The evangelicals, it appears, are in a bind—they want to capitalize on the mounting popularity of yoga, but how can they embrace a practice steeped in Hinduism without compromising their dogmatic exclusivity? They can’t authentically do that, and so, yoga is repackaged into a Christian avatar and forcibly divorced from its roots.
The commercialization of yoga has by now reached a saturation point, with a proliferation of styles that includes hot yoga, naked yoga, yoga for dogs, and everything in between. Just when it seems that yoga could hardly be more divorced from its roots in the Indian subcontinent, a new appropriation comes along to further drive a wedge between the physical components of asana practice and the spiritual dimension in which the exercises become a conduit for God-realization.
The “Christian yoga” movement of recent years represents a wide array of views, ranging from PraiseMoves™, an anti-Hindu organization, to the more integral Christians Practicing Yoga community. The more orthodox of these organizations begin from the presupposition that there is something ungodly about yoga in its original context, that Hindu practitioners of yoga are deficient and in need of the gospel.
While most Hindus regard the benefits of yoga as universal, they can also be offended at the casual theft of Indian spiritual practices and the xenophobia and racism underlying Christian yoga, which remind many of the colonial days of “civilizing” missionary activity.
Laurette Willis, part reluctant prophet and part power salesperson, founded PraiseMoves™ after a bout with alcoholism and food addiction. She had been involved with yoga and the broader New Age movement from a young age, following her mother’s example. “Yoga led us into quite a different lifestyle,” she says of her affluent Long Island upbringing. “Ouija boards, Edgar Cayce, channeling, psychism, astrology, numerology. Looking for God in all the wrong places… My mother and I had been involved in yoga just thinking that it was good exercise.
We found that it was something that led us away from Christ, from the Creator to the creation.” She carefully molds her story into the classic evangelical testimony of darkness and light, sin and salvation, before and after.She says that the inspiration to create PraiseMoves™ occurred simultaneously with a complete and instantaneous cure of her alcoholism.
She denies that PraiseMoves™ is inspired by Indian yogic techniques, even though many of the postures are traditional asanas, renamed with Bible verses to go with each movement. She insists that the system is not “Christian yoga” but a “Christian alternative to yoga.” Willis has added postures of her own invention that correspond to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
Holy Yoga is a much slicker organization, with professional-looking media and accessories that match with the fitness aesthetic of the mind-body-spirit movement. One can, for example, buy a women’s “flowy tee” that bears the phrase “Love is our mantra” (a sentiment that would not bother most Hindus), but with the obligatory Bible verse beneath—“john thirteen thirty five,” written in a handwriting typeface.
The verse, by the way, reads, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (NRSV). But Holy Yoga amounts to a gated community of Christian yoga rather than an impulse towards a truly universal form of love or union. The mission statement for the organization reads, “Holy Yoga is experiential worship created to deepen people’s connection to Christ.
Our sole purpose is to facilitate a Christ-honoring experience that offers an opportunity to believers and non-believers alike to authentically connect to God through His Word, worship and wellness.” One cannot help but think that there is an “unholy yoga” lingering in the background: that is, Hindu yoga, the yoga of Patanjali and Svātmārāma. Holy Yoga is a transparent attempt to purge yoga of its Hindu roots and even the softer New Age version (itself already a reduction) of Hindu spirituality.
Suhag Shukla is co-founder and Executive Director of the Hindu American Foundation. Shukla does not believe that Christian yoga is offensive on its face but could become offensive when combined with some of the exclusivist beliefs of the Judeo-Christian tradition. “I think what’s offensive is that if hand-in-hand with Christian yoga there’s this notion that ‘Don’t do that other yoga, because that’s going to lead you down the wrong path.”
Shukla feels it is absolutely offensive when Christian yogis usurp yoga which has helped people live in consonance with each other and with nature for millennia, and then turn around and judge and proselytize Hindus. “Certain churches will say that yoga is devil worship or Eastern philosophy is a path to hell. You can’t have it both ways,” she adds.
The Hindu American Foundation’s Take Back Yoga initiative began as a response to the misunderstandings of yoga in the United States. “Take Back Yoga started as a result of many of us [at HAF] being subscribers of Yoga Journal.
In issue after issue we saw pictures of Hindu deities, Aum on every page, the mantra of the month, but rarely did we find the word ‘Hindu.’ You would see “Vedic,” or “Ayurvedic,” but there was this specific avoidance of the word ‘Hindu,’ which we saw as synonymous with these other terms. And that was really distressing to us.
If you are going to refer to yoga as something other than Hindu, which creates a separation in the American mind that Hinduism is about cow worship, caste discrimination, and dowry. We wanted to educate people on the roots of yoga.”
Shukla inaugurated the Take Back Yoga initiative in 2008 with an open letter to Yoga Journal (archived on the HAF site) which reads, in part:
I have read Yoga Journal for a number of years now and have found great wisdom in the experiences, insight and advice shared by so many who have been inspired by the tradition of my birth and that of a billion others. However, I have become increasingly bewildered and disappointed by what seems to be an intentional and systematic disregard for Hinduism as a religious and spiritual tradition and its contributions to the world over the past 5000 years.
As a practicing Hindu and second-generation Hindu American, I find the repeated references to the teachings and philosophy of Hinduism as ‘ancient Indian,’ or ‘ancient yogic’ or ‘Eastern’ to be, frankly speaking, disingenuous and disrespectful.
Sure, ‘Hinduism’ or ‘Hindu’ are not terms the ancient rishis, a.k.a. ancient yogis of India, used to define or label themselves, but in modern times, it is the word that is associated with those of us who happen to have been born from the history and into the generations who have sought solace in these life teachings.
The Take Back Yoga campaign generated a firestorm of media coverage, including coverage in the New York Times, CNN, and Al Jazeera. The Hindu American Foundation published “Yoga Beyond Asana: Hindu Thought in Practice” in order to clarify the reasoning behind the campaign.
The post stressed the roots of yoga in the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and other scriptures and underlined the importance of key figures like B.K.S.Iyengar (1918-2014) and K. Pattabhi Jois (1915-2009), both of whom were instrumental to the worldwide spread of yoga but also stressed the spiritual aspect of yoga arising from the Hindu tradition. Prashant Iyengar, the son of B.K.S., went so far as to say that, “We cannot expect that millions are practicing real yoga just because millions of people claim to be doing yoga all over the globe.
What has spread all over the world is not yoga. It is not even non-yoga; it is un-yoga.” The HAF statement, after giving a wealth of quotations from scriptures and founding figures, goes on to deplore the commercialization of yoga and stress the importance of guru and lineage in traditional practice.
Christian yoga falls into a broad spectrum of attempts to capture the richness of yogic practice without the cultural “baggage” of specifically Indian and Hindu practice. For many Indian and Hindu Americans, this will amount to throwing the baby out with the bath water, as asana practice is only one of Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga. Without the other seven parts of yoga, asana practice doesn’t make very much sense: substituting Jesus for the Hindu devas simply adds insult to injury.
Perhaps as global yoga comes of age, it can begin to more deeply acknowledge its debts to the Indian religious and philosophical traditions and develop a more complex understanding of divinity and theology that goes beyond simply dismissing the gods and gurus of Hinduism. For Christian yoga, this would require pushing back against Christian dogmatic exclusivity, something that evangelicals might not be willing to do.
By David Dillard-Wright
[David Dillard-Wright is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina Aiken. Dillard-Wright is the author of At Ganapati’s Feet and Meditation for Multitaskers and the co-author of The Everything Guide to Meditation for Healthy Living and 5-Minute Mindfulness. He also writes academic articles on animal ethics, environmental ethics, and philosophy of mind.