This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Yoga for Christians

My wife and I just got back from yoga class.  We try to go weekly, and do at least some sun salutations every day, or at least a few times a week.  

There was a very brief debate on CNN a while back on whether Christians should do yoga.  (You can see it on this blog: http://timvictor.wordpress.com/2007/11/06/christians-and-yoga/.)  The two contestants John MacArthur, the pastor of “Grace Community Church” (a middle-aged white guy in a suit) and Doug Pagitt (who looks about 30, wearing an open blue work shirt).  Pagitt is one of the leaders/authors in the “emerging church” movement.  

The argument against Christian involvement in yoga is that it is an expression of pantheism that focuses people on a “false” deity within, while distracting from the “true” deity above.  MacArthur articulated a disembodied, mental, and verbal understanding of faith: assent to some theological propositions and God will save you.  Summarizing MacArthur’s opinion: You need to go to the word of God, embracing in faith Christ’s sacrifice.  Then God comes, regenerates you, transforms your life, and you’re saved, you’re on your way to heaven. In short, you need to fill your mind with biblical truth and focus on the God who is above you; but yoga tries to find the God inside of you, which is a false religion.
 
Pagitt really didn’t present adequate theological responses, except that he knows people who do yoga who are also faithful Christians who are not harmed by it so it must be okay.

I have studied yoga off and on over the last 30 years.  My involvement with it was more than the purported health benefits of stretching exercises, which is why most Americans who do yoga do it, I think.  I have always been explicitly interested in the spiritual side of it.  It is part of my own personal search for an authentic and comprehensive spirituality.  More specifically, it represents an interface between the spiritual and the physical that interests me as a Christian for whom the Incarnation is a central doctrine.

The evangelical party-line that MacArthur spouts has never worked for me.  It smacks of what Bonhoeffer called cheap grace.  It limits faith to a cognitive opinion that bears fruit in nothing more than mouthing a few words.  What someone then goes on to actually do in and with their life is immaterial.  There is no connection between soul and body.  This teaching heads clearly in the direction of gnosticism.  

In fact, there actually are bodily postures connected with prayer in Christianity.  The Bible recommends two basic physical attitudes for prayer: kneeling (eg. Psalm 95:6) and standing (eg. Psalm 24:3).  Lifting hands and bowing down are also mentioned.  (No warrant for sitting on one’s butt in a pew or chair to pray, you notice, nor, to be fair, sitting in a lotus position.)   In the Orthodox church worshipers may perform prostrations during the Liturgy.  A prostrations is a form of bowing in which a person ends up face down on the floor.  One may argue that the yogic “sun salutation” is really just an elaborate and embellished form of a prostration.  I have never heard anyone in the Orthodox community argue that there is any health benefit to performing prostrations; it is all about submitting yourself to God in a physical, visible way.  And in the Philokalia we do find rudimentary guidelines for bodily positions enhancing prayer.  (On the negative side I would be remiss not to mention practices like self-flagellation which do attend to the body by punishing it.) 

Standing, kneeling, lifting hands, and bowing down are all part of yoga... as is sitting.  

Protestantism sought to purge nearly everything physical, multi-sensory, and bodily from Christian worship.  In what might be its most extreme and pure form, Puritanism, the congregation is literally boxed into pews, remaining motionless, using nothing more than their auditory sense.  They might stand to sing, but that’s about it.  The minister doesn’t hardly move either.  It is probably as asomatic a practice of worship as has ever existed among humans.

Even when I was a kid, growing up in Presbyterian churches, the physicality of worship was extremely understated.  It was still limited to standing and sitting, singing and listening.  Even the unavoidably physical aspects of worship, like the sacraments, were severely circumscribed.  Like the nearly water-free baptisms that still happen, or the pre-prepared tiny pillows of bread and mini cups of grape juice we still use and serve to people sitting unmoving in rows.  Liturgical dance still scandalizes.  Churches might pass the peace, choirs might process, but even these halting attempts at physical movement are not always welcomed by traditionalists.

The extremely head-centered approach to religion is neither faithful to the gospel nor attractive to people today.  The doctrines of the Incarnation and Resurrection make the physical, somatic dimension of central importance for Christians.  Beyond the health concerns, Christians involved in yoga may be trying to augment from another world spiritual tradition a piece that has always been woefully underdeveloped in Christianity.  Yet it is consonant with Christian doctrine.  The implications of the Incarnation and the bodily Resurrection have not been systematically addressed in the Christian tradition, especially in Protestantism. 

The truth of the gospel is that in Christ the living God becomes flesh to dwell among us.  Yoga is about putting some of our attention on our own “flesh” as a balance to excessive rationalism (in my case).  It gives us an authentic way to manifest the balance and integration between body and soul, flesh and spirit, earth and heaven, that is integral to Christianity but underemphasized for centuries.

1 comment:

Doug said...

Hey Paul-- Good article. I have read many of your posts over the past year but have not commented. Thanks for this article. I'll email it to my older son, Patrick, and his girlfriend, who manage the yoga farm in costa rica. The link follows:
http://www.yogafarmcostarica.org/