Thursday, November 21, 2013

Yoga for the Glory of God

An interesting article on yoga ( has set me thinking. In it the writer reports on how people of different religious traditions are struggling with whether yoga is compatible with their beliefs. Apparently last year a yoga class was banned from a church hall in the UK, because it was said, "Yoga is a Hindu spiritual exercise". Among others the writer quotes from a so-called Christian exercise programme called PraiseMoves. So I have had a look at the PraiseMoves web site and here is my take on this.

It is true that many Hindus hold to beliefs that are contradictory to the Bible. So do many Christians. But I have never yet met a Hindu whose beliefs are in complete antipathy to the Bible. So let’s stop this simplistic nonsense of contrasting these two civilizations we call Hinduism and Christianity.

Scary Stuff!


The PraiseMoves web site quotes from a number of Hindus who assert that yoga is incompatible with Christianity. It quotes from “An Open Letter to Evangelicals” that appeared in the January 1991 issue of Hinduism Today in which a Swami Sivasiva Palani writes:

“A small army of yoga missionaries ...beautifully trained in the last 10 years, is about to set upon the western world. They may not call themselves Hindu, but Hindus know where yoga came from and where it goes.”

To the credulous this would sound scary indeed. That was clearly the point of the letter. It would be interesting to learn more about this army of yoga missionaries. Could it be, I wonder, an idle boast that consciously reflects the sort of triumphalistic language that Christian mission magazines and web sites often use? Here is an example of the sort of language we see in Christian literature sometimes: “We are going to conquer the nation with the gospel.” Are we then an army? Is it any wonder that nationals feel under threat here? Here is another: “Our vision is for India to become a Christian country.” Really? Do you mean like America with its racism, pornography and rampant materialism? The rhetoric of Hindu revivalists is well known in India. Why are Western Christians so naive?

The website also quotes from a Dr Alexander: “Many Westerners who practice yoga today are unaware that the physical positions assumed in yoga symbolize a spiritual act: worshiping one of the many Hindu gods”. Alexander goes on: “To a Hindu, yoga is the outward physical expression of a deep spiritual belief. You cannot separate one from the other.” Cannot or should not? Clearly the writer must mean should not as there are plenty of Muslims, Christians and atheists who do, in fact, practise yoga without holding these deep spiritual beliefs. So he is not saying, surely that it is impossible to separate the movement from the belief (is there such a thing as an ‘unspiritual belief’?). He is saying, therefore, I take it, that it is unnatural to separate them, that the one naturally goes with the other.

The meaning of symbols

But we do this sort of thing all the time. Take, for example, the custom of having bridesmaids walk down the aisle before the bride. I am led to believe the origin of this custom is to avert the evil eye from the bride. The bridesmaids are decoys. Sorry if I have spoiled your wedding preparations. Before you go and cancel that order for bridesmaid dresses let me ask you how many brides are aware of the origins of this custom? And if you were still in blissful ignorance would you not have gone ahead without any qualms, innocently enjoying a good Christian custom? So it is possible to take a custom (a form if you like) and separate it from its referent (meaning). And in so doing the symbol changes.

Likewise yoga. The idea that by doing the exercises you are buying into all the possible interpretations that any yoga teacher ever suggested is quite a stretch! This is precisely what PraiseMoves is, in fact, doing. The web site asserts that “PraiseMoves is NOT so-called ‘Christian yoga,’ which we consider an oxymoron/contradiction in terms since ‘Yoga IS Hinduism’ according to many Christians and most Hindus.” 

Apparently ‘many Christians and most Hindus’ believe that ‘yoga is Hinduism’. But we are not given the precise statistics or the research that this assertion is based on so I think we can safely cast doubt on its credibility. So going on the opinions of a few people PraiseMoves has concluded that ‘yoga is Hinduism’ which is indeed astonishing considering that no one can agree either on what yoga is or what Hinduism is. This is a big topic so let me simply assert here that Hinduism is best understood as a civilization or culture area that includes within it a plurality of mutually contradictory religious traditions (see major works by Gavin Flood, Klaus Klostermaier, Henry Pressler, C. J. Fuller and Julius Lipner).  So saying yoga is Hindu is much the same as saying pasta is Italian or, more analogously, lacrosse is Native American. 

Christian synchronized swimming?

Christian yoga is then, not an oxymoron. Rather the phrase is nonsense. It makes no more sense than Christian wrestling or Christian synchronized swimming. Not that you can’t do synchronized swimming to the glory of God. It just won’t be done in a different idiom. Sure, yoga is traditionally taught with elements of Hindu philosophy, but clearly not always. 

PraiseMoves again: “But wait a second, these postures sure look a lot like yoga poses.” Indeed, they reply, “The body can only move in a finite number of ways – not an infinite number of ways. Some of the PraiseMoves postures resemble yoga poses while others do not." It is no coincidence that the creator taught yoga for 22 years. But to try to demonstrate how distinctly Christian this exercise routine is they have created 22 PraiseMoves Alphabetics postures based on the letters of the Hebrew alphabet (such as Lamed, above). How convenient Hebrew is. Challenge: try Chinese!

I have nothing against meditating on Scripture while stretching. We would all do with more of both - my colleagues at WEST are well used to me getting down on the carpet during our staff prayer times. But let's not make a business out of denigrating another tradition.Would PraiseMoves please publicly repent of belittling their local Hindu gathering place? Calling it Ramalama-Ding-Dong Ashram is like talking about the Hokey-Kokey Pentecostal Church. Do they want to alienate Hindus from themselves? Perhaps they really believe there is an army of yoga missionaries out to get them. Get a life!