Thursday, November 21, 2013

Yoga for the Glory of God

An interesting article on yoga ( has set me thinking. In it the writer reports on how people of different religious traditions are struggling with whether yoga is compatible with their beliefs. Apparently last year a yoga class was banned from a church hall in the UK, because it was said, "Yoga is a Hindu spiritual exercise". Among others the writer quotes from a so-called Christian exercise programme called PraiseMoves. So I have had a look at the PraiseMoves web site and here is my take on this.

It is true that many Hindus hold to beliefs that are contradictory to the Bible. So do many Christians. But I have never yet met a Hindu whose beliefs are in complete antipathy to the Bible. So let’s stop this simplistic nonsense of contrasting these two civilizations we call Hinduism and Christianity.

Scary Stuff!


The PraiseMoves web site quotes from a number of Hindus who assert that yoga is incompatible with Christianity. It quotes from “An Open Letter to Evangelicals” that appeared in the January 1991 issue of Hinduism Today in which a Swami Sivasiva Palani writes:

“A small army of yoga missionaries ...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.”

To the credulous this would sound scary indeed. That was clearly the point of the letter. It would be interesting to learn more about this army of yoga missionaries. Could it be, I wonder, an idle boast that consciously reflects the sort of triumphalistic language that Christian mission magazines and web sites often use? Here is an example of the sort of language we see in Christian literature sometimes: “We are going to conquer the nation with the gospel.” Are we then an army? Is it any wonder that nationals feel under threat here? Here is another: “Our vision is for India to become a Christian country.” Really? Do you mean like America with its racism, pornography and rampant materialism? The rhetoric of Hindu revivalists is well known in India. Why are Western Christians so naive?

The website also quotes from a Dr Alexander: “Many Westerners who practice yoga today are unaware that the physical positions assumed in yoga symbolize a spiritual act: worshiping one of the many Hindu gods”. Alexander goes on: “To a Hindu, yoga is the outward physical expression of a deep spiritual belief. You cannot separate one from the other.” Cannot or should not? Clearly the writer must mean should not as there are plenty of Muslims, Christians and atheists who do, in fact, practise yoga without holding these deep spiritual beliefs. So he is not saying, surely that it is impossible to separate the movement from the belief (is there such a thing as an ‘unspiritual belief’?). He is saying, therefore, I take it, that it is unnatural to separate them, that the one naturally goes with the other.

The meaning of symbols

But we do this sort of thing all the time. Take, for example, the custom of having bridesmaids walk down the aisle before the bride. I am led to believe the origin of this custom is to avert the evil eye from the bride. The bridesmaids are decoys. Sorry if I have spoiled your wedding preparations. Before you go and cancel that order for bridesmaid dresses let me ask you how many brides are aware of the origins of this custom? And if you were still in blissful ignorance would you not have gone ahead without any qualms, innocently enjoying a good Christian custom? So it is possible to take a custom (a form if you like) and separate it from its referent (meaning). And in so doing the symbol changes.

Likewise yoga. The idea that by doing the exercises you are buying into all the possible interpretations that any yoga teacher ever suggested is quite a stretch! This is precisely what PraiseMoves is, in fact, doing. The web site asserts that “PraiseMoves is NOT so-called ‘Christian yoga,’ which we consider an oxymoron/contradiction in terms since ‘Yoga IS Hinduism’ according to many Christians and most Hindus.” 

Apparently ‘many Christians and most Hindus’ believe that ‘yoga is Hinduism’. But we are not given the precise statistics or the research that this assertion is based on so I think we can safely cast doubt on its credibility. So going on the opinions of a few people PraiseMoves has concluded that ‘yoga is Hinduism’ which is indeed astonishing considering that no one can agree either on what yoga is or what Hinduism is. This is a big topic so let me simply assert here that Hinduism is best understood as a civilization or culture area that includes within it a plurality of mutually contradictory religious traditions (see major works by Gavin Flood, Klaus Klostermaier, Henry Pressler, C. J. Fuller and Julius Lipner).  So saying yoga is Hindu is much the same as saying pasta is Italian or, more analogously, lacrosse is Native American. 

Christian synchronized swimming?

Christian yoga is then, not an oxymoron. Rather the phrase is nonsense. It makes no more sense than Christian wrestling or Christian synchronized swimming. Not that you can’t do synchronized swimming to the glory of God. It just won’t be done in a different idiom. Sure, yoga is traditionally taught with elements of Hindu philosophy, but clearly not always. 

PraiseMoves again: “But wait a second, these postures sure look a lot like yoga poses.” Indeed, they reply, “The body can only move in a finite number of ways – not an infinite number of ways. Some of the PraiseMoves postures resemble yoga poses while others do not." It is no coincidence that the creator taught yoga for 22 years. But to try to demonstrate how distinctly Christian this exercise routine is they have created 22 PraiseMoves Alphabetics postures based on the letters of the Hebrew alphabet (such as Lamed, above). How convenient Hebrew is. Challenge: try Chinese!

I have nothing against meditating on Scripture while stretching. We would all do with more of both - my colleagues at WEST are well used to me getting down on the carpet during our staff prayer times. But let's not make a business out of denigrating another tradition.Would PraiseMoves please publicly repent of belittling their local Hindu gathering place? Calling it Ramalama-Ding-Dong Ashram is like talking about the Hokey-Kokey Pentecostal Church. Do they want to alienate Hindus from themselves? Perhaps they really believe there is an army of yoga missionaries out to get them. Get a life!


  1. Hi, Mark - Hey, I would like to see the Hokey-POKEY Pentecostal Church. At least it would let me know Hokey-Pokey is a good place to "turn yourself around" since "that's what it's all about." :)

    Anyway, Ramalama-Ding-Dong Ashram for those associated with it know exactly what I mean (I practically grew up there, but I will not say their name publicly, nor will I say the name of the mountain New Age community where I lived for 4 years). I prefer not to be responsible for drawing people to explore those places. So, we changed it for you to Ramalama-DD for the time being, which I think will still get the point across to those who were there with me (including one of the former leaders of one of the largest yoga societies in the US, now a follower of Jesus Christ, glory to God!).

    I would not think so little of our Hindu friends as to think such wording would alienate them. I continue to hear from Hindus and former Hindus and count myself blessed to be considered a friend. I hear from Swami Param regularly, and quoted him in the article also -- he gave the wonderfully witty analogies about yoga-as-exercise -- as he wrote, “Imagine treating Baptism and Communion as an Underwater Therapy and Wine Tasting business!”

    Yes, I spent 22 years in the New Age and yoga (from ages 7 to 29); my precious mother and I got involved in yoga thinking it was "just exercise," as many do. As you may know, yoga is an effective "missionary arm" of Hinduism, or at the very least New Age. It doesn't take much research to discover that. Goodness, just ask New Agers that you know how they came to the New Age -- many, many will say through a yoga class.

    I know that may seem simplistic and foolish to many who have not been on the inside of yoga and the New Age movement themselves, but my experience speaking and corresponding with dozens of former New Agers bears this out (such as with the writer Holly Robaina, former New Ager who wrote the first article about PraiseMoves in Today's Christian Woman - here's her later article: "Take a Pass on Yoga ~ How can I support a practice that is targeting the young and the weak?"
    by Holly Vicente Robaina for Christianity Today -- she wrote this in answer to an interesting challenge:

    I don't know about doing PraiseMoves Chinese letters - that seems rather silly since the point is to follow along with the Hebrew acrostic portions of Scripture, hence the Hebrew Letter postures. The foundation of PraiseMoves is always the Word of God we meditate upon or speak aloud while doing these stretching, strengthening postures.

    The exercise is the "witty invention" to get you more into the Word of God -- and to get more of the Word of God into you. The exercise is just the "hook." The Word of God is the "meat."

    Lastly, so-called "Christian yoga" IS an oxymoron (contradiction in terms like a Christian Hindu) trying to be syncretism (blending of two religions) - which of course is impossible in this instance since true Christianity is a relationship, not a religion.

    I invite your readers to check out the article for themselves here:

    May God richly bless you -- L'Chaim! ("To Life" --- Got it!) :)
    Laurette Willis

    1. I appreciated much of your response, Laurette. Though you lost me when you went to syncretism. There is literally no oxymoron in the term "Christian yoga" since yoga literally means "union". There is only an oxymoron if one accepts certain presuppositions about yoga and about Christianity that are anything but certain. Moreover, a "Christian Hindu" (or better) a Hindu Follower of Jesus, is not at all contradictory. I am privileged to be a part of a community of such people.

      "Hinduism" is not properly understood as a religion, as Mark mentioned above. And in any case, it is certainly less of one than is Christianity.

      I too share Mark's concerns about your reference to the "ramalama dd" ashram. I am not thinking less of my Hindu friends and family to take offense at this. It comes across as mockery and it would be better just to refer to "an unspecified ashram". I live and serve in a Hindu community as a devotee of the Lord Sri Jesus, and while I believe that there is much to be commended in what your ministry is trying to do, I am very concerned with the tone of your website. My feeling is that it comes across as anti-Hindu and I believe that most of the people in my community would find it to be more of a barrier than a bridge.

      Why not simply present the positive aspects and move away from the denigration of yoga, Hinduism, etc?

      Anyway, appreciate you responding on this blog. Mark and I have largely formed our views based on living and thinking and serving among South Asian Hindus, so I recognize that we are coming from different worlds. I am grateful for the chance to dialog. I've written much on Hinduism over on my own blog which Mark has graciously linked to.


    2. Cody, this is jeromy,

      Glad you and Loaurette are in dialogue

      Forgive my ignorance, on your semantics.
      How can one be hindu and christian?
      Does that mean someone can be muslim and a christian at the same time?
      Or Taoist and christian, or a satan worsiper and christian at the same time?I know and hear your inteintellectual, and academic argument, but what is your scripture basis? Where are you getting this idea from what Christ says?

    3. And I know yoga means union, but union with what?

    4. I apologize for using the term muslim, I meant islam

    5. Hey Jeromy, since "yoga" alone means simply to "unite" (or "yolk") there is nothing intrinsic to the word itself which answers the question "with what". The practitioner or teacher must supply that answer according to their own philosophy. For that matter, it doesn't necessarily involve any kind of exercise. For example, "bhakti yoga" emphasizes seeking to unite with God through the practice of devotion. "Karma yoga" on the other hand, emphasizes doing good works. The term "yoga" itself is quite an empty vessel into which meaning must be poured.

      On your other question, there is a lot of reading you can do on my blog related to this question. There is a page specifically devoted to issues related to Hindus ( The short answer is that the term Hindu is not properly parallel to a term like Christian or Muslim. It is more like the term American or Asian. Literally, it means "Indian" and is actually a foreign term originally used by invaders to the Indian subcontinent to refer to the indigenous peoples of the land.

      So, to say "Hindu follower of Christ" is like saying "American follower of Christ". Moreover, to say that "Hinduism" is a single religion means that we must take all of Judaism, Christianity, Islam (all all offshoots) plus all of Middle Eastern and Western culture and bunch it all together under a single religious label. Perhaps we call it "Abrahamism"?

      Hinduism is essentially an umbrella term which refers more or less to the way of life for the majority of South Asians. This includes followers of hundreds of different religions.

    6. Well, well. What a pleasant surprise! Most of my blog posts don't elicit any comments at all so I feel oddly privileged to receive so much attention. Before I let it go to my head let me acknowledge that there is much about yoga and Hinduism that I do not know. I am glad to hear that you have come to Christ out of a New Age background Laurette and sad that you and your mother were under a delusion for so long and that many others continue to be. I certainly hope that nothing I have written would encourage that.

      My concerns are missiological and theological.

      Missiologically, as Cody has written, there are a great many Hindus who have yet to hear an adequate presentation of the good news about Jesus. We would do well to show them love by working hard to understand them and seeking to mortify any desires we have to mock and ridicule things we disagree with.

      On a wider theological front, we need to have a much more robust appreciation of the created order that God has made. While acknowledging that the creation is subject to frustration (Romans 8:20) there is much we are to receive with thanksgiving (Romans 14:6). Now people and societies may take a God-given talent, such as the creative gift of physical exercise, and interpret it in all kinds of ways. My argument is that a particular interpretation of a posture or movement, for example, does not make that unethical. It is possible then to enjoy all kinds of activities without fear of falling into error or denying I am yoked to Jesus because that is precisely what God has created me for.

    7. And, by the way, I meant yoke not yolk. Yoga doesn't have anything to do with eggs. :-)