The problem with George Mahoney’s position quoted above is his assumption that raja yoga can be used for Christian purposes just as effectively as for pantheistic Hindu or other Eastern mystical purposes. The Hindu understanding of God is fundamentally different than the Christian one, and yoga was developed to achieve oneness with the Hindu God-a God that is impersonal and does not engage in thoughts, conversation, or relationships but exists in a state of pure awareness. The Hindu concept of oneness with God is also radically different than the Christian one, since it involves mystically realizing that one is God. To achieve such union with this God one must achieve a state of pure awareness that excludes thoughts, conversations, and relationships. Yoga systematically achieves this by ultimately emptying the mind of thought, which leads to a loss of the subject-object distinction so that the meditator now feels “one with the Universe,” which in pantheism means “one with God.” The discipline of yoga was developed to enable the practitioner to realize Hindu beliefs experientially, and such experiences at times can be quite powerful and convincing (which is why yogis who were sent here to promote Hindu spirituality commonly are more than happy to accept yoga students who have no initial interest in spirituality).
Christian spirituality, by stark contrast, seeks a oneness of will and not of being with a personal God who thinks, converses, and has relationships. Christian meditation therefore involves an active rather than a passive mental state. Meditation according to the Bible is filled with content, such as the works, Word, and attributes of God (see, e.g., Ps. 1:2; 63:6; 77:12; 119:15, 27, 148; 145:5). It never creates a mental void, into which spiritual forces that are not of God can rush-as does yoga. The two forms of meditation could not be more different, seeking, as they do, such radically different conceptions of union with such radically different conceptions of God.
The Idolatry Entanglement
Another problem with Christians practicing raja yoga is its complicated involvement with idolatry. Not only is one seeking union with the impersonal Brahman of Hinduism, but the mantras one is given to repeat in meditation are usually the names of Hindu gods. Furthermore, the practice of puja, which is ritualized worship of Hindu gods or gurus, is often intermixed in raja yoga and is not always easy for the novice to detect.
Some professing Christians see no reason for concern, however, such as defrocked Catholic priest turned Episcopal priest Matthew Fox, as Yoga Journal reports:
But what if the religious people in your life won’t let you sidestep the doctrinal controversies (for instance, the propriety of chanting a Hindu deity’s name)? [Matthew] Fox sees no problem with challenging them back: “….If there’s been too much God-talk in our brains, then other names, whether it be Brahma, Shiva, Shakti, what have you, can add to our repertoire. It’s not a subtraction. If our God is so fragile that He or She is threatened by new names then we ought to look at that.”48
This is an amazing thing for an ordained Christian minister to say. Has he read the Scriptures of his own religion? God’s First Commandment was, “You shall have no other gods before me.” His Second Commandment was, “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me” (Exod. 20:3-5). Throughout the Old Testament the emphasis remained the same, with Yahweh visiting severe judgments upon the Israelites when they invoked the names of other gods (see, e.g., Deut. 18:20; Judges 10:14; Zech. 13:2). The New Testament takes a similarly unfavorable view of idolatry (see, e.g., 1 Cor. 6:9-10; 1 John 5:21; Rev. 22:14-15).
The God of the Bible has made it quite clear that He does not identify with the gods of other religions or receive their worship as His worship. Fox may feel qualified to psychoanalyze God’s dislike of idolatry, but I’d say that as the Creator and Sustainer of the human race the Lord has good reason to be displeased when we deny Him and disobey His law and instead worship and serve gods of our own creation. The “jealousy” that non-Christians so often belittle simply means that God wants a relationship with us. That’s good news.
The Occult Connection
The further we delve into the world of yoga, the clearer it becomes that it overlaps with the world of the occult 49 at several points. The concept of a psychic force (prana) coursing through psychic centers (chakras) in the body, and the attempt to manipulate that flow, is essentially occult, and, from a biblical standpoint, spiritually dangerous. It is dangerous because whenever one attempts to engage a spiritual force other than the Holy Spirit one opens oneself up to demonic influences.
It should go without saying that attempting to arouse the serpentine kundalini energy believed to be sleeping at the base of one’s spine is both occult and dangerous. Our look at kundalini yoga revealed something that is generally true of yoga practice: it can involve both wanted and unwanted contact with spirits, which are believed to range from departed humans and demons to demigods and deities. As for tantra yoga, we’ve seen that everything about it is occult in nature, and its practice at times can involve the most extreme forms of occultism.
Surprise! Raja Yoga Is Hinduism
In an unguarded moment, when its concern was to argue for the superiority of yoga for psychotherapy over Freudian psychoanalysis rather than to maintain yoga’s compatibility with all religions, Yoga Journal revealed the thoroughly Hindu philosophy behind the practice of yoga:
From the yogic perspective, all human beings are “born divine” and each human being has at core a soul (atman) that dwells eternally in the changeless, infinite, all-pervading reality (brahman). In Patanjali’s classic statement of this view, tat tvam asi (thou art that),50 we already are that which we seek. We are God in disguise. We are already inherently perfect, and we have the potential in each moment to wake up to this true, awake, and enlightened nature. This is a far cry from the struggles of ego, id, and superego suggested by Freud. In the sophisticated psychology of yoga, avidya, or ignorance of our true nature, is the central problem of the human self and the source of all suffering. In other words, we’ve simply forgotten who we are. We’ve forgotten that we’re the fantastic dance of energy and consciousness, the divine play (lila) of being and becoming. And what is the source of this alienation? Not sin nor wrongdoing nor psychopathology of any kind. We’re simply misidentified.51
The article proceeds to argue that Western culture is terribly haunted by the psychological effects of Calvinist doctrines that human nature is depraved and that God is ontologically separate from human beings. Our attempt to destroy the dark side of our nature, which the author believes was carried over from religion to psychotherapy, is fragmenting our psyches, but yoga offers the solution. It teaches that we are in fact “saturated with the divine” and therefore we need to embrace our dark side as well as our light. “This is known as the ‘unitive’ rather than the ‘separative’ approach to spiritual and psychological growth. The radical notion in the unitive view is that there is nothing at all dangerous hidden in the basement of our unconscious.”52
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In other words, if the Christian practices yogic meditation and becomes a full-fledged raja yogi he will be cured of his Christianity. Who needs a Savior God if we ourselves are “saturated with the divine” rather than saturated with sin? A radically different diagnosis of the human problem (ignorance rather than sin) results in a radically different solution (embracing ourselves rather than embracing a transcendent God and His gift of salvation).
We have yet to answer conclusively the questions (1)Is hatha yoga religiously neutral? (2)Can yoga be Christianized? (3)Are there any biblically acceptable alternatives to yoga? and (4)What can and should Christians do about yoga’s incursion into such places as public schools and the workplace? These will all be the focus of the third and final installment in this series.