Yoga: Rooted in, and returning to, Hinduism
You may find this a stretching article in body, mind and spirit. I have intentionally avoided writing this article for years, because I knew that it would be unavoidably controversial. With genuine reluctance, I faced my conflict avoidance, obeyed the Lord and read hundreds of yoga books in our local public libraries. In preparing this article, I have not read one book which warns against yoga. All book citations in this article are from yoga advocates and practitioners.
To many people, yoga is just the hottest new exercise fad for younger women. Twenty million North Americans are now doing yoga, including around four million men. These twenty million people are currently being trained by over 70,000 yoga practitioners in at least 20,000 North American locations. Many people confuse yoga with simple stretching. Stretching and calisthenics are good things which I participate in weekly at the local gym. Yoga has not cornered the market on healthy stretching and calisthenics. I am convinced that we do well when we take care of our bodies as part of our Christian stewardship.
I unknowingly participated in yoga, in the form of martial arts, for twenty years before renouncing it. It is not an easy or light thing for someone to renounce this, even as a Christian. In hindsight, I realized that the ritual motions and postures (asanas or katas) had gotten very deep into my psyche, shaping my very identity. Without intending it, I was to some degree serving two masters.
Historically yoga was only taught in secret to high-caste male Brahmins. In recent years, North American yoga has largely stripped itself of its more obvious Eastern trappings: gurus, incense, Sanskrit, and loin cloths. Yoga paraphernalia has become a multi-billion dollar industry, involving designer spandex, yoga mats, and DVDs. Old-time Yoga purists have called this new development the yoga industrial complex. In some parts of North America, yoga moms are replacing the demographic of soccer moms. This North American yoga industry has registered thousands of copyrights, patents and trademarks, sometimes resulting in threatening lawsuits. The Indian Government is so concerned about the yoga copyrighting that they have set up their own taskforce to protect yoga from being pirated by Westerners:
"Yoga piracy is becoming very common, and we are moving to do something about it," says Vinod Gupta, the head of a recently established Indian government task force on traditional knowledge and intellectual-property theft.'We know of at least 150 asanas [yoga positions] that have been pirated in the U.S., the UK, Germany and Japan,' he says. 'These were developed in India long ago and no one can claim them as their own.' In an effort to protect India's heritage, the task force has begun documenting 1,500 yoga postures drawn from classical yoga texts - including the writings of the Indian sage, Patanjali, the first man to codify the art of yoga."
There are seven main kinds of yoga: Hatha Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga, Jnana Yoga (wisdom), Mantra Yoga, Tantra Yoga, and Raja Yoga. The most popular yoga offered in one's local Recreation Center is Hatha Yoga, so-called physical yoga involving numerous yoga techniques called asanas. These asanas appear to the uninitiated as if they are just stretching exercises. The more fully initiated realize that asanas are worship postures to Hindu deities. Is it really honest and respectful to pretend yoga is just a physical activity without any spiritual implications? More importantly, should people get themselves bent out of shape over Christians doing yoga?
I.K. Taimini, Indian scholar and chemist, wrote that there is no subject like yoga which is so wrapped up in mystery and on which one can write whatever one likes without any risk of being proved wrong. The religion of Hinduism is more than just cows, karma and curry. Yoga is the very heart of Hinduism. Nine out of ten Hindus agree that yoga is Hinduism. In yoga asanas, one re-enacts the story of a particular Hindu deity, identifying as that specific deity. The hand postures (mudras) in Hatha Yoga are a replication of the same hand postures in the statues of Hindu gods. Yoga is spiritual embodiment. Unlike Western religion, one does not have to believe in something to be impacted by Hinduism. Because Hinduism is technique-based, the performance of the asana is sufficient to open up the chakra energies which produce the psychic interaction. The irrelevance of belief is one of the reasons why yoga practitioners often promote yoga to North Americans as either non-religious or religiously neutral. Transcendental Meditation, a form of Mantra yoga, initiated countless westerners with Sanskrit puja rituals that were never explained to them, but still had a significant impact on their core identity. Yoga is inescapably religious in a way that most westerners will not notice.
The term 'yoga' comes from the Sanskrit word 'yug', which means union with Brahman, the highest of the Hindu deities. The purpose of yoga is to produce a mind-altering state that fuses male and female, light and darkness, good and evil, god and humanity. As Deepak Chopra said in The Seven Spiritual Laws of Yoga:
"Krishna teaches Arjuna (in the Bhagavad Gita) the essence of yoga, telling him that good and evil, pleasure and pain, and loss and gain are two sides of the same coin of life. The solution that yoga offers is to go beyond the realm of duality and become established in the state of being that is beyond time, space and causality....Krishna tells Arjuna, 'Go beyond the realm of good and evil where life is dominated by beginnings and endings. Enter into the domain of yoga where all duality finds its unity..."
The term 'Hatha Yoga' refers to the union of the sun (ha or male) and moon (tha or female) into one monistic whole. Some scholars translate Hatha Yoga as 'violent union'. The definitive symbol of yoga is the Nataraj asana, known as the dancing Shiva who 'dances' destruction upon any distinctions (avidya) between the Creator and creation, good and evil, male and female. Yoga philosophy believes that all matter and differences are illusion, and that all illusions can be overcome by the performance of yoga rituals. The so-called physical activity in Hatha Yoga is meant to achieve a changed state of consciousness, eliminating the distinction between subject [self] and object.
Yoga is the primary technique used by the yogis in attempting to become gods themselves. Through mantric yoga chanting and asanas, the mind experiences both sensory deprivation and sensory overloading, causing a shutting down of the mind. Unlike Christian prayer and meditation on God's Word, the purpose of Eastern yogic meditational practices is to 'kill the mind'. Mantra or breath yoga causes one to enter into a meditational trance state in which the mind is emptied. The 'killing of the mind' produces the experience of differences disappearing and all becoming one. While yogic philosophy is polytheistic, it is also monistic, in the sense that it holds that through yoga, we become the universe and/or god. While these tenets are rarely taught at community center yoga classes, they are often held by the community center yoga instructor who has gone to a deeper level of yogic initiation. The further one enters into yoga, the greater the hold that this 'other master' has in one's life.
Yoga promoters realize that most North Americans are not yet ready to hear about the deeper secrets of yoga. Community Center yoga is largely drip-feeding lower-level yoga practices during this time of cultural shift. Hatha Yoga is itself derived from the very secretive tantric yoga. According to William Broad, author of The Science of Yoga, Tantric Yoga developed in India around 600 A.D:
"(Tantric yoga) worships female deities, roots its ceremonies in human sexuality, seeks supernatural powers for material gain, and cloaks its rites in secrecy."
In around 1200 A.D., Gorakhnath, a Hindu ascetic of western India, merged the traditions of Tantra body discipline, forming Hatha Yoga. Broad teaches that the path of enlightenment towards the ecstatic yoga union was known as Tantra. Hatha Yoga is designed to bring a tantric awakening of Kundalini, the Hindu goddess having a serpent power. The Sanskrit word kundalini means "she who is coiled". The Kundalini snake is said to reside in the lowest chakra at the base of one's spine:
"When (Kundalini) is aroused by Yoga practice, she uncoils and travels up the spine toward her lover, Shiva. Travelling the spine through psychic centers called chakras, Kundalini reaches the top chakra to merge with Shiva and there receive divine enlightenment through the union with Brahman...."
According to the Bhagavad-Gita Hindu Scripture, Shiva the Hindu god of destruction is the Lord of Yoga (Yogeshwara) and the first Hatha Yoga teacher. The Bhagavad Gita used the word "Yoga" in chapter six where the deity Krishna declares, "Thus joy supreme comes to the yogi ... who is one with Brahman, with God." For many generations, the Hindu texts like Hatha Yoga Pradipikia has described yogis as
"able to fly, levitate, stop their hearts, suspend their breathing, vanish, walk through walls, project themselves into other bodies, touch the moon, survive live burial, make themselves invisible, and die at will."
The magical and sexual aspects of Tantric Yoga have both embarrassed middle-class Indian Hindus while intriguing many Western New Agers. The Tantric aspect of Hatha Yoga has been linked to a number of high-profile New Age yoga scandals. Dr. Carl Jung after two decades of study concluded that advanced yoga can "let loose a flood of sufferings of which no sane person ever dreamed."
Yoga came to North America in 1893 when Swami Vivekananda, a disciple of the famous Guru Ramakrishna, taught about yoga at the Chicago World Fair. Laurette Willis, an ex-yoga teacher, calls yoga the missionary arm of Hinduism and the New Age movement. In "An Open Letter to Evangelicals", Swami Sivasiva Palani wrote:
"A small army of yoga missionaries - hatha, raja, siddha and kundalini - beautifully trained in the last 10 years, is about to set upon the western world. They may not call themselves Hindu, but Hindus know where yoga came from and where it goes."
As Yoga Guru B.K.S Iyengar notes in his book Light on Yoga, "Some asanas are also called after Gods of the Hindu pantheon and some recall the Avataras, or incarnations of Divine Power." Because the Hindu deities rode on animals, many yoga asanas are devoted to these deified animals. In the Sun Salutation asana, one is paying direct homage to Surya, the Hindu Sun Deity. The fish asana (Matsyasana) is the worship and reenactment of the Hindu deity Vishnu who turned himself into a fish to rescue people from a flood. The Half Moon asana involves the identification with and worship of Ganesh, the elephant-headed God who threw part of his tusk at the moon. The Tortoise asana is dedicated to the worship of Kurma the Tortoise incarnation of the God Vishnu. The Downward Dog asana reenacts the Hindu worship of the dog as happens for five days each November. The Hanuman asana is dedicated to the worship of the Monkey god, Hanuman.
The Warrior asana is identified with the worship of Lord Virabhadra who has a thousand arms, three burning eyes, and a garland of skulls. The Corpse asana is the death or extinction of the person when unification with the Hindu deity Brahman wipes out one's own identity and existence. The Lotus asana is identified with the worship of the Hindu deity Lakshmi who sat on a lotus. The Marichi asana is dedicated to the identification with and worship of Marichi, one of the seven Lords of Creation and the Grandfather of the Sun God Surya.
Sadly a number of well-meaning Christians have been recently promoting Christianized yoga in North America. Subhas R. Tiwari, a Hindu University of America professor who has a master's degree in yoga philosophy, comments: "Such efforts [to Christianize yoga] point to a concerted, long-term plan to deny yoga its origin. This effort . . . is far from innocent. It is reminiscent of the pattern evident throughout the long history and dynamics of colonizing powers." Tiwari holds that efforts to Christianize yoga are unjust "encroachment" and thinly veiled Christian proselytism of Hindus.
With yoga and Hinduism, nothing is what it seems. This is why it has been described as the embrace that smothers. Yoga has always been shrouded in illusion and secrecy, and can intentionally look like whatever you want it to in the short term. In the end, the road leads to idolatry and monism, to serving two masters. The Lordship of Jesus is what is at stake. Just as there is no Christian Ouija board and no Christian astrology, so there is no Christian Yoga that is either truly Yoga or truly Christian. I invite you to do the stretching, perhaps unthinkable thing of turning from Yoga towards healthy stretching and calisthenics.
Rev. Ed Hird, Rector
St. Simon's Church North Vancouver
Anglican Mission in the Americas (Canada)
Author of the book 'Battle for the Soul of Canada'
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P. 17 ...a number of scholars translate Hatha Yoga as 'violent union.'...