Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Yoga and Christianity: Are They Compatible?

What is Yoga?
For many in the West, yoga is simply a system of physical exercise, a means of strengthening the body, improving flexibility, and even healing or preventing a variety of bodily ailments. But if we inquire into the history and philosophy of yoga we discover that "much more than a system of physical exercise for health.

Yoga is . . . [an] ancient path to spiritual growth.
It is a path enshrined in much of the sacred literature of India. {1} Thus, if we truly want a better understanding of yoga, we must dig beneath the surface and examine the historical roots of the subject. Before we begin digging, however, we must first understand what the term "yoga" actually means. According to tradition, yoga means union; the union...of the finite 'jiva' (transitory self) with the infinite' or Brahman' (eternal self). {2}
Brahman" is a term often used for the Hindu concept of "god," or Ultimate Reality. It is an impersonal, divine substance that pervades, envelops, and underlies everything. {3}

With this in mind, let's briefly look at three key texts that will help us chart the origin and development of yoga within India. It appears that one can trace both the practice and goal of yoga all the way back to the Upanishads, probably written between 1000-500 B.C.{4}
One Upanishad tells us: "Unite the light within you with the light of Brahman." {5}
Clearly, then, the goal of yoga (i.e. union with Brahman) is at least as old as the Upanishads.
In addition, the word "yoga" often appears in the Bhagavad Gita, a classic Hindu text possibly written as early as the fifth century B.C. {6}
In chapter 6, Krishna declares: "Thus joy supreme comes to the Yogi . . . who is one with Brahman, with God." {7}
Finally, in about A.D. 150, the yogi Patanjali systematized yoga into eight distinct "limbs" in his Yoga Sutras. These eight limbs are like a staircase, supposedly leading the yogi from ignorance to enlightenment. In order, the eight limbs are:

  1. yama (self-control)
  2. niyama (religious observances)
  3. asana (postures)
  4. pranayama (breathing exercises)
  5. pratyahara (sense control)
  6. dharana (concentration)
  7. dhyana (deep contemplation)
  8. samadhi (enlightenment). {8}

It's interesting to note that postures and breathing exercises, often considered to be the whole of yoga in the West, are steps three and four along Patanjali's "royal" road to union with Brahman.

We see that yoga is an ancient spiritual discipline deeply rooted in the religion of Hinduism. This being so, we may honestly wonder whether it's really wise for a Christian to be involved in yoga practice. Next, we'll continue our discussion by examining some of the important doctrinal differences between yoga and Christianity.

Yoga and Christianity: What are the Differences? Many people today (including many Christians) are taking up yoga practice. We'll later consider whether yoga philosophy can truly be separated from yoga practice, but we must first establish that there are crucial doctrinal differences between yoga and Christianity. Let's briefly look at just a few of these.

  • First, yoga and Christianity have very different concepts of God. As previously stated, the goal of yoga is to experience union with "god." But what do yogis mean when they speak of "god," or Brahman? Exactly what are we being encouraged to "unite" with? Most yogis conceive of "god" as an impersonal, spiritual substance, coextensive with all of reality. This doctrine is called pantheism, the view that everything is "God." It differs markedly from the theism of biblical Christianity. In the Bible, God reveals Himself as the personal Creator of the universe. God is the Creator; the universe, His creation. The Bible maintains a careful distinction between the two.{9}

  • A second difference between yoga and Christianity concerns their views of man. Since yoga philosophy teaches that everything is "god," it necessarily follows that man, too, is "god." Christianity, however, makes a clear distinction between God and man. God is the Creator; man is one of His creatures. Of course man is certainly unique, for unlike the animals he was created in the image of God. {10} Nevertheless, Christianity clearly differs from yoga in its unqualified insistence that God and man are distinct.

  • Finally, let's briefly consider how yoga and Christianity differently conceive man's fundamental problem, as well as its solution. Yoga conceives man's problem primarily in terms of ignorance; man simply doesn't realize that he is "god." The solution is enlightenment, an experience of union with "god." This solution (which is the goal of yoga) can only be reached through much personal striving and effort. Christianity, however, sees man's primary problem as sin, a failure to conform to both the character and standards of a morally perfect God. Man is thus alienated from God and in need of reconciliation. The solution is Jesus Christ, "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." {11} Through Jesus' death on the cross, God reconciled the world to Himself.{12} He now calls men to freely receive all the benefits of His salvation through faith in Christ alone. Unlike yoga, Christianity views salvation as a free gift. It can only be received; it can never be earned. Clearly, Christianity and yoga are mutually exclusive viewpoints.

1 comment:

NCStudent said...

I am glad I read this. I would like to find another way to stay flexible and strong that is NOT yoga. Thank you for this information.
Pattie 10th

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