YOGA AND CHRISTIANITY

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YOGA AND CHRISTIANITY

The interpretation of the teachings of Jesus, from a yogic approach, is profoundly enlightening. It allows us to glimpse the state of consciousness from which they were imparted. Even more enlightening is the comparison of His words with those of other spiritual traditions; through this comparison we can feel one and only Truth, albeit dressed up with different symbols and imagery.

The Spirit, by definition, has no form; however, those who experienced the Spirit tried later to communicate It to others through specific images and rituals, teaching also how to reach that same experience. Unfortunately – something that seems to be part of the human nature – the followers of those people ended up believing that the road map was in fact the reality that it represented, resulting in the creation of rituals and dogmas, and making certain symbols sacred, and worshipping the messenger, instead of following his steps and emulate his spiritual realization. This is what we normally call an “institutionalized religion.”

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. 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, 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’…Brahman’ (eternal Self).” “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.”     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.   One Upanishad tells us: “Unite the light within you with the light of Brahman.”    Clearly, then, the goal of yoga (i.e. union with Brahman) is at least as old as the Upanishads.

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.

Many people today (including some Christians) are taking up yoga practice.  Yoga and Christianity have very different concepts of God.   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.

 A 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.  Nevertheless, Christianity clearly differs from yoga in its unqualified insistence that God and man are distinct.   Clearly, Christianity and yoga are mutually exclusive viewpoints. But is every kind of yoga the same? Isn’t there at least one that’s exclusively concerned with physical health and exercise?

What Is Hatha Yoga?   Isn’t hatha yoga simply concerned with physical development and good health?    Hatha yoga is primarily concerned with two things: asana (physical postures) and pranayama (breathing exercises). But it’s important to realize that both asana and pranayama also play a significant role in Patanjali’s raja (or “royal”) yoga. What is the relationship of hatha to raja yoga?    The sole purpose of Hatha Yoga is to suppress physical obstacles on the Royal path of Raja Yoga and, therefore, Hatha Yoga is the ladder to Raja Yoga.

The physical postures are “specifically designed to manipulate consciousness into Raja Yoga’s consummate experience of samadhi: undifferentiated union with the primal essence of consciousness.”  These statements should make it quite clear that hatha, or physical, yoga has historically been viewed simply as a means of aiding the yogi in attaining enlightenment, the final limb of raja yoga. This is further confirmed by looking at Iyengar yoga, possibly the most popular form of hatha yoga in the U.S.   If all these things are so, it seems increasingly apparent that hatha yoga may ultimately involve its practitioners in much more than physical exercise. Although it may not be obvious at first, the ultimate goal of hatha is the same as every other form of yoga: union of the self with an impersonal, universal consciousness.

We’ve seen that yoga is an ancient spiritual discipline whose central doctrines are utterly incompatible with those of Christianity. Even hatha yoga, often considered to be exclusively concerned with physical development, is best understood as merely a means of helping the yogi reach the goal of samadhi, or union with GOD.

Yoga is not a religion, it has its roots in a Hindu culture, however, there is also a lineage of yoga that comes from a Sikh culture called Kundalini yoga. Yoga is not a Buddhist thing. They are not the same thing.  Buddhism is a separate practice that focuses mostly on meditation. However, there is much crossover now between all these practices.   We are all one in spirit and physical prayer and breath practice is not exclusive to the Hindu faith. It is contemplative prayer which is part of Christian practice.   The use of bodily postures to open us to God is already well-established in our own practice.  Being on our knees for example, invites our mind and our heart to be prayerfully present, kneel to express the transcendence of God.   Depending on what church one enters on Sunday, one will find a range of bodily postures expressing openness to God: genuflecting (bending one knee to the ground), bowing and kissing icons, sitting quietly in a circle with open hands, prostrating, and standing with hands raised high toward heaven. Gesture obviously unites mind and body and presents us whole to God.  Yoga is a way to help us fully inhabit our bodies and begin using them to more fully actualize what God calls us to be.

However, these mystics, in all cultures and religions, are the point of reference for the seekers of Truth, instead of the different religious hierarchies and authorities, very often more worried about preserving the inherited traditions and symbols (which substitute the true direct spiritual experience) and expanding their own influence in society.

There is no unique spiritual approach or path.  The relationship that one has with the Supreme will never have an equal; it will never be exactly the same as another person´s relationship. If, through development, we are able to come into contact with the Truth of our own Being, we will be immediately having a unique and exclusive relationship, without equal, with The Divine Being.” The fact that there are different spiritual approaches is what really enriches us all. From this stems the Hindu ideal of the Satsang or “Truth´s Company,” the divine communion in which we share the Truth, reaching a superior understanding through the comprehension of different points of view. The ideal “unity in diversity” also stems from this.

 Kathy Kiefer

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