Is yoga a form of exercise? Spiritual program? Hindu practice? Safe for Christians and practitioners of other faiths? Yoga is fundamentally all of these things. Whenever I'm researching a yoga trend or reading a popular blog article that allows for reader commentary at the bottom, there is invariably a reader who lets it be known that if you are a Christian, yoga should be avoided at all costs.
And this issue is more widespread than an overzealous web surfer or two. Encinitas, a San Diego school district, was sued after becoming one of the first districts in the country to offer yoga as part of their curriculum. Parents sued the school under the First Amendment, and argued that yoga is "religious... with a consistent anti-Christian bias ? and a pro-Eastern and strange religion bias." A judge ruled against the parents, citing that modern yoga, "as it has developed in the last 20 years, is rooted in American culture, not Indian culture."
The issue even hits close to home on the opposite side of the country. Here in Virginia, Yoga Accessories? home state, uber conservative Lt. Governor candidate E.W. Jackson has publicly made his controversial views on yoga known, stating, "When one hears the word meditation, it conjures an image of Maharishi Yoga talking about finding a mantra and striving for nirvana. . . . The purpose of such meditation is to empty oneself. . . . [Satan] is happy to invade the empty vacuum of your soul and possess it. That is why people serve Satan without ever knowing it or deciding to, but no one can be a child of God without making a decision to surrender to him. Beware of systems of spirituality which tell you to empty yourself. You will end up filled with something you probably do not want." This statement has caused political uproar and debate even among fellow Republicans.
While yoga undeniably has an underlying Hindu history and philosophy, it has been and is continuingly adapted over time to be more accessible to a wider audience. Some new forms of yoga, which I have lovingly nicknamed 'gritty yoga', have completely ridden themselves of all Hindu-based philosophy and practices. No chanting, no sanskrit, no relaxing Shavasana -- just the poses under their Americanized names.
WholyFit is a Christianized form of yoga. Their website?s homepage asks the reader, "Are you afraid that you might dishonor God if you do an exercise that looks like a yoga exercise?" Wholyfit looks like yoga, but insists it is NOT yoga, instead it calls itself "a Biblical alternative to yoga, so you can stretch and exercise for health without doing yoga."
A recent article by the Ledger-Inquirer out of Columbus, GA, featured Wholyfit instructor LaToya Brassell, who began doing yoga for weight loss, stress management, and improved sleep. In her classes, before flowing into the next yoga pose, a passage from the Bible is read and then meditated on. Further linkage between traditional Indian yoga and Christianity is the basis of a controversial book on Amazon titled The Yoga of Jesus, claiming that Jesus himself practiced this ancient art and actually was a yoga teacher to his disciples.
There seems to be two distinct camps: those who believe Yoga is fundamentally anti-Christian, and is unsafe for those of a Christian faith to practice, or hardcore yogis who believe any non-spiritual (Hindu) form of yoga isn't really yoga. But does it really matter? Yoga is a spiritual practice rooted in Hinduism that is beneficial to the unity of mind, body, and spirit. You don?t have to believe in the tenets of Hinduism to reap the mental, spiritual, physical benefits of this type of exercise. What I tell skeptics is to be open-minded, and if you are new to yoga, feel free to take what you like from the class and leave the rest behind.