Over the past few years, many have pointed to what has been called the sanitization of yoga; separated from its original spiritual roots, the practice in America becomes merely exercise, as secular as an aerobics class. The latest to emphasize this change in how yoga is practiced is Stefanie Syman, author of the new book The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America, who says that yoga is now so mainstream that it can be part of White House Easter festivities. One would assume that if someone were to take issue with this reading, it would be to mourn yoga’s popular separation from its ancient traditions.
Strangely, though, Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, takes a different tack. In a blog post, he traces Syman’s argument, through her claim that yoga can’t be separated from its origins in Buddhism and Hinduism, and jumps upon a bold statement. Yoga, Syman writes, “is one of the first and most successful products of globalization, and it has augured a truly post-Christian, spiritually polyglot country.”
The first danger sign is the use of the word “post-Christian.” This clearly makes Mohler uncomfortable, and he matches Syman’s claim with an even bolder one. “To a remarkable degree,” Mohler writes, “the growing acceptance of yoga points to the retreat of biblical Christianity in the culture. Yoga begins and ends with an understanding of the body that is, to say the very least, at odds with the Christian understanding.”
So – does this mean that Christians shouldn’t practice yoga? Mohler doesn’t seem to think so, suggesting that the poses represent more than just exercise, a move away from Christ. “The bare fact is that yoga is a spiritual discipline,” Mohler explains, “by which the adherent is trained to use the body as a vehicle for achieving consciousness of the divine…We are not called to escape the consciousness of this world by achieving an elevated state of consciousness, but to follow Christ in the way of faithfulness.”
The article immediately reminded me of a piece by Anita Diamant, a Jewish writer, from the Huffington Post a few weeks ago. She wrote that she managed to keep her yogic and Jewish practices separate, using them for different spiritual and mental functions. She saw no contradiction in the bifurcation; rather, she wrote that Judaism was where she went to strive, to wrestle, to engage – and that yoga was the place where she found respite.
Whether or not this is applicable for Christians is another question. But I’m most troubled by Mohler’s claim that, for Christians, the body should not be used as “a vehicle for achieving consciousness of the divine.” In fact, for many Christians, the fact of Christ’s incarnation is one of the most appealing parts of the faith; the fact that God became human and was deeply embodied – to the point of pain and death – means that these bodily sensations are a way of connecting with the divine. Thus, yoga can be a deeply spiritual act, a display of gratitude for the extraordinary body like the one that even God, however, briefly, inhabited.
What Mohler seems to fear, to me, is not embodied spirituality but rather religious pluralism – he writes disdainfully of the “manic syncretism” of India, and even more fearfully of the practice of channeling sexual energy through yoga. One thing is clear: Mohler is threatened by yoga, but Christianity is not. And while I’m not sure if I agree with Diamant that religious beliefs like Judaism and spiritual practices like yoga should coexist but not overlap, I know that for many people, yoga and Christianity can make a spiritually happy union – perhaps because Christianity is such a wonderfully embodied faith.
Photo from Flickr.