This question came up in a lunch time discussion at a recent retreat I attended of my Society of the Holy Trinity (STS) chapter. I post an answer here because it is an issue that has been raised in my hearing more than once.
Question: At one of our STS chapter retreats we were studying and discussing the exorcism manual written by Pastor Philip Gagnon, Deliver Us from Evil: A Manual for Exorcism. An active lay person who is involved in a deliverance ministry asked to attend the retreat. In the course of group discussion I commented that I practice yoga and she said that yoga is a work of the devil. What do you think about that?
Frank Answers: I had a similar experience. Last April when I was speaking at the Canadian Rockies Theological Conference on “Worship Wars, Peace Talks” (see “Frank Answers About Worship Wars, Peace Negotiations”). The issue of using the body in worship was discussed, I let it be known that I practice yoga and suggested that yoga is a great way to get in touch with your body. During a break in the sessions a woman came to me and expressed concern that I was practicing yoga and even promoting it. She told me she was involved in deliverance ministry.
This is a slightly different question than the question about whether a Christian can practice yoga that I answered previously on this blog (see “Frank Answers About Christians Practicing Yoga”). In that answer the question had to do with whether yoga is rooted in Eastern religions, especially Hinduism, and communicated an alien faith to Christians who practice it. This question is whether yoga as a practice is inherently demonic. If it is, then the issue is whether anyone should practice it.
Let me first say something about deliverance ministry. There is no institution of such a ministry in the Bible. As I understand it, deliverance ministry is about discerning demonic influences in a person’s life and counseling that person to get rid of such influences. Christian missionaries have had a history of requiring converts from paganism to put away pagan artifacts and practices. Deliverance is different from exorcism, which identifies actual demonic possession and uses rituals to expel the demons or evil spirits. Exorcism is a healing ministry practiced by Jesus and his apostles and by ministers in the Church whose gift for exorcism is recognized by their faith community. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, has designated exorcists in each diocese who have a charism (gift) for that ministry but who have also received training. (See “Frank Answers About the Devil”.)
Deliverance ministries may also practice exorcism. But they are more known for persuading people to remove from their homes and use items that are believed to harbor demons or that depict pagan gods or might be used in demonic or pagan practices. Such items should be burned. This would include art work, horror novels and movies, and music thought to summon demons. I know one person who, as a teen, was admonished to burn his rock and roll records. Another youth, with an interest in Native American spirituality, was urged to burn the dream catcher he had fastened on his bedstead. You can just stop practicing yoga (although I suppose, as a symbolic gesture, you could burn your yoga mat).
Demonic Element in Yoga History
To be honest, there has been a demonic element in yoga history. In a course I took at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Ayurvedic Health in August 2015 on the Embodied History of Yoga, we learned from Professor David Gordon White about sinister yogis who took over other bodies. (See David Gordon White, Sinister Yogis [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009]). We also learned about dakinis (Sanskrit: “sky dancers”), who were Tantric priestesses of ancient India who “carried the souls of the dead to the sky.”
There was an evolution from earth mother figures to goddesses to dakinis (demons) and yoginis (witches). The dakinis and yoginis were of generally volatile temperament and acquired a role in tantric sexual rituals. Dakinis were flyers (often portrayed as birds of prey) who were always hungry and sought human flesh but could be satisfied with life giving semen. As Professor White wrote, “Yoginis were often portrayed as sorcerers or witches, ambiguous, powerful, and dangerous figures that only a heroic male would dare to approach, let alone conquer.” (See David Gordon White, Kiss of the Yogini: “Tantric Sex” in its South Asian Contexts [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003], p. 10.)
Taking possession of another’s body is, in fact, a demonic activity, and it was done by yogis not always for beneficial purposes. Yogis may have entered other bodies to escape death or to feed on them. Some yogis were feared more than welcomed in villages. Yogis could render themselves invisible, take to flight, or practice transmutation of souls.
In the course at Kripalu we had yoga practices with Yoganand Michael Carroll in which, using pranayama (breath work) and mula bandha (root lock) and uddiyana bandha (abdominal lock in which you pull up your internal organs), we were given a narrative in which we pulled up dakinis and demons from our pelvic region, held our breath as long as we could by pushing our tongue against the roof of our mouth, and then exploded them up through the crown of our heads into the sky where they would be disbursed. If some dakinis were left in the body we chased them back down into the pelvic region with vigorous kapalabhati or bastrika breathing and then went after them again in the same way. (See “Frank Answers About His Kripalu Adventure”). This is not a practice you are likely to experience in your ordinary yoga studio, although some teach the basic bandhas or locks (pelvis, abdomen, throat) which, taken together, seal the central channel (sushumna).
On the other hand, sinister yogis and preying dakinis or yoginis do not represent the totality of the yoga tradition. In centuries past yogis were young naked warriors who served a ruler and then settled down into the life of a householder, getting married, raising children, and holding down a day job. Yogis were also naked ascetics (naga sadhus) who devoted themselves to studying texts and meditating. Some yogis became renunciates after they no longer had householder responsibilities and went off into a cave in the Himalayas to meditate.
Yoga in its modern forms is quite different from any of these traditions. I have written elsewhere about the influence of the Northern European 19th century physical culture movement, with its calisthenics and gymnastics, which was brought to India during the British Raj by the British Army and the Indian YMCA, on the development of modern postural yoga. The synthesis of Hatha yoga and modern Western gymnastics was achieved by Sri Krishnamacharya at the yoga school of the Mysore Palace in the 1930s.
Mark Singleton got into exploring this Western influence after comparing old photos of gym classes influenced by the physical culture movement with the poses in Hatha Yoga that he was practicing. (See Mark Singleton, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
Modern yoga has become part of the health and wellness movement and has proven beneficial to many practitioners, even in India. (See Joseph S. Alter, Yoga in Modern India: The Body Between Science and Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.) The alliance between yoga and ayurvedic medicine, with its concerns for proper diet and use of natural remedies, has increased yoga’s reputation as a practice beneficial to health and wellness.
This is one of my favorite yoga poses. The nude form allows us to see the dynamics of the twist. The pelvis is stationary but the upper torso is turned 45 degrees, wringing out the abdomen. Twists are not only great at massaging the abdominal organs and improving digestion, but they also help increase flexibility in the spine.
Focus on the Body
I will not repeat here what I wrote in previous posts about Christians practicing yoga. But as a theological affirmation, I will repeat that God created us as bodies, entered into human flesh to save us in the incarnation of the Word, and connects with us through our bodies in the sacraments instituted by Christ. With its hope in the resurrection of the body, Christianity has always made bodily health a part of its mission. As promoted by the YMCA, the physical culture movement originating in northern Europe in the early 19th century was understood to be promoting the Christian value of building strong bodies, minds, and spirits for healthy and wholesome living.
Modern Hatha yoga poses have similarities with northern European gymnastics. There are only so many things you can do with the human body. The difference between yoga and gymnastics is pranayama, the control of the breath.
Today people use yoga to improve balance, flexibility, strength, and to give general all-around attention to what their bodies are telling them. This is not a demonic practice from which we need deliverance. Deliverance ministries that look for evil everywhere can themselves become evil. My simple advice to pious believers is that if some yoga practices seem too tied to pagan practices, like chanting OM (which stands for Omkara, the name of a Hindu god), don’t do them. But don’t abandon chanting. Almost all ancient cultures believed, and all religions still believe, that sound is the creative force which brought the Universe into being. Modern cosmology understands the universe itself to be vibrating because it is expanding and all the planetary bodies within it are rotating. Even the Bible says that the creation came into being because God spoke. Speaking creates vibrations which are sound waves. The vibrations created by chanting tune us into the vibrations of the universe. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras recommended the chanting of A-U-M as a way to tune into the vibrations of the universe with your body. Chanting A-men can also cause noticeable vibrations in your body.
Yoga for Healing
Yoga has become associated with the healing arts. In fact, the old yogis were called upon for healing and exorcism. What yoga does for our bodies and minds is beneficial. In the following photo Patrik Bitter of Essen, Germany is doing a high lunge. He’s a wounded yogi.
I discovered Patrik on the internet as the “yogi with an ostomy” and began corresponding with him. We both had experienced deep abdominal surgery to cut and reconnect our intestines—he at age 23, me at age 63 for colon cancer. We both went on to practice yoga—he after receiving his ostomy, me after a year of chemotherapy. We both had to rehabilitate our bodies and did it mostly through yoga. For me as well as for Patrik, yoga has been a means of healing. There’s nothing evil in that. God desires for us wholeness of body, mind, and spirit.
The quote from Steve Goodier superimposed on Patrik’s photo says:
My scars remind me that I did indeed survive my deepest wounds. That in itself is an accomplishment. And they bring to mind something else, too. They remind me that the damage life has inflicted on me has, in many places, left me stronger and more resilient. What hurt me in the past has actually made me better equipped to face the present.
I have my own abdominal scar from cancer surgery and a left arm that does not fully extend because my elbow was shattered and has been replaced with an implant.
None of this is the work of the devil. The work of the devil is to destroy, not to build up; to accuse, not to affirm; to cause harm, not to heal. Yoga is for total health of body, mind, and spirit.
Pastor Frank Senn