yoga
 
Hinduism and Christian Yoga: Cultural Appropriation and an Emerging Model for Conversion

While it would be correct to say that one is not required to be a Hindu to practice yoga; likewise, it is equally important to acknowledge the roots of the tradition.

It was quite astonishing to see the flyer “Christian Yoga! This Thursday night….”  I could feel the wheels spinning in my brain.  “Christian Yoga”, I thought.   While it is certainly true that Christians can practice yoga, I am not aware of any Christian theology regarding yoga.  Yoga, as a word or practice, has no etymology in the Judeo/Christian tradition.  It is not part of the Roman tradition, which allowed Christianity to largely spread across large portions of Western Europe via the Roman Catholic Church; though certainly the ancient Romans would have been aware of India as were the Greeks.  Yoga, as a word or practice, does not appear with the reformation movement or Martin Luther’s rejection and subsequent break from the Catholic Church, lending credence to the somewhat obvious fact that yoga, as word, is not a doctrine of any protestant teachings.  But what do the Christian texts say?

Yoga, as a word, is not found within the King James Version of the Bible [1].  Nor are the key concepts essential to many yoga traditions such as liberation, self-realization, the self-illumination of the soul, or the expansiveness of Purusha as outlined in the Purusha Suktam of the Rig Veda.  To contrast the two traditions, yoga/Hinduism has no concept of hell, eternal damnation or a concept of a savior, to name, but a few major differences.  While one might argue that the term naraka is in fact hell, and it would be true to say that it is commonly translated as hell, this is actually an erroneous and misleading translation.  As the Vishnu Purana [2] points out that naraka also refers to an incarnation with a tamasic mind [3]. In fact, one can compare and contrast the examples cited and quickly realize that the traditions of Yoga and Christianity are quite different.

Yoga is a Sanskrit word, and is a term that appears in a broad array of different and related traditions that comprise and fall under the expansive umbrella of Hinduism. Yoga, the word, appears as early as the Vedic traditions, and appears within a variety of very old Vedic texts and teachings such Jyotish (a Vedanga) or Vedic Astrology (of course within jyotish, yoga often refers to a union of planets or combination of planets).  Yoga also appears within Ayurveda (an upaveda), and is specifically mentioned within the Charaka Samhita, which proclaims “…yogo mokshapravartakah,” (… yoga causes liberation) [4].   These examples demonstrate that yoga, the word, is sown into the fabric of the most ancient teachings of the Vedic tradition.  So, how did we get this “Christian Yoga”?

There is little doubt that this is a complex issue at first, but upon examination of the history of Christianity, one can see a somewhat rich and robust history of suspected cultural appropriation.  As an example, many have suggested that Easter is actually modeled after pagan holidays.  Catholicism attempted to override a pagan holiday with All Saints Day birthing what we now call Halloween or Hallows Eve.  Some scholars have claimed that Jesus is modeled after the Egyptian Horus.  And, certainly modern scholars acknowledge the considerable cultural exchange among ancient peoples; this exchange ranges from ‘loan words’ to techniques, which would suggest an import of ideology within Christianity.  Even the Christian concept of hell is a strange mixture of Judaism and the Greek concept of Hades to form the later Christian motif of hell.   Scholars do acknowledge that appropriation did exist, as Ritch confirms philosophical appropriation stating that ‘Historically, the Christian tradition has heavily relied on Aristotle’s ethical philosophy to provide a conceptual basis for the articulation of its own ethical doctrines…’ [5] Therefore, the debate regarding legitimacy of appropriation is simply a moot point.

One can hypothesize that the modern manifestation of “Christian Yoga” is rooted in several possibilities or unique combinations relative to each individual:

  1. A continuing process of appropriation that is intrinsic to the nature of Christianity.
  2. Christianity is threatened by yoga and is attempting to influence, modify or simply take over a system that is perceived to disrupt the religious economy of Christianity.
  3. Members that self-identify as Christian are subconsciously attempting to return to the spiritual roots of civilization—the Vedic civilization (the oldest remaining dharma tradition), but are conflicted due to perceived conflicts between Hinduism and church dogma.

There is little doubt that there is an aspect of appropriation with the emergence of Christian Yoga.  This appropriation often has manifested as somewhat of a whitewashing of the roots of yoga/Hinduism.  There are likely multiple rationales behind this, one example being a global Hindu cultural devaluation that is epidemic within many western yoga teacher training programs.  In one sense, the appropriation of yoga has been little more than the appropriation of āsana, which manifests as a cultural devaluation, meaning that there has been a conscious removal of key yogic/Hindu concepts while exploiting the popularity of the name.  This is likely rooted in the old Christian desire for the local church to be the cultural hub of the community, evidenced by churches often being located near the center of towns or communities.  Modern adaptations of this cultural hub ideology would include the proliferation of daycare centers, exercise classes, movie nights, etc. that commonly appear within the business models of the modern U.S. church.  This becomes even more apparent in lower income communities where the church does play a more perceived prolific role within the community and in the deep south of the United States, where the view is that the church should perform many of the duties of the state government.  Ironically, these groups are often the most resistant to embracing Christian Yoga programs; this is likely due to a more conservative religious view and a struggle within the church relative to the view that Yoga/Hinduism is demonic. Currently there is a battle being fought among conservative groups over this issue. There is growing evidence of a desire to appropriate and redefine the meaning of the yoga, the word.  A recent manifestation of this is a company/organization known as Yoga Faith; their 200 hour certification program does not include a single Yoga Shastra or any book aligned with India or Hindu philosophy [6]. In fact, their 300 hour program does not include a single Yoga Shastra or any book aligned with India or Hindu philosophy [7]. The absence of critical yoga texts such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika or the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali among others is concerning, as this is simply the bold and disrespectful appropriation of yoga–the word, and has little to no resemblance to the actual historical yoga in any of its multitude of forms, but it colors the public’s understanding of yoga-the word.

It is reasonable to suggest that the adaptation rates of Christian Yoga programs are to combat dwindling membership in the church, while significant numbers of the U.S. population still self-identify as Christian, their participation in church has lessened considerably.  This has likely manifested due to a growing movement known as radical universalism, which is prevalent among new-age adherents and middle aged adults.  Most concerning is that it is highly likely that this whitewashed yoga will be imported to India, as this is already happening on the small scale with a model emerging in India that is akin to western yoga and its āsana obsession, replete with the yoga selfies that was quite popular in western society.  The greater concern is that this re-importation of westernized yoga will eventually manifest with the explicit purpose of being used to convert.  While some might argue this subversive movement does not exist, a quick examination of Holy YogaTM[8], as an example, and their mission statement reveals this is simply not the case.  The mission statement reads: “Holy Yoga exists to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth through the modality of yoga [9].” India is taking rapid and bold steps to stop this process prior to it becoming firmly established within the homeland of yoga.  As it would be somewhat horrific, if the seat of authentic yoga were to become the seat of whitewashed yoga and appropriated yoga.

The previous paragraph did address the second point-to a degree.  By appropriating yoga, the word, and placing an increasingly strong focus on āsana, churches and teachers in essence reduce the need of its membership to be introduced to foreign religious concepts.  Whereby, preserving membership, introducing potential new membership and reducing loss of membership due to exposure to dharma/Hinduism.  Additionally, this process works on subtle and subconscious levels to devalue the deeper teachings of yoga and the various traditions found under the umbrella of yoga/Hinduism, allowing a foreign culture and religion to present itself as an authority and in essence present itself as an Adhikara of yoga with little to no understanding of yoga—beyond the pop usage of the word.  While the openness of Hinduism is clearly appealing to the western mind, as well as the presence of a multitude of traditions, in essence, there is something for everyone versus the more dogmatic traditions commonly found in the world.

It is likely that those that become teachers of Christian Yoga have been touched by the shakti (power) of yoga āsana.  Yet, some Christian’s have expressed conflict between the religious/dharmic aspect of yoga and their Christian belief. While this has presented the opportunity to grow, stretch (no pun intended), and transform ones consciousness, often when faced with this conundrum, the unprepared teacher will likely fall back to the religiosity of their doctrine rather than take the bold step forward into an exciting exploration of dharma/Hinduism.   Or in the Hindu and dharmic view, the samskaras of the mind were simply too powerful.  From the perspective of tradition, it is likely that many are drawn to yoga due to a deep subconscious need to reconnect with the Vedic roots of previous lifetimes.  Certainly, Hinduism/dharma would support this, while Christianity would reject this based on the concept of reincarnation.  The average teacher is quite often unable to or ill equipped to internally address these profound and conflicted positions, which again often result in a fallback to religiosity and doctrine; though there would be a significantly smaller number successfully pushing through social conditioning, peer pressures, fears of being different, and samskaras taking a bold step towards Hinduism.

Hinduism: Dealing with modern day issues.

Too many modern day scholars/authorities from India or from the culture have frequently presented the attitude, in the past, of “let them have yoga, I am interested in protecting Hinduism.”  A sentiment I have repeatedly heard, regrettably. Yet, the reality is that yoga is an important branch of Hinduism.  Allowing one part, one limb, one book to be taken from Hinduism opens a literal floodgate for the distortion of the teachings. This is not to say that insight and dialogue cannot occur regarding the teachings of various traditions.  But we must remember that Krishna warned, in the Bhagavad Gita, that he must incarnate when the teachings have devolved or decayed, and one must remember that the roots to modern day yoga come from Vedic Yoga, as Krishna referenced the Vedic solar lineage in the Bhagavad Gita.  Appropriation combined with a religiosity based reductionist mentality is the easiest way to negate the actual teachings and reduce yoga to a somewhat meaningless word.

Hinduism should reclaim its full heritage and not allow other groups to rename its sacred teachings under their banner without a minimal expectation of acknowledgement of its Hindu roots, especially when they have no history of those teachings within their own system.  Attempts at native reclamation have come under attack from multiple angles, most recently through attempts to divorce Hinduism from its traditions and roots, commonly appearing as the removal of India and Hinduism and replacement of a new banner by academics—South Asia.  But, too frequently groups attempt to privatize the information or teachings and present themselves as the original authority.  Often, they attempt to claim ownership of that which they appropriated from Hinduism/dharma.  Hinduism, and the guardians of dharma, should guard its sacred traditions against becoming distorted and taken away, as the improper technique and teachings can actually become harmful to practitioners (himsa).

Hindu/dharmic scholars, traditional teachers and the greater Hindu diaspora should take the stand that yoga is part of Hinduism and not cave into academic pressures or academic definitions from those engaged in the pursuit of tenure alone.  Nor should it accept the appropriation by Christian groups that are attempting to repackage yoga into a simplistic exercise program.  Hindus should challenge academics and non-academics (as well as religious institutions) to support their antagonistic views toward Hinduism/dharma with evidence as opposed to dismissive comments (which are quite prevalent in social media).  While it would be correct to say that one is NOT required to be a Hindu to practice yoga; likewise, it is equally important to acknowledge the roots of the tradition, after all, we are all expected to give credit to sources within books and research papers. And ideological plagiarism is not different from cultural appropriation.

References:

  1. While some scholars have attempted to state the King James Version of the Bible is outdated, the reality for the western world and especially the U.S. is that the King James Version is the most popular edition. Source: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2015/08/28/the-most-popular-bible-of-the-year-is-probably-not-what-you-think-it-is/
  2. Vishnu Purana 2.6
  3. Naraka is a complex subject with diverse views which are beyond the scope of this article.
  4.  Charaka Samhita-Sārīra sthāna 1.137
  5. http://aporia.byu.edu/pdfs/ritch-the_possibility_of_a_christian_appropriation_of_aristotles_ethical_philosophy.pdf
  6. https://yogafaith.org/curriculum/200-hour-curriculum/
  7.  https://yogafaith.org/curriculum/300-hour-curriculum/  accessed 11/17/16
  8.  Trademarks are the property of their respective owners.
  9.  https://holyyoga.net/ accessed 11/17/16

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yogi@ifrc.in'
Yogi Baba Prem Th. D (religious) Yogacharya, Veda Visharada has studied the classical systems of yoga and has been focused on the Vedas for the past 13+years. He has studied Upavedas and Vedangas such as Ayurveda, Jyotish and spends most of his time in contemplation of the Vedas and related Vedic texts. His Vedic Study has been under the direction of Dr. David Frawley (Acharya Vamadeva Shastri). He is an Acharya under the lineage of Mahavatar Babaji. He has written several books including ‘An Introduction to Astrological Yoga’ which examines the relationship between the Vedas, astrology and yoga. Learn more about his work at www.vedicpath.com