Is yoga Christian?
Several years ago, I had a brief conversation with a woman who is a strict Christian. I happened to mention that I taught yoga, and she immediately put up her hands, as if to ward off evil. “Oh no, I don’t want any of that mind control,” she said.
I was so taken aback that I didn’t know how to respond. So, typically for me, I said nothing. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Yoga isn’t mind control. Yoga is quieting the mind. Some people think that if you quiet your mind, then the devil comes in. I have found that when you quiet your mind, God comes in. I wish I had been able to explain that to her, but she had already formed her opinion. I am not sure what she had heard about yoga, but I assume it was from a source telling her that yoga isn’t Christian.
Yoga is not a cult or a religion. We are not worshiping anything or anyone. Yoga is a lifestyle. If you are a Christian, a yoga practice can broaden your faith. It has definitely broadened and deepened my faith. In the bible, the psalmists write about singing and dancing in praise to God. I feel like the physical yoga practice is the same thing—a dance of praise.
Some Christians are wary of yoga because they claim it comes from a pantheistic religion. All those Hindu gods—Shiva the Destroyer, Ganesha the Elephant, Hanuman the Monkey, and so forth. I am not an expert in Hinduism, but my understanding is that these aren’t separate gods, but God in many different forms. But the intricacies of Hinduism and the traditions of yoga are hard to explain to someone who is afraid of worshiping false gods. Fear can keep a heart closed as well as a mind.
It is true that many yoga poses are named for Hindu gods. That might freak someone out, but hang on. Dig a little deeper and learn the story behind the poses. For example, what we think of as “split pose” is dedicated to the monkey god, Hanuman. Hanuman was cursed with short-term memory, so he kept forgetting that he was divine. (see Myths of the Asanas by Alanna Kaivalya, Mandala Publishing, 2010, p.79-80.)
I love that story because it shows that Hanuman is just like us. We forget we are, also, divine. The rest of Hanuman’s story goes something like this—he leaped across the ocean to save the wife of his best friend. He risked his life for his friend.
Not to be heavy-handed, but the Gospel of John 15:13 reads: The greatest love you can have for your friends is to give your life for them.
It is stories like Hanuman’s that lead me to believe that yoga isn’t anti-Christian. It isn’t a religion, but many of its traditions dovetail beautifully with the Christian faith. For example, the Yamas and Niyamas, outlined in the Yoga Sutras, which I wrote about here (What Are the Yoga Sutras) and here (Thoughts on Yoga Sutras and the Bible). This is a topic I’ve been pondering for a long time, and I plan to write more about it.
Finally, I like what Andrea Jain, Associate Professor of Religion, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, writes about her investigation into yoga and Christianity. She wrote the following for The Conversation in June of 2017:
In reality, as research shows, yoga includes a variety of historical as well as living, dynamic traditions that have changed and evolved. Yoga’s history is rooted in a vast array of South Asian religious movements going back over 2,000 years ago. In India alone, yoga practitioners have included Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Christians and Muslims.
Yoga has never had a single purpose for its seekers – whether it is philosopher-ascetics seeking enlightenment, ecstatic devotees expressing love of God, people in pursuit of yogic superpowers, fitness buffs seeking the perfect “yoga butt” or Christians wanting to get “closer to Christ.”
In other words, yoga has never belonged to any one religion, but it has always been packaged in a variety of ways. This is the problem with the question of whether or not Christian yoga is real yoga – there has never been one real yoga.