While numerous reports have documented Christianity and yoga to prove uneasy bedfellows, a Seattle pastor has fanned the flames of debate by calling yoga “absolute paganism” that can lead to “demonism.” In a lengthy blog post claiming to summarize the history and traditions of yoga, Mark Driscoll employs apologetics (reasoned arguments intended to justify a religious doctrine) to rebut the tenets of yoga and demonstrate “why it is, in fact, demonic.”
At the core of Driscoll’s reasoning is the Christian tenet of the one (and only) true God, and only one path to spiritual redemption; “through the power of the Holy Spirit provided through Jesus’ death and resurrection on the cross.”
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Claiming the “virtual impossibility” of practicing yoga postures divorced from their spiritual origins, Driscoll notes “we should never, in our desire to be in shape and be healthy, adopt systems antithetical to Christianity because they make us feel good or have bodily value.”
In support of this point, Driscoll cites the seminal work of Mark Singleton, who posits the historical origins of modern postural yoga to derive more from Western gymnastics than Indian yoga. Driscoll fails to mention, however, the rich historical lineage of “spiritual gymnastics” in the US which had little to do with Indian forms of yoga, thus weakening his equation of modern and Indian forms of yoga.
Like any form of fitness activity (e.g., pilates, gymnastics, calisthenics), it is entirely possible to practice postural forms resembling yoga while reaping minimal spiritual benefit (e.g., without mindful awareness or connection to breath). For example, in Kripalu yoga, yoga is defined as the act of being compassionate and mindful of each moment; thus all of life may be considered yoga when skillfully lived, while yoga postures are mere exercise or calisthenics in the absence of mindfulness.
I contend it’s entirely possible for those of different religions to engage in “yoga postures” (particularly given the origins of many such postures in gymnastics) without threat to one’s religious identity. Yoga with a capital “Y” however, intentionally practiced on (e.g., postures; pranayama; meditation) and off the mat (e.g., how you show up in relationship; your attitude in traffic), has the potential to broaden one’s perspective, generating a more spacious and compassionate perspective and softening the rigidity of views such as Driscoll’s.
Political and religious conservative viewpoints have been shown in numerous studies to be motivated and sustained by fear of uncertainty and threat. Driscoll’s treatise congeals many threads of yogic and modern liberal American ideology, all of which radically deviate from (and conceivably threaten) conservative Christianity’s rigid tenets.
Perhaps yoga’s inherent spirit of inquiry, of “living into the answers,” thus partially explains the fear-laced vitriol expressed towards yoga and contemplative religions by conservative Christian contingents. The inclusive and pluralistic nature of contemplative thought may easily be perceived a threat to monotheistic paradigms, which espouse the Word of God (i.e., the Bible) as the only source of truth.
Do you think it is impossible to practice yoga postures divorced from their spiritual origins?
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