When it was discovered that I had colon cancer in 2006 my primary care physician said, “You will face your mortality and survive.” He was right. In my year-long chemotherapy protocol I witnessed my body dying. I will spare readers the details, but once my year of chemotherapy was complete my body bounced back—within a month! I have been taking care of my renewed body ever since. This has included a change in diet (my wife Mary has made herself an authority on nutrition), regular massage (I’ve enjoyed experiencing different modalities), and yoga.
My practice of yoga has gone from an active older adults class at the McGaw YMCA in Evanston to regular Hatha yoga classes at the Y to the Grateful Yoga studio in Evanston. I’ve also done Bikram Yoga. And my wife Mary and I spent a week at the Samasati Nature Reserve and Yoga Center in Costa Rica. I started practicing yoga when I was sixty-five. I am now seventy and try to practice a couple of times a week. I find the practice rewarding, but I am also aware that not all Christians are comfortable engaging in a practice that is rooted in Eastern religion. Some are hostile. This essay takes a positive view and regards yoga not just as a good exercise regimen but also as an ally in the recovery of a Christian theology of the body.
Yoga as a Workout and a Religion
Yoga has rapidly increased in popularity as its health benefits have become better known, even in the five years I have been practicing yoga. It is certainly a great workout. It targets every muscle, organ, and joint in the body, strengthens the cardiovascular system, balances the endocrine system, and pushes the body beyond its personal limits. William Broad, science writer for the New York Times and a yogi himself (that’s what male practitioners are called; female practitioners are yogini), has investigated some of the physical and mental health claims of yoga teachers. He validates some of the claims but also warns that there are risks involved. This is inevitable as millions of Westerners unused to Eastern body positions get into the practice with great enthusiasm.1
My interest in ritual drew me to yoga as well as its health benefits since the practice is very ritualistic. Whatever religious dimensions there are to yoga are not stressed in the classes at the Y, although one instructor there has us join in the Om…shanti chant at the end of the class and all the instructors end class with the Namaste greeting. Namaste is an acknowledgment of the soul in the other, not unlike the liturgical saluation, “The Lord be with you. / And with your spirit”.
Realizing that yoga has a religious or spiritual dimension, and that many practice it also as a form of spirituality, I decided to find out more about its history. My guru (teacher) at Grateful Yoga, Nick Beem, has supplied me with scholarly resources. From Georg Feuerstein’s encyclopedic work on The Yoga Tradition I learned about yoga’s beginnings in ancient India (about 3000 B.C.) and how it was embraced first by Hinduism and later by Buddhism.2 I learned that the roots of yoga may be found in Vedic symbolic fire sacrifices which involved offering foods to various kinds of breath. This sacrifice was interiorized in the Aranyakas, or “forest teachings,” which were ritual books for the orthodox Brahmins who retired to the forest to live in solitude where they could engage in mystical rituals and contemplation. By the time of the Upanishads this process of interiorization of the Vedic rituals was nearly complete. As Feuerstein concludes, “Henceforth the Divine could be worshiped purely with mind or heart, without external paraphernalia.”3
I re-read portions of the Bhagavad Gita (“Song of God”), the earliest yoga scripture from the Vedic period, that I had read more than forty years ago in a philosophic theology course in graduate school at the University of Notre Dame taught by Professor David Burrell. As I recall, we sat cross-legged on the floor in a meditation position while passages from the Bhagavad Gita were read aloud and then had a discussion on what we heard. This “Song of God” is part of the Mahabharata, an ancient Indian epic poem. It is the climax of the story of Prince Arjuna, who finds himself in a moral and spiritual crisis, uncertain of what action to take in a dire situation. A battle is about to ensue in the cause of the rightful king. On his side are his younger brothers and noble warriors but he has cousins and friends on the opposing side. Whatever action he takes, people he cares deeply about on both sides will be harmed. Arjuna is a compassionate man and this immobilizes him. There are good and bad people on both sides, and the religious and spiritual traditions he knows do not provide an answer to his dilemma. The story unfolds as a long discussion between Arjuna and the god Krishna in which the warrior prince comes to understand that all human actions are imperfect. Even if the outcome of his decision and the battle is good, it will not be perfect. What should he do?
Our religious and spiritual belief systems provide no absolute guarantees about our courses of action; sometimes one must simply take a leap of faith.
Arjuna’s need to make a decision is perhaps why Professor Burrell included the Bhagavad Gita in a course that also included Augustine’s Confessions, portions of Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologia, and Kierkegaard’s Philosophic Fragments. Our religious and spiritual belief systems provide no absolute guarantees about our courses of action; sometimes one must simply take a leap of faith. But in an imperfect world in which our decisions are imperfect, Krishna counsels Arjuna to practice yoga (the word is usually translated as “discipline”). He recommends karma yoga, the discipline of service; jnana yoga, the discipline of knowledge, particularly self-knowledge; and bhakti yoga, the discipline of devotion.
An enormous body of spiritual values, religious teachings, and physical techniques has developed in the yoga traditions over the course of five millennia, not only in India but also in Tibet, China, and Japan. I suspect that most people in the West practice yoga only because the performance of asanas or poses has proven to be good exercise. This asana-heavy version of yoga ignores the religious, philosophic, and moral dimensions of the holistic practice of body, mind, and spirit promoted by great yogis, rendering yoga scarcely distinguishable from other regimens designed to stretch and strengthen muscles.
In a recent study of yoga’s cultural history in America, journalist Stefanie Syman chronicles how an ancient spiritual discipline has become a fitness routine for athletic Americans, and a new source of health and wellness entrepreneurship in the process.4 Yet embedded in the practices of yoga traditions are spiritual teachings that are conveyed to a greater or lesser extent by most yoga teachers. These teachings are absorbed by the millions of yoga practitioners and Stefanie Syman is telling us something important when she writes that yoga “has augured a truly post-Christian, spiritually polyglot country.”
The title of Syman’s book, The Subtle Body, refers to the belief, widely held in and outside of India, that the physical body has a parallel counterpart not made of matter but of energy. This “subtle body” has been the subject of intense investigation in the Tantra Yoga tradition. Particular attention has focused on the seven psychoenergetic centers or chakras that move up the body from the perineum to the crown of the head. This has not been corroborated by Western science. But it is believed by the yogis that the primordial energy, or Shakti, coiled at the base of the spine like a sleeping serpent, can accomplish amazing things when awakened.
The question for a Christian (or for any non-Hindu) is: can yoga be dissociated from Hinduism?
The question for a Christian (or for any non-Hindu) is: can yoga be dissociated from Hinduism? Some Hindus especially think it can’t be or should not be. Dr. Aseem Shukla, co-founder of the Hindu American Foundation, lamented on his blog that “yoga has thrived, but Hinduism has lost control of the brand.” The Hindu American Foundation, whose mission is to shed light on any form of prejudice against Hindus or Hinduism, has initiated a Take Back Yoga movement in an effort to assert yoga as a Hindu religious contribution to civilization.
Against this view I would note that in the melting pot of India between 200 BC and 1200 AD, yoga was a shared discourse between proto-Hindus (Brahmanists, really), Buddhists, Jains, and Sufis. One wonders whether Christians, who were in India from the fourth century, also took a dip in the yoga traditions. These religious groups swapped techniques and innovated as needed. Thus it is impossible to assign ownership to any particular practice. Even now yoga in India is being influenced by Western appropriation of the techniques. In the end, yoga is a time-tested set of methods for relating to the Divine in whatever form is most suitable for each practitioner. No particular creed is required, except a basic faith in the possibility of enlightenment—of discovering things at least about oneself.
Yet some Evangelicals warn Christians against practicing yoga precisely because it is steeped in Eastern religion. The Southern Baptist Convention has taken a strong stand against yoga, even and perhaps especially the emerging practice of so-called Christian yoga. One blogger wrote that the deception of “Christian yoga” “is so obvious” that it “laughs at Christians who practice it. Yoga — regardless of what shape, form or fashion it is packaged in — is an unfruitful deed of darkness. To practice it lends credibility to the false gods of Hinduism and the traditions of men, and is a rebellious violation of the commands of Scripture (Exodus 20:3; Deuteronomy 6:14; Ephesians 5:11; Colossians 2:8).”
Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, argued in his blog on September 20, 2010 that Christians cannot practice yoga without disregarding the biblical witness, risking their souls, and being compromised by yoga’s hypersexuality. He writes: “While most adherents of yoga avoid the more exotic forms of ritualized sex that are associated with tantric yoga, virtually all forms of yoga involve an emphasis on channeling sexual energy throughout the body as a means of spiritual enlightenment.”
Actually, I never consciously experienced any channeling of sexual energy in my yoga classes. So I asked a young male teacher with whom I had some private lessons if I was missing something. Oh, yes, he said, excitedly. Some yoga practices improve levels of arousal in sexually unsatisfied women and help them achieve better orgasm, and some breathing and locking exercises (for example, root lock — engaging the perineal/pelvic floor muscles) are effective in treating premature ejaculation and prolonging ejaculations in men.
Certainly fast breathing, such as is done in many yoga classes, can increase blood flow through the body, including the genitals, and can lead to arousal. Unfortunately, there’s a track record of celebrated gurus with a reputation as philanderers.5 The highly regarded yoga teacher Richard Freeman suggests that “sexual awareness is integral to any disciplined practice of yoga that addresses the body fully.” Even Hatha yoga taps into sexual energy as it touches the prana, or internal breath, in the core of the body. “If this energy is denied,” writes Freeman, “it can come back and sabotage even a sincere yogi in subtle or gross ways.”6 Some gurus have notoriously taken advantage of admiring female students. Gurus are like clergy. They are dealing with their students’ spiritual and emotional issues as well as physical issues, and there are plenty of opportunities for boundaries to be crossed.
Tantric yoga especially has been promoted as a way of enhancing sexuality. It was imported in the U.S. at the beginning of the sexual revolution in the 1960s. The yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein reports that a well-known Tibetan lama jokingly referred to this as “California Tantra.” The main error of these promoters of Neo-Tantra, writes Feuerstein, “is to confuse Tantric bliss (ananda, mahu-sukha) with ordinary orgasmic pleasure”.7 He points out that some teachers of Neo-Tantra believe that sex and sexual experiences are sacred acts which are capable of elevating their participants to a higher spiritual plane. Some cash in on this tradition by offering workshops on enhancing lovemaking and teaching techniques for full-body orgasms. Feuerstein comments that “Many are attracted to Neo-Tantrism because it promises sexual excitement or fulfillment while clothing purely genital impulses or neurotic emotional needs in an aura of spirituality.” Yet he admits that “If we knew more about the history of Tantra in India, we would no doubt find a comparable situation for every generation”.8
Tantra emerged as an answer to the question as to why we have to think of the world, and of the body and mind, as enemies that need to be overcome. Why do we have to renounce pleasure in order to experience bliss?
The Tantras are sacred texts, some of which go back to Vedic times, and revolve around rituals related to goddess worship, or Shakti. The scope of the topics dealt with in Hindu and Buddhist tantric texts is considerable, ranging from the creation of the world to the mapping of the subtle body to the nature of enlightenment to sacred sexuality. Sometimes referred to as the “left hand” philosophy, the tantric tradition was noted for breaking with conventional life, including conventional approaches to the spiritual life. Tantra emerged as an answer to the question as to why we have to think of the world, and of the body and mind, as enemies that need to be overcome. Why do we have to renounce pleasure in order to experience bliss? Tantric yoga emerged in the early centuries C.E. Practitioners indulged in sensual pleasures in the process of cultivating transcendental bliss (ânanda). They sought an esoteric significance in all mundane actions, including sex. Tantra devotees sought to fuse the male and female aspects of the cosmos into a blissful state of consciousness.
Tantra thus developed alongside of and in contrast to the ascetic world-renouncing traditions in Hinduism, and gained currency during times of popular reaction to the esoteric philosophies of the renouncers who tended to be men from the upper castes. Around the time of Jesus members of the lower castes and women moved in the direction of bhakti yoga, or “the discipline of devotion”. Instead of controlling their bodies and emotions, they let them go (like Christian charismatic or Pentecostal worship). In a similar way, while classical yoga seeks to calm or clear the mind, Tantra seeks to release the energy in the body assisted by the mind.
The word Bhakti comes from the Sanskrit root Bhaj meaning “to worship; to adore.” It is described as devotion that directs emotions toward God in order to experience union with the divine. But the bhakti devotees experienced the divine in everyday life.
One of several meanings of tantra is “to weave.” The aim of this tradition is to weave spiritual experiences into the fabric of everyday life. This is probably why it gained currency during the bhakti reaction to the renunciate tradition.
The tantric method is to pair opposites in order to create unity with God and with another. This is where the sexual aspect of Tantra comes into play because a common opposite pair would be male/female. The interaction of male and female (i.e. the Shiva/Shakti union) is a way of experiencing the macrocosm (Brahmanda) at the level of the microcosm (Pindanda), which is the human body. This is also experienced in areas other than sex.
Tantra takes the body seriously as the locus of reality, and it is the source of Hatha yoga, which may be the most popular form of yoga in North America. The Hatha yoga practiced in the West includes physical poses (asanas), breathing (pranayama), and meditation. Ha tha means sun/moon, which are opposites. The tantric method is evident in Hatha’s stretching of muscles in opposite directions in a coordinated effort to produce the unified pose (for example, downward facing dog). As Richard Freeman writes, “Grounded in physical practices, the hatha yoga system examines the body with a fine-tooth comb—pulling open internal sensations and feelings…”.9 Hatha is performed in our society today mostly as physical exercise and is recognized as a stress-reducing practice.
Vinyassa is a variation of Hatha which turns the static asanas of Hatha into a dynamic flow. The length of one inhale or one exhale dictates the length of time spent transitioning between asanas. In effect, attention is placed on the breath and the journey between the asanas rather than solely on achieving perfect body alignment in an asana, as is emphasized in regular Hatha yoga. In this practice there is a flow from one pose to another in a prescribed sequence supported by the breath. Probably the most common vinyassa is the flow through twelve poses that constitutes the “sun salutation.”
At its heart, Hatha yoga is more than just about flexibility and strength; it is the management of the vital life force called prana that animates all levels of being. Prana is the breath that enables the body to move and the mind to think. The yoga tradition regards prana as the intelligence that coordinates our senses, and the perceptible manifestation of our higher selves. By becoming more attentive to breath — and enhancing and directing its flow through the practices of Hatha yoga — the body and mind are invigorated, inner consciousness is expanded, and the door is open to higher states of consciousness.
The yoga tradition has developed a very sophisticated understanding of what prana does in the body and mind. It has identified five movements or functions of prana known as the vayus (literally “winds”) that govern different areas of the body: Prana vayu (heart and circulatory system), Apana vayu (lungs and excretatory system), Samana vayu (conscious energy and vocal apparatus), Udana vayu (digestion and metabolism), and Vyana vayu (voluntary mascular system). Yoga also thinks of these pranas as emotional qualities and mental energies, fundamental to physical, mental and emotional well-being.
The most significant of the five vayus are prana vayu and apana vayu. Prana vayu is an upward flowing energy and apana vayu is a downward flowing energy. Intentionally reversing these two energies through a variety of practices causes the Kundalini or serpent (“coiled one”) at the base of the subtle spine to awaken, and to begin to arise. Kundalini is a more esoteric practice which aims to raise individual consciousness and merge it with the consciousness of God. It does this through the use of breathing practices and meditation that release the dormant energy at the base of the spine (the sleeping Kundalini Shakti) and moves it through the seven chakras up the spine to the crown of the head, at which point enlightenment may occur. Richard Freeman writes that “Without the arousing of this energy deep within the core of the body, there is more potential for fantasy, an element of unmet desire or of intellectualization arising at the core of your yoga practice. This is because the body holds the history of our mental activities within its habitual patterns, in muscles and connective tissues as well as in habits of perception and movement”.10
I think that if there is to be any dialogue between yoga and Christianity the Tantra tradition will have to be taken into account. It is the one yoga tradition that takes seriously the body itself as the revelation of divine reality.
I have given this severely brief sketch of the Tantra tradition in its Hatha form to provide non-practitioners with some very basic information. I think that if there is to be any dialogue between yoga and Christianity the Tantra tradition will have to be taken into account. It is the one yoga tradition that takes seriously the body itself as the revelation of divine reality. Indeed, Tantra was regarded as a heresy by the Brahmins precisely for this reason.
There is a gnostic character to some yoga traditions. Indeed, ancient gnosticism came into the Graeco-Roman world from the East, perhaps from India. The characteristic trait of gnosticism is that it seeks to escape the material world, including the physical body, which it regards as evil because it is the source of suffering (thus Buddhism) in order to attain spiritual knowledge (gnosis = knowledge) or enlightenment. In much yoga practice there is an effort to escape consciousness of this world by achieving an elevated state of consciousness through meditation. Tantra, on the other hand, regarded the body as the microcosm of the universe and believed that we can learn about reality and even human relationships from what we experience of the body and its interrelated parts. Christians who have been reconsidering a somatic spirituality can learn a thing or two from Tantra yoga.
The Theology of the Body
Albert Moehler wrote in his blog that “When Christians practice yoga, they must either deny the reality of what yoga represents or fail to see the contradictions between their Christian commitments and their embrace of yoga. The contradictions are not few, nor are they peripheral. The bare fact is that yoga is a spiritual discipline by which the adherent is trained to use the body as a vehicle for achieving consciousness of the divine. Christians are called to look to Christ for all that we need and to obey Christ through obeying his Word.”
But we recall the New Testament witness that all the fullness of God inhabited the body of Christ, that in baptism the bodies of Christians become the Temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19), and that St. Paul discussed the meaning and functions of the church using the analogy of the interrelated workings of the body in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12. There ought to be some correlation between the incarnational theology of Christianity and yoga traditions that take seriously the body as a vehicle of the divine. We can worship, serve, and obey Christ only through our bodies (which includes our minds), because we are bodily creatures. Christian life is a somatic reality.
Even the yogic emphasis on the breath (prana) has correlations with the biblical view of the breath/wind/spirit (ruach, pneuma, spiritus). The biblical Christian recalls that “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth” (Psalm 33;6; see also Genesis 1:1). And “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). According to Acts 2 it was a violent wind that energized the disciples of Jesus on the Day of Pentecost to go out into the world to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus.
Yoga postures help us to be more attuned to what is going on in our bodies. Might postural yoga, with its well-documented physical and mental benefits, help me to better exercise the stewardship of my own body, which St. Paul says is the temple of the Holy Spirit?
The Holy Spirit is the energy by which God creates the world, gathers the people of God (the Church), and raises our mortal bodies from the dead. Might postural yoga (asanas), supported by the energy of the breath (prana) also influence a Christian’s self-understanding as a body created in the image and likeness of God and thus an object of unutterable dignity redeemed by the blood of Christ? Yoga postures help us to be more attuned to what is going on in our bodies. Might postural yoga, with its well-documented physical and mental benefits, help me to better exercise the stewardship of my own body, which St. Paul says is the temple of the Holy Spirit?
Amazingly, I was reading the theology of the body taught by the late Pope John Paul II at the same time as I was studying the Tantra tradition and was struck by the parallels. Feuerstein states that “Tantra’s body-positive approach is the direct outcome of its integrative metaphysics according to which this world is not mere illusion but a manifestation of the supreme Reality”.11 So, too, Pope John Paul II said, “The body,…and only the body, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and divine. It has been created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden from eternity in God, and thus to be a sign of it” (Address on February 20, 1980).12
The 129 catechetical addresses of Pope John Paul II collected together as Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body (2006) is the late pope’s integrated vision of the human person—body, soul, and spirit. It is not surprising that the late pope would show an interest in the human body. This was the pope who had a swimming pool built at Castel Gondolfo and continued his lifelong passion for skiing even after being installed into the papal office. He kept his body on public display even as it became ravaged by Parkinson’s Disease.
The addresses actually began to form before Carol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II, while he was archbishop of Kraków. The purpose of the papal addresses were to discuss issues of human sexuality that have confused modern people. Why were we created male and female? What are the differences between the sexes? Why were man and woman called into communion with each other from the beginning? What does the marital union of a man and woman say to us about God and his plan for our lives? What is the purpose of the married and celibate vocations?
The catecheses on the body have been studied primarily for their contribution to the sexual ethics of the twenty-first century. However, before there is ethics there is theology. In addressing these issues of sexuality, marriage, and celibacy, John Paul II connected human sexuality with the divine mystery. He taught that the body, in the full truth of its masculinity and femininity, proclaims the divine mystery in the world. What does this mean? As physical, bodily creatures we cannot see God. God is pure Spirit. But God wanted to make his mystery visible to us, so he stamped it into our bodies by creating us as male and female in his own image (Genesis 1:27). The function of this image is to reflect the Trinity as “a divine communion of [three] Persons” (November 14, 1979).
In our masculinity and femininity human beings are also created to be a communion of persons. The body has a “nuptial meaning” because it reveals man’s and woman’s call to become a gift for one another, a gift fully realized in their “one flesh” union. The body also has a “generative meaning” that (God willing) brings a “third” into the world through their union. In this way, marriage constitutes a “primordial sacrament” understood as a sign that truly communicates the mystery of God’s Trinitarian life and love to husband and wife, and through them to their children, and through the family to the whole world.
This is what marital spirituality is all about: participating in God’s life and love and sharing it with the world. While this is certainly a sublime calling, it is not ethereal; it’s tangible. God’s love is meant to be lived and felt in daily life as a married couple lives according to the full truth of the body. “In fact, on the road of this vocation, how indispensable,” the pope insists, “is a deepened knowledge of the meaning of the body in its masculinity and femininity! How necessary is an accurate consciousness of the spousal meaning of the body, of its generative meaning, given that all that forms the content of the life of spouses must always find its full and personal dimension in shared life, in behavior, in feelings! And this is all the more against a background of a civilization that remains under the pressure of a materialistic and utilitarian way of thinking and evaluating” (April 2, 1980).13
The theology of the body also shows how the vocation of celibacy affirms the goodness of sexuality and the vocation to marriage and family. The celibate doesn’t reject sexuality, but rather uses it to make a gift of self to Christ and his Church. Love is what drives us to give of ourselves, whether in marriage or in celibacy. In John Paul II’s view, celibacy actually affirms the goodness of the sexual act by sacrificing it for the sake of the kingdom. This is quite different from the world-renouncing views of ancient and medieval Christian asceticism. The vocation of the voluntary celibate is to point to the eschatological reality in which there is neither marriage nor giving in marriage.
Yoga also had its traditions of abstinence which holy men maintained by perfect control of the sexual function. In reaction to this renunciate tradition Tantra yoga also developed techniques of perfect control, into which one had to be initiated, that resulted in maximum sexual pleasure, especially for women whose erotic needs had been traditionally blocked. These states of pleasure also attained the highest states of consciousness, even of the divine.
Christians have had a gnostic tendency to not take seriously the body as the means by which they express their relationship to God. This has allowed modern Christians to give unexamined credence to technological control of the body in the form of contraceptives, abortion, and genetic engineering. Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body put forward a positive argument for Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humana vitae. Maybe it’s time to reconsider what was at stake in Humana vitae that was missed in knee-jerk reactions to the ban on the use of contraception.
Living a spiritual life never means eschewing our bodies.
One of the greatest threats facing an authentic Christian spirituality today is the “spiritualism” by which people disembody their call to holiness. Spirituality is not seen as having anything to do with bodily existence or sexual morality. Even marriage is increasingly regarded as an emotional bond rather than a conjugal bond. This plays down its essential sexual character (“the two become one flesh”). But living a spiritual life never means eschewing our bodies. Authentic spirituality is always an embodied spirituality. It will give attention to matters of food and sex, as well as to fasting and abstinence. This is the very “logic” of Christianity. God communicates his life to us in and through the body, as we see in the Word made flesh. The spirit that denies this “incarnational reality” is that of the anti-Christ (see 1 John 4:2-3).
Toward a Christian Practice of Yoga
I am certainly not an expert in tantric philosophy or even in the late pope’s theology of the body. But I am intrigued by the parallels. Both systems are about more than sex, but never in a way that fails to take sexuality seriously. In both systems the human body is the incarnation of the supreme Reality (Shiva/Shakti, the Word made flesh). In both systems it is through the body that we enter into union with the divine. Dialogue would establish differences between these systems, not the least of which is the theological content: the identity of the divine. But they need not be seen as contrary spiritualities. I don’t know whether Christian theology gives more or less thought to the body than the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, but I know that the body is essential to Christian theology.
Christians could learn from yoga to give our bodies a respect, especially in terms of maintaining its health and vitality, that is consistent with our theology of the goodness of the creation, including the human body. Respect for the body can also help Christians focus on their own beliefs about the dignity of humankind created in the image of God, the incarnation of the Son of God in the body of Jesus, the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit, and the resurrection of the body to new and eternal life.14
So, too, the effect of asanas on the mind can remind Christians that body and mind are one and that God’s people are called, as in Deuteronomy, to worship the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. Especially in the Western Christian tradition we have tended to emphasize worshiping God with our minds. But we have been giving a new attention to embodied worship in recent years, and the corollary to this ought to be developing strong and healthy bodies with which to serve God and God’s people.
How yoga influences our attitudes toward and care for the body is a matter of individual discernment. But that Christians can find support in yoga for their own discipleship surprises no one acquainted with yogic practices. It is not surprising that yogis want to take care of their bodies in terms of nutrition and exercise. Yogic meditation helps us to become more attuned to our body’s needs, its gifts, and our sense of our physical presence and its impact on others.
The fact that yoga comes out of a different religious and spiritual tradition requires Christians who practice this discipline to decide what content to invest in their practice. No yoga class will be entirely without spiritual content, no matter how minimal.
Nevertheless, the fact that yoga comes out of a different religious and spiritual tradition requires Christians who practice this discipline to decide what content to invest in their practice. No yoga class will be entirely without spiritual content, no matter how minimal. Some classes will be more heavily invested in Eastern religious and spiritual content than others. Christian yoga has emerged to provide an alternative to these influences. But the real value of the practice is the practice. What is important in the practice of yoga is experience more than theory. The experience gained from the practice can be related to the most mundane aspects of everyday life as well as to the most esoteric theories of philosophy and spirituality.
Because of my theological commitments I have been drawn mostly to the tantric yoga tradition, although in its less esoteric or more sanitized aspects. The form I practice is Hatha yoga. But Tantra is also related to bhakti yoga — the discipline of devotion. Bhakti shows that the various asanas and pranayamas have everything to do with our relationship to our teacher, to others, and, not least, to our God. The basic attitude of devotion is to do something out of love for the other and not to receive something in return. Bhakti yoga eschews works-righteousness! We take care of our bodies because they are given to us by the God who created us and we love God in return by showing our gratitude for all God’s gifts. Yoga is practiced as an act of devotion and there is no reason it cannot be a devotion to the Christian God.
One might christianize yoga practice by beginning with the sign of the cross as a silent invocation and by stating one’s silent intention for practice as gaining wisdom to use one’s body (oneself) in God’s service that day. Sun salutations can be practiced simply for the benefit of the practice. But its twelve poses can also be an enacted Gloria Patri, as follows:
Mountain pose/hands in prayer position – Glory
Raise arms overhead/slight backward bend – to the Father (who is in heaven)
Forward bend – and to the Son (who descended to earth)
Monkey pose/chest thrust forward – and to the Holy Spirit (who dwells in our hearts)
Step back/Plank – as it was
Cobra or upward facing dog – in the beginning (arising from the earth)
Downward facing dog – is now (facing reality)
Forward bend – and will be (rising hopefully)
Raise arms overhead/slight backward bend – forever.
Mountain pose/hands in prayer position – Amen.
Finally, there is a venerable tradition of Mantra Yoga. Mantra yoga meditation involves chanting a word or phrase until it is internalized, the mind and emotions are transcended, and the higher consciousness is clearly revealed and experienced. Many of the yoga traditions practice the chanting of sutra texts at the beginning and end of yoga practice to implant the texts in one’s mind. This is a practice that has been picked up in some Christian uses, such as the mantra-like chants associated with the Taizé community. Mantras bring us into a heightened awareness and focus on the texts, whether for Hindus the yoga sutras or for Christians psalm verses (as in the example of Taizé chants).
Under the theory that energy causes vibrations, and that concentrating on the sounds created by these vibrations can lead to a higher consciousness, chanting and ringing bells has long been a part of yoga. In yoga the all-purpose om is regarded as the elemental sound of the cosmos. Om comes from the name omkara, which is a name of God in the Hindu revivalist Arya Samaj and can be translated as “I Am Existence”. For me the om invokes the God who is what Paul Tillich called “the ground of our being.” Chanting in a group, as in all choral music, requires also listening to others if the group is to breathe together, match a pitch, and be in sync on the vowel and consonant. Om tunes us into God and also to one another.
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The various claims of yoga have been objectively evaluated in William J. Broad, The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012).
See Georg Feuerstein, The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice, 3rd edition (Prescott, AR: Hohm Press, 2008).
Stefanie Syman, The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2010).
See William J. Broad, “Yoga and Sex Scandals: No Surprise Here,” New York Times (Feb. 27, 2012).
Richard Freeman, The Mirror of Yoga: Awakening the Intelligence of Body and Mind (Boston and London: Shambhala, 2012), 142-43.
Georg Feuerstein, Tantra: The Path of Ecstacy (Boston and London: Sambhala, 1998), xiv.
Freeman, The Mirror of Yoga, 38.
John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. and Introduction by Michael Waldstein (Boston: Pauline, 2006), 203.
See Carl E. and LaVonne Braaten, The Living Temple: A Practical Theology of the Body and the Foods of the Earth (New York: Harper and Row, 1976).