Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Yoga, Meditation and Christianity

Since I'm on the subject of meditation, a question has arisen recently in several places across the web, and even in broadcast media, about whether Christians can, in good faith, practice yoga. Obviously, how we answer depends on what we mean by "practice yoga" and especially on what we mean by "in good faith."

The most straightforward answer would be that to the extent that Yoga is directed at enlightenment independent of grace it is incompatible with Christian faith. This may seem like a particularly Catholic answer, and Christian sects that think about the role of grace differently may come up with a slightly different explanation. But I don't think that there are any sects that will find yoga acceptable as a form of spiritual aspiration.

One might still ask whether practicing yoga is acceptable to Christians simply as a form of exercise. Here it is tempting to imagine that a mere exercise (just stretching and breathing) could not be objectionable to Christian faith. But there are two reasons to think otherwise.

First, since many of the positions in yoga are designed either to be imitations of the deity or as forms of abasement in relation to the deity, it is clear that it runs counter to the semantic core of Christianity.

Second, even if we ignore the semantic content of the yoga positions, we may well wonder about its effect on our spiritual lives. The euphoria that is often achieved in yoga, if it tends to efface the feeling of a distinction between ourselves and the world, might create the illusion that we discover in yoga some sort of apotheosis, in which we become somehow divine in ourselves.

As striking as these concerns may be, we may well be reluctant to give up on the value of an exercise regimen that seems so healthy in every other way. Can we really not ignore the underlying meaning of the yoga positions? Or the euphoria that yoga can achieve? Or the enlightenment that it aspires to?

Personally, I think we can do this. But are we doing yoga anymore? I imagine not. It remains an open question for me whether a system of breathing and stretching exercises is sustainable apart from a reflection on the spiritual meaning of the euphoria and the intimations of enlightenment that are inevitable in it. I don't really know how to answer this, but I suspect that it is not. I also worry about the spiritual meaning of the systematic focus on our bodily well-being that would be all that remained of yoga. Would it not also represent a dangerous preoccupation with material existence?

Please feel free to disagree if you think I have misunderstood anything about Christian doctrine or about the practice of Yoga. I am, as always, in search of enlightenment.

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