What is yoga?

This article is from Hank Hanegraaff, The Complete Bible Answer Book—Collector’s Edition (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008)
Get the Book

Since Swami Vivekananda first introduced yoga to the West more than a hundred years ago, yoga has become as American as apple pie. According to the Columbia Journalism Review, Everybody loves yoga; sixteen and a half million Americans practice it regularly, and twenty-five million more say they will try it this year. If you’ve been awake and breathing air in the twenty-first century, you already know that this Hindu practice of health and spirituality has long ago moved on from the toe-ring set. Yoga is American; it has graced the cover of Time twice, acquired the approval of A-list celebrities like Madonna, Sting, and Jennifer Aniston, and is still the go-to trend story for editors and reporters, who produce an average of eight yoga stories a day in the English-speaking world. Consumers drop $3 billion every year on yoga classes, books, videos, CDs, DVDs, mats, clothing, and other necessities.

As noted by New Age expert Elliot Miller, “Yoga is rapidly becoming integrated into such traditionally secular institutions as public education, health care, and the workplace. It has been widely embraced by Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants, and over the past several years a Christian yoga movement has been thriving among evangelicals.” Because of its rock-star status, I’ve developed the acronym Y-O-G-A to give you a memorable overview on what this practice entails.

“Y” reminds us that the word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit word “yogah,” which means “to yoke or to unite.” Indeed, the goal of yoga is to uncouple oneself from the material world and to unite oneself with the God of Hinduism, commonly understood to be Brahman, the impersonal cosmic consciousness of the universe. Put another way, yoga is the means by which the user’s mind is merged into the universal mind.

“O” represents the Hindu mantra “Om”—a sacred Sanskrit syllable cherished by Hindu yogis as the spoken quintessence of the universe. Repeating such mantras as “Om” over and over is a principalmeans by which yoga practitioners work their way into altered states of consciousness. The objective of achieving an altered state of consciousness is always the same: to dull the critical-thinking process because the mind is seen to be the obstacle to enlightenment. As noted by the late Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, “the goal is to create a new man, one who is happily mindless.” Shockingly, what was once relegated to the kingdom of the cults is now being replicated in churches. In the ashrams of the cults there is no pretense. Despite such dangers as possession or insanity, Hindu gurus openly encourage trance states through which devotees tap into realms of the demonic and discover their “higher selves.” Whether experiencing involuntary movements or encountering illusory monsters, all is written off as progress on the road to enlightenment.

“G” is reminiscent of the gurus who developed and disseminated yoga for the express purpose of achieving oneness with the impersonal God of Hinduism. Most noteworthy among the gurus is Patanjali—the Hindu sage who founded yoga around the second-century BC Of particular significance in the West is the aforementioned guru Swami Vivekananda, a disciple of the self-proclaimed “god-man” Sri Ramakrishna. In 1893 Vivekananda used the Parliament of World Religions to skillfully sow the seeds for a new global spirituality. Second only to Vivekananda in the Westernization of yoga was Yogananda—proudly hailed as “Father of Yoga in the West.” In 1920 he founded the L.A.-based Self-Realization Fellowship, a principal means of disseminating yoga to multiplied millions of Americans. Finally, of special note is Swami Muktananda, popularizer of kundalini yoga, a method by which divine energy thought to reside as a coiled serpent at the base of the spine is aroused; ascends through six chakras; and aims for union with the Hindu deity Shiva in a seventh center allegedly located in the crown of the head. Such Hindu gurus have been so successful in exporting yoga to the West that today it is common fare in classrooms, corporations, and even churches.

Finally, the “A” in Y-O-G-A will serve to remind you of the Hindu word asana. As repetition of the word “Om” is used to work devotees into altered states of consciousness, so too a regiment of asanas—or body postures—are used to achieve a feeling of oneness with the cosmic energy flow of the universe. Coupled with breathing exercises and meditation practices, asana positions are the pathway to serenity and spirituality. According to Yoga Journal,“asanas are their own type of meditation; to perform difficult postures you have to focus on your body and breath and relax into the pose.” While multitudes are being seduced into believing that asanas are spiritually neutral, nothing could be farther from the truth. Indeed, as pointed out by Swami Param of the Dharma Yoga Ashram in New Jersey, to think of asanas as mere body positions or stretching exercises is analogous to believing “baptism is just an underwater exercise.”

In sum, while an alarming number of Western Christians suppose they can achieve physical and spiritual well-being through a form of yoga divorced from its Eastern worldview, in reality attempts to Christianize Hinduism only Hinduize Christianity.

For further study, see Elliot Miller’s three-part article series, entitled, “The Yoga Boom: A Call for Christian Discernment,” which was published in Christian Research Journal,Volume 21 / Numbers 2, 3, and 4; available through Christian Research Institute at www.equip.org.


“Do not be yoked together with unbelievers.
For what do righteousness and wickedness have in
common? Or what fellowship can light have
with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ
and Belial? What does a believer have in common with
an unbeliever? What agreement is there between
the temple of God and idols?”

2 Corinthians 6:14–16 NIV

More Bible Answers with Hank

Will the Created Cosmos Be Resurrected or Annihilated?

How Can the Eternal Son of God Be the “Firstborn over All Creation”?

Will Adam and Eve Receive Brand-New Bodies in Eternity?

Do Naturalists Consider Chance the Singular Cause of Evolution?

Why Did Heliocentrism Triumph over Geocentrism?

MENU