Where does yoga fall on the spirituality spectrum? Can ushtraasana (camel pose) provide emotional release in the same way a therapy session can? Does aasana really have anything to do with inner light?
The answer according to Southern Baptist Seminary President Albert Mohler is no. On October 7, 2010 the Associated Press discussed Mohler’s view that Christianity and yoga are incompatible in so far as, “Mohler said many people have written him to say they’re simply doing exercises and forgoing yoga’s eastern mysticism and meditation,” to which Mohler responds, “You’re just not doing yoga.”
In the article, “Southern Baptist leader on yoga: Not Christianity,” Mohler posits Christianity and any other religion, but specifically Christianity, as mutually exlusive– you cannot have one and the other, one equals NOT the other. I find this discussion irritating. Mostly because it just seems like another way of restricting people, rather than embracing or discovering new ways of seeing aside from the words we use to discuss our experiences. I have asked a very close friend of mine, Louisa Jones, who teaches yoga at her church in Bristol, RI, to respond to this article. She has eloquently, both in her classes and in her response, found a way to discuss Christian content in the context of a yoga class. Here is her response:
“Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ and to the community of Yoga Practitioners, I am writing to you today because of the growing debate in the new media about whether or not Christians can practice authentic yoga. Prominent people have questioned whether a person who identifies as Christian can call their physical discipline “yoga” because of its roots in eastern spirituality and Hinduism. I can certainly understand why this is an issue, especially in the United States where there are as many forms of both yoga and Christianity as one will find anywhere on earth. To further complicate the issues, many yoga practitioners have insisted that yoga is not a religion. I agree that, as practiced in many yoga classes in the US, it is not a religion. However, there are also many yoga practitioners who use sacred language to describe their experience of yoga. It is only natural that people would wonder if yoga, which has supported three world religions, would be suitable for Christians as well.
Yoga began over 6,000 years ago in the Indus valley by people who were seeking a direct experience of the divine. They found that by training the mind and the body, they were better able to listen with sincerity for a direct experience of the divine in their lives. They were better able to meditate. How they understood the divine will, and how that practice developed, is not a single path and was influenced by the communities in which they lived. Yoga became part of the experience of the Jains, Hinds and Buddhists. Elements that were discovered by the first yogins were rediscovered by Jewish Kabbalist, Muslim Sufis and Christian Mystics centuries later. It takes dedication to one’s spiritual vocation in order to achieve the bliss states described in the Yoga Sutras. Every major religion in history has asserted similar claims within their own traditions. One can wonder what Pietists would have made of yoga had they been exposed something akin to a twenty-first century western yoga practice.
One of the things that we do not do very well in Christian Formation is teach the laity how to pray with their whole being. That’s not to say that there aren’t some very well formed Christians with an authentic prayer life. In fact they are legion. But not all forms of prayer speak to the heart of every Christian. Take choral singing as an example. Churches across the US (and the world) have able choirs whose members can count on one hand the number of services they have attended without music. Yet, many of these same churches likely have another service on Sundays that is without music. There are even whole Christian communities where music is not part of worship. At the same time very few people would say that choral singing can’t be authentically Christian and musical. Still there are plenty of examples of choral singing in our culture that are decidedly unchristian.
Be assured my friends, God is always there. The voice of God is always available to be heard. It is we who must stop ourselves, adjust our focus and listen. Whether we achieve that state of attentiveness on our knees, in a moment of charismatic fervor, after a rendering of Mozart’s Laudate Dominum, or in shavaasana, if we are in relationship with God in that moment we please God. It is an easy thing to confuse content with context. In both yogic and Christian disciplines it is relationship with the divine that we seek and our efforts are what are important, not the culture in which they originated. We need not fear that people will leave churches in favor of ashrams or yoga studios. A person of faith does not leave a table that serves living water. We do, however, need to guide people in their formation, so that when they enter into that deeper relationship they are equipped to discern its meaning for their lives.”