Here’s another question I addressed as a “Frank Answer” on the Immanuel Lutheran Church website. I reprise it here but greatly expanded from my continuing study and practice of yoga and with the addition of images. I have a great interest in studying yoga history and philosophy and practicing it as well as I am able. New questions about yoga are welcome because I’ve developed a great interest in it, and I’ll answer them if I am able.
Question: Hi pastor. I’m glad you practice yoga. You’ve been a pretty “orthodox” pastor, yet conservative Protestant preachers and Catholic priests have warned their followers to stay away from yoga because it is tainted with Eastern religious ideas. How do you reconcile yoga ideas about experiencing divinity within the self with the Christian view that God is revealed only in Jesus Christ?
Frank answers: I got into yoga in an active older adults class at the YMCA at the age of 65. The instructor was also a yoga teacher at the Y. At first she had us do chair yoga. Then we tried it on the floor. I liked it and began attending her regular Hatha Yoga class. The practice was doing wonders for my sense of balance, breathing, and increasing my flexibility. After about a year I decided to branch out into the wider world of yoga beyond the Y. I tried several different types of yoga and settled into a studio owned by a young couple who practiced a kind of yoga that appealed to my mind and worked well with my senior body. It was slow yoga, not power yoga! And my new teacher was filling in the philosophic background, which appealed to my intellectual interests.
There are about as many schools (sometimes called lineages) of yoga as Christian denominations (well, maybe not that many!). But like denominations there always seem to be new kinds of yoga popping up. Like congregations the kind of yoga teaching you receive can vary widely from one studio to another. Some teachers inject spiritual content into the practice. Other teachers ignore it completely and present yoga only as a physical workout based on a sequence of poses (asanas) supported by breathing techniques (pranayama) and always final relaxation (savasana).
As a pastor and theologian I was well aware that some Christian leaders admonish Christians to stay away from yoga because of its roots in Eastern religions. As an orthodox Christian I didn’t want to get into something that was contrary to Christian beliefs. There are also Hindus in India and America dedicated to “taking back yoga” from its Western and entrepreneurial appropriations and claiming it as a uniquely Hindu practice. So I began a study of the yoga traditions and discovered that there are many.
Yoga as a practice represents wisdom about the body and mind that was rooted in ancient Indian culture. It is not a religion in itself but has been used in different religions. In Hinduism (especially Brahmanism) yoga has been used in devotion to Hindu gods like Krishna. Jains have used yoga to cultivate moral perfection. Buddhism, an off shoot and rejection of orthodox Hinduism, used yoga in its spirituality as an aid on the path to enlightenment. The Tantra movement in early medieval India, which was a reaction to the asceticism of orthodox Hinduism, used yoga to sanctify everyday life. Most people think only of sex when they think of Tantra because of the New Age Tantra sex workshops that are offered. Most teachers explain that Tantra isn’t just about sex, but sex certainly was a focus of traditional Tantra and modern Neo-Tantra sex retreats provide work on intimacy that even some Christian couples could also profit from taking. They are not orgies.
More than anything else, however, Tantra is about the subtle body with its system of chakras or energetic centers. This is a pretty esoteric teaching that has been promoted especially in Tibetan Buddhism, and it isn’t too different from the meridian system of Chinese medicine. Historic Tantra addressed everyday concerns, including sexual power. It gave more attention to the body than the Hindu renunciates did. For the renunciates the purpose of controlling the body was to transcend it in their quest for eternity. Tantra regarded the body as a microcosm of the universe, and therefore divinity could be found within the body.
Because Tantra had a more incarnational focus and addressed this-worldly concerns it seemed to me that it was less gnostic than some other types of yoga. I have been interested in studying Tantra and comparing it with orthodox Christianity’s incarnational spirituality. Doesn’t Christianity also have this aim of the union of God and humankind? God and man were joined in Christ. “The Word became flesh” in the historical Jesus of Nazareth and “dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” God relates to us in a bodily way in the sacraments. We receive the sacramental body of Christ into our bodies and are united to Christ. The Holy Spirit, who is the bond between the Father and the Son, is given to us in Baptism to bond us to God. St. Paul said that our bodies are “the temple of the Holy Spirit”. “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16). Is not the indwelling Holy Spirit the presence of divinity within us? The difference between the divine indwelling in us in the Christian understanding and Tantra’s union of the divine and the human is that the indwelling Holy Spirit does not imply an absorption of the Holy Spirit so that I and the Holy Spirit are indistinguishable.
Some people (including many Christians) think that Christianity is primarily interested in the soul. There’s not a lot about the soul in the Bible. Christianity is all about the body. Jesus healed the sick and cast out demons. The apostles continued to heal the sick and cast out demons. The church has continued to do this in its medical missions down through the centuries. Just as Jesus rose bodily from the dead, we too look expect the resurrection of the body.
Tantra texts provide the historic basis of Hatha Yoga, which is the basic type practiced by most modern yogis and yoginis (male and female yoga practitioners). That makes Hatha yoga very body-oriented. However, the posture (asana) based form of Hatha yoga practiced by health-conscious Westerners today owes less to medieval Tantra texts than to Swedish gymnastics. The few postures mentioned in the medieval texts have to do with stilling the body for meditation. They were not the gymnastic type poses practiced in yoga today. These owe more to the northern European physical culture movement. In fact, in a not so indirect way, Christianity’s interest in physical health and wellness made a contribution to modern postural yoga. Here’s how.
The physical culture movement in 19th century Europe, that promoted strong and healthy bodies through calisthenics and gymnastics, originated in the Lutheran countries of northern Germany (Prussia) and Scandinavia (Sweden and Denmark). The father of Swedish gymnastics was Pehr-Henrik Ling (1766-1839), who had a theology degree from Uppsala University. He had taken up fencing because he found that the movement helped his rheumatism and he became the fencing instructor at Lund University. He took courses in anatomy and physiology in the medical Faculty at Lund because he was interested in the relationship of movement to health. He promoted a view of the body as holistic. A healthy body will have a harmonious balance between its chemical, mechanical, and moving parts. He began to develop a gymnastic approach based on movement rather than the German emphasis on the use of heavy equipment. He was the founder and first principal of the Royal Gymnastic Institute in Stockholm in 1813
Ling was a pioneer in the physical culture movement in nineteenth century that spread throughout Europe and North America. At the Royal Swedish Gymnastics Institute he developed a “medical” or therapeutic gymnastics that contributed to modern physical therapy. His calisthenics became the basis of the modern physical education. It was adopted by the British Army and was promoted by the Young Men’s Christian Association.
No organization promoted the physical culture movement more than the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). Founded as an evangelical Christian organization in England in 1846, it quickly became international. The YMCA strove to implement Christian values with its emphasis on healthy minds, bodies, and spirits. It used exercise, gymnastics, sports, and swimming to promote this “muscular Christianity” whose purpose was to provide fit bodies for Christian mission and service. The YMCA even invented the term “bodybuilding” (first coined by YMCA physical culturalist Robert J. Roberts). The first YMCAs with gymnasiums were constructed in 1869. Having a fit body became part of overall wholesome living, if not a path to spiritual enlightenment.
Mark Singleton in Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice (Oxford University Press, 2010) discusses how the YMCA in India translated this impulse into “education through the body, not of the body.” The body was used as a tool to access other parts of the self; it was not an end in itself. This was not unlike the purpose behind medieval and modern Hatha Yoga. The mind-body-spirit complex has become a mainstay of contemporary yoga, but it is often wrongly attributed to ancient yogic texts. There’s no doubt that the Indian YMCA, an explicitly evangelical Christian organization, made a contribution to modern postural yoga through its promotion of the Western physical culture, including Scandinavian gymnastics.
The Indian YMCA may actually have included asana practice in its physical fitness regime, since YMCA staff in India made sure to include “attractive indigenous activities” in their programs. The Indian YMCA administrator H. C. Buck set up the first school for Indian physical education directors in Chennai and supervised the training of the first Indian national athletic teams to compete in the Paris Olympics in 1924. The YMCA played an important role in India’s embracing of physical fitness as a means of asserting Indian nationalism, including taking up bodybuilding.
B. C. Ghosh, younger brother of Yogananda, promoted a method of “muscle control” that combined bodybuilding and Hatha.
Europeans had looked down on Indians as weak and unhealthy. As part of emerging Indian nationalism, the guru T. Krishnamacharya in southern India took this criticism seriously when he became the yoga teacher at the Mysore Palace, whose maharaja had embrace physical culture. Krishnamacharya saw the Western calisthenics and gymnastics being done at the British army base down the road from the Mysore Palace and integrated these practices with the physical postures (asanas) of Hatha Yoga that had a tradition going back to the fifteenth century (although asanas had not been widely practiced except as an aid to meditation). The result was the more gymnastic style of yoga that flourishes around the world today.
In this photo Krishnamacharyi supervises his students performing a yoga demonstration at the Mysore Palace in the early 1930s. Compare this photo with the photo of Swedish gymnastics above.
Krishnamacharyi’s students, particularly B. K. S. Iyengar and K. Pattabhi Jois, promoted this revitalized asana-based yoga in the West.
B. K. S. Iyengar (1918-2014) promoted yoga as a health and fitness regime comparable to gymnastics but without the need for heavy equipment. However, he did make use of light equipment such as blocks and straps in order to make asanas more accessible to Westerners.
As a result of the influence of Iyengar and Jois, modern yoga has become mostly a postural exercise for health-conscious modern people. The yoga most Westerners experience is pretty much sheared of its religious and spiritual dimensions. The Christian influence on modern yoga, originating in the physical culture movement of northern Europe and promoted in India principally through the YMCA needs to be recognized. When this history is known it cannot be said that yoga as it is practiced today is a exclusively a Hindu or Eastern religious practice. Contrary to what some Christian leaders assert, the yoga practiced in the West today, influenced by Western physical culture, is not rooted in Hindu spirituality—although Hindus may bring their devotion (bhakti) to yoga, just as Christians might do.
Many people practice yoga today simply as a fitness regimen that brings mind and body together without any religious connotations. Christians should see nothing wrong about this. Certainly Christians would need to know if a yoga teacher introduces concepts that are incompatible with Christian belief. But if you are well grounded in Christian theology and spirituality, it should be possible to take what is good in yoga and politely ignore whatever in its ethos may seem theologically or spiritually alien. This is what Christians have done with many cultural expressions from around the world since Christian beginnings. Christianity was multi-cultural from the beginning.
In my view we don’t need to Christianize yoga, as some have tried to do. The techniques of yoga have been used by several different religions for their own purposes. Christians can practice yoga for what it offers us—wisdom about the body amassed over centuries of practice. Taking care of your body is a responsible act of Christian stewardship since the body is God’s good creation and the temple of the Holy Spirit. If the breathing techniques, physical postures, and practices of meditation help to renew your body, mind, and spirit, and help seniors like myself to maintain balance and flexibility, that’s good enough reason to practice it. If your yoga teacher throws in a bit of Buddhist wisdom, consider that it just might be wise. If your yoga teacher throws around too much New Age jargon, tune it out or find a more body-centered teacher.
Pastor Frank Senn