What is Yoga?
A good starting point might be the definition found in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: “Yoga is the restraint of the fluctuations of the mind” (ch. 1.2). So Patanjali was asserting that only when consciousness becomes totally still, can it then reflect true awareness to enable awareness to recognise it’s true nature and overcome suffering. This definition of Yoga is very different from the concept of “union” between atman (individual spirit) and brahman (universal spirit) that was expounded in many of the Upanishads but resonates with what we found in the Bhagavad Gita where it states that “Yoga is perfect evenness of mind” (ch.2 v.48) and also “Yoga is skill in action” (ch.2 v.50). Like Patanjali, the Bhagavad Gita also states that when “your mind is completely united in deep Samadhi, you will attain the state of perfect Yoga” (ch.2 v.53).
If we then move further forward in the history of Yoga, new schools emerged that challenged Patanjali’s classical yoga view of duality. Schools emerged such as Sankara’s Advaita (non dual) Vedanta school which, whilst still a negative world view, argued that there is only one reality, and ignorance causes us to be deluded by our own senses. Interestingly, some later Vedanta schools around 13cAD treated Brahman as a personal God and sought “union” with him through Grace not effort which is not a million miles away from the Christian concept of finding God through Grace … but I digress!
Finally, Tantric schools sprung up, particularly around the 8cAD which were also non-dualist but took a positive view on the world and argued that if everything comes from the divine then so does “life”, so therefore it is not something to try to escape from but rather to embrace i.e. human life is a condensation of supreme consciousness, so all we have to do is recognise our true nature by expanding our own consciousness … simple huh?
Why is all of the above important in understanding Yoga? Mainly because it demonstrates that there is not one universally agreed philosophy. Indeed the Hatha Yoga practised typically in the modern age didn’t even exist in Patanjali’s day and his definition of “asana” was completely different from what is practised today. A more modern definition of Yoga presented by Carlos Pomeda is that yoga is the ”union of the practitioner with the practice”. Carlos goes on to argue that the practices help you address the existential dilemma, whatever you believe it to be … whether rebirth or greater understanding of the enormity of the love of Jesus. Hence Yoga can be seen as a system of practices to develop our full potential during our lives – it is a science or philosophy rather than a religion. Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati put it quite succinctly “Yoga is in religion, but religion is not in Yoga …”
Conflict or Commonality Between Yoga & Christianity
If we return to the classical Yoga encapsulated by the eight limbs (ashtanga) of Yoga expounded by Patanjali, we find that there is great commonality with Christian principles despite Patanjali obviously coming from an Indian background with no Judeo-Christian upbringing.
In particular, there is great resonance in the yamas and niyamas for Christians. The five yamas (non-violence, truthfulness, freedom from avarice, control of sensual pleasure, and non-covetousness) are all consistent with the ethical principles of the Decalogue. Moreover, the personal observations of niyama (cleanliness, contentment, zeal, self-study, devotion to God) are also very much in line with the teachings of the Bible. But the commonality is not just limited to the moral and ethical codes. If we return for a moment to the Bhagavad Gita, there we find four “types” of Yoga, which also correspond to Christian teachings.
a) The first is Karma Yoga ie the Yoga of action, or more accurately selfiess action in which the practising yogi focuses on serving others. This too is a fundamental tenet of Christianity as expounded concisely by Jesus: “just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve …” (Matthew 20:28)
b) The second is Jnana Yoga ie the Yoga of knowledge (not intellectual knowledge but deep knowledge of the self). On this path, the aspirant needs to use his discrimination (viveka) to determine what is truly eternal and what is temporal. Again there are clear parallels with Christian wisdom, in that the Bible emphasises exploration of reality to evolve one’s understanding of truth. In Romans, Paul writes the famous verse: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the reviewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans, 12:2).
The way of knowledge is not always an easy one, and was described by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, a Christian monk, in the 5 AD:
“Then, beyond all distinction between knower and known, the aspirant becomes merged in the nameless, formless Reality, wholly absorbed in That which is beyond all things and in nothing else… Having stilled his intellect and mind, he is united by his highest faculty with That which is beyond all knowing.”
Interestingly this description is not a million miles away from that given in the Bhagavad Gita as pointed out by Eknath Easwaran: As for those who seek the transcendental Reality, without name, without form, contemplating the Unmanifested, beyond the reach of thought and of feeling, with their senses subdued and mind serene and striving for the good of all beings, they too will verily come unto me” (ch.12 v3&4)
c) The third type of yoga is Bhakti Yoga ie the Yoga of devotion, which is usually associated with devotion and worship to a personal God. This is maybe where we find the most overlap between Christian experience and yogic practice. Indeed many famous Christian mystics focussed primarily on love and devotion to God above all else. St John of the Cross believed that love was the most important element in discovering our true nature:
“In order to overcome our desires and to renounce all those things, our love and inclination for which are wont to inflame the will that it delights therein, we require a more ardent ?re and a noble love – that of the Bridegroom … if our spiritual nature were not on ?re with other and nobler passions, we should never caste off the yoke of the senses”. Moreover, Paul spends the whole of 1 Corinthians 13 highlighting that love is “the most excellent way” and the Christian mystic work known as the “Cloud of Unknowing” written in the late 14th century also emphasises love above all else: “By love he can be grasped and held, but by thought, neither grasped nor held.”
d) Finally we come to Raja Yoga ie Yoga of meditation, “Royal Yoga”. This form of Yoga is a complete system based on the eight limbs expounded by Patanjali. The focus here is on concentration after body and mind have been cleansed. Again, this type of deep concentration has also been practised by Christians, particularly the more esoteric ones, who focus their attention on Jesus in order to experience ‘union’ with Him.
At this point it is worth turning our attention to Hatha Yoga, which some see as a subset of Raja Yoga (Raja Yoga is sometimes referred to as the ‘Crown of Hatha Yoga’), but at the very least is complimentary to Raja Yoga, in that Hatha Yoga prepares the body for the spiritual part of Raja Yoga. “Ha” meaning sun and “tha” meaning moon unite together as opposites. This is the form of Yoga that is most prevalent in the West today and is based mainly on asana and pranayama practices. There are some minor details that differentiate it from the practices of preparation in Raja Yoga, namely that the asana practice tends to focus less just on the meditative seated postures than in Raja Yoga, and secondly in Hatha Yoga, there is much greater emphasis on the use of locks (bandhas) than found in typical Raja Yoga practice.
The majority of Hatha Yoga practised today is based on the school of Sri Krishnamacharya, who taught some of the leading exponents responsible for bringing awareness of Yoga to the West, in particular, Sri Pattabhi Jois, the founder of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, and BKS Iyengar, the founder of Iyengar Yoga. Typically, Christianity in the modern age has not been so focused on disciplining (tapas) the body, with obesity levels in churches not vastly different from the secular world. Whilst Christians are strongly encouraged to steer away from drugs and cigarettes, there’s tended to be less emphasis on gluttony. Nevertheless, the Bible makes it quite clear that our bodies are an important part of our walk with God, which should not be abused: “Do you know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” (1 Corinthians 6:19) So disciplining the body and exercising self control over what we eat is clearly an important teaching from the Bible. Proverbs puts it rather harshly but succinctly: “put a knife to your throat if you are given to appetite”! (Proverbs 23:2) and Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 9:27: “But I discipline my body and keep it under control …”
Let us turn our attention to two aspects of Yoga that maybe cause the most debate with regard to their compatibility with Christianity. The first is the use of mantra in Yoga classes and the second is the implications of awakening kundalini.
In the Bible we find: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the word was God” (John 1:1). So it appears that the “Word” clearly had great significance within Christianity. Many Christians however equate the “Word” simply with the “Bible” but that seems to oversimplify as it did not just say “the Word came from God”. It seems that sounds can also have divine meaning, and indeed many Christians today will “talk in tongues” which are sounds that are incomprehensible to most others but not to God.
Furthermore, if we go back to earlier Christian times, monks used mantra (ie repeated sounds or words) to enhance their spiritual experience. One of the most famous mantras used by Christian monks was the Aramaic word “Maranatha” which translates as “come lord” and is found in both 1 Corinthians 16:22 and Revelations 22:20b right at the end of the Bible.
Ultimately, each individual has to 27 determine whether they wish to engage in mantras and if so, what mantras they wish to chant.
From my own experience, I have never been in a Yoga class in which the teacher insisted that everyone had to chant, so if a Christian practitioner chooses not to do so, they can sit quietly in silent prayer, however, there seems no incompatibility between mantra chanting and Christianity.
The second issue relates to the awakening of Kundalini, which is akin to arousing a deep well of energy that rises up the spine opening up the chakras. Some Christians have expressed concern that this practice could result in exposure to occult influences, and I have seen a quote of Swami Muktananda used to back these claims: “A great deity in the form of my guru has spread all through me, as chiti and was shaking me … my whole body shook violently, just as if I were possessed by a god or a bad spirit”.
Whilst this apparent reaction occurred for Swami Muktananda, I have spoken with numerous practitioners who have experienced kundalini arousal and not one of them has experienced this type of reaction. Also in talking to Carlos Pomeda, who has taught this experience to great numbers of students, he also attested to the fact that he had never seen this kind of reaction. So it appears that the risk of an undesirable reaction to Kundalini arousal is extremely minimal. For most yogis, myself included, kundalini arousal leads to a sense of heightened awareness and even a kind of joy or bliss (ananda).
Maybe the Bible was even referring to something similar to kundalini arousal when Jesus talked about one’s eye being single in Matthew 6:22: “The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light”. Some contemporary translations of the Bible into English have treated this as meaning your eyes being clear, but that is not what was stated in the original Greek, and maybe Jesus was actually talking about one’s third eye located in the forehead which is used as a focal point in yogic meditation!
So, the “Christian yogi” should follow their own sense of what lies within or outside their comfort zone. There are a myriad of different Hatha Yoga schools to choose from … just as there are a myriad of Christian denominations.
So a Christian should find a school whose philosophy he/she is comfortable with, and where the teacher inspires them in their own spiritual journey. For example, Anusara Yoga founded by John Friend addresses the issue of whether this form of Yoga is compatible with Christian faith in the FAQ section of their website. He concludes that “These qualities of the heart (promoted by Anusara Yoga) can greatly help to deepen anyone’s religious faith, highest virtues, and ability to offer themselves in devotional service of something greater”. However, he does go on to warn that there could be a philosophical conflict as Anusara believes in the intrinsic goodness of all humanity, whereas some Christian denominations believe humans are inherently sinful (“original sin”) and the only way to salvation is through Jesus Christ.
I might argue that this “conflict” of philosophical doctrine is in fact not necessarily such a conflict at all. Firstly, there is no universally accepted definition of “original sin” and has been characterised from a mere tendency towards sin without collective guilt to total depravity! For example, Thomas Aquinas in the 13cAD distinguished the supernatural gifts of Adam before the Fall from what was merely natural and said that it was the former that were lost, privileges that enabled man to keep his inferior powers in submission to reason and directed to his supernatural end. Hence, depending on one’s definition of original sin, one could consider the state of the “Fall of Man” as simply being born into limited consciousness, which through the Grace of Jesus, the veil (Maya) of the unmanifest is lifted to recognize one’s true nature. I would therefore argue that redemption through Jesus is not incompatible with the inherent goodness of humanity, and that “original sin” is equivalent to “avidya” or ignorance of who we really are; the Catechism of the Catholic Church even states: “As a result of original sin, human nature is weakened in its powers, subject to ignorance, suffering and the domination of death, and inclined to sin (this inclination is called “concupiscence”).”
Needless to say, this is a major topic in itself which could be discussed at great length, as could the debate whether tantra is pantheistic and hence incompatible with monotheistic religions – a topic for another time …
In conclusion, I would remind readers, if there are still any left(!), that Jesus’ most important instruction was: “Love the Lord God with all your heart and with all your soul and will all your mind and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:30) Yoga gives you the tools to do so!!!