The yoga boom is a Trojan horse in which Eastern religion has infiltrated Western secular culture largely under the pretext of a physical exercise regime. Now firmly established, it is working to transform Western society into a postsecular, mystical culture. Furthermore, the Christian subculture is not off limits to the advances of yoga, and its successes on that front have also been stunning. There are many other Eastern and occult spiritual influences besides yoga contributing to this cultural change, but yoga is an essential element and far and away the most influential, as the numbers of its followers and its establishment within the institutions of secular culture indicate.
Will the West one day look like the East? No, there are too many cultural differences for that to occur. Will it look substantially different than it did as a secular culture and previously as a Christian culture? It already does, and it will do so more as the yoga leaven continues to spread.
So far, most Christians have blithely sat by as this invasion has advanced, and if they have done anything at all, it has been to raise the white flag and join the yoga movement themselves. The Christian community needs to wake up and meet this enormous challenge with a measured, thoughtful, and biblically consistent response.
Finding Biblically Acceptable Alternatives
Despite potential negative physical and psychological effects that were noted in part two, it can hardly be denied that yoga has many physical benefits. It also should be acknowledged that it can be challenging to find the same benefits through some other means. It is not a yearning for apostasy or idolatry that has attracted many Christians to hatha yoga; but if Christians are going to wage a successful counteroffensive to this Hindu missionary thrust in the West, they need to start with themselves and stop practicing yoga. This can be done without giving up the physical benefits of stretch exercises.
There is an intriguing Christian alternative to yoga developed by former yoga teacher/New Ager Laurette Willis, who converted to Christ in 1987. She recalls that in 2001, after working out with a popular exercise diva, she thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if there were a kinder, gentler form of exercise without all this jumping around…gentle stretches and strengthening exercises, sort of like yoga, but without the Hindu and New Age influence…?” She proceeded to conceive of “a form of exercise that would move us physically to better health and flexibility while moving us spiritually to praise the Lord…PraiseMoves!” (ellipses in original)35
PraiseMoves is designed to approximate all of the benefits associated with yoga, including relaxation and reduction of stress, within a consistently Christian context. I have thoroughly examined PraiseMoves and find nothing spiritually dangerous about it. Its deep-breathing exercises do not resemble any of the spiritually troubling pranayama exercises I have witnessed and researched. Its “Walkin’ Wisdom Warm-up” exercises, during which scriptural affirmations or promises are repeated, bear no resemblance to yoga. Its postures all have biblical themes. Some of them are similar to yoga postures (“I’ve discovered there’s not an infinite number of ways the human body can move,” says Willis36), while others are of her own creation, such as the twenty-two that correspond to the Hebrew alphabet. She has not used any traditional yoga postures or gestures that have clear-cut associations with Hinduism, such as the “praying hands” gesture. Her concluding relaxation and meditation time involves laying on one’s back and consciously relaxing each part of one’s body and then meditating on one or more of the Scriptures that were recited earlier. It does not involve the yogic meditation techniques employed in Christian yoga such as repeating a word or focusing on an object. The participant is finally encouraged to “fellowship with the Lord. If you have any cares, unconfessed sin, or unforgiveness, now is a good time to get rid of them. Rest in His presence and let Him love you.”37 The only potential snare I can foresee in PraiseMoves would be if the Christian considered its devotional aspects to be sufficient for, rather than supplemental to, her daily devotions.
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Some Christians will not be interested in the complete physical and spiritual package that PraiseMoves offers-they will merely be looking for good stretch exercises. Christian Research Journal contributor Marcia Montenegro cites one such alternative to yoga on her Web site.38 There are additional alternatives to yoga that do not have Eastern religious or occult connections, including Pilates (when not mixed with yoga), but I am not qualified to speak to their physical efficacy or safety and the interested person should consult with her doctor and do her own research.
Removing Yoga from Public Institutions
Getting yoga established in the public school system has been the most strategic front in this spiritual invasion. As we have seen, it has already achieved breathtaking success.
Here’s the problem with the defense of yoga’s presence in the public schools that the American Yoga Association (AYA; see part two) offers: the way religion is being defined lets Eastern pantheistic religions into the schools but keeps Western theistic religions out. If one were to examine any college textbook on world religions, one would find chapters on Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism included along with Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. One would also find yoga mentioned as a system of salvation developed within Hinduism and utilized in other Eastern religions as well.
It is the height of ignorance or else deliberate deception for the AYA to argue that yoga is not religious because “the core of Yoga’s philosophy is that everything is supplied from within the individual. Thus, there is no dependence on an external figure, either in the sense of a person or god figure, or a religious organization.”39 As we saw in part one’s examination of the philosophy behind yoga, God is believed to be within the individual, who alone can work out his (or her) own bad karma-it is strictly an autosoteric (i.e., salvation by self effort) system. So, yes, he would look within and not depend on anyone-but what is the yogi looking within and depending on himself for? Salvation! He is seeking salvation from the wheel of rebirth-a decidedly religious concept-and he is seeking union (remember that yoga means union) with God.
In all probability, if students were taught to use PraiseMoves instead of yoga, similar beneficial effects would be observed and quantified as have been with yoga. But because PraiseMoves includes references to God, Bible verses, and prayer, it would never be allowed in the public schools.
PraiseMoves’ offense would boil down to being an exoteric expression of faith; that is, being open and honest about its religious character. Eastern mysticism, on the other hand, is by its very nature esoteric; that is, it is secretive about its true nature. Exoteric faiths provide creeds or statements about God and salvation that adherents must believe and confess, whereas esoteric faiths provide rites of initiation and methods for achieving the mystical realization of one’s own divinity that adherents must experience.
Esoteric traditions typically employ code words so that only initiates will recognize the religious beliefs, practices, and experiences that they reference. Calling meditation “time in” and pranayama “bunny breathing,” as the Yoga Ed. program is doing in schools across the country (see part two), does not in any way eliminate the spiritual purpose and effects of these historically religious practices-nor does any psychological, behavioral, or physical benefits the practices may yield in addition to their spiritual effects.
Imagine if Laurette Willis or one of her certified PraiseMoves instructors argued that the religious elements in PraiseMoves should be overlooked due to its many beneficial physical and psychological effects on children. That argument would be laughed out of the schools and the courtroom, as should the same kind of argument that is now being accepted on behalf of yoga. It seems that school administrators and teachers are taking the attitude, “Let’s just eliminate obvious religious trappings and overlook anything deeper because-look at all the good it’s doing!” The only reason they are getting away with this inconsistent application of logic and the law is that the matter has not been pressed hard and persuasively enough.
Removing yoga from public schools is possible. For example, in early 1982 five concerned parents from the ABC School District in Cerritos, California, enlisted my help in their effort to convince the school board to reverse its decision to allow yoga to be incorporated into the school curriculum. The parents did their homework and made a compelling case to the board, and I added my expert testimony. In response, according to the Long Beach Press Telegram, “School Board President Homer Lewis said the program ‘bordered on a thin line’ between exercise and religion. He also said that since the district has taken such a strong stand on separation of church and state with reference to Western religions, it should ‘also take great pains to exclude religions other than those common in this country.’”40 The board voted four to two to kill the program.
It was satisfying to win that battle, but it is hollow consolation now, as I see that we are losing the war. Government is not only “establishing” yoga in the schools, but it is beginning to do so in other public institutions as well, such as the military,41 prisons,42 and the criminal court system.43 Yet the arguments that prevailed with the ABC School District board remain just as sound today.
We need a comprehensive and consistent definition of religion for use in the public arena. To achieve this we also need an army of concerned, conscientious, and committed citizens who will press this matter from the school boards and other public institutions all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary. With its present composition, the Supreme Court is probably more disposed to listen to reason on this matter than it has been for a long time, but that could change as current justices retire and are replaced. Now is the time to act.
As for mandatory yoga in the work place, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would be a particularly useful basis for a Christian’s objection. The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission clarifies that the law
prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals because of their religion in hiring, firing, and other terms and conditions of employment….
Mandatory “new age” training programs, designed to improve employee motivation, cooperation or productivity through meditation, yoga, biofeedback or other practices, may conflict with the non-discriminatory provisions of Title VII. Employers must accommodate any employee who gives notice that these programs are inconsistent with the employee’s religious beliefs, whether or not the employer believes there is a religious basis for the employee’s objection.44
A nightmare scenario for Christians in any culture would be to see expressions of their own faith prohibited in public venues while equivalent expressions of other faiths not only are permitted but required. While that nightmare scenario is a reality in large portions of the world (e.g., many of the Arab nations), and is beginning to unfold even in some of the other Western “Christian” nations,45 in America the number of Christians is large enough, and the legal foundations for religious freedom are firm enough, that it is possible to turn such a trend around. This is why the time is now for Christians to snap out of their complacency and work together to present a comprehensive Christian response.
If Christians themselves succumb to the seductive temptation of yoga, then the crisis we court might not be persecution but rather subversion. The biblical reasons for saying no to yoga were forgotten long ago by the Western world at large. May the tragic day never arrive when it could also be said that they were forgotten by the church.