No, yoga does not contradict the teachings of Christianity.
“We can say ‘mindfulness’, but we certainly cannot say ‘meditation’. “
In 2018, one of my fellow intern in teaching yoga for children made this distinction when talking about yoga in schools. This sparked a long discussion about how to “introduce” yoga to young people, especially in our heavily Catholic region of southern Louisiana. There was a similar debate in Alabama, which lifted this spring its ban on yoga in schools– but only as long as teachers refrain from using traditional Sanskrit words like “namaste” or even “om”, terms that many conservatives find inseparable from the origins of yoga in South Asian religions like Hinduism. And so the questions remain: is yoga necessarily religious? Does yoga contradict the teachings of Christianity?
Alabama has lifted its ban on yoga in schools, but only as long as teachers refrain from using traditional Sanskrit words like “namaste” or even “om”.
These are difficult questions to answer. The researchers determined that yoga originated in the South Asian tradition because “yoga” is one of the six Hindu darshanas, that is, the philosophical traditions, and some key principles of Buddhism and Jainism appear in yogic philosophy. But yogic philosophy cannot be reduced to these three paths of religion.
The philosophical precepts of yoga come from fundamental Hindu texts such as the Katha Upanishad, the Mahabharata (more precisely the Bhagavad Gita) and the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika contains the most relevant explanation of the origins of yoga as a physical practice reflecting what we are seeing today advertised in the fitness industry. It includes detailed instructions for some asana, or poses, and moves on to other practices involving the body such as mudra (hand gestures) and pranayama (respiratory discipline).
The two Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutra contain rhetoric that translates to words like “God” and “Lord”. For some, this is enough to call it a “religion” or “religious”. But we have to consider the definitions of words like God or Lord in cultural contexts different from our own. Their use does not mean that the author was applying a specific religious understanding of God.
Making the sign of the cross does not make you Catholic. Practicing yoga does not make you a Hindu.
Modern yoga, at least as practiced in yoga studios in the United States, involves asanas and pranayama, and it rarely includes any mention of overtly South Asian religious connotations outside of Sanskrit, a sacred language. , if these words are used. This shouldn’t come as a huge surprise because, as Andrea Jain, yoga specialist and professor at Indiana University, said, “yoga has never belonged to a religion. “
In short, yoga in itself is not a religion. This can be religious, but when you see an elementary school teacher demonstrating the tree pose to a group of 4 year olds, it is probably just a method of introducing body awareness to the children.
Physical movements are not religious until your intention is faith training, regardless of faith. Making the sign of the cross does not make you Catholic. Lying prostrate does not make you a Muslim. Sitting cross-legged in a meditation chair does not make you a Buddhist. Practicing yoga does not make you a Hindu. (Besides, celebrating halloween doesn’t make you wiccan.)
The intention of the practitioner is essential in determining whether a yoga practice is religious. When applying yogic philosophy, a practitioner has the freedom to interpret God as Vishnu, Allah, Jesus Christ, or Mother Nature. They also have the freedom to completely ignore God if they only practice the asanas.
“After a while, we begin to realize that meditation – and yoga – becomes something not to be labeled as a Hindu thing or a Christian thing but a human thing.”
I am involved in an organization called Christians practicing yoga which promotes interfaith exploration rooted in yoga and Christianity. Likewise, the group Ignatian Yoga was founded by yoga teacher Alan Haras and newly ordained Jesuit priest Bobby Karle. Many people from both networks practice asanas and pranayama to deepen their own form of Christian meditation such as contemplative prayer.
“After a while we start to realize that meditation – and yoga – becomes something not to be labeled as a Hindu thing or a Christian thing but a human thing”, Father Tom Ryan, the founder of Christians Practicing Yoga and an ordained Paulista priest told me.
The teachings of the Catholic Church reflect a similar interfaith conclusion. When I was discerning whether or not to practice yoga based on the perceptions of critics, this same theme appeared in my reading of “Nostra Aetate,” the Vatican Council II document, as a comfort to the heart of a practicing Christian. yoga. Basically, “Nostra Aetate” tells me that whatever our religion, we are all saints. “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy” in other religions, according to the text proclaimed by Pope Paul VI, and “respects with sincere reverence these behaviors … which, although different for good regards those [the church] holds and exhibits, nevertheless often reflects a ray of this Truth which enlightens all men.
Yoga has taken on many definitions in its history. But whatever the physical or philosophical practice, it is first and foremost a practice that encourages an inner journey that promotes personal stability and comfort. For me, yoga provides a practice that reminds me to be present with God both in the silence of Mass and in the chaos of life. Call it peaceful, spiritual or, yes, religious. I will always call it intrinsically good.