A really lousy piece that appeared in today’s Herald Sun entitled “Yoga classes banned for ridiculous reason” deserves some attention. The reporter must have had too much spare time on his hands, and the subeditor too much empty space to fill in his paper. It begins this way:
Yoga classes are being banned in some Sydney church halls because the exercise practice may lead Christians to “worshipping false gods”. Erskineville’s Anglican Church, in Sydney’s inner west, is not allowing yoga classes in its hall after June 30 to stop “spiritual confusion”.
And other churches across the region have been told by the Anglican church’s Sydney Diocese to “review” yoga classes being conducted on any church premises. This review comes after the diocese received a report — Yoga and other such activities — from its Social Issues Committee, at its 2015 Synod, the annual policy meeting of clergy and lay people.
In the report, the committee urged that yoga be kicked out of church and school halls because it “emerges from an Eastern religious background”. The Synod, in accepting the report, noted that the First Commandment points out that “as Christ’s disciples” they must “avoid participating in the worship of false gods”.
The committee advised churches not to rent out their premises to yoga classes “on account of the spiritual confusion this may cause”. It also suggested that other activities such as tai chi, some martial arts and dragon boating should be examined because they are contrary to the gospel.
A diocese spokesman said the church was reviewing classes being conducted on church premises where there was a spiritual teaching associated with the practice, “as opposed to yoga positions done merely for the sake of exercise”.
“The review is ongoing in a number of churches. In the case of Erskineville, conversations have been entered into with class providers but no final decision has yet been taken,” the spokesman said. But two yoga teachers said they have been told by church officials that their rental agreements with an inner west church would not be renewed after July 1 if they continue yoga classes.
This is a silly and rather nasty piece for several reasons. First of all, why should what churches allow or prohibit on their own premises be a worry to any smart alec secular newspaper reporter? So what if a church does or does not hold bingo nights? So what if a church does or does not allow square dances?
What a church decides its building can be used for should not concern in the least a secular newspaper – unless it is fomenting terrorism, urging the overthrow of the government, etc. And that is just what many Islamic mosques are allowing. Maybe these cadet reporters should go to a mosque if they are looking for a serious story.
But another problem with this piece is that there are indeed very good reasons why Christian churches should look more closely at allowing these practices in their buildings. While yoga may be seen just as a harmless form of exercise, meditation or relaxation for some, there is absolutely no question that there ARE spiritual overtones to this which all believers need to be aware of.
The discipline of yoga (from a Sanskrit word meaning yoking, joining, union) is especially found in Hinduism but also in other Eastern religions. The goal is to silence and empty the mind, to enable you to unite with the divine within. The control of one’s consciousness is to achieve moksha or liberation. Bhakti yoga (transcendental meditation) and hatha yoga (mainly physical exercises) are especially popular in the West.
But the idea that a Christian can just be involved in some spiritually neutral physical exercises while avoiding any contact with the broader spiritual and occultic realities is to skate on thin ice. As Ankerberg and Branch warn:
It is difficult, if not impossible, to separate yoga theory (Eastern metaphysics) and practice (postures, breath control, etc.) . . . The very physical postures and breathing exercises adopted in yoga are intended to metaphysically influence both mind and spirit. . . . Virtually all the authoritative texts reveal that yoga is an occult practice. Yoga is designed to awaken occult energies in the body, to lead to an occult transformation, and to secure specific occult goals. . . . Yoga involves far more than mere physical exercise; at its core it is an occult practice having occult goals.
Christians of all people need to be aware of what is really happening with yoga. As McDowell and Stewart say about TM: “Although some degree of success in relaxation can be achieved by practicing TM, the dangers far outweigh the benefits. There is a Christian alternative to TM and that consists of meditation on God’s Word, the only source of real peace.”
I can quote many other experts here, but let me finish with just two more. In the 80s and 90s Christian apologist and New Age authority Douglas Groothuis penned four very helpful volumes on the New Age Movement:
–Unmasking the New Age (IVP, 1986)
–Confronting the New Age (IVP, 1988)
–Revealing the New Age Jesus (IVP, 1990)
–Deceived by the Light (Harvest House, 1995)
These are all very informative volumes which believers should be aware of. But instead of quoting from these books, let me refer you to an interview Al Mohler conducted with Groothuis seven years ago. It is worth reading (or listening to), in its entirety, but here are some extracts from it:
Groothuis: Well a lot of Christians really want to know whether the practice of yoga can be incorporated into a faithful, biblical way of life and sadly, many Christians are answering yes to that. We have some emerging church leaders such as Doug Padgett and others saying that it is simply a physical discipline, you don’t have to incorporate the element of Hinduism and in fact it can actually bring you closer to God, the God of the Bible, the God of the universe, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and I do not believe that is the case for many reasons but the word yoga itself means to be yoked or to be in union and it comes out of this ancient non-Christian religion called Hinduism and it’s one of the essential planks of Hinduism. Hinduism is a very big tent but all forms of Hinduism advocate as a necessary spiritual discipline some type of yoga and yoga involves physical practices such as postures and breathing and chanting but the essential point, the goal of yoga is not the purification of the body or the beautification of the physique, the point of yoga is a change in consciousness, a transformation of the consciousness wherein one finds oneself at one with the ultimate reality which in Hinduism is Brahman so when people brought Hinduism to the West as is detailed in this book by Stefanie Syman, The Subtle Body and other books, they didn’t always emphasize the overtly religious aspects. In some cases they did, in some cases they did not, in fact in the case of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi who brought transcendental meditation to the West, Maharishi sold this form of yoga when he was a guru as simply a way to be more peaceful, to become more intelligent and so on. But he was basing his teachings on the ancient Hindu doctrines of the Vedas the primary scriptures of Hinduism.
He explains how this is a counterfeit spirituality:
Groothuis: Yoga tells you to go within to find the absolutes. Now Scripture teaches us that we are made in the image and likeness of God however we are fallen and Jesus said that out of the heart comes all these various evils so we cannot find our true self and find salvation by looking within. Our true self is damaged through sin and the only cure, or the only rescue comes from outside of the self and I love the way Frances Schaeffer use to put it – he said we lift up the empty hand of faith so we lift them up, up unto the Lord and they’re empty. Or as J.I. Packer put it, the only thing we contribute to our salvation is our need for salvation. Now yoga says that through these postures, through the breathing, through the chanting, you can discern and unlock the universal, impersonal power which is ultimately known in Hinduism as Brahman that is the telos that is the essential purpose of yoga and Americans want better bodies and they want to feel peaceful and that’s why they’re initially interested in yoga but that is certainly not the purpose of it….
Yoga aims at the elimination of the body, it is a depersonalizing, deindividualizing, dehumanizing practice because the ultimate reality in Hinduism is not a personal moral creator but Brahman an unknowable something that you dissolve into.
Can there be some physical benefits to yoga? Yes but…
Groothuis: Well if something is truly yoga it has that spiritual basis and that spiritual direction and that spiritual essence. Now are there bodily postures that are similar or maybe even identical to some yoga postures that have some health benefits? Yes, but I always tell people when they ask me this question, any health benefit you could derive from yoga you can get from outside of yoga such as through Pilates or physical therapy or something like that. Yoga means being yoked with Brahman essentially and you don’t want to submit yourself to that alien spiritual practice so if there are limited physical benefits they can be obtained outside of the practice of yoga itself.
Mohler: I think that’s very well stated and I think the other side to that is that if you have to get into some kind of meditative state in order to assume some kind of posture you are defining as exercise you’re kidding yourself if you think it’s mere exercise.
Groothuis: Exactly and that is the point of yoga. It is the transformation of consciousness from the finite to the infinite and only God is the infinite personal creator. We are the finite personal creatures and yoga wants to blend those two into this one faceless non-personal thing and yoga is the means to achieve that.
Finally, a brief quote from one Hindu, Rajiv Malhotra, who understands the very real incompatibility of yoga and biblical Christianity:
While yoga is not a “religion” in the sense that the Abrahamic religions are, it is a well-established spiritual path. Its physical postures are only the tip of an iceberg, beneath which is a distinct metaphysics with profound depth and breadth. Its spiritual benefits are undoubtedly available to anyone regardless of religion. However, the assumptions and consequences of yoga do run counter to much of Christianity as understood today. This is why, as a Hindu yoga practitioner and scholar, I agree with the Southern Baptist Seminary President, Albert Mohler, when he speaks of the incompatibility between Christianity and yoga, arguing that “the idea that the body is a vehicle for reaching consciousness with the divine” is fundamentally at odds with Christian teaching. This incompatibility runs much deeper.
Yoga’s metaphysics center around the quest to attain liberation from one’s conditioning caused by past karma. Karma includes the baggage from prior lives, underscoring the importance of reincarnation. While it is fashionable for many Westerners to say they believe in karma and reincarnation, they have seldom worked out the contradictions with core Biblical doctrines….
Most of the 20 million American yoga practitioners encounter these issues and find them troubling. Some have responded by distorting yogic principles in order to domesticate it into a Christian framework, i.e. the oxymoron, ‘Christian Yoga.’ Others simply avoid the issues or deny the differences. Likewise, many Hindu gurus obscure differences, characterizing Jesus as a great yogi and/or as one of several incarnations of God. These views belie the principles stated in the Nicene Creed, to which members of mainstream Christian denominations must adhere. They don’t address the above underlying contradictions that might undermine their popularity with Judeo-Christian Americans. This is reductionist and unhelpful both to yoga and Christianity.
While much more can be said on this topic, I do encourage all Christians who are engaging in yoga to consider what they are doing, and if they may not be involving themselves in something they really should not be. And I for one am thankful that this Sydney church DID take a careful look at the issue, and did decide to let those who want to teach yoga do it elsewhere.