Is Yoga Unchristian?

I had an unusual e-mail conversation with a potential reader a few days ago.  Unusual in that we disagreed with each other, yet the tone of our conversation remained respectful, supportive, and honest.  At the end of the conversation, I lost a reader.

It still makes me sad.  This lovely woman had originally entered a contest to win Murder Strikes a Pose, and she was very excited.  She asked me to mail her some bookmarks so she could spread the word.  She is a huge cozy mystery fan and she loves German shepherds.  What book could be more perfect? Then it hit her.

Murder Strikes a Pose is about a yoga teacher.

She became concerned.  She and her friends are Christian, and they believe that yoga conflicts with the teachings of the Bible.  I myself was raised in the Christian church, and although The Yoga Sutras use terms that sound unusual, that’s primarily because they are from a different language. But as far as religion, The Yoga Sutras teach that for a believer of ANY faith, the most effective path to mental clarity is by practicing that faith. The sutras never say what form that faith should take.   For nonbelievers, there are other tools that can bring clarity as well.

Still, I wanted to be honest with this reader and respectful of her concerns.  My protagonist is an often-not-yogic yoga teacher, but she tries to follow the teachings, and she does occasionally throw out a Sanskrit word or two.   So I found what I thought was likely to be the most concerning passage in the book and sent it her. I’ve included it below.

“Less than twenty-four hours later, I was elbow-deep in my least favorite activity—updating the studio’s database—when the Power Yoga class entered Savasana, a pose of quiet rest. Vedic chanting flowed from the studio’s speakers, filling the lobby with sounds of cherubic bliss.

Ahhhh … just the excuse I was looking for.

I cracked open the door to the yoga room, intending to eavesdrop as the instructor lulled her students into a state of samadhi—yoga-induced ecstasy. I returned to my chair, leaned back, and closed my eyes, mentally transporting myself out of the lobby and into the practice space.

In my mind’s eye, I savored the room’s peaceful atmosphere. Dimmed incandescent lights reflected off unadorned yellow-beige walls, illuminating the space in a soft golden hue; meditation candles cast dancing light beams along the maple floor; a fresh-cut bouquet of soft pink tulips decorated the altar, symbolizing the rebirth of spring. The room currently held twenty practicing yogis, but in my imagination, it was mine. All mine. I practically purred, feeling as content as a recently-fed kitten.

The teacher’s voice soothed my nerves and dissolved salt-like grains of tension from behind my eyes. “Release your weight into the mat. Imagine that your muscles are made of softened wax, melting on a smooth, warm surface.” My jaw muscles loosened. My shoulders eased down from my ears.

She continued her spoken lullaby. “With each inhale, imagine a white light entering the crown of your head and pouring through your body, illuminating every cell.” A soft sigh escaped from my lips. “With each exhale—”

The now-familiar sound of barking drowned out the teacher’s voice and jolted me awake.

Loud, angry barking.

My momentary tranquility vanished. As if in one motion, my jaw tightened, my shoulders lifted, and my hands clenched into tight fists. An embarrassing litany of swear words spewed from my lips.”

Reading this passage confirmed the reader’s fears.  She said she couldn’t read Murder Strikes a Pose without violating her ethical principles, and she couldn’t in good conscience recommend it to her friends.  She donated her copy and the bookmarks to a bookstore.

All-in-all, I was thoroughly impressed with this woman.  She was kind, respectful, ethical, and honest.  And I’m sad.  Sure, I think she would have enjoyed my book. Sure, I want to find every reader I can.  Sure, I was hoping she’d become a rabid fan and spread word of the series to everyone she met.

But I’m mainly sad that she’ll never try yoga, and even sadder that some people think my life’s work is unchristian. Yoga teaches us compassion, honesty, and faith, among other principles. It simply calls them ahimsa, satya and sraddha. My Bible studies as a child and teenager taught me the same concepts.  To me, yoga IS Christian. And Hindu. And  Jewish. And Buddhist. And Athiest. It is for all faiths and all belief systems.  Yoga teaches you how to become clear, understand your own values, and live in alignment with your own spiritual beliefs.

What do you think?  How can we, as people who practice and teach yoga, make this work accessible to all faiths?

Namaste

Tracy Weber

Come visit Whole Life Yoga in Seattle, and check out my author page for information about the Downward Dog Mysteries series.  MURDER STRIKES A POSE is available now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Whole Life Yoga, and other retailers!

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16 Responses to Is Yoga Unchristian?

  1. Barb Hutchins says:

    I think it is all open to individual interpretation – if someone firmly believes Yoga to be Unchristian, that is their belief. Done. Whether I agree with them or not doesn’t matter. I have had this conversation with my brother and sister in law. Regardless of the examples I give of Yoga’s inclusive quality, it matters not to my loved family members. But we seem to respect each other and let each other believe as they will. It has hurt at times, but maybe that is because I am taking this personally and maybe too invested in the outcome? I believe that Yoga is accepting and accommodating and accessible of all faiths. And when others are ready to believe that, roll out their mat, breath, they will be welcomed. Unless your experience with Yoga was awful, then …. hope they’ll keep trying.

  2. Whole Life Yoga says:

    Nicely said, Barb!

    • chloe davenport says:

      I’ve struggled with this because I also was raised in a protestant faith and applied myself to it’s practice for many years. This is the line of thinking I have come up with to help me understand the sometimes respectful and sometimes not so respectful ‘pushback’ Yoga gets from the christian community.
      As I understand Christianity, and this is my very personal interpretation, Christ is love. Love is the opposite of fear and yoga helps us practice controlling our fears. So if we practice yoga we are move available to love and be more like Christ. I deeply believe that the beginnings of all faiths are base in this very core idea of doing good through love and compassion. The stories and rituals that grew around each one to help teach love and good behavior comes from a specific culture. Fear of people (cultures) who practice love in different ways adds dogma to something that started out simple. Now as an adult I’ve studied some of the Yoga Sutra. The Yoga Sutra describes that the practice of movement, breath, and chant are just one way to find the peace of mind you need to discover how to connect to what ever god/s you believe in. It reserves judgment on and keeps a universal perspective on ‘spirit’. This universal perspective can feel like a threat to the belief that the only way to god is through Christ. Now we are back to fear and dogma, the opposite of love and compassion. I find it very ironic but understandable. It does make me sad to have such a wall between communities that really should be friends.

  3. The Rev. Alan Gates says:

    Tracy,

    I can not help but respond to this post. As a former student it will surely be obvious where I stand on the convergence of Yoga and Christianity. Over the last 8 years and three congregations all three have held yoga classes at one time or another within the parish buildings. Many may not be aware of the Christian Ashram movement which, as curious as I am, I have not yet had a chance to experience. Even the Second Vatican Council established and embraced “truth” as found in other world religions. But these points are really only important to me and perhaps those who hold a similar view.

    I am mostly delighted with the caring and centered dialogue that you have shared with us. There is certainly a great deal of room for people of the world to observe such a diverse range of beliefs. In an existential sense these beliefs can never be wrong or right in so much as they often make an attempt to reveal a truth which defies definition. Still there is beauty to be observed when those with potentially differing expressions of belief can hold each other in a state of (what I would call) grace.

    I am also reminded that when one is in the public view, a leader or figure (of which I suppose you are both and so much more) we are bound to encounter an occasion or relationship where one can not meet the expectations of another. No doctor, lawyer, writer, poet, teacher, nanny, nurse, police officer, etc., can make it through a career without disappointing quite a few people who have expectations that cannot be met. This has always been the hardest part of my work, and I mourn with you the loss of a reader. I will also celebrate the care, respect, and grace that was shared between you both. What a refreshing exchange in a world that sometimes seems to jump so quickly to polarized opposition instead of embracing the messy, beautiful, middle ground where most of us find our being.

    Alan+

    • Whole Life Yoga says:

      Thank you so much, Alan. The dialogue between us had a huge impact on me. So amazing to have disagreement, yet with support for each others’ beliefs. May there be much more of it, and may it lead to greater understanding.

  4. Anita Jagt says:

    I have been a Yoga instructor for over 13 years and have been the Lead instructor for our Teacher Training Program at the Institute of Health and Healing in Newport News Virginia for 10. There have been many different types of people from all different walks of life from many different faiths come through our program. Some questioned in the beginning whether Yoga was in conflict with their faith. I can say only 2 students have decided to leave because of that conflict and 1 because family pressured her. When I think about this I remember the Teaching of Swami Satchidananda said ” Take what speaks to you and leave the rest. If it doesn’t speak to ~you may not be ready for it or it just may not be for you”
    I believe Yoga forces us to take a look at our belief systems and often in some who are very fearful they may not be able to take a serious look at something outside of their belief system. I believe if you stick with the path you will begin to let go of fears and step firmly into your power which allows you to confirm your spiritual beliefs or let go depending on what is the highest and best for you.
    Jesus was the ultimate Yogi. He was the bearer of Unconditional Love, Compassion and Non-Judgement
    Swami Satchidananda taught ” One Truth , but many Paths to the One Truth”. He Established the Council for world Peace and met yearly with all the Heads of the Major Religions at the Lotus Temple in Buckingham, Virginia ( AKA Yogaville-Satchidananda Ashram) They chose to focus on the likenesses rather than the differences of the Major Religions of the world. When asked if he was a Hindu he said “NO I am an undo because religions have created separation and Violence in the name of God which is in total conflict of the Divine”
    I was raised a Christian and I believe Yoga has helped me to be more clear about what that actually means instead of just blindly following Dogma. It has helped me to be more loving kind and less judgmental with myself and others. If anything it has deepened my understanding of the teachings of Jesus. It has also helped me to accept people where they are and know all is well. I don’t need to convince them or try to persuade anyone of anything
    Thank you so much for addressing this in your blog. I think its great to have the discussion
    Anita Jagt

  5. Dan Keusal says:

    As a practitioner of another often-misunderstood discipline, Astrology, I empathize with Tracy’s experience and with the comments of the other readers & yoga practitioners.

    I hold a degree in Theology from Notre Dame and worked for years as a Christian minister before becoming a Jungian Psychotherapist and an astrologer.

    One of the observations I’ve shared many times over the years…is the distinction between “spirituality,” which I think of as the direct experience of the transcendent (of “God,” if you will), and “religion,” which is what happens when people who’ve had similar spiritual experiences get together and compare notes. The problem that seems to arise in every tradition…is that people get so attached to their current religious understandings and practices…that they close themselves off to further spiritual experiences.

    This phenomenon was addressed a few years ago by a campaign launched by the United Church of Christ, which started featuring the tagline “God is still speaking,”–notice that the tagline”ends”…with a comma…with open-endedness, with invitation to new possibilities.

    I’ve attempted to maintain that spirit of invitation in my own work, to directly engage people’s questions about the compatibility of Christianity with other disciplines, by creating a class called “They Followed A Star: Astrology & Christianity As Allies On The Journey,” which I offer AT Christian churches.

    I use the treasured Christmas story of the Wise Men/Magi, who FOLLOWED A STAR to find Jesus (and therefore were, by definition, astrologers), as a starting point, a point of common ground between Christianity and astrology. I don’t attempt to convince or proselytize, I simply say “Here is my experience, here is what I’ve learned, and here are some things to think about.”

    The temptation in any tradition, any belief system, any practice–yoga, Christianity, astrology, Jungian psychology–is to fall into the belief that where you are now is THE final answer, an attempt at creating an understandably seductive but false sense of safety, of being protected from the next level of growth.

    May we all remain open, humble, and searching in the face of the great mystery that is this life!

  6. CG says:

    I am a Christian. I love God. And I’m a huge cozy fan. I agree that yoga can be open to interpretation. I don’t understand yoga entirely (rather the history of it /its background and roots) although I did take a class in college. To me, it was good stretching and relaxed me. It brought me peace. And physically, I felt better afterward. The way I see it, if I’m in that quiet place during a yoga pose, that’s a prime moment to give myself over to the Lord and pray, while I have a clear mind and am not thinking of anything else and the possible distractions of the day that normally would keep me away from prayer. It is nice to know that the conversation went well and both of you respected each other. What I find interesting is that cozy mysteries typically involve murder. And murder isn’t anything to be glorified. It makes me wonder how this potential reader could have said no to this book because of the yoga aspect…yet continues to read cozies that involve murder? It’s not a slam against her, but it does make me put that question out there.

    • Whole Life Yoga says:

      I hear your question, and one of my teacher training students asked the same thing. Perhaps the difference is in identification. In a cozy mystery, generally no one likes or identifies with the killer. But you DO hope to like and identify with the sleuth. What I find interesting, and hopeful, is the dialogue that is happening even now. Only by talking and truly listening can we hope to gain understanding. And I hope you read the book someday! ;-)

  7. CG says:

    Oh I plan to! I’ve been on a cozy kick for a year now. I can’t stop.

  8. DeeDee Jacobsen says:

    I am a practicing Christian & I love yoga. My beliefs and connection to God are strengthened in my practice. I think it’s only a matter of time before the general body of Christianity embraces yoga.

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