I want to offer some insight on an exercise and wellness practice where Eastern beliefs connect with Western faith. In this process of East meets West, I am going to need to dive into some religious philosophy to answer a question. I have written numerous articles on the benefits of yoga, but yoga in America is undoubtedly misunderstood and in many cases would not be considered an actual yoga practice by true Eastern practitioners.
The term yoga has many connotations and denotes the physical, mental and an awakening spiritual practice that is thousands of years old. Because yoga is many things to many countries and people, it remains somewhat controversial in Western cultures.
Recently, a person asked me an interesting question. Is yoga compatible with Christian living? At first, I thought to myself “what a silly question” it occurred to me that it’s like asking if Thai food is compatible with an American diet. I had to step back and try to understand the perception of how the practice of yoga would place one’s faith in question or at risk?
After giving this question much thought, I believe it’s worth taking a look at what yoga is and what yoga is not.
The word ‘yoga’, often overused or misused in Western culture, mostly refers to the physical exercise regimen that has become so popular across the country. Within the physical aspect of yoga, most of the people who take part in a yoga class are familiar with a type of yoga such as Hatha, Bikram, Ashtanga and Iyengar.
From the many forms or practices of yoga, Hatha is the most common and considered by some to be the least spiritual and most exercise based. Hatha tends to be a prevalent yoga practice for those worried about mixing religious convictions with yoga. What is important to understand about all these Westernized yoga practices is their primary focus are two aspects: the physical form “asana” and breathing form “pranayama” where you are learning proper postures, body alignment and relaxing and controlling your breath. In the West, most yoga instructors and classes do not put a significant focus on the spiritual aspect.
Yoga has become concerning for Christians when you look at the true meaning of the yoga practice. The actual definition of the word yoga is “union”, union with self and Brahman or god through self-realization, unity, and enlightenment. Yoga practiced in the West does not usually take on the long and challenging task to bring unity-consciousness and oneness with god into the more westernized exercise centric processes of yoga.
Now I do not wish to offend yoga studios or practitioners whose primary focus and philosophy is self-discovery, atonement, and enlightenment as a core to their teachings. But we need to keep in mind there are many lovely exercise programs called yoga that is not yoga by any stretch (pun intended).
I am trying to keep the general understanding simple so I can get to answering the question, can Christians practice yoga with a good conscience? At the same time, I do not want to sell experienced yoga instructors short who have the skills to blend the physical asana’s with the breath pranayama’s into a more profound broader teaching that encompasses the spiritual mind, body and energy experience.
What is yoga in it’s pure form? Yoga that is practiced in Eastern cultures as a system for self-realization was brought forward by Patanjali around 150 AD in a text called The Yoga Sutras. These practices of the yoga sutras were not the starting point of yoga, just a somewhat contextualized and modernized version of a much more ancient tradition. These ancient forms of yoga such as the practice of Kriya yoga, whose understandings were lost to time and only resurfaced roughly a hundred and fifty years ago, are incredible and hard to understand. The story of Kriya yoga is fantastic and one filled with spiritual aspects that exemplifies why yoga teachings create a religious divide and misunderstanding when people of other faiths look at the true nature of yoga.
There are many in-depth teachings required to follow the yoga sutras with it’s eight limbs (or elements) of practice that can lead a devotee or practitioner into the desired state of yoga consciousness. These teachings can quickly seem at odds with the Christian faith or any other faith for that matter, making it somewhat uncomfortable for some to take a yoga class or practice yoga.
Here is my opinion: If you are secure in your faith and recognize that you are in control of your own self-realization, then embracing yoga is a beautiful thing. Westernized yoga practice, in general, will not put you at odds with your faith. Yoga is not witchcraft; it is not asking you to abandon your monotheistic support of one god for the pantheistic worship of many gods.
What yoga will do is quiet your thoughts, stretch, and strengthen your body along with adding wellness to a happy, healthy lifestyle. I am not trying to marginalize any faith or religious view nor minimize the incredible work that all forms of yoga can bring to enhancing someone’s life. It’s a slippery slope to navigate these health and wellness topics since what I write about is full of so much dogma and misunderstanding.
Judd Jones is a certified primal health coach and fitness consultant. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org www.jhanawellness.com.