Christian Yoga: The Philosophies of Yoga and Religion and Its Effects on Modern America
Lesley University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
This paper will look at how the religion of Christianity and the philosophies of yoga’s impact on people in the United States today. This paper will explore the how Christians have adapted yoga to meet their spiritual needs. The purpose and details of Christian Yoga differ from the traditional yoga practices, such as hatha. These comparisons spark questions such as: are practices of Yoga becoming new forms of religion? Should Yoga be treated as a religion?
Is yoga a religion? It certainly contains religious aspects, but to go as far as to call yoga a religion might be a step in the wrong direction. First off, what separates yoga from religion? Number one; there is no “God” of yoga, nothing that one would worship or praise. Second, you can believe in anything to practice yoga, there is no one absolute truth. There is no hierarchy in the world of yoga; no laws one can make that will affect the practitioners. “…there is no general
agreement among present-day workers in the field about the subject matter of yoga itself. Until this is achieved on the basis of scientific information, yoga is bound to be mixed up with myth and superstition” (Joshi 1965. 53). Yoga is a philosophy. “It is not a part of any religion but is a philosophy for all times and for all. This philosophy does not oppose any school of thought, religion, or interpretation of the scriptures, but its methods for explaining its concepts are unique” (Swami Rama 1982 ¶ 1). Yoga does not provide any opposition to religion.
A PLACE FOR CHISTIAN YOGA
There is a religious practice of yoga known as Christian Yoga. In the Christian approach to yoga the spiritual relationship one goes through is not aimed at the self, but it acts as a tool to strengthen one’s relationship with God (www.christianyoga.com). I believe this ideal philosophy not only favor Christian yoga to isolate itself from the rest of the world of yoga, but it makes it so only those of Christian faith can be allowed true enlightenment. Is this an act of superiority that people will find insulting? Or can this practice help build an understanding for those who follow the Christian faith, and find its place in this culturally and religiously diverse world of America.
I consider myself an agnostic; I do not belong to any religion. I was drawn to the idea of yoga through its interpretation and connections with the self and the universe. I thought in yoga I would be able to focus on my connection to everything, and it would be through my own power as opposed to my relationship with a deity. Also, the idea that yoga is open to everyone appeals to me. The poses, meditation, chanting, are all there for everyone to use and practice however they choose to. I wouldn’t need to be “tested” to see if I have enough of something to be able to join a yoga practice. I’ve always been interested in the interplay between yoga and religion, and admired how inclusive yoga seems to be in America. There are no wars fought over which practice of yoga is better than the other, so why can’t religion be the same way?
I was shocked to see that there was a practice of yoga based solely on the beliefs of Christianity. Due to the inclusive nature of Yoga, I became interested in why this tradition emerged. Is Christianity attempting to “compete” with the other ideals of yoga? Perhaps there is some sense of jealousy in Christianity’s ranks when a recent poll taken in the United States showed a decreasing amount of Christian population, and a two million rise in Hindu population. People “are slowly becoming more like Hindus and less like traditional Christians in the ways we think about God, our selves, each other, and eternity” (Hinduism Today 2009. ¶ 1). Now there are many people in the United States who like to call themselves spiritual, as opposed to religious. “For the younger generation today…empty religious preachings are not fulfilling, for the modern mind likes to use reason and logic before it accepts anything as truth” (Swami Rama 1982 ¶ 1). This statement implies a lot about the American culture, and the growth of our spiritual mindset. Our society desperately carves “more.” We need something that can be relevant to ourselves as individuals, and not just as a whole of the people. We’ve become vastly more independent. Our worlds, our selves, our lives can now lie within a computer or a cell phone. Our minds trapped between two headphones, our eyes glued to a television screen. People want something to do to help themselves. Swami Rama is right, simple preaching of events that have no relevance to most people today, not importance in what is going on in their lives, are not enough. We need more t o go on, and more to keep us going. Then when we find that something that we can truly care about, we recognize it as a spiritual truth. Newsweek explains: “The Rig Veda, the most ancient Hindu scripture, says this: "Truth is One, but the sages speak of it by many names." A Hindu believes there are many paths to God. Jesus is one way, the Qur'an is another, yoga practice is a third. None is better than any other; all are equal” (2009. ¶ 2). Yoga claims to that all paths to enlightenment are equal, but does the concept of the Christian way of yoga feel the same way?
THE IDEALS OF CHRISTIAN YOGA
In the United States today, it is difficult for many people to accept Christian yoga. An essay by Susanne Scholz of Merrimack College explains that in many parts of America, we now live in a post-biblical world. “We live in societies that are largely secularized, perhaps even “anti-religiously” oriented, increasingly digitalized, and economically organized by a capitalist system that eradicates equal and just distribution of wealth nationally and internationally. In our world the Bible plays, at best, a privatized, individualized, and societally marginalized role” (Scholz 2005. 133). I believe it is possible that this marginalized role has lead the Christian community to a state of panic, or perhaps vexation. If so, then the community would feel some need to exert their “superiority.” However they exert only to show that the practice of the Christian religion is adapting to the society it is in. Like Scholz explained, times have changed for religious security, and the younger generations look to other sources of explanations of what the meaning of their lives are, or what may await them after death.
As the minds of the people change, so do religions. For Christianity to “catch up” to the changing minds of the world, many have decided to approach yoga. Now, it is not necessarily a bad thing that people want to help those in need by including yoga in their religion. However, this Christian approach puts itself on a self proclaimed “higher level,” and that may be offensive to those who practice yoga as part of their secular life. Only those of Christian faith can practice this yoga and they must believe in God and the Lord Jesus. Not everyone can access this practice, because you cannot force someone to have a connection with God. No matter what people believe in, believing in something is a powerful choice in someone’s life. In some sense, you are giving everything you are up to something that is not factually known to be true, but true in your heart. No matter what we choose to believe in affects how we live our lives, and how we see the world every single day. To believe in God is a life choice, and it is not easy for everyone to take that step, to be asked to change the way you look at the work every day. We live the way we believe. Christian Yoga requires too much for the average non-Christian person to practice in it.
Christian Yoga is not truly a form of yoga if it is not open for all, if there is only one Ultimate truth, if there is only one state of mind to achieve enlightenment. “Christian approach to yoga simply allows us to combine these two essential goals: becoming physically healthy and spiritually healthy. We become more spiritually healthy through the yoga practice by calming our minds and quieting ourselves to the point that we can tune out the world's frequency and tune into God's frequency” (http://www.christianyoga.us ¶ 2). There is a limitation on the mindset one must have in Christian yoga. This ideology is not comforting to me, it feels forced and as if I have no room to tune into my own “frequency.” If one does actually hear God’s voice, would it be Him telling that person what to do, as opposed to one figuring it out for themselves? I have to wonder if people are doing this for themselves, or is the idea that God will talk to them if they do it the only reason? “The preachings of religion make a person dependent on priests, temples, idols, blind faith, and dogma, and dependence is a habit of the lower mind. Such crutches may be useful at a certain stage for some people, but they do not lead one to Ultimate Truth” (Swami Rama ¶ 4). I feel that if I practiced Christian Yoga, I would miss lose my independency, and rely too much on an outside force. I believe that even if Christian yoga is trying to strengthen one’s relationship with God, the high point of the practice should not result in hearing God’s voice. The end result should be one finding their own voice, their own frequency, telling them how they feel their relationship with God is in their lives. “A dependent mind is not free, and without freedom, enlightenment is impossible” (Swami Rama ¶ 4). I wouldn’t feel like my mind was free if I took a Christian yoga class.
Christian yoga ideology speaks to Swami Rama’s statement however: “Remember yoga alone is certainly not the path to finding peace, but true, lasting peace and contentment come only through an on-going relationship with the Lord. So let God's word and this practice together challenge you to get out of your comfort zone in worship of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ” (http://www.christianyoga.us ¶ 5). The tone of that quote alone is enough to justify all the skepticism of Christian yoga. It sounds like Christian yoga knows best over anything else. How can they say yoga alone is not the path to enlightenment, when it was around long before the Christian religion was even created! They are now claiming that there was no path to enlightenment before Christianity. That tone proves once again, that “higher level,” that feeling of superiority the Christian religion announces upon itself. Before reading that statement, I cannot condemn the Christian approach to yoga immediately because they did have good intentions for those who truly need the help of their religion. But to say that it is the only way alienates other points of view and can be considered pretentious and cruel. Episcopal priest and hatha yoga instructor Nancy Roth states, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you” (Cushman 1991). Christian yoga robs its practitioners of their choice to find their own Universal Truth. This is not purposely done, because it is a religious based practice of yoga, and the ideals must come first over yoga’s philosophy. With that rule alone, these practitioners are missing out on what yoga is truly like.
LOOKING INTO HATHAYOGA AND SPIRITUAL GROWTH
Hatha yoga is about purification, cleansing the mind. “The main objective of Hatha yoga is to create an absolute balance of the interacting activates and processes physical body, mind, and energy” (Muktibodhananda 1993). Ravi Ravindra also states the aim of yoga to be “the transformation of human beings from their natural form to a perfected form…The undertaking of yoga concerns the entire person, resulting in a reshaping of mind, body, and emotions” (Ravindra 2006. 4). The mind, body, and emotions are reshaped, and as Muktibodhananda said, balanced. The key word there is balance. That is something modern America can truly get behind, something that speaks to more than one idea. There is no longer one dominating influence that impacts the daily lives of Americans. Many people want to find balance, instead of weighing down the scale. Hatha yoga, and all yoga, concentrate on spiritual growth. No part of yoga is forcing someone’s spirit to grow in a certain way. Through yoga the spirit will grow of its own accord. It is up to the person to decide what their spirit is building towards. There is no harm in a Christian doing Hatha yoga, because it would help that person balance out their spiritual side, with their daily life. The spiritual growth one can achieve through Hatha yoga can be a stronger connection with God. The difference is however, Hatha yoga enables Christians to believe in what they want; Christian yoga once again requires one to already have a spiritual goal of connecting with the one God. Swami Mukribodhananda continues to say that few countries today provide the environment people need to allow for spiritual growth. This is because the structure of our society puts the materialistic elements of life before the concerns of spiritual health. The post-biblical world comes into play again. People are focused on success in their own lives, and not their lives with God.
When I ask myself about my own spiritual growth, I have learned over the years that there is no one answer for everything. Everything has its place. My reasons for isolating myself from any form of religion is because I want to respect all ideas and not give my spirit away to one thing. I think the spirit should be shared with everything. When I practice yoga, I concentrate on spreading my spirit all across the universe, letting every belief or way of thinking taste something of the same nature, and be ok with it. In J. Krishnamurti’s book called This Light In One Self, True Meditation, he speaks about Man being good. He is right in saying there has never been a time when people were not fighting over something, wars over which religion is better or seeking cultural domination. He asks the question: “Why has man not been able to change?” (Krishnamurti 1999. 10). In another sense, why does man refuse to be good? He asks us to really think about what the word good means. “When there is goodness in you, then whatever you do will be good, your relationships, your actions, your way of thinking” (Krishnamurti 1999.11). This got me thinking about Christian yoga’s required belief to be able to fulfill the practice. If someone is “good”, shouldn’t that be enough? Everyone has good inside of them. Christians are good people, and Muslims are good people, but there is something within their religious beliefs that force arguments and hateful disagreements. The way I see it though, since everyone is “good”, why can’t different religions recognize this, and stop the judging the indifferences. Both religions are good, and have good people. If only they could make good decisions. “If you conform to a belief, to a concept, to an idea, to a principle, that is not good because it creates conflict. Goodness cannot flower through another, through a religious figure, through a dogma, through a belief; it can only flower in the soil of total attention in which there is no authority” (Krishnamurti 1999.12). It all comes down to us, the people. That is where I know the true strength of yoga lies, within the people. Even if the practice was made up thousands of years ago for spiritual growth, it all comes back to the people. Not a god, not a dogma, but people. We are all people, all the same. Yoga does not display cultural indifferences, yoga connects them.
The Christian way of yoga does mean well, but the word yoga should not be a part of it. Yoga is everything, and religions are certain things. Christianity can be a part of Yoga, but the main principles of yoga cannot be a part of Christian yoga. What we the people need to learn is to be open to all ideas, and let go any sense of superiority our beliefs have over another’s.
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