Last week I happened upon a lively conversation between two fellow Christians in the locker room at the yoga studio I frequent. They were debating whether or not it was un-Christian to practice yoga. Neither accepted the premise advanced by R. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who created controversy with an essay in which he argues Christians should not practice yoga.
Not surprisingly a flood of e-mails and comments on blogs took exception to Mohler’s premise. He said, “I’m really surprised by the depth of the commitment to yoga found on the part of many who identify as Christians.” His surprise reflects insufficient research; it appears he relied primarily on The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America by Stefanie Syman, a text that may have raised unnecessary fears. It may be more helpful to look at what Christians practicing yoga are actually doing…
Christians practicing yoga eagerly describe the health benefits that drive their love for the practice. They do not consider being fit and healthy, flexible and strong, as un-Christian. For many older men and women, like myself, yoga protects against effects of aging on posture and prepares one to better handle mishaps, such as falls. The core strength, balance, and fitness yoga bestows is equivalent to an extra insurance policy. Obviously, being a good steward of your health is not un-Christian.
Mohler’s original essay anticipated this response: “There is nothing wrong with physical exercise, and yoga positions in themselves are not the main issue. But these positions are teaching postures with a spiritual purpose.” But does the Christian who seeks health benefits have a spiritual purpose? In most cases the answer is clearly “no”. They are satisfied with their spirituality; it is their abs and gluts that cause dissatisfaction.
Mohler persists, “Most seem unaware that yoga cannot be neatly separated into physical and spiritual dimensions. The physical is the spiritual in yoga, and the exercises and disciplines of yoga are meant to connect with the divine.” But is this view accurate? In order to better understand the purpose of the physical postures, known as asanas, we turn to the fundamental text, The Yoga Sutras where we read, “Asana is a steady, comfortable posture… Asana means the posture that brings comfort and steadiness.”
In the Sutras we discover the physical practice has a unique purpose: “Unless the body is perfectly healthy and free from all toxins and tensions, a comfortable pose is not easily obtained. Physical and mental toxins create stiffness and tension.” The postures, it turns out, were developed to remedy the inability “to be there comfortably” from which most of us suffer. Commentary on the Sutras reads, “This is why Hatha Yoga was created. People trying to sit quietly found they couldn’t.”
The unique postures known as asanas were developed to manage the condition of the body. “The next problem was what to do with the toxins already inside the body. They concluded that these could be gotten rid of by squeezing the body in all different directions.” The focus was on health benefits. The postures were designed to overcome problems we encounter with the body when we attempt something as basic as sitting there comfortably.
In his response to responses he received, Mohler writes:
I have heard from a myriad of Christians who insist that their practice of yoga involves absolutely no meditation, no spiritual direction, no inward concentration, and no thought element. Well, if so, you are simply not practicing yoga. You may be twisting yourselves into pretzels or grasshoppers, but if there is no meditation or direction of consciousness, you are not practicing yoga, you are simply performing a physical exercise. Don’t call it yoga.”
But the asanas are one form of yoga—they are not the entire discipline of yoga but, nonetheless, they are the physical aspect designed to make it possible for the student to maintain a relaxed posture. Armed with this knowledge, Mohler would have better understood why Christians find yoga practice beneficial.
Instead he opines, “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.” Those who practice, however, are in the best position to know what they are doing. They concur with the yoga literature: asanas are designed to reduce or remove toxins and improve the practitioner’s ability to hold a comfortable posture.
For the sake of further discussion, however, let us speculate there is more to the yoga Christians practice. If so, is it true, as Mohler asserts, that “Christians are not called to empty the mind or to see the human body as a means of connecting to and coming to know the divine”? Is it true that “We are not called to escape the consciousness of this world by achieving an elevated state of consciousness, but to follow Christ in the way of faithfulness”? If we consider the entire Christian community, the answer is no.
The great Christian mystical tradition, as practiced by St. John of the Cross, St. Bonaventure, St. Francis, Teresa of Avila, Thomas Merton and others includes bringing the body into a state of quiet as an adjunct to prayer. Achieving a state of quiet and calm prepares the faithful to enter the silence required for deep contemplative prayer.
For example, Pope Benedict XVI, speaking of St. Anthony of Padua, a well-known Franciscan, said,
Anthony reminds us that prayer requires an atmosphere of silence, which does not mean distance from external noise but rather is an interior experience that aims to remove the distractions caused by a soul’s anxieties, thereby creating silence in the soul itself.”
The attainment of this silence can easily be conceived as “emptying the mind.” We empty the mind of noise that distracts us from deep prayer. We discover many of the most devoted Christians in history, the mystics, did “empty their minds” in preparation for deep prayer.
Mohler complains, “I have received hundreds of emails and comments against my article from those identifying as Christians. Not one—not a single one—has addressed the theological and biblical issues. There is not even a single protest communication offering a theological argument.” He argues, “These souls claim to be Christian, but offer no biblical argument nor do they even acknowledge the basic fact that yoga, as a spiritual practice, runs directly counter to the spiritual counsel of the Bible.”
However, it is reasonable to assume that those who practice the asanas did not anticipate a biblical argument was needed, as they know nothing in the practice counters the spiritual counsel of the Bible. While they may have failed to mention theological or biblical bases for the importance of calming the mind in preparation for the quiet and stillness of contemplative prayer, such instruction exists…
Scripture notes the importance of quiet, calmness and stillness. Psalm 46:10 advises, “Be still, and know that I am God.” In Psalm 23 we read, “He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters.” Paul wrote (Philippians 4:6), “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
In Matthew 6 Jesus teaches us to pray in solitude and quiet, entering an inner room where, alone, we find stillness: “But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”
While the passage teaches a literal alternative to the public prayer of the Pharisees, but we also consider the metaphorical richness of “go into your inner room, close your door,” which speaks to the quite and solitude in which we come to the deeper forms of prayer.
Thus, Mohler’s confusion leads to unnecessary drama:
Sadly, almost every protest email makes my point better than I ever could myself. I have heard endless claims that there is no incompatibility between yoga and Christianity because it makes people feel better, it helps spirituality, it is a better way to know God, etc. There is no embarrassment on the part of these hundreds of e-mail writers that they are replacing biblical Christianity with a religion of their own invention.”
His fear arises from a lack of understanding, a failure to recognize Yoga focuses on postures that enhance the relaxed, quiet, calm state needed for contemplative prayer. Christians who practice yoga postures have found something positive without becoming spiritual polyglots as Mohler fears. We learn more about preparing for prayer in the chapter “Growing in Prayer” found in Fulfillment of All Desire by Ralph Martin. There we study the mystic Teresa of Avila:
She talks of beginning to include moments of ‘recollection’ or a quieting of the soul in our meditation and recitation of established prayers, where we find ourselves better able to be aware of God and simply be in His presence. This ‘recollection’ can then deepen into the ‘prayer of quiet.’”
Her own words give us important clues:
But there are times when, tired from our travels, we experience that the Lord calms our faculties and quiets the soul. As though by signs, He gives us a clear foretaste of what will be given to those He brings to His Kingdom… Those who experience this prayer call it the prayer of quiet.”
When Teresa says “tired from our travels” we may recognize the state reached after strenuous practice in holding the asanas. The effort we expend brings about a pleasant weariness that allows us to relax into a calm state.
Teresa’s account continues, “She then explains that this prayer of quiet can reach deeper levels of absorption in the Lord and be described as the ‘prayer of union.’” It is not difficult for us to speculate how our preparation for quiet prayer, our calming the body, enhances our readiness for such mystical union.
This mystical path and the importance of solitude and contemplative prayer are developed in fascinating and inspiring detail in the theology of St. Bonaventure. In The Soul’s Journey Into God Bonaventure lays out a path with successive steps that move us closer and closer to mystical union with Christ. The exposition on Franciscan spirituality provides insights that enrich and expand our view of what it means to be a Christian.
But what if the Christian seeking the benefit of the asanas encounters a yoga instructor who embraces the more expansive practice of yoga? What if an instructor goes beyond postures into faith and religious beliefs. Should a Christian run from the studio? Not if they recognize a growing need for interfaith dialogue; not if they recognize a need to understand other faiths as the world becomes smaller; not if they are sufficiently comfortable with their own faith to be able to perceive the spark of the Divine wherever it appears.
To better understand willingness to hear about other faiths consider the Vatican Council II document Nostro Aetate that discusses the relationship between Catholic Christians and those of other faiths:
Throughout history, to the present day, there is found among different peoples a certain awareness of a hidden power, which lies behind the course of nature and the events of human life. At times, there is present even a recognition of a supreme being, or still more of a Father. This awareness and recognition results in a way of life that is imbued with a deep religious sense.”
As yoga is frequently associated with Hinduism, consider…
Thus, in Hinduism people explore the divine mystery and express it both in the limitless riches of myth and the accurately defined insights of philosophy. They seek release from the trials of the present life by ascetical practices, profound meditation and recourse to God in confidence and love.”
Addressing other faiths in general, the document reads:
The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. It has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which, although differing in many ways from its own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men and women. Yet it proclaims and is duty bound to proclaim without fail, Christ who is the way, the truth and the life (Jn 1:6)”
The church, therefore, urges its sons and daughters to enter with prudence and charity into discussion and collaboration with members of other religions. Let Christians, while witnessing to their own faith and way of life, acknowledge, preserve, and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians, together with their social life and culture.”
Mohler’s views create a dilemma: if you encounter a yoga instructor who demonstrates love and kindness and compassion, can you dismiss that love as being un-Christian? How do you divide love? How can one say “this love is Christian” and “that love is un-Christian”? Or is genuine love, wherever we find it, a sign of God’s presence?
There are reasonable answers to Albert Mohler’s concerns. I have turned for answers to both common sense and to the rich traditions of Catholicism, as Mohler labeled yoga practice un-Christian rather than simply un-Baptist. When we take this approach, we find yoga, as practiced by Christians is not a spiritual practice but rather a way to achieve good health. Furthermore, for many Christians the practice enhances their Christian spirituality by giving them a tool they can use to prepare, through relaxation, for deeper immersion in Christian prayer. In addition, recognizing the spirituality and faith of others is not a negative act that turns us into spiritual polyglots, but rather a positive reaching out in love that Christ demands of us.
It is safe to return to the yoga studio.