Is yoga religious? Spiritual roots of a physical practice: Spiritual roots of a physical practice

June 6, 2011
© Stephan Zabel

Who owns yoga? That unexpected question arose last year when the Hindu American Foundation identified what it views as two serious misconceptions about yoga that are widespread in the West.

The first misconception is that yoga is only about physical exercise. Most people in the West have been exposed to only one aspect of yoga, namely, the performance of asanas or postures. This asana-heavy version of yoga ignores central moral and mental dimensions of a holistic practice of mind, body and spirit, rendering yoga scarcely distinguishable from other regimens designed to stretch and strengthen muscles.

The second misconception is that yoga can be dissociated from Hinduism. Yoga appropriators are largely to blame for this dissociation. Indeed, HAF believes that those who peddle a de-Hinduized brand of yoga have benefited financially from their marketing ploy.

On this matter one must tread lightly, for it is no coincidence that a HAF statement of concern points to the "discrimination and hate" Hindus face because of their religious identity, as well as to the embarrassment they suffer from exotic caricatures of the tradition in terms of "caste, cows and curry." A prime directive of HAF is to shed light on any form of prejudice against Hindus or Hinduism, an admirable aim that cannot be fully appreciated apart from the history of multiple colonial incursions into India, both political and religious (Mughal Empire and Islam, the British Raj and evangelical missionaries). Nor can it be understood apart from the current political climate of India in which communal traditions are in tension with a secular government seeking to guarantee representation for all of its citizens.

The campaign that HAF initiated, called Take Back Yoga, sparked two curious responses. One was from the difficult-to-categorize New Age author Deepak Chopra. He pushed back at HAF, saying it exaggerated the Hindu dimensions of yoga and seemed to express a naive and ahistorical view of that tradition. In a blog exchange with HAF cofounder Aseem Shukla, Chopra said yoga is linked to a philosophical system such as Advaita or the Sanatana Dharma that existed prior to classical Hinduism.

The exchange revealed an internal conflict among diaspora Indians over the markers of religious identity. Chopra's own religious interests are more in the realm of "consciousness" or "spirituality" than in Hindu practice. He suggested that "the rise of Hinduism as a religion came centuries after the foundation of yoga in consciousness and consciousness alone. Religious rites and the worship of gods has always been seen as being in service to a higher cause, knowing the self." Indeed, for Chopra, the very term Hinduism seems to conjure up narrowness of communal identity and a tribal deity, both of which he finds inconsistent with the pluralistic intellectual traditions of India, which loosely coalesce under the umbrella of Sanatana Dharma.

Shukla, for his part, somewhat anachronistically conflates Hindu practice with Sanatana Dharma—a move that is certainly possible in the life of faith but inconsistent with the historical record. In any case, Shukla insisted that any who popularize, benefit from or practice yoga need to acknowledge its place in Hinduism. Chopra viewed this concern as the reflex urge of those wishing to consolidate a beleaguered Hindu identity, one that too quickly passes over the spiritual or mystical insight that is at the center of whatever counts as Hindu.

The other curious response came from a Christian theologian. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, condemned yoga and "Eastern meditation" in a way that echoed the uninformed condemnations of Indian religions—especially Hinduism—that were typical among evangelical missionaries to India in the 19th century. That tragic story has been told recently in William Dalrymple's The Last Mughal. Despite his own negative presuppositions about Hinduism and the amorphous "East," Mohler enthusiastically took up HAF's cause, affirming that yoga is inextricably linked with Hindu beliefs.

Mohler argued that Christians cannot develop a yoga practice without disregarding the biblical witness, risking their souls and being compromised by yoga's hypersexuality. (The latter claim is an irresponsible statement about yoga that exemplifies the HAF's justified sensitivity over how Hinduism is depicted in mainstream society.) The only source for understanding yoga that Mohler seemed to be working with was a recent study of yoga's cultural history in America by journalist Stefanie Syman titled The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America.

Furthermore, Mohler seems to be working with a "container" theory of religious identity: one either fits religiously into this container or that—either Hindu or Christian, either biblically based or meditation-based. He thinks that any dabbling in another container must represent a contradiction.

Such an approach would shut down religious dialogue before it begins. It would be more promising to allow the dialogue between traditions to take place. As it happens, Mohler offered no evidence to support his principle of contradiction, and many Christians attest to how yoga practices have deepened their Christian faith.

Can a Christian honestly and faithfully develop a yoga practice if yoga indeed has Hindu roots? (We might add that it also has Jain and Buddhist roots.) On this question, we can learn from the Roman Catholic Church and the archbishop of Canterbury, both of which advocate "dialogues of religious experience."

In such dialogues committed Christians share their practices with people of other religious traditions, share in the practices of those other traditions and are attentive to experiences of shared space, worship and prayer. Such experiences tend to generate questions. How does yogic breath control and regulation (pranayama) influence my ability to pray, to contemplate God or to receive the Eucharist? Many Chris­tians have found that breathing exercises quiet the mind and allow one to focus more pointedly on the experience of prayer or worship, opening them to perceive the presence of God more fully. So too, breath control and regulation can render me more mindful, more responsible at the Lord's Table, more present to the body of Christ in our midst, of which we all are part.

Might yoga's holistic spirituality and ethic likewise render me more conscious of my eucharistic responsibilities in daily life and not only at the Lord's Table, so that I learn a set of moral standards from the vocabulary of yoga that show me how to translate the language of worship into morally responsible action in the world? Many times we fail to see the connection between what happens at the Lord's Table—the reconciliation of all members in the body of Christ—and social ethics, public policy or the life of action. Yoga's preference is for holistic living: it calls for mind, body and action to mutually support and explain each other. So too for Christians; worship that doesn't lead to ethical action fails to be worship, just as love of God that doesn't produce a spontaneous love of neighbor fails to be love.

Might asanas (postural yoga) influence a Christian's understanding of herself as a physical body created in the image and likeness of God and thus an object of unutterable dignity, held in being and redeemed by God? Might my performance of postural yoga contribute new meaning to Paul's claim in 1 Corinthians that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit? Might postural yoga, with its well-documented physical and mental benefits, help me to better understand my stewardship responsibilities to my own body—which Paul says is not my own—and to other bodies in creation? Even though HAF contends that Westerners focus too much on asanas, it is nonetheless true that attentive respect for the body and for its health and vitality can help Christians develop resources in their own traditions on dignity, incarnation and consummation. So too, the effect of asanas on the mind can demonstrate to Christians what they already know to be true, namely, that body and spirit are one.

Surely a physical practice that respects both body and mind merits the attention of Christians seeking greater respect and stewardship of the bodies of creation. The Indian virtue of equanimity can and should help me to realize that once I have a deeper respect for the dignity of my own body, the dignity of others becomes that much more evident.

The "how" of such influence is surely the domain of individual discernment. But that Christians can find support in yoga for their own discipleship surprises nobody acquainted with yogic practices.

The dialogue of religious experience occurs from a position of commitment to one's own tradition, not from laxity or heterodoxy, and it demonstrates just how real the fruit of curiosity and charity can be. It also demonstrates how unsatisfactory simple identity markers can be for those able to cross over and back again profitably and faithfully.

Arguably, Christians who are most committed to their own tradition are the ones able to share in and learn from the practices of other traditions without fearing the loss of identity. These Christians are often able to look confidently beyond the church to what God has done and continues to do among non-Christians. No mere speculation, this confidence is born out of their experience of what God has done and continues to do within creation, including within religions.

A further question confronts those who wish to comment on Christian participation in yoga without participating themselves or becoming conversant with the broader philosophical and religious terrain on which yoga rests. Understanding is the fruit of concrete and open encounter. Moral speech about the other is best when we speak and act in the presence of the other, having heard the other and shared space with the other, and found shared causes if not compatible practices as well.

In his volume on anthropology in Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth outlined an edifying vision of what it means to encounter another person. For Barth, real encounter consists of a set of reciprocal activities and dispositions. It requires mutual vision, seeing the other and being seen by the other, peering into another's heart and mind and in the openness which allows me to be peered into without hindrance. It requires mutual speech and hearing, in which the other person's self-declaration becomes for me an event which must happen for my own sake, since "I" am relationally constituted as an "I-Thou." Real encounter means mutual assistance, or solidarity. Action is human to the extent that it gives and receives assistance, that it comes from one who eschews isolation in favor of intimacy and assistance, and is inhuman in the rejection of these. This is precisely the humanity that Barth believes to have been disclosed in the real humanity of Jesus Christ. Real encounter, finally, means engaging in the above activities with gladness, for they reflect the impulses of one's own heart and help to create authentic community (koinonia).

In a recent issue of Commonweal magazine, New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson argues that the Abrahamic faith traditions have become increasingly imperiled by a trend toward identifying religious belief with external or what he calls "exoteric" markers at the expense of their spiritual, mystical, or "esoteric" substance. More significant than so-called clashes between religious traditions, Johnson believes, are the clashes occurring within traditions between the exoteric and esoteric versions of each.

Exoteric markers of identity highlight external expressions of religion, particularly as these contribute to an explicit social or political vision that serves as the criterion for orthodoxy. The esoteric markers of identity locate the core of religious belief in spiritual or mystical experience. As mystical, the esoteric experience of God cannot be reduced to exoteric markers, for it remains irreducibly personal and ineffable. John­son's lament is that religions have lost the appropriate balance between the exoteric and esoteric versions, rendering belief disturbingly void of mysticism and little more than "dry bones." What is needed is a balance between the mystical and the political, the visible markings of orthodoxy and the internal depth of the heart's experience.

In light of this framework, we might observe in yoga a remarkable example of the holistic vision. For yoga, especially the multireligious form of yoga bequeathed to us in the second-century compilation of aphorisms on yoga practice by Patanjali, seeks in its Ashtanga or eight-limbed approach an impressively holistic life, life as interdependent and reciprocal as the growth of limbs on a tree or any other body.

Classic yoga texts, like Patanjali's collection of yoga sutras, display a remarkable vision of holistic living. They present an eight-limbed path with which many Christians have profitably encountered. It consists of moral restraint toward the environment (yama), personal observances (niyama), physical postures (asana), breathing techniques to still the mind (pranayama), the inwardness of ascetic restraint of senses (pratyahara), concentration and the ability to focus the mind (dharana), meditation insight (dhyana) and absorption into a transcendent consciousness beyond conventional dualities (samadhi). Each of these eight limbs is to be cultivated simultaneously, in mutual support of each other.

Surely Christians can give and receive wisdom on these matters. Whatever form the debate about yoga takes, let it rest on the foundation of real encounter and the reciprocity of dialogue.



Really! Do you really think God cares if you do yoga? Do you really think God is small enough to be offended! WOW!


Yes I do,
Gods first command is to keep his sons and daughters pure. Thou shall have no other gods before me.
If you knew who He is then you would not make such a foolish comment.

Thats like saying to your spouse it ok to explore other relationships that are meant to be Holly. You don't need to be faith to just me. If it would harm a marriage it would also harm your relationship with the One True God. The one who died on a cross for our sins to purchase or redeem us at such a high cost. Why would He care if you worship one that cannot see or hear or act on your behalf. Wow is right.

the Father, Son and Holy Spirit meet me in my yoga practice

My Senior Minister sent me to this article. He is aware of and appreciates my yoga practice. I recently lost a 2nd brother to suicide and shortly thereafter my father passed away. Through my yoga practice God has met me numerous times with peace and comfort. I believe my various instructors are instruments of God guiding me to the very breath that keeps me alive, strengthening my body and invigorating my soul. God made all things good...sharing the gift of a yoga practice is as Christian a thing as I can imagine. Come to the mat and you will see first hand the blessing that yoga is!!!!

Be carful

You are deceived brother. The verse reads Through God all things are made good. He can turn the darkness into light but in the change the darkness would have been removed, not kept. God said, I will not share my Glory with another, Take no other Gods before me. He would not contradict Himself so you can compromise with a false religion.

Letter from Joanna B. Gillespie

Yes, yoga is religious in the broadest, deepest sense of that word (“Is yoga religious?” June 14). I’m a weekly churchgoing, Eucharist-receiving Chris­tian who finds a yoga practice enhancing--and helpful in overcoming the painful impact of Sunday school messages. Yoga was the first religious experience that urged me to love my own body. “Give thanks for your body, for your faithful heart, working every minute of your life,” my yoga instructor would say at the end of class. 

Until I began yoga in my sixties, no religious leader had ever taught me to honor my physical body as a temple. Instead they presented the opposite view: that the physical body is something to rise above, ignore, pummel into shape.  

I’m grateful for the yoga postures and spinal alignment Iyengar yoga has taught me over the past three decades, the physical blessings of standing upright, sitting, walking, meditating--spiritual lessons that my solid Protestant Christian up­bringing left untouched. I’m glad I lived long enough to receive a more appreciative stance toward the gifts of other religious paths.

Joanna B. Gillespie

Rochester, Vt.

Concerned for you

The painful impact of Sunday School messages. Where did you go to Sunday School?
Learning that Gods watched his only son die on your behalf so you could be saved from your sin was troubling to you? Take care or your body yes, Make wise decisions for your health yes honor it, was does that mean? Is that worship?

This only as an example with no disrespect intended.
If I sleep in the garage am I a car? Of course not. Just because you go to church and do religious things does not make your a believer nor does it make you saved. Have you put your faith in the Lord Jesus Christ?

I challenge you to go to this page and read and listen below the red text. Just scroll down a little.

For if you had a life giving and changing relationship with Jesus Christ you would not still be looking.
Religion cannot change your heart, religion cannot pay the price for your sin. People have a hole in them and they try to fill it with everything of this world. Booze, sex, drugs power , false religion and the whole just stretches out and grows as all this worlds junk is stuffed into it. Only Jesus is big enough to fill that void. Thou shall have no other Gods before me! How many times were Gods people punished when they strayed to Bail or other false gods so that their hearts would return.
How many prodigals wander off and suffer from their own foolishness as the father awaits with opens hands to receive back the wanderer?

christian practices

In this interesting article essentially about Cristian versus Hindu practices, it's frustrating to see no mention of the long tradition (certainly since the tie of the desert fathers and mothers) of Christian meditation, not to mention contemplation,. These are practices with our own traditionthat come very close to practices in Eastern religious traditions, and with similar purposes; namely,to listen.


I am a Christian who is in love with my Lord Jesus. I practice yoga 3 to 4 times per week. I experience no disconnect between my life of love and surrender to Jesus and the hours I spend consciously breathing, stretching and growing stronger physically. Practicing these ancient postures is something that God has used to deepen my appreciation for the miracle of my human body and its positive responsiveness to this discipline. I salute the "Son" and enjoy every minute of it!

Is Yoga Religious ?

Simply saying I am practising YOGAA (a long vowel sound "AA" does NOT mean anything

YOGAM is Noun--YOGA (short vowel sound "A") is adjective.

These two words are used in the sense of Union or Combination.

"Parivraajaka YOGAM=Astrology--Astrologicaaly who can become a Sanyasi (Ascetic)

Tattriya Upanishad Mantram is "Hey Sanyaasa YOGAAn--thakram vibhaavam---etc"

Asaadhmendriyaartha Sam YOGAM=Medicine(Ayurveda) The misuse of Cognitive senses,cause for diseases

Gaja-Keasri YOGAM-Astronomy--certain relative postions of planets 

Sahasra YOGAM/YOGA Ratnaavali=Pharmaceutics

YOGA Paatanjalam/Hatah YOGAm--that is the "Widely" misused "Commercial"-BOP- YOGAA.

YOGA Vaasistam=Hindu Metaphysics (Nobody including Hindus do not bother about this--because it has NO commercial value)  
Even if one mixes Aspirin,Phenacetin and Caffeine for Fever --it is a YOGAM

But the adjective "YOGA" is used in Yoga Paatanjalam in a Religious Connotation--Union of what ?-- Jeeva(individual Soul=Aatman) and Parama (Universal Soul=Brahman) whether Aatman and Brahman are ONE(Not Two=Adwaitham) or TWO(Dwaitham)  is "Higher Religious Metaphysics. --If it is Adwaitha the "ONEness" is experienced (Anubhavam)--if it is Visista Adwaitahm the Union Is realised--in Suddha Dwaitham there is NO Union at all--NO YOGAM--Daasa and Dhaathaa remain "as it is"--are these concepts there in Abrahamic Religions?   

Anybody may practice YOGA Paatanjalam or Yoga Swaathmaaraamam (what they call Hatha Yoga)--But denying that it is NOT Religion is difficult to swllow..

Many Westen YOGA Practioners (if NOT all) do NOT even know who sarva sri.Patanjali (why he gets that name) and Swaathmaaraamam. are.--They know only Iyengar Yoga--Iyer Yoga--Mudaliar Yoga--Vikram Yoga--Thakram Yoga and all that.

But denying that YOGA Paatanjalam is NOT Religion is difficult to swallow.

In the Normal sense People argue that Yoga comes from the Dhatup "Yuj"=what kind of Union and all that.

In Yoga Paatanjalam itself he says ;-

"Tatra Niraadhisayam Sarvagjna Bheejam"

What is that Sarvagjna Bheejam ? -is it religious or Not ?

(to be continued --whether Yogaa is Tantram or not--whether part of "Idol Worship"(Tanum Bhakthaha) or NOT.

 Somayaji.S.R. (former Assistant Director--Central Council for Research in Ayurveda(m) and YOGA


Yoga is Yoga and Gods people do not follow after false religions like Yoga. Period. The two cannot be interwoven into something otherwise something new has been created. And we are not the creator with authority to do so. Christians preaching this nonsense are either not truly saved believers or they are living a life of compromise.

I'm a Christian but yoga is OK? really

Would you support terrorism? of course not.well then would you donate to the Mosc down the street?
who does or who follows Sharia Law that says all infidels must submit or be killed? O well I dont support that I just like the pretty building. Well if you donate you do support it. The same is true with yoga. Jesus said, not me" You are either with me or against me" " Those who do not reap with me scatter" Judas was on the fence. How did that work out for him? He walked with Jesus and saw many things but when the others asked Lord is it I who will betray you Judas said teacher is it I. Notice he didnt say Lord. Are you saying Lord or just teacher??

This article above is garbage. More new age nonsense that want to dilute truth into a moldable creatable self pleasing glob of worthlessness. If God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow and He does not contradict Himself then Who do you think this is coming from?

And Satan said, " IF you are the son of God then turn these rocks into bread" The great deceiver even tried to unsuccessfully temp the Lord. Will he not also try and fool you? And how did Jesus respond? Only by the truths in Gods word the bible. You will not Find Yoga or its religion anywhere in Gods word. Stop playing brothers and sisters as the spiritual war of this world we live in is much too dangerous to go wandering of of the path.