Reflections on Post Bulletin article: Yoga is worship and idolatry.

I am including below the recent article that was published in the Rochester Post Bulletin, along with the response that I sent to the Publisher of the paper, as well as the author, and the “letters to the editor.” Let’s create a conversation by replying to this post; share your thoughts about what yoga is and isn’t for you, as a teacher, or student, or spectator, or wonderer… Yoga lovers be warned, a few deep breaths may serve you well before you dig in… Om. Amen. Hallelujah.

PS I apologize in advance for the layout… for some reason when I copy and paste, wordpress won’t read my line breaks/paragraphs… any techies out there who might know how to fix this, please impart thy wisdom!
“Yoga is worship and idolatry”
By Sara Schleicher
“Is yoga a religion?”
That was the title of an article placed in my Tuesday morning yoga class one day. This once biblically illiterate Christian decided to check it out. Do the research, and you’ll discover yoga is a Sanskrit word meaning “to yoga or unite.” The true purpose of yoga is to unite with divine energy, a Hindu concept of God. As a Christian, I certainly did not walk into yoga with the intention of yoking myself to other gods. I was in a health club!
Surely this was just exercise, right? But let’s be honest. There is something about yoga that you just don’t find in a typical exercise class– bowing to the sun and moon, chanting “om,” and greeting one another with “Namaste,” hands in prayer form.
Religion or not, yoga is worship. And several months after practicing, I found myself pursuing the philosophy behind yoga.
Most destructive to my faith was blindly following instructions to empty my mind during meditation. When it comes to faith in Jesus, we need our body, mind and soul to remain connected to him.
Take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. (2 Cor. 10:5) Yogic meditation empties the mind. Christian meditation is filling up on God’s Word, reflecting on it, and taking it to heart.
The heart of yoga is idolatry. Anything that sets itself up against the knowledge of God and pretends to be sacred is unspiritual and unfruitful in the life of a Christian. There is one Lord, and one God whom we are to revere.
Yoga is a practice that honors many paths to God. Consider the path Christ took to save us from our sins.
Instead of looking for the divinity within ourselves, we should remember our true nature — for all hav esinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23)
Even though my experience with yoga led me further and further from Christ, ther eis one good things that came out of it.
I saw the love of God fulfilled when Jesus poured out His grace and called me back to himself.
“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:29)
If I want exercise, there are many ways to go abou it. But when it comes to a connection to the Divine, there’s only one place to find it. From now on, I hear the words of Christ and put that into practice.
Dear Randy, Sara, and all
I wanted to write in response to the article you published on Saturday, December 3 titled “Yoga is Worship and Idolatry.” As a yoga teacher in the Rochester community, I think that it is important to not only address the concerns that Sara shared in her article, but to also offer a more accurate description of what yoga is, and also provide resources for those seeking faith-based yoga practices.
‘In the book “The Heart of Yoga,” T.K.V. Desikachar, son of Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (who is considered the “father of modern yoga), shares multiple definitions of yoga: “to come together, to unite…. to attain what was previously unattainable… to create a state in which we are always present –really present– in every action, in every moment… to be one with the divine.” It is especially worth elaborating on the last definition, as follows: “It does not matter what name we use for the divine… anything that brings us closer to understanding that there is a power higher and greater than ourselves is yoga. When we feel in harmony with that higher power, that too is yoga.” ( T.K.V. Desikachar, The Heart of Yoga, 5-6).
As you can imagine, in a city as richly diverse as Rochester, a yoga class often reflects a sampling of our religious demographic. Especially in larger practice spaces, at the various health clubs in town, from the DAHLC to the YMCA, to the RAC, it is quite possible and likely that a class might consist of students from all of the world’s prominent religions: Hindi, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, not to mention the wide range of denominations within the Christian faith, from Catholic, to Lutheran and beyond. Because of this, it is especially important as a yoga teacher in this community, to create space for all students to choose to utilize their yoga practice as they see fit; whether it be to attain a physical goal of healing injury, gaining strength, developing flexibility, or a deeper goal of finding inner peace through contemplating the divine.
As Desikachar elaborates: “Yoga has its roots in Indian thought, but its content is universal because it is about the means by which we can make the changes we desire in our lives. The actual practice of yoga takes each person in a different direction… Whether this discovery leads to a better understanding of God, to greater contentment, or to a new goal is a completely personal matter.” As such, as students of yoga, we have both the opportunity, and the responsibility, to cultivate tolerance and compassion for those whose beliefs, values and lifestyles are different from our own. When we come together, breathe together, move together, and bow to each other in respect, we create the possibility of this happening on a global level. Just imagine a world where differences could be respected and honored, where conflict could be resolved peacefully, where there would be less fear and violence, and more tolerance and compassion.
Sara refers to an article titled “Is yoga a religion?” that she noticed in a yoga class she attended. I am certain she is referring to the Yoga Journal’s December issue, which includes a headline on the cover: “Yoga and Religion: can you practice both?” and an article titled: “Beyond Belief: does yoga conflict with your religion?” In this article, a panel of yoga scholars and teachers weighs in on this very question. It is worth noting that one of the four persons on the panel is Brooke Boon, who is the founder of Holy Yoga, which is a nonprofit Christian ministry that promotes “intentionally connecting the body, mind, and spirit with Christ.”
Here of some of the highlights of what Brooke shares in the article: “Without a doubt, I think most Christians are uneducated about yoga, and what they have heard is rooted in fear; that it is Hindu; it can’t be separated; that somehow the postures, the movement of the body and breath, or yoking, is to something other than the God of their own faith… I believe that we were created in the image of God, for the glory of God, for the worship of God. I believe that yoga is a spiritual discipline that draws you closer to God.” (Andrea Ferretti, “Beyond Belief.” Yoga Journal December 2011 84-87;96-101). It seems to me that Sara might benefit from taking a closer look at this article, as it addresses the very concerns that she brings up in her piece.
In the back of Yoga Journal magazine, you can find an advertisement for “Yahweh Yoga,” a Christ-centered yoga teacher training program. The website offers many books and yoga DVDs for christ-centered yoga. So my response to Sara’s article is this, if you liked yoga, but struggled with how to connect it to your faith, please do consider these Christ-centered yoga practices. But please do not limit another’s person’s ability, or right, to enjoy and explore yoga by making claims about yoga that are simply untrue. Yoga, as we know it in the west, as Desikachar describes it,  is not a religion; it does not promote a Hindu concept of God, nor is it a form of idolatry. It is quite simply a form of movement that can create deep relaxation, physical and mental well being, and if you choose to, a quiet space to hear the voice of the divine in your heart, in the language of your faith.
(There is a beautiful photo on the last page of the December issue of Yoga Journal of a Jewish man, wearing his yarmulke, in a beautiful warrior pose. The caption reads: “It was a few minutes before sundown on Friday. It feels as if I’m embracing the entire sky and bringing it into my heart. This is what the Sabbath means to me: a day to let go of what we normally do during the week and embrace all of creation.” (Yoga Journal, December 2011 112). The beautiful thing about Sara’s article, is that as it sounds, somehow her practice of yoga did lead her deeper into her faith. There is no way of knowing if, or how, or when, the divine may call to us. All we can do is create space for that reflection to makes itself known when the time is right. This is why we close our eyes, focus on our breath, and let go of our daily preoccupations, not to forget the divine, but to open our ears.)
With many thanks,
Heather Ritenour-Sampson

3 Replies to “Reflections on Post Bulletin article: Yoga is worship and idolatry.”

  1. Heather,
    I applaud your letter and hope that the PB will print it. If they do not, I would be happy to send it along to Sara for you. I have never met her, but after writing about yoga in the past, have had heard from her a few times. She REALLY doesn’t want to hear about how wonderful I feel yoga is, but maybe what you wrote will help her understand why we love it so.
    Thank you!

    1. Hi Tracy
      Thanks so much for your comments! I just sent my letter to the post bulletin for the second time, hoping that someone will at least acknowledge that I sent it! If you’ve got any ideas for other ways we might respond in a more public way to her article, do let me know! Love and peace to you! Heather

  2. I am adding this response from Lisa Schraeder, one of the leaders of the Rochester Karma Yoga Project: (thanks Lisa, for your insights and wisdom!)

    Although I attend a Lutheran church (which I adore), I will freely admit that the primary reason I am doing so is because I was not raised in the church (Lutheran mother, Atheist father) and I want my son to have a facet of education and understanding that I always felt missing when growing up. I am almost equally intrigued by the practices and faith of other religions and philosophies; Lutheranism is the faith of my mother and, therefore, holds a place of comfort for me. I’ve also found our church to be incredibly accepting of other faith approaches, and I’ve never felt as though I and my unique beliefs have been judged by our clergy.

    I had a friend once describe a situation in which many people would find themselves standing under a gorgeous stained-glass rotunda with light shining in from all around. Someone facing West might argue until her dying breath that the light was red, if that was the color of the portion of the window through which she was seeing the light. She would not be wrong. Someone else might be facing North and argue until HIS dying breath that the light was blue, if that was the color of the portion of the window through which HE was seeing the light. He would also not be wrong. A third person may be facing an ornate portion of the rotunda that supports the glass and not perceive any light beyond that which is created by man. Back to the light… If we were able to view the light from a completely different angle–outside the rotunda and its beautiful stained glass, outside the constrains of colored “lenses”–we might be able to see that there is one light that becomes what each of us sees based on our direction, lenses and expectations. This very much describes how I view religion and spirituality. I fully recognize that this type of thinking is offensive to many, and please be assured that is not my intent. Indeed, I actually have come to cherish portions of many religions, I simply feel that as human beings there are truths that we may be able to use as a framework from which we fill in “gaps,” but that we are incapable of fully comprehending.

    I think the article presents a tremendous opportunity to have discussion. In fact, if one of the areas churches (or another organization) were interested in holding something, I would love to attend a forum on the topic. I can’t dedicate energy to planning or facilitating such an event, though, but would consider adding a RKYP “voice.” One of the things I cherish about Christianity is the compassion and love with which Jesus lived his life. Sadly, I often see situations in which Christians choose to select to whom the emotions and practices of love and compassion apply, often taking a role of judgment or condemnation. I don’t suspect Christ would have done so. But then again, I don’t know Christ the way others do. I believe most Christians believe in the concept of Omnipresence. With this in mind, I see no inconsistencies with the way I have ever experienced yoga (including mantras based on Hindi gods) and Christianity.

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