Q: I have a friend who claims to be a Christian, but practices Yoga. What is it about Yoga that might be contrary to Christian principles and teaching?
A: ‘Yoga’ means “union” from the Sanskrit root word yuj meaning to join or combine. In the West, it is often proclaimed as merely a health benefit or an exercise regimen. This is often advertised as a way to bring calmness and relax a person suffering from stress. This somewhat yanks it from its moorings and does not tell the truth of what yoga is in its origin and what is its true place in Hinduism and eastern thought. Yoga was developed not to help with stress, but to find one’s salvation in the Hindu fashion. There may be a few practitioners of yoga or teachers of yoga that truthfully do advocate it simply as an exercise and as a calming practice without linking it to its world view and origin. If someone is simply sitting and stretching and being quiet, of course there is nothing wrong with this, and it could well be very good. But this type of yoga is more rare than claimed, as most advocates knowingly or unknowingly practice it towards some goal something like its original intention.
There are about five different forms or schools of yoga. The physical yoga is called hatha yoga. Most often this is what is practiced in the West under the banner of stress relief and health. But the philosophical intent of hatha yoga is to bring the mind to altered states of consciousness by standing on the head, breath control, or some other position that will put the human mind into a position where an altered state might be achieved. The goal of even the physical yoga is the realization of the divine within through the manipulation of the brain and the consciousness. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the major proponent of Transcendental Meditation advocated letting people experience the physical yoga so that people would begin to see the possibilities of further and deeper yoga.
Another yoga is japa yoga, or chanting. It is done in groups and in private. The Hare Krishna movement in the West is a well-known group that practices this kind of chanting. A guru will give an individual a mantra, which can be the name of a god or goddess or demon or some association with one of these. This mantra is to be kept secret and never shared. The mantra is designed to focus the mind and cut off outside stimuli. It brings the mind to a point of blankness in which the mind supposedly transcends the world. The different layers of depth in this practice proceed to the level of reaching samadhi-an enlightened consciousness. This is a simplification of everything, and different sects will emphasize different aspects.
Other yoga practices are based upon sound or light. The Divine Light Mission is a well-known example in the West. They will manipulate the eyes in such a way as to produce seeing light at the point of the third eye and meditate and focus on it until it becomes blindingly bright. Swallowing the tongue to taste the nectar of the soul is another practice. This sound, or this nectar is already within us; we need to practice yoga to bring out the soul from the body where it can go into astral travel.
Swami Muktananda popularized another type of yoga, called kundalini yoga. Kundalini is the serpent power that lies dormant at the base of the spine. The goal of this yoga is to awaken this serpent power and bring it upward to union with the upper chakras of the body. Chakras are energy centers in the body. When the serpent power of kundalini merges with the upper chakra, there is an experience of enlightenment and intense power or Shakti.
Another type of yoga is tantra, which is to bring to union the duality of female and male.
The religious world view of yoga says there is purusha (soul) and prakriti (matter or energy). Prakriti comes in three modes called gunas. It is similar to the school of thought, Sankhya, with the important addition of God as the ultimate purusha. Yoga practice allows one to rise above the physical and reach pure consciouness where one is united with the divine and escapes the troubles of karma the body carries with it.
The important point is that Yoga is one of six orthodox schools of thought in Hinduism. Yoga is a technique to find salvation, through union with the divine. This enlightenment to divinity is merely something that must be realized—because man is already divine. Yoga assumes that the problem of man is one of perception or realization.
In contrast, Christianity assumes the basic problem of man is not one of knowledge or enlightenment, but a moral problem where man has willed and acted against God and His ways. The solution for the Christian is forgiveness. So there is a serious and deep difference between the assumption of what man’s problem is and therefore how to go about finding a solution to this problem. There is a definite conflict if a person claims to be a Christian and yet practices yoga. In order to do this in the religious sense, he would have to deny the principles and teachings of Jesus. Most of the teachers of yoga believe that anyone can and should practice yoga, and since most do not believe in the analysis by Jesus of the human problem, would have no problem at all with a Christian practicing yoga. Many claim that they are merely practicing meditation and concentration. More often these are code words for emptying the mind and seeking a higher state of consciousness.