Monday, February 02, 2009

"Christian" Yoga and Other Eastern Disciplines

Someone on made a passing comment about "Christian" Yoga very very briefly and it brought to mind some questions I have on the subject.

It never bothered me to practice or learn Yoga, as long as the spiritual aspects of it remained out of it or neutral. But then, I strongly believe that the original concept of Buddhism IS religiously neutral...though it focuses on spiritual discipline concepts - like meditation, relaxation, peace, and openness.

Some of the things I learned in taking that required Yoga course in college (cuz I was NOT doing scuba diving thanks to a fear of water) helped in my own devotions. Breathing concepts helped me relax. Being able to open my mind helped me be more receptive to the scripture I was reading and hearing God's voice - I did less talking and more listening...something that is profoundly difficult for many people.

Yoga taught me how to "be still and know" that He is God by getting past my own physical tension and the clutter in my mind by FOCUSING on nothing but God. I could be a deer by still waters no matter where I was.

There are other Eastern Disciplines that focus on mental, spiritual, and physical discipline, too. Tae Kwon Do, Karate, and the other martial arts form practiced in China provide a certain amount of focus on something beyond yourself while moving your body through highly structured physical moves. The precision and exactitude, while not necessary to cultivate a meaningful communion with God, helps on some occasion.

For me, practicing discipline in other areas of my life helps and bolsters the discipline in my walk with God.

Is this wrong and blasphemous? Or is practicing meditative disciplines for the purpose of seeking His Face fully acceptable to God?


Anonymous said...

Consider that Jesus himself lived in a world where Jewish intellectual tradition was a small, feeble candle, overpowered by brilliant torches such as Plato and Buddha.

Narrow-minded churches always try to suppress any more exotic-seeming practice because they know it will shrink the weekly collections.

This is not to say that every mystical practice is right for everyone at every time. But the major motivation to suppress is the desire for a monopoly, not the desire to further spiritual attainment.

As to whether any given yoga teacher or yoga exercise is right for you -- "By their fruits ye shall know them."

Elusive Wapiti said...

"Tae Kwon Do, Karate, and the other martial arts form practiced in China provide a certain amount of focus on something beyond yourself while moving your body through highly structured physical moves."

Hmm. Hard to say what the effect of these Eastern martial arts forms has on one spiritually. For certain one may be a student of martial arts without ever encountering the religious aspect. But there are dojos and styles--like Aikido which I took for 3 years--that definitely emphasize the spiritual aspect and that may become a stumbling block for some.

Christina said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Christina said...

Thank you SCS.

And EW,

This subject kinda makes me think of Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and Daniel when they first enter Nebuchadnezzar's palace.

They practiced physical discipline that was fueled by and then in turn fed their spiritual walk with God.

I agree that it could definitely be a stumbling block for some. In which case, I wouldn't encourage them to do it. But that's very different from shunning these practices that focus on furthering your walk with God as I suppose "Christian" Yoga does...

Learner said...

Whenever I hear a term like "christian yoga" I always wonder what it means. It's like christians think if you slap the word "christian" on something it makes it just fine and there is no need to think it through for yourself. Kinda like "sanitized for your protection".

Christina said...

I think, Learner, that "Christian" Yoga focuses meditation on God rather than meditation on self or some ambiguous "goodness" as Buddhism teaches.

I took a secular Yoga course where we learned all the spiritual stuff behind it as well. Being a bit of a nut on religions and mythologies, I kinda enjoyed learning the new stuff, but I didn't enjoy the fact I was learning it in a "practicing" kinda way.

When I didn't skip the class, though, I spent the "meditative" time in communion with God.

Practical Yoga (like you're likely to learn in a normal gym) doesn't bring anything to it except the moves and positions and breathing techniques to lower your heart rate and help you relax.

I'd think Christian Yoga would take the Practical Yoga and bring back the meditation/spiritual side with a focus on God =p

I don't think it "sanitizes" it. The people who would practice it without thinking about it would probably go anywhere to do it.

And those who do think about it minimally might find this makes some sense.

But for those who DO think about it wrong?

Learner said...

Well, I tend to believe in liberty in Christ. Since yoga is not mentioned in the Bible, I think if a believer feels that the practice does not draw them away from Biblical truth that it is fine for them. I don't believe there is any supernatural power in the poses themselves that would harm a believer. But, I also think if it bothers someone's conscience that they should not do it (like eating meat sacrificed to idols if that makes sense). I have practiced yoga minimally (I have wimpy and weak wrists that limit poses that require bearing weight through them....but some of the things for balance have helped me greatly) including breathing exercises and meditated on Christ when directed to meditate or "center".

Anonymous said...

"But for those who DO think about it wrong?"

I recommend reading about the life of Simone Weil and also considering some of her aphorisms.

Lowell Ballard said...

"Cease striving and know that I am God"

It is important to understand what each Bible author is trying to get across to their intended audience and not read into it what we are thinking should be there. For example, the "Be Still" verse isn't about a "discipline of silence" but rather about stopping our struggling and waiting to see how God delivers us. Read it in context and see if you agree. And I would suggest doing the same with the other verses used by Christian contemplative teachers. I find that they are very often taken out of context.

The next time you do the "Sun Salutation" or go into the "prayer position" in Yoga (I assume your yoga class does those asanas), I hope you will consider the following information. I did a full, in depth study on this question at The Wheaton College Yoga Class, after we went to sign up for what looked like an aerobics class on the web site but was actually a Yoga class. I'll post a followup on my blog in a week or two to discuss what I learned when I visited the yoga classes at the local Hindu temple, Theosophical Society and Science of Spirituality in order to compare them with the Wheaton College class.

What I think on the subject isn't that important, but what we can glean from the Bible is. The closest I could find to the concept of "Christians doing yoga" is the concept of "eating meat sacrificed to idols" and at least some proponents of Christian yoga agree that is a valid comparison. But if you actually study those passages, as I do in my post, you find that Paul was arguing against doing that, even though idols are nothing. He said eating meat sacrificed to idols causes us to share in the idolatry like taking communion causes us to share with Christianity (1 Cor 10:12-23). I take up that concept in my satire article: New Health Craze Sweeps India!. Also, consider that it may be similar to the concept of setting up "high places" of worship, something that some good kings did but the Bible says was bad to do. And note that the "fruits" of the high places may have taken more than a generation or two to become fully evident.

On the practical side, it may be wishful thinking to believe that there is no religious content in Buddhism or in secular or "Christianized" yoga classes. I visited the Buddhist temple in Houston and they have idols/statues, incense and a pad to kneel on in front of the statues. But depending on how far down the contemplative path a person has gone, they can argue that even those practices are just disciplines to help with their spiritual formation, that they don't actually worship the statues as idols and Christians could use those practices as well as long as the statue was of Jesus. If you think that is far fetched, then you may not have yet heard the teachings talking about using Christian mantras to help clear our minds, or setting up a "sacred space" at home to help with contemplation.

The main battle here seems to be between rationality and mysticism as the core of the Christian faith. If you think faith is a rational decision to believe enough to follow what God says we should do (not just an abstract belief), then it is natural to have an aversion to mysticism. But if you are thinking that Christianity is only an abstract belief, then there is less motivation to change you life and it would be natural to look to the "spiritual disciplines" as a method to make necessary changes or to have the feelings that faith alone hasn't seemed to bring about.

How to Secularize/Christianize Yoga
My conclusions, from visiting the Wheaton Yoga Class and the three eastern Yoga classes, about what it would take to "secularize" Yoga were the following:

1. Yoga can include almost any move possible, so the problem isn't the moves themselves but rather the association with Hindu thought and practices. Pilates or something similar may be a good alternative, since they use some of the same moves by necessity but don't include Hindu references.
2. Some moves are associated historically with Hindu god worship and should be modified and renamed. For example, the Wheaton class did do the "Sun Salutation" move (though they didn't call it the sun salutation), which in form and name does reference Sun God worship (standing, leaning back with arm up in the air). At the Hindu temple, for example, when they did the "sun salutation" and "moon salutation" the leader said it was "honoring the sun" and "honoring the moon". Pilates, for example, goes through that position as part of a different, circular motion, so there is no inference of Sun worship in Pilates as there is in Yoga.
3. The "prayer position" of the hands, though seemingly harmless when used in the Wheaton Yoga Class, was in fact used to give spiritual meaning in the other religious Yoga classes. In the Science of Spirituality class the leader would do a harder move and then go into prayer position and ask us to notice how the mediation feels. So, she was trying to equate the feeling of relaxation and endorphins with a spiritual experience. At the Hindu Temple, in the class I visited they would actually put there hands in prayer position during the harder moves. He said we should do the harder poses as well formed as possible, as if we were doing them as an offering to the "universal consciousness" (I don't remember the exact words he used).
4. Remove any unexplained focus on breathing since, as explained at the Hindu temple Yoga class, Hindus focus on breathing because they believe it is the best way to get "Prana" (life force) into the body. Appropriate reasons to talk about breathing would seem to be to release pressure when bending the abdomen, to make sure people aren't holding their breath/running out of air, and for counting breaths until the next move as a form of time keeping. But many times Yoga classes say to "focus on your breathing" without explanation, likely with the assumption that will help people relax more than focusing on something else, but that can come close to thinking of breathing in a similar way as Hindus think of Prana.
5. Changing the focus of Yoga from Brahman, Prana/breathing and the Bhagavad Gita to Jesus, the Holy Spirit and the Bible but keeping the same concepts seems to be just hiding eastern practices/concepts with Christian terminology. In order to not confuse Christian and Hindu concepts, it seems like attempting to secularize Yoga (by removing the religious content/references) may be a better strategy than attempting to "Chritianizing" Yoga (redirecting the religious content/references to Christian concepts).
6. The name "Yoga" historically means to yoke with Brahman, so the name itself associates Hatha Yoga with Hindu thought.

So, do you think Christianity is, at it's core, mystical, like all the other religions or do you think, at it's core, our faith is rational? (And note that, unless there is a physical/mental problem, emotions are actually rational responses based on what we truly believe about a given situation, so emotions are normally rational).

Also, if you are looking for a non-religious stretching class, why not do pilates instead? And as for martial arts, why not find a martial art that teaches practical street fighting/defense, such as Jeet Kune Do? Rejecting religion/mysticism doesn't mean that you have to reject the rational parts just because mystics/religions have focused on a particular concept more than westerners have in the past. But at the same time the Bible seems to say that we need to be careful to separate ourselves from pagan/mystical practices, rather than embrace the practices and redirecting them toward a monotheistic god. I agree that, in a sense, rationality and the concept of truth can by their very nature be considered "narrow minded". And Mysticism, even Christian mysticism, is by it's very nature a broad path that most all of the other religions follow.


Christina said...

Wow...thanks for the info, Lowell.

I think my naivete on this had to do with never actually getting into all the mysticism involved.

We were taught the vocabulary and the "code", I guess you'd say - but the actual yoga practice was more of a physical education course than anything else.

And I guess that's why I'm trying to figure this out. I'd think that trying to stay physically healthy would be a good thing. And yoga has many health benefits. Without bringing mysticism in it, like what you said about Prana, I'd expand by saying breathing helps you relax, and relaxation helps you get into deeper flexibility - which good flexibility helps sustain injury (as I learned quite fortunately when I took a tumble off a galloping horse a year ago =p). Take the mysticism out of it, and you're still left with physical benefits.

When I talked about physical discipline, I was drawing off my own experience of how disciplining myself to go to the gym every day helped me practice better discipline in seeking God's face daily.

Eastern traditions, though, tend to focus on a discipline of perfection - not just doing. Meaning the quality of your time is just as important as the discipline of actually DOING it. And sometimes as Christians we get caught up in the religious practice of bible reading that sometimes quality tends to lose out.

I agree with what you say about "Being Still". But I don't see how what I said disagrees with that. Being able to let go of yourself and the hectic life around you does require some discipline. And only when you have let all that go and put it in God's hands can you be still in his presence (mentally, emotionally - not just physically).

Learning to focus is kinda important for that...being able to focus on God and God alone requires a singularity of mind that doesn't exactly come naturally to full-grown adults.

I'm not a perfectionist and I certainly am not trying to make excuses for something I necessarily want to do...just trying to figure out if there is a valid and consistent balance.

As for what I said about Buddhism not being a religion - I was referring to the original intent of it...not what it has been made into.

Its like worshipping Moses when he made it quite clear that the only one worthy of worship was the one true God =p

Being pregnant and unsure of what to do to prepare for labor and delivery, yoga classes have been recommended to me to learn to relax and how to breath - as well as help with some of the flexibility and strength necessary (apparently Orlando does not have a good reputation in quality birthing classes).

Owen said...

I took a Tai Chi class at college, and was faced with the same sort of question as a Christian. Like Prana, the breathing and positions are meant to induce the proper flow of "chi" in the body. I'd like to say that you can do the exercises without thinking of the chi aspect, but it's difficult.

As Lowell pointed out, we can attempt to hide "eastern practices/concepts with Christian terminology." For example, some of recommended substituting the Holy Spirit for chi. While the church has a solid history of incorporating pagan rites into it in Europe, I'm also wary of this as a path.

On the other hand, the fitness and breathing aspects are undeniable. Looking on the Pilates wikipedia page, it seems as though there is a semi-mystic component to it as well. Though fundamentally, I don't see a huge problem with Christianity containing some mystical component. We've had it for the whole church history, with monks, for example.

Is it possible, then, to take the good aspects and divorce them from the Eastern mystical aspects. I would venture to say yes, but not everyone can. And I agree with Christina that for some it may be a stumbling block.

Ricky Spears said...

OK. I'm chiming in here rather late, but there has been some really good discussion here. Great post and comments.

You closed your post by asking, "is practicing meditative disciplines for the purpose of seeking His Face fully acceptable to God?"

The Bible tells us that we are to meditate in several places. We're never given specific instructions about how to go about it, unlike how we are given great examples for praying. The word most often translated meditate is the same word for ruminate--which is what a cow does when it chews its food over and over. So I think we are certainly supposed to meditate on God's word and find a way that fits us and our relationship with Christ. Perhaps the reason God didn't give us specific techniques was so that we wouldn't focus on the techniques themselves as a way to Him. The only way to God is through Christ Jesus.

We are told to meditate on his word so this does indicate to me that we are to fill ourselves during meditation, rather than empty ourselves as many Eastern religions promote. I do think there is great value to relaxing and clearing the mind before meditating on God's word so that you can better focus.

I taught a Sunday school lesson a couple years ago on Biblical meditation and walked the class through how I personally meditate on his word. It was kind of a guided meditation if you will. Anyway, they asked me to record it and now I usually record one each week. If you're interested, you can check them out at:

If you do check them out, I'd love to hear what you think!

Christina said...

Thank you Owen and Ricky for stopping by!

Both of you affirmed my original idea.

Ricky, I will definitely take a look at some point.

Been rather busy lately gettin' ready for a move and a baby :)