Time magazine publshed an article on Christian yoga, the latest yoga trend that tries to pull Hindu elements out of the ancient practice to make God-fearing Protestants and Catholics feel better about doing it. Instead of saying ‘Om’, one might say ‘Amen’ and instead of surya namaskar or ‘Sun Salutation’, you do a ‘warm-up flow’ or a ‘Son Salutation’. The latter part of the article discusses tensions and concerns raised by this latest of trends, with one camp of purists arguing the inseparability of yoga and Hinduism, while another worrying about the commercialization and co-option of yoga by Christians. All interesting questions which beg another: are we getting stupider as a nation or are we dumber than I thought?
For starters, the very notion of having to de-Hindu yoga to make Christians feel better about it is rooted in the narrow-mindedness and guilt (and stupidity) which are commonly (and needlessly) bundled as part and parcel of Christian doctrine. People like present Pope Benedict XVI have warned that yoga “can degenerate into a cult of the body” whatever the hell that means, and urged people not to confuse the “pleasing sensations” of yoga with “spiritual well-being”, creating the impression that Ratzinger gives himself pleasing sensations in other ways– more spiritual ones of course. Others like Rabi Maharaj, a formerly confused Hindu who is now a freshly confused Christian, go a step further and publicly decry that yoga and meditation are evil and will land you in hell, if not turning you into an anti-Christ first. Call me Beelzebub, but it seems that in this modern era where my laptop doesn’t need a wire to be on the internet that Christians should be able to see past the he-died-for-my-sins, get-into-heaven-free-card mentality for the medieval rouse or archaic mistaken-thinking that it is. Debunking flawed theology isn’t the scope of this blog entry, but pointing out that far too many unthinking people are falling victim to third hand notions of what they should feel guilty about, especially in the absense of any scriptural basis, is. People, you won’t go to hell if you say ‘Om’ and I’m not Mephistopheles.
Meanwhile, well-preserved (by yoga) and tantalizingly bendy Patricia Walden express the edict that yoga should not be used to sell stuff to students, voicing the concern that this latest development might begin us down the slippery slope of commercializing yoga. Wow Patricia, I don’t know what cave you’ve been practicing in, but yoga has already become commercial-o-riffic. Wait, you don’t practice yoga in a cave, you do it on the cover of this magazine, and on this one, and this one. Did I mention this one?. You’ve even on the cover of a magazine that questions the karmic value of commercializing yoga. In your spare time, you can also be found commer… I mean practicing yoga in your book and your videos when not doing so at your lovely studio. Let’s be fair here: commercializing yoga isn’t your fault. It’s Bikram Choudhury’s. While Paramahansa Yogananda is generally regarded as the ‘father of yoga in the West’ (and incidentally Bikram’s guru’s guru), Bikram is undoubtedly the pimp-daddy o.g. yogi makin’ dat dolla. Yet if Bikram in the Anakin-cum-Darth of yoga purity, then Shirley MacLaine is certainly his Darth Sidious as it was she, and not his guru Bishnu Ghosh, who convinced him to start charging the kind of ‘astralnomic’ fees that have allowed him to purchase his multiple Rolls-Royces and Bentleys. Now that Bikram has started to patent, trademark, and copyright elements and routines of yoga practice and litigate against violators, I would have to say that yoga in America is now offically, undoubtedly, inescapably commerical. Let’s not try and blame that on some wacky, prudish Christians.
Meanwhile, Subhas Tiwari of Hindu University is quoted as saying “Yoga is Hinduism.” Whoa, cowboy! Come again? While giving Tiwari the benefit of the doubt through the assumption that his comment was taken out of context, that’s an awfully hairy soundbite for a Professor of Yoga and Medidation to be caught coughing up. If you ask the billion-odd people in India if they are Hindus, a good 800 million or so will say yes. If you ask them if they practice yoga, as in hatha yoga, I’d say that more than 95% would say no. That certainly demonstrates that Hinduism has plenty of scope and breadth to entirely avoid the postures that the western world considers to be yoga. In reality, the Sanskrit word means ‘union’, and Hinduism encompassess many paths to achieve such union outside of the kind of yoga that the author of the article was asking Tiwari about. More precisely (or perhaps diffusely), Hinduism could be better described as the rituals, practices, and beliefs that have developed around the experience of yoga by various paths. Yet in its pure form, most closely described by raja yoga of which hatha yoga is a subset, yoga is a creedless path that requires no set of beliefs or faith from its practitioner. Rather, the experience of the practice itself creates a knowing that is absent untested belief and faith, while paradoxically also becoming the basis for faith that builds and accelerates the momentum of the practice. That last sentence would certainly never make it as a soundbite, and given that the mainstream news just wants soundbites, one has to wonder whether Mr. Tiwari knowingly fed them something sexy so he could get quoted in Time. His clumsy and inappropriate quote will only give Time’s largely Christian readership more reason to unnecessarily hallelujah-ize yoga even more. He did Hindus and Christians a disservice by opening his sloppy pie-hole.
Yet none of these things are the most disturbing aspect of all this. Ranking at the top of distressing elements is how Christian yoga and some quotes from the article, contrary to the spirit of yoga, only serve to divide us. Behind the confusion of what Christians understand to be Christianity and what Hindus understand to be Hinduism, there’s a common yogic experience of Oneness that both religions are built around (a mindful reading of the Bible can demonstrate this). The increasing popularity and practice of hatha yoga is one of the most practical tools that helps both Hindus and Christians (and anyone else who gives it a shot) break past the fog of silly religious beliefs and begin to taste the Oneness of humanity wherein we’re all brothers and sisters. No longer must one person hate or condemn another because of variations in traditions and cultures. Creating something like Christian yoga allows Christians to continue to “otherize” Hindus in a way that still leaves the door open for them to hate, condemn, or evangelize Hindus with the belief that they are heathens headed to hell in need of salvation.
We’ll just have to hope that they practice yoga long enough for their experience to break them past this narrow, sectarian mindset. After all, wouldn’t the truly narrow-minded and ignorant ones (read: Pope Ratzinger) never even try yoga at all?
Bring on the hate mail.