Dr. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, from which I graduated in May, recently got involved in another scuffle regarding his statement that yoga is not Christian. The complaint has come back, of course, that many devout and well-meaning Christian's practice yoga and do not find it incompatible with Christianity. Dr. Mohler has, effectively, made two responses to this. His responses are that the individual is either involved in a form of syncretism, in which yoga is being adapted to Christianity, or that what is being adapted is not yoga at all. It is worth looking at these two responses further.
Can yoga be adapted to Christianity? Dr. Mohler contends that yoga is necessarily non-Christian because of the mind emptying meditation involved in it, and the focusing of sexual energies through the body as a means of communing with God. I think Dr. Mohler makes an excellent point with this statement. The mind emptying forms of meditation that are common among many Eastern religions are simply not compatible with Christianity. The reason is because Christians are called to meditate on God's Word, his deeds and actions. It is impossible to empty the mind when filling it with thoughts of God's law, his holiness, his love, and everything else that a Christian might meditate on.
Scripture never commands Christians to empty our minds, but only to empty our minds of sinful thoughts and selfish desires, which ought to be put far away from us. Even Paul commands us to think of whatever is good and lovely. To seek to escape from ourselves or reality is not a form of Christian meditation. To be reminded of God, to find his holiness and awesomeness surrounding us constantly, that is Christian meditation.
Likewise, Scripture never says that we are able to commune with God in any way other than through his Son, Christ Jesus. We cannot approach the throne of God through focusing sexual energy, personal energy, or even spiritual energy. We approach the throne of God through prayer, according to faith in Christ, who died for our sins. Regardless of whether we feel God's presence more or less, the Holy Spirit is poured out upon us at all times, we are never separated from God. Therefore, we do not need to enter some specific pose or focus some mystical energy to hear from God and speak to God, we have his Word, written to us to tell us how to live, and we have the right to come before him in prayer to thank him, praise him, and petition him for our needs or wants.
On these two points, making up Dr. Mohler's first reaction to those who claim Christianity and yoga can be harmonized, it would seem that Dr. Mohler has said nothing controversial, what then of the second reason he gives? If you strip the meditation and other religious elements out of yoga, is it still yoga? On this point it is purely a matter of convention as to how we answer this question. What I mean is that words can change meaning over time, and often times the actual meaning of a word is purely a matter of the convention of the society in which it is used. Therefore, the question is simply, "What is yoga?"
For many people yoga does not involve any spiritual activities whatsoever. Many people go to yoga lessons and stretch and talk and smile and get a good, low impact, workout. In fact, if you were to ask most of the people across these United States, "What is yoga?" most of them would not include any discussion of "spirituality" or "religion" in their definition. (This, of course, is based purely off of my own experience, I did not go out and conduct a survey for the sake of a blog post.) Therefore, it would seem that when people use the term "yoga" to mean "a form of exercise that involves stretching, flexibility, and holding various positions that place strain on the anatomy" they are correct in saying that yoga can be practiced by Christians without a conflict of faith.
While this may very well be the common use of the term, "yoga" it is not the only use of that term. A quick search of the web reveals that if you look up the definition of yoga you find that the most relevant websites all recognize either the Hindu origin of yoga, or they discuss yoga as a means of attaining greater spiritual consciousness. Thus, it seems, that most teachers of yoga and most of those who have done research into yoga agree that it is not best defined as simply a form of exercise. The best definition of yoga must acknowledge the spiritual aspects that go along with serious yoga practice.
It would seem, therefore, that Dr. Mohler is correct in saying that if what you do when you do yoga is simply a form of exercise, then fine, just don't call it yoga.
My point in bringing all of this up though is that it is interesting to me that Christians would actually complain about Dr. Mohler saying that yoga and Christianity are not compatible. I really think the issue is simply that most of us simply do not know what we believe, or why we believe it. When Christians think that the spiritual aspects of yoga can be adapted to Christianity, my thought is they simply do not know what Christianity really teaches about our communion with God. Why would anyone seek to draw closer to God through physical and mental acts of will, when God has revealed to us that the way to grow closer to him is through his Word and his Son?
When Christians seek to redefine the term "yoga" to mean simply "exercise" then they are guilty of not understanding what the term really means, they are guilty of not understanding that words have meaning. Even in this Christians are guilty of not really knowing what they believe, because, in redefining a term, they open themselves to adapting more than just a series of poses and an exercise routine into Christianity. It is always important that we know what a word means, and that we understand that when we say we are doing something like yoga, the word means a lot more than merely sitting on a mat with our legs crossed. When we understand what we believe, then we understand that changing what we do is not a light matter, because our actions are a reflection of our beliefs.
Where do you stand on this subject? What do you really believe? Only once you have figured out what you believe can you really understand why you believe it. Have you given thought to the terms you use, the things you do, and whether those things are really compatible with your Christian faith? If you aren't a Christian, have you ever taken the time to think about what you believe?