To Yoga or Not to Yoga?

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To Yoga or Not to Yoga?

To Yoga or Not to Yoga?

I consider myself flexible.  But if you are talking about physical flexibility and the ability to cross my legs and the wrap them around my head, well, that’s not going to happen.

Yoga is not my sport. But my aversion to it is not a matter of disdain for the lean and limber who stretch into unnatural poses.  Stretching is legitimately good for the body. Yoga, however, is more complicated than physical fitness.

My first introduction to yoga came when I was in high school living in Dearborn, Michigan. My friend Denise and I took an evening class at a local public school.  We went to the Catholic school and were looking for something adventurous to do while we scanned the list of community education classes. Denise’s mother nixed the belly dancing class (bless her) so yoga it was.  We did a lot of harmless balancing and stretching such as “The Tree” in which we stood one-legged with the foot from the other leg pressed on the opposing inner thigh while holding our arms outstretched.  We wobbled and struggled to stay upright and felt very un-tree-like.

One day, the instructor brought in a picture book of yogis in advanced poses.  Good heavens, I’ve bet you’ve never seen the likes of such contortions outside of a circus—and even then….  The various Gumby-like yogis looked bizarre; bending and twisting in ways I never imagined possible.

Now, fast-forward thirty-some—years. I’ve grown in knowledge and experience and have ten kids.  Where once my faith was shallow, it now goes to the core.  And I’ve learned some things about yoga along the way.  Many years ago I read a book by a Christian and former new ager previously considered an authority on spiritual power though crystals. Once converted, he warned of the danger and actual demonic influences in new age practices, which had become clear to him after a difficult but major awakening to Christianity.  This man had personally explored a number of new age practices in depth, including yoga.  He had attended a special center for Yoga in California and reached a high level. The author claimed that at the upper levels, practitioners are actually inviting the serpent into their bodies during advanced relaxation poses and meditations. Hint:  the serpent is not God.

Not one to spread rumors that cannot be verified, I went to the Internet and put in the words Yoga and Serpent.  Lots of entries popped up.  Some of it was Christian-based warning against yoga.  If you are a yoga enthusiast, you could easily brush these sites aside as fanatical.  But you can’t brush aside the fact that actual yoga sites, announce the power of the serpent as part of the attraction. Here is an excerpt from one of many sites:

Kundalini (Divine Serpent Power) is a super power of our life.

–      Over here lies focused all energies of the body and mind.

–      Great Yogis, Rishis, Munis had discovered it.

–      They all proclaimed that Kundalini is the supreme energy.

–      It is the final step that helps us unite with God.

–           Divine Serpent Power is the super power of our life.

As a Christian, this should shout out—False god! One book on yoga sold through Amazon is even called The Serpent Power.

On “The Lighthouse” website, self-described as a Christian Bible Based Cult Awareness Center, people are warned that Yoga is not in harmony with Christianity:

“Yoga, in the Indo-European language, the ancestor of English, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit and many others, had a root meaning ‘to join,’ according to Webster’s Dictionary of Word Origins. In the English word, borrowed from Sanskrit, yoga means literally ‘union’ (with deity), and is used specifically to refer to a program of spiritual discipline to attain this union. Christian understanding is that the goal of uniting with an alternate spirituality to God is to be united with a demonic being.

Harper’s Encyclopedia of Mystical & Paranormal Experience by Rosemary Ellen Guiley, describes yoga as “Various systems of spiritual discipline and liberation from the senses.” This is an interesting way of saying that yoga is designed to separate one from their mental faculties by creating an altered state of consciousness….

“In Asia, Yoga is also found in Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and Bon (the early religion of Tibet) and has evolved into different systems, but all share the common goal of “union with the Absolute,” or divine, and are spiritual practices inseparable from the Eastern mystical religions that spawned them.

“To the Christian, the greatest danger is the spiritual idolatry, before God, in engaging in practices devised thousands of years ago by pagan experts or “adepts,” to become “united” with spiritual deity, they believed to be the ‘Absolute,’ or ‘Ultimate Reality,’ but which the Bible calls ‘fallen angels’ or demons.”

Is yoga rooted in the demonic?  Some say yes, while others say it’s merely an Eastern religion.   To make the demonic connection automatically puts the naysayer in the light of fanatic.  But even if it’s nothing more than an ancient religion, how should Catholics view it?  Is it harmless physical exercise when just the stretching is used?

Yoga is offered far and wide from gyms to schools and church activities.  Isn’t it going overboard and becoming a troublemaker if we object to the practice of Yoga?   But even in a yoga class where you evaluate it as mere stretching and balancing, are you astute enough to understand any and all terms that might be thrown out there in languages you don’t understand?

Looking at an excerpt from The Power of the Serpent, it’s easy to see that you could unwittingly participate in a class without understanding what is really taking place.   Do you know what it means to pierce the Six Centres or regions (cakra) or Lotuses (padma) of the body?  I don’t, but based on what I know, I think we should abstain.

Here is an excerpt from the book: “The power is the Goddess (Devi) Dundalini, or that which is coiled; for Her form is that of a coiled and sleeping serpent in the lowest bodily center at the base of the spinal column until by the means described She is aroused in that Yoga which is named after Her. Kundalini is the Divine Cosmic Energies in bodies…” Does it strike you as odd that the author capitalizes pronouns “she” and “her” when referring to this serpent?  A footnote on the page explains, “Devi is Bhujagi, or the Serpent.”  So if your yoga instructor mentions Bhujagi during class, will you recognize the serpent being called on? Many people like exotic, exciting things.  Different languages and cultures are interesting but yoga is not like a trip to a Chinese restaurant.

In Fr. Mitch Pacwa’s book,  Catholics and the New Age he describes Yoga as the general category of various kinds of Hindu disciplines meant to unite a person with the divine. He states: “Yoga can refer to physical (hatha) mental (raja) sexual (tantra) or other discipline to achieve enlightenment.”   Fr. Pacwa’s book was written to alert Catholics of new age influences that hamper Catholic practices and traditions.

On the Catholic Answers website, a mother wrote wondering what her response should be to Yoga being practiced at her daughter’s Catholic elementary school during religion class.  Here was their response:

“Particular physical exercises that are common to yoga and that help improve one’s health are perfectly fine. The problem is when a Christian participates in non-Christian Eastern spirituality. If your church is sponsoring an exercise class, it should call it simply an exercise class and omit confusing and possibly scandalous terminology such as yoga. If the church is sponsoring classes in non-Christian Eastern spirituality that is a serious problem that should be discussed with the pastor.”

My kids have been to a Catholic vacation Bible school that had yoga.  My high schoolers were in sports that had a class in yoga as part of their conditioning. (It’s not a part of the program any more, thanks to solid Catholic influences.) I figured it was just the exercise part of yoga—no religion involved.  Since they were not rising to the upper levels, I did not imagine their stretches were anything more than harmless exercise.

But recently I reconsidered this issue. In the future, I plan to gently but firmly protest such practices.  I don’t like being a thorn in the side to anyone. However, I am willing to be a thorn for the One who wore a crown of thorns for us.

Yoga is an ancient pagan religion.  There are many parts to it such as stretching and meditation but they are all connected.  Therefore, even if we don’t consider the serpent, why is it okay to take a part of a pagan religion and sponsor it and even force participation of it in schools and sports?  My contention is that even in a public school, forced participation falls under the definition of pushing and proselytizing children into a religion. Certainly in a Catholic school, a pagan religion—even a part of it—should not be required.

“For crying out loud,” the reply may be, “we just talking about some simple stretches and relaxed breathing techniques.”  Well, fine.  Then why not simply have stretching exercises?  Yoga is a religion with different parts and levels to it.  The stretching and meditation is just a part of it. I am raising my kids Catholic.  They can learn about other religions, but practicing it goes beyond learning.

We as Catholics should not be put on the defensive if we don’t want our children participating in an Eastern religion.

Copyright 2013 Patti Maguire Armstrong

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About Author

Patti Maguire Armstrong and her husband have ten children. She is an award-winning author and was managing editor and co-author of Ascension Press’s Amazing Grace Series. Her newest books are: Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories from Everyday FamiliesM, a collection of stories to inspire family love, and Dear God, I Don't Get It and the sequel, Dear God, You Can't Be Serious, children's fiction that feeds the soul through a fun and exciting story.

10 Comments

  1. Jen @ Happy Little Homemaker on

    Well researched point of view; thanks for writing it! Pilates is a exercise only alternative that provides excellent abdominal strength and many of the same feelings of limber-ness as yoga without the baggage :).

  2. Our Madonna and Child guild at our parish offers yoga. And the instructor is not Catholic, however, she has (on numerous occassions) explained that when “meditating” that is your time to thank God for the things you have done, been given, etc etc during that day or week. I’ve been to multiple Yoga classes – some at churches some at random facilities and no one says that Yoga is a “religion” of any kind. It does not harm the spiritual aspect of our faith or anything. If anything it helps us new mothers (and well seasoned ones) be able to 1)get a bit of exercise in other than chasing children all day, 2) be with others our age – you can only endure talking baby talk and singing Barney songs before losing it, and 3) most importantly be able to ACTUALLY clear your mind and pray without any interruptions. There was actually a news story on this exact topic a few years ago from the Baptist faith and, really?? If we are actually doing good for our bodies and mind and souls, what is the big deal? I have to say, I am a bit surprise by this post.

  3. If you are surprises by this post, then you will be surprises to know the Popes Benedict and JPIi both warned against it. I did not write the article in an alarmist sort of way. I understand some people participate with no interest beyond exercise. I did additional research after I first wrote the article to prepare for a couple radio interviews. What I found confirmed that it is not for Catholics.

    The bottom line is that either it is all okay or none of it is okay. If there are some aspects that are harmless and others that invoke worshipping a false deity then its not acceptable for Catholics. I don’t condem people for taking it but now that I understand what it is about, I will never take Yoga.

    Neither should Catholic organizations or schools sponsor it. Yoga is a religion with 3 branches: physical, sexual, and spiritual. You are saying its okay just to so a part of it because you enjoy it for various reasons. Since when does enjoying something serve as criteria for determining whether something is morally right? Never.

    I put this article aside for a couple years because I didn’t want to get in the middle of a hornet’s nest of controversy. I took it out and published after feeling directed to do so in a number of ways. I have no doubt that lots of nice people do yoga just for the exercise. But the fact is that yoga has religious elements that include worshipping and inviting in a false deity.

    You seem not aware of any of this since you were surprises by my article. So before defending Yoga, read more about why it is controversial for Christians.

  4. There are 2 ways to look at yoga; as an exercise/ relaxation fitness thing that will improve your flexibility and secondly as a spiritual and meditation practice. From my personal experience, all of the people who are Yogies are not Christian and are very New Age. It is a bit like reading Harry Potter. Some see it as a means of normalizing witchcraft and making it cool to kids. For others it is simply an entertaining fantasy book. As long as you know what you are getting into, I don’t think there is a huge danger is taking the occasional yoga classes as long as you keep the meditation focused on Christ.

  5. Patti Armstrong on

    Here is a good article from Catholic Answers. http://www.catholic.com/magazine/articles/the-trouble-with-yoga. It gives a very balanced view of this debate. There is nothing inherently wrong with stretches–exercise and stretching are good for you. The point is that as a spiritual path, yoga is incompatible with Christian spirituality. If someone is participating in it, then it requires for them to be astute and insure nothing of the spirituality is part of their yoga. For Catholic schools and churches to sponsor yoga classes, it presents the message that Yoga is okay. So why not simply do exercises, why do Yoga given that it’s attached to another religion?

  6. This was a well researched and informative article. Thank you Patti for posting especially now that summer is upon us, and many kids’ summer activities including music camps offer yoga to the kids.

    As someone who had no early formation, here is my story for what it’s worth. I basically went to yoga classes in the late 70’s/early 80’s. They were given by a modern dance instructor, who basically did a melange of yoga, Pilates, and stretching exercises. I was single, had a boring, stressful job, and I liked how I felt during and after the classes. At that time, I did not associate yoga with religion but with exercise.

    A little further down the road, later, but still early 80s I moved to a big city and would take yoga classes at a yoga studio. These classes were exercise classes, but focused more on yoga breathing, and they were more focused on yoga practice, and therefore more religious. The instructor would end of each class with some Sanskrit word, and then I’d go and eat lunch. Again, being totally clueless, I felt that this was okay, because I felt more relaxed, more focused, and “more spiritual.” In other words, I liked how I felt after I got out of class. You notice this pattern of me-centeredness versus God-centeredness… which lies at the heart of new ageism. I would attend these classes randomly.

    About six months of so, maybe more or less after this, a friend invited me on a weekend at a yoga center in western MA, which was basically a weekend dedicated to practicing yoga, walking outside, healthy eating, etc. For whatever reason at the time, which now I call grace, the experience, which was pumped up as like the most wonderful thing you can do for yourself, fell flat. On Sunday morning when everyone was up early doing their yoga practices, I became aware of an emptiness… that this was just another form of materialism.. that walking in the woods and doing yoga exercises and eating healthy were no substitute for worshiping God, like, i.e., something was missing and it was not to be found in a yoga center. This was not verbalized just quickly intuited. I went home from the weekend and did not really think much about it. In my mind I still associated yoga with eating right and being healthy and staying fit and learning to relax, but I also had this other awareness that it was not enough.

    Then, I had to move, and in my search for a place to live, I answered an ad basically advertising a live-in yoga community. The place was small, dark, cramped and distasteful to me. The woman running the place said, “if you really wanted this, these things would not matter to you.” I thought to myself. “You’re right. I don’t really want this.” So I left. Never came back, and never attended another yoga class. I eventually entered the Catholic Church many years after these experiences.

    At the time I went on my little journey I was a baptized Episcopalian, and basically had not been told that there was any conflict of interest between Christianity and Yoga. I did not go out of my way to ask this question either to my pastor.

    What you will notice with this is that I went from taking occasional modern dance studio yoga classes to actually thinking about moving into al yoga community (were it not for the grace of the Holy Spirit). This was not conscious. It was not a decision, I am going to get more involved with this.. It was the promise (never stated, which is similar to what I think gets promised to drug users), if you do this, you will feel really good. It was self-rather than God centered, and ultimately addictive (without one’s knowing that it was addictive).

    I think the clearer the lines are drawn around things, the easier it will be for Catholics and all Christians to discern the differences between religions. When people are left to their own devices, disaster sometimes follows. We have to rely on grace, but we also have to be able to articulate truths, problems, shortcomings etc. The truth will only set us free, if we know what it is.

  7. http://m.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/06/gop-candidate-yoga-opens-you-to-satanic-possession/276570/

    Terri Schaivo’s opposing legal team had at least one member into the eastern religion and he felt he was freeing her. Knowing that religion can cause death of someone’s physical being should suggest there is deep darker forms of death along with it including the death of your soul. There is someone at the summit of that religion and it isn’t Jesus. Let the red flags be raised.

  8. Thanks so much for this article Patti. It is really needed since most people have no idea Yoga is in any way connected to religion, one that is not compatible with Christianity. It would be nice for a real alternative to be marketed. I’m interested in stretching etc. but have no desire to be unwittingly joining myself with a “deity” that is not the one true God.

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