Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Yoga as a Spiritual Practice

One of the things that detractors of yoga get right is that it isn't just an exercise programme. Yoga is a spiritual, even a devotional, practice. Many Christians who want some of the benefits of yoga will go to great lengths to isolate the yoga from its true nature. The fear is, as we discussed in the last post, syncretism. The error is that spiritual practices are conflated with religious contexts. It comes from a very surface analysis of religious groupings - where we identify various groups on the basis of their devotional/spiritual practices rather than the content of their religion (such as truth claims). In our worst efforts we conflate truth claims with the practices. Hence, Yoga becomes yoked to Hinduism.

Indeed we owe Hinduism a debt for the development of yoga. Just as we owe any religion for the practices that it introduces into the world that make the world a better place. Practices such as Christian peacekeeping or even creation care, Buddhist and Hindu non-violence, Charity, Love, Reconciliation, Forgiveness, and the list goes on. When we start to look at individual religions, including Christianity, we find the good, the bad and the downright ugly. Unfortunately when it is something that develops in a religion that is not our own chosen religion, then we tend to lump it all in with the ugly. Christians are so good at this they can even do it from denomination to denomination.

So lets start with the assumption that yoga is also part of this good, bad and ugly mix. I think that is a fair assessment. Knowing people involved in the TM movement there are aspects that many Christians would/should be extremely uncomfortable with and there is a naivety in some of the assumptions about personal peace and world peace that would give many Christian incipient theologies a run for their monies. Starting with this assumption lets draw a clear line between devotional practices and the object of devotion.

This assumption is at the heart of the PraiseMoves effort. Let's leave aside how arrogant and offensive I think this proposal (PraiseMoves) really is. Willis is speaking out of her inability to separate the devotional practice with the practice of yoga. But she also outlines her considerable baggage in this enterprise - classic Starbuck twice-born thinking. She also can't deny the benefits of yoga especially as a spiritual practice. Christians, BTW, are good at spiritual practices - rosaries, fasts, retreats, pilgrimages, initiation rites, etc. So Willis has two core ideas in conflict - so she basically steals yoga and re-appropriates it into a context that she is more comfortable. Although renaming classic yoga poses probably is still a tough sell for her market demographic. (BTW the part I find offensive is the dishonesty in all of this, on one hand she trashes another religion and then unashamedly rips them off.)

A big problem here is that now we have yet another subculture that has severed its ties to reality. It loses its redemptive potential as well as its voice in the practice of yoga. It is also counter-intuitive for Christians who are the great adaptors - Eucharist being the primary example. Cut off from the world out of which yoga comes we are unable to assess properly the purpose and learn the techniques which make yoga so great. Just read Willis' exposition on the namaste (prayer) pose - complete with scriptural proof-texting. Actually namaste has a lot of similarities to shalom, although it has a different purpose. She is right that it implies an honouring of the light we see in another. But as Christians we believe the true light of the world is Jesus and we honour Jesus in others knowing that it is the work of Jesus in the other that draws her or him to the Father. In fact we look for that light to help us show them more of God. Yet, if we become convinced that light can only mean something other than the obvious - we cannot appropriate its meaning. (And we should probably drop a lot of other borrowed practices too!)

So, to sum it up, I want to understand what is going on for the Hindu practitioner of yoga. I want it to be a spiritual practice. It is of more value if it is integrated into my whole devotional life. When there is, in yoga, an opening to the divine - why would I fear that? In fact I say come Holy Spirit. God is not afraid of yoga, in fact I know for certain that God longs for us to be truly open and receptive. Our Western minds love to separate the spiritual from the secular, we love to compartmentalize God out of the picture. But yoga is about integration, yoking oneself to the divine. Didn't Jesus talk about yoking somewhere.

I think a quick caution is needed here. Certainly there are those who will find this hard to get their heads around. If that is you, bless you, you might want to avoid yoga. What I'm calling for requires more than just participation in yoga as an exercise. It means navigating, often with great difficulty, the integration of a new spiritual practice into your devotional life. That should always be done with care and great thought. Look for the fruit. Yoga is embedded in a whole worldview and way of life, that needs to be unpacked and valued if it is to be truly helpful in developing a Christian devotional practice. You are bound to make mistakes so look for the fruit, especially the fruit of God's presence.


[note this has been edited, thanks Marnie]


steven hamilton said...

hmmmm, why do we have to christian-ize these things rather then entering them as redemptive agents of the Reign of God in Christ Jesus? This is just "re-cultural-izing". ugh.

back just after the american election i wrote about this:

...i like your incarnational endeavour!

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