This is a response to Agnieszka Tennant's "Yes to Yoga," which recently appeared on Christianity Today's website. Agnieszka wrote her article in response to my piece, "The Truth About Yoga," which appeared in Today's Christian Woman's March/April 2005 issue.
While I recognize Agnieszka's right to practice yoga, I've got to take a passand I feel compelled to encourage other Christians to pass on yoga, too.
I was deeply involved in the New Age before I became a Christian. Trances, channeling spirits, and past-life regression were normal practices for me back then. So was yoga.
Like Laurette Willis, whose story is featured in "The Truth About Yoga," I was raised in a Christian home. I accepted Jesus as a child, was baptized, attended a Christian school, and participated in Bible quizzing. When I headed off to college, I thought my faith was rock solid.
A Ouija board game in college started my journey into the New Age. It seemed so innocent at the timea plastic pointer on top of a piece of cardboard printed with the alphabet. It seemed like Monopoly or Scrabble. Though I'd been warned about Ouija boards by church youth leaders, this didn't look like anything that could hurt me.
It took many years and many prayers for me to let go of my New Age practices and to be healed from the pain they caused me. Until last fall, when I met Laurette Willis, I'd never met another Christian who'd come out of the New Age. (To be fair, I've kept pretty quiet about my experience.) Laurette told me she hadn't met any before, either. (And she's been extremely vocal about her experience.)
Both Laurette and I have met quite a few New Agers who'd grown up in Christian households, attended church, or even been professing believers.
Just before I wrote "The Truth About Yoga," I was looking for a stretching routine that would offer an alternative to yoga. I'd practiced yoga for years and loved the feel of stretching and relaxing from a day's stresses. But after I became a Christian, I sensed something spiritual about yoga that made me uneasy. (I later discovered yoga's Hindu origins and understood why I'd felt uneasyNew Age beliefs and practices are largely derived from Hinduism.)
So when I heard about a new exercise program dubbed "Christian yoga," I thought I'd found my alternative. And I figured TCW readers would love to learn about it, too.
I interviewed two Christian yoga instructors along with Laurette and had contacted others when I began putting the story together. As I was working on it, I felt troubled by some of the statements made by Christian yoga instructors and characteristics of their programs. At first, I ignored it, thinking I was hypersensitive and being too nitpicky because of my own New Age past. I became deeply concerned again when I discovered one of my intervieweesa Christian yoga instructor who'd been featured prominently in articles by several Christian publicationshad links to a New Age website on her Christian yoga site. I prayed about it, began deeply researching more than a dozen Christian yoga programs, and prayed some more. Finally, I contacted Today's Christian Woman editor Jane Johnson Struck. We agreed it was best to stick to a profile on Laurette Willis.
Laurette never contacted me about her PraiseMoves program, nor did she send promotional material to TCW. I didn't even know she was working on a book for Harvest House. I found her website through a search engine, and it was my decision (with support from the TCW editors) to focus on her story.
The big difference
I've found that yoga practitionersboth Christians and those who are not believersare extremely defensive of yoga. I can understand why. Stretching feels fabulous, and there's a dearth of stretching programs out there. That was yet another reason it seemed helpful to highlight PraiseMoves, a stretching program created by a Christian, for Christians.
Agnieszka seems to believe PraiseMoves is yoga with Christian terminology thrown in. I'd correct that statement and say Laurette's program is a Christian stretching program that seeks to reflect the physical benefits of yoga while replacing Hindu spiritualism with Christian worship.
Is there really a difference? I've practiced yoga with many different instructors (who all said they taught purely "physical exercise" without any yogic spiritualism), and I've done the PraiseMoves program myself. So I'd offer a resounding "Yes, there's a big difference," along with an illustration.
I have a Buddhist friend who practices ancestor worshipshe goes to a temple, lights a stick of incense, and leaves food for her deceased relatives. There are Christians who light candles in remembrance of deceased relatives, or set a place at their holiday table for someone who has passed. The actions are similar, but the intent and settings are different. The Christians aren't worshiping their deceased relatives (intent), or performing a symbolic gesture inside a Buddhist temple or in a uniquely Buddhist way (setting).
I believe Agnieszka's personal intent in practicing yoga is good and pure. She loves Jesus, sees yoga as exercise, and likely would never be seduced into the deeper spiritualism that is inherent in all yoga. But yoga has a history, a "setting" of postures and language that pays homage to Hindu deities. While American instructors may water down that language, I think it's safe to say most are still using it. The word namaste is still used in many yoga classes, including Agnieszka's, and it's a term Hindus use when paying respect to their deities. Even when used between friends, the term still really means, "I bow to the god within you." (Agnieszka offers a different translation in her article. While the word gets translated differently depending on the source, I believe my translation, which comes from a number of Hindu websites, is closer to its true intent. It is a Sanskrit/Hindu word, and Hindus believe all living things are part of god, i.e. we are all gods. Some explain this belief as "monotheistic polytheism.") And most instructorsincluding, it seems, Agnieszka'suse traditional Sanskrit terms that have been translated into English, such as downward facing dog, corpse pose, and sun salutation. The last one, by the way, directly pays homage to the Hindu sun godit isn't called a "salute to the sun" for nothin'.
Even if a Christian can get past the Hindu origins of yoga, what about those who are instructing the class? What's their intent? On the Internet, you'll find a jillion yoga instructors who offer definitions similar to this one found on yogabasics.com: "Yoga is aimed at integrating mind, body and spirit, and achieving a state of enlightenment or oneness with the universe. What is normally thought of as 'yoga' in the West is really Hatha Yoga, one of the many paths of yoga. These different paths of yoga are simply different approaches and techniques that all lead to the same goal of unification and enlightenment." The definition was written by the website's founder, who has instructed yoga for 16 years.
As for American-style yoga being just exercise, the site goes on to say: "More than just stretching, asanas [yoga postures] open the energy channels, chakras and psychic centers of the body. Asanas purify and strengthen the body and control and focus the mind."
These are not fringe views shared only by hardcore Hindu yogis. Rather, Agnieszka's viewthat the Hindu spiritualism within American yoga has largely been extracted, making it purely exerciseseems to be in the minority. Kaiser Permanente, a major healthcare provider, says this about yoga on its website: "Yoga has been practiced for thousands of years in India and is based on the idea that the mind and body are one. It is thought that yoga improves health by improving how you see the world, which calms the spirit and decreases stress." Kaiser offers low-cost yoga classes to members, and regularly advertises this in its member newsletter.
Yoga is everywhere. Classes are taught in churches and nursing homes, through city recreation programs, and at elementary schoolsboth private and public. Meanwhile, numerous studies show prayer and faith have a healing effect, and that religion is good for your overall health. But you probably won't see your local city hall renting a room for prayer meetings at the senior center any time soon.
Perhaps it has become so common that it's now easy to overlook yoga's originsand its inherent Hindu spiritualityeven when the Hindu and yoga communities are loudly proclaiming, "Yes, all of yoga is Hinduism. Everyone should be aware of this fact" (from an e-mail written to Laurette Willis by a staff member of the Classical Yoga Hindu Academy in New Jersey).
Agnieszka references 1 Corinthians 8 in her article to illustrate how yoga might not cause a strong Christian to stumble. But she doesn't mention the last part of the passage, where Paul goes on to say:
"Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone with a weak conscience sees you who have this knowledge eating in an idol's temple, won't he be emboldened to eat what has been sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ" (verses 9-12).
And I'll admit itI loved yoga. Perhaps I'm even a strong enough Christian now to begin a yoga class again. But my decision to say no to yoga isn't just about me. Children are being exposed to yoga's spiritualism at school and in after-school programs. (I remember being taken through a guided meditation as a teen at a youth recreation program, though I had no idea what it was at the time.) And I've read many stories about doctors who encourage the elderly, depressed patients, the mentally ill, and terminal patients to practice yoga for its mental and spiritual benefitsas if there is no better comfort available in the world than yoga.
So even if I'm strong enough, how can I support a practice that seems to be targeting the young and the weak? I take 1 Corinthians 8:13 most seriously: "Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall."
For me, giving up yoga is even easier than it would be to give up meat because there are alternatives. (There aren't many alternatives to a good steak!) I can still stretch. I can meditate on Scripture. I can slow down, take deep breaths, relax, and thank God for the many gifts he's given me. And I can pray that more Christians like Laurette Willis will be moved to develop alternatives to yoga.
Lastly, I'd like to address the idea that some evangelicals are engaging in fear-mongering about yoga. It's easy to become afraid of things we don't understand, especially practices that use a different language and come from a different culture. But fear also can be a God-given response that keeps us out of danger. As someone who was deeply involved in New Age and metaphysical practices, I can tell you from experience: There is a spiritual realm in this world. There are spiritual battles being fought. And there are frightening things from which we need to runeven if, like that Ouija board, they look benign on the surface.
Holly Vicente Robaina, a regular contributor to Today's Christian Woman, lives in California.
Copyright © 2005 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Other Christianity Today articles on yoga and meditation include:
Yes To Yoga | Can a Christian breathe air that has been offered to idols? (May 19, 2005)
Dangerous Meditations | What harm is there in achieving a higher state of consciousness through meditation? (Nov. 16, 2004)
The Higher Self Gets Down to Business | An old movement appears anewin the corporate world. (Jan. 24, 2003)
Prosperity Consciousness | How the higher self gets into business. (Jan. 24, 2003)
Utopia or Kingdom Come? | Discerning wheat from chaff in the new business spirituality. (Jan. 24, 2003)
Weighed Down by Karmic Debt | Aspects of Tibetan spirituality should give Christians pause. (June 8, 2001)
Buddhism's Guru | The Dalai Lama, a spiritual hero to millions, works to liberate Tibet, calls on spirits, and believes Jesus lived previous lives. (June 8, 2001)
Basic Buddhism | What the Dalai Lama and his followers believe about God, Buddha, and other teachings. (June 8, 2001)
Blood and Tears in Tibet | The Dalai Lama says he appreciates Christian attempts to address persecution in his homeland. (June 8, 2001)
Inside CT: Straight Outta Dharamsala | Behind James A. Beverley's report on the Dalai Lama (June 8, 2001)
Field of TM Dreams | Fairfield, Iowa, of all places, is now a major world center for Transcendental Meditation, and local Christians are figuring out how best to evangelize Maharishi's devotees. (Jan. 12, 2001)
Mere Transcendental Meditation | The basic concepts of neo-Vedanta philosophy. (Jan. 12, 2001)
Sometimes It Takes a Miracle | Jim Sieber found Christ more sufficient than self-realization. (Jan. 12, 2001)
Our sister publications have more articles on yoga and New Age religion:
The Truth About Yoga | Yoga led Laurette Willis into a New Age lifestyle. Now she's warning others of the spiritual pitfallsand offering an alternative. (Today's Christian Woman, March/April 2005)
Is Yoga Really So Bad? | The truth behind this exercise sensation (Today's Christian Woman, September/October 2001)
Escape from the Spirit Guides | How one woman's quest led to the dark side of the New Age, where she encountered spirits that wouldn't let her leave (Today's Christian, July/August 1997)
Beliefnet has an article about Christians trying to bring yoga into a Christian context.