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Does Yoga Conflict with Christianity?

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Rob's Reviews

A Ministry of the Institute for the Development of Evangelical Apologetics

In this issue: Yoga Journal, April 2001


Rob's Reviews
A Ministry of the Institute for the Development of Evangelical Apologetics
P.O. Box 60511, Pasadena, CA 91116; (626) 796-3368
Vol. 1, No. 4 - March 25, 2001

In This Issue:
Yoga Journal, April 2001

Major Review

Does Yoga Conflict with Christianity?
A Response to Yoga Journal
By Robert M. Bowman, Jr.

Thurman, Robert A. F. "Reality Check: Renowned Buddhist scholar Robert
Thurman reflects on the Yoga Sutra and how we can know reality for
ourselves." Living Yoga column. Yoga Journal, March/April 2001, 67-71.

Life, David. "My Guru, My Self: Even a longtime student like Jivamukti Yoga
Center founder David Life gets nervous when his teacher comes to town."
Profile column. Yoga Journal, March/April 2001, 73-76.

Reder, Alan. "Reconcilable Differences: A Buddhist, a Christian, a Jew, and
a Muslim share how they blend yoga with their religious beliefs." Yoga
Journal, March/April 2001, 78-85, 156. Cover title: "The Question on
Everyone's Mind: Does Yoga Conflict with My Religion?"

What's wrong with this picture?

In the cover article for the March/April 2001 Yoga Journal, contributing
editor Alan Reder argues that yoga can be practiced by Buddhists,
Christians, Jews, and Muslims - and by implication, just about anyone else -
without any conflict with their religion. Yet the two major articles that
precede Reder's piece illustrate in unmistakable terms that yoga, in the
usual sense employed in the magazine itself, is incorrigibly religious.

Thurman: Yoga is for Reality, Man

In his article "Reality Check," Robert Thurman explains rather clearly the
Eastern religious roots of yoga. Oddly, he claims that he went East in
search of truth because Western civilization's "authorities all said you
could not know reality" (67). He soon narrows the field of Western
"authorities" to the modern materialistic philosophy that views the mind as
a mere function of the brain, a notion that implies that we really cannot
know ourselves. But of course - the same point has been made from the
Christian side by C. S. Lewis and others. Materialism implies that all of
our thoughts are the manifestation of material processes; there is no "I" to
know or be known. Unfortunately, this observation undermines the Eastern
monistic philosophy that Thurman favors as well, since in that tradition the
concrete existence of the individual "I" is also denied. The only
philosophy that can deliver true knowledge of the self is a biblically based
philosophy: human beings are concrete individuals with inherent meaning and
value because God created them, and we can know ourselves because God
created us with that capacity in order to make it possible for us to know
and love him. As John Calvin pointed out in the opening paragraph of his
Institutes of the Christian Religion, we cannot truly know ourselves without
also knowing God.

According to Thurman, the "gods" were unable to deliver happiness, so human
beings must attain it on their own (67, 68). This premise obviously implies
a repudiation of the biblically based religions of Judaism and Christianity,
especially the latter, according to which our eternal happiness is dependent
entirely on the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

Although Thurman sees some movement in the right direction in other
traditions, it is in India that he locates the path to truth and reality.
The civilization of India "created a science of the soul" in which the mind
is viewed as determining a person's happiness or suffering. This is an
experimental science in which the laboratory is the mind-body complex and
the "technology is yoga, the yoking of conscious attention to empirical
exploration, transformative discovery, and healing modification" (68). This
is quintessential New Age thinking: reinterpreting Eastern religious rituals
and practices as a science.

Thurman acknowledges that most of the "inner scientists" (his name for the
gurus and other movers and shakers in the development of yoga) belonged to a
religious tradition, of which he names the Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu
religions (68). The "inner scientist" on which he focuses is Patanjali, the
Hindu guru who authored the Yoga Sutra (69). Thurman explains that
according to Patanjali, "Yoga is the actuality of our union with the
absolute, the supreme reality of ourselves and everything, the blissful
void, freedom, or what is called Absolute Glory (Brahman, nirvana), God
(Ishvar), or Buddha, Reality Embodied (Dharmakaya), and many other names"
(70). The rest of Thurman's article expands on this understanding of yoga.
Suffice it to say, he has set forth the religious significance of yoga quite

Life: You Are Your Own Yoga Teacher

David Life runs the Jivamukti Yoga Center in New York City. In his article,
Life tells about his guru's visit to New York. The religious role of the
guru for Life is established immediately. Life tells us, "I pray to a
picture of Pattabhi Jois every day," and he points out that the guru "backs
up everything with Sanskrit scripture" (73). According to Life, Pattabhi
Jois "pulsates with the auru of a true siddha, one who has acquired unusual
powers through dedication to yoga practice and teaching for more than 70
years" (74). Heady stuff, and Life admits that being around his guru makes
him nervous.

Each day after class the guru's followers lined up to take turns bowing down
to Guruji, touching the guru's feet and then touching their own heads. When
one of Life's students expressed uneasiness about bowing down to the guru,
Life told him, "Don't bow down to just a man . . . instead bow down to your
own Self that you recognize inside him. Then bowing down to him is no
different than bowing down before your own higher nature" (76). The student
complied, apparently deciding that he didn't have a problem worshiping
himself. After all, according to the pantheistic philosophy he was taught,
we are all one divine Self.

Reder: Yoga (ummmph!) Fits All Religions

Alan Reder, a "disaffected Jew" who followed the Swami Muktananda, admits
that he found the mystical chantings of the ashram more to his liking than
the traditional synagogue services of his youth (80). While admitting that
some people left the religion of their childhood to pursue the promise of
yoga, Reder points out that many people today are taking yoga with them to
their church or synagogue.

"In general," Reder says, "yoga is taught here in a way that strips away
much of its Indian context" (81). This is true, but the Indian context that
remains includes very specific religious elements. As Reder acknowledges,
"teacher and students" in yoga classes commonly greet each other with the
Sanskrit "Namaste," meaning, "I honor the Divine within you." According to
Reder, "Fundamentalist religious leaders of any major Western tradition
would probably say that pursuing a God within subverts worship of God
without" (81). No surprise that objections to mixing yoga with, say,
Christianity, are attributed to the nameless bogeyman fundamentalists. This
is classic move Number One in the religious apologetics of the left these

Classic move Number Two is to invoke the opinions of erudite scholars of
religion who assure us that there's nothing to the views of those
narrow-minded fundies. So Reder offers a choice comment from Huston Smith,
author of the recent book Why Religion Matters, and refers to the arguments
for religious relativism mustered by Matthew Fox (One River, Many Wells) and
Jacob Needleman (A Little Book on Love). According to these scholars, "all
of the major religions at their deepest level offer alternate routes to a
common destination" (81). Translation: If you dig around long enough you
can find pantheistic mystics in the annals of every major world
religion-somehow proving that all religions at their core are mystical paths
to discovering the divine in ourselves. Believe it or not, this is the kind
of argument that passes for serious scholarship in religious studies these

According to Reder, the world's religious institutions resist admitting this
mystical commonality with each other to protect their power (82). I almost
fell of my chair when I read this old chestnut. The fact is that the
Eastern religions actively promote the unity of all world religions. As for
the Western religions, the Big Three all resist such a claim because it is
contrary to the explicit teaching of their founders and scriptures. Moses,
Muhammad, and Jesus were all awfully clear on one point: there is only one
true God, and that God is the One who created the universe and who revealed
himself to Abraham. If Judaism, Islam, and Christianity give up this core
conviction, they might as well disband and tell their members to go become

Reder completely misconstrues the problem here as the narrow-minded
unwillingness of religious people to allow that God could be known by other
names (84). This is not the issue at all. Christians are very comfortable
with the idea of God being known by many names-after all, the Bible uses
many names for God, and encourages us to translate biblical names into their
equivalents in other languages (e.g., "God" instead of Elohim or Theos).
But there are limits. I don't think, for example, that "Alan Reder" or "Rob
Bowman" or even "Pattabhi Jois" are among God's names.

Since the monotheistic religions are not likely to disband, what New Agers
are doing today is to try to transform them into Western versions of
Buddhism. Reder comes very close to admitting as much. He speaks of a
"true cross-fertilization" taking place as yoga becomes entwined as part of
the new spirituality of "progressive" religious elements in the Western
faiths (156). In other words, yoga is being used as a wedge in the door of
churches and synagogues to bring in mystical beliefs. The strategy:
reinterpret the Abrahamic faiths in mystical terms and dismiss all
resistance to this approach as the foot-dragging of power-hungry clergy or
reactionary fundamentalists.

In a sidebar, Phil Catalfo, a senior editor of Yoga Journal, asks, "Is Yoga
a Religion?" This is an easy one: of course not. But this is like asking
if prayer is a religion. No, but it is an incorrigibly religious practice.
The same is true of yoga. Catalfo tries to finesse this fact by an appeal
to the standard New Age distinction between religion and spirituality:

Spirituality, it could be said, has to do with one's interior life, the
ever-evolving understanding of one's self and one's place in the cosmos-what
Victor Frankl called humanity's "search for meaning." Religion, on the
other hand, can be seen as spirituality's external counterpart, the
organizational structure we give to our individual and collective spiritual
processes: the rituals, doctrines, prayers, chants, and ceremonies, and the
congregations that come together to share them (83).

Apparently, in Catalfo's mind one's "understanding" of the personal and
cosmic issues of life can somehow be separated from the "doctrines" of one's
religion. (A question: Is the distinction between religion and spirituality
a doctrine-and if so, is it therefore religious, not spiritual?) Another
translation would seem to be in order: What Catalfo probably means here is
that spirituality can be pantheistic and transpersonal even while one's
religion is monotheistic and interpersonal. In other words, the Jew can
somehow recite the Shema or the Christian recite the Nicene Creed while at
the same time having the "understanding" that these words are not to be read
"literally" and that God is really the divine in everyone. Of course, no
one suggests that Buddhists do their chanting while thinking to themselves
that what their Buddhist faith really means "at the deepest level" is that
they are lost sinners who can enjoy eternal life only through faith in Jesus
as their Savior and Lord! No-this "cross-fertilization" works only in one
direction, and the distinction between spirituality and religion is a
conjurer's trick to convince people that monotheistic religion can and
should accommodate pantheistic spirituality. The pantheistic religions,
meanwhile, may remain safely pantheistic in their spirituality as well.

Does yoga conflict with my religion? You betcha. Anything that tells
people that God cannot bring them ultimate happiness (as Robert Thurman
argued) conflicts with my belief that the chief end of human beings is to
love God and enjoy him forever. Anything that encourages people to worship
their yoga master (as David Life attested) conflicts with my belief that the
Lord is God and there is no other. Anything that encourages people to
believe that spiritual fulfillment can be attained in any religion (as Alan
Reder claims) conflicts with my belief that without Jesus Christ people of
all religions (even Christianity!) are lost.

(c)2001, Robert M. Bowman, Jr. Direct all correspondence to

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