richard Rosen, author of The Yoga of Breath: A Step-by-Step Guide to Pranayama, explains that the word pranayama combines two Sanskrit words, prana and ayama: “Prana is the universal life force, a creative power or intelligence that drives everything and everyone along. Often it’s translated as breath, but that’s an oversimplification-breath is only one of the many manifestations of prana. Ayama literally means to ‘expand and restrain.’ Pranayama is literally the expansion and restraint of the life force.”8 Rosen added that “with all our emphasis on asana, it’s easy to imagine that it’s the central practice of Hatha Yoga, but it’s not. Asana is essentially a preparation for pranayama-a means to purify and ripen the body-mind for breathing and meditation.”9
As we also saw in part one, the second goal of yoga is to control the flow of prana through the body, so as to raise the kundalini and achieve enlightenment. Pranayama is about achieving this goal: the expansion and restraint of the life force, as Rosen described it. It’s not primarily being done for health reasons, but for a spiritual purpose. Since, as Rosen puts it, “Hatha Yoga consists of two ‘wings,’ asana and pranayama,”10 it is impossible to participate legitimately in hatha yoga without getting involved with trying to manipulate this universal life force, which is really just another way of describing the Hindu conception of God (Brahman).
It is true that in recent years the yoga boom has produced extremely watered-down versions of yoga that usually are taught and practiced in gyms or fitness centers rather than in yoga studios and include only asanas and not pranayama, meditation, or chanting. It is debatable whether these exercise regimens, such as Beth Shaw’s YogaFit, can truly be called yoga at all.11 The spiritual risk in participating in these forms of “yoga” may come more from the vanity of pursuing perfect abs or buns of steel than from their extremely loose and distant association with Hinduism. Some of the cautions against a Christian participating in yoga elaborated above would still apply, however, such as the tendency to psychologically identify with the world of yoga once one begins to practice it and the pressure to progress further into the discipline.
Truth in Advertising: “Come Study Hinduism”
As we have seen, many yoga teachers and advocates deliberately cover up the spiritual nature of yoga in order to extend its influence in secular culture, but, on the other hand, there is no shortage of yoga teachers and authorities who openly proclaim it. “‘Why be covert?’” Swami Param asks. “Participants should be invited upfront to ‘come study Hinduism,’ which is what they’re doing when learning hatha yoga.”12
Sannyasin Arumugaswami, managing editor of Hinduism Today, is refreshingly frank about the subject. As reported by Knight Ridder News Service, he offers astute observations that Christian practitioners of yoga should not overlook: “Hinduism is the soul of yoga ‘based as it is on Hindu Scripture and developed by Hindu sages. Yoga opens up new and more refined states of mind, and to understand them one needs to believe in and understand the Hindu way of looking at God….A Christian trying to adapt these practices will likely disrupt their own Christian beliefs.’”13