Yoga and a Christianity for the body
By Winn Collier
I'm no yoga apologist. In fact, my wife Miska does Bikram Yoga where they heat the room 105º and then strain, contort, sweat great drops of blood and try not to collapse on the floor for 1½ hours. If anything is of the devil - that has to be.
So as a yoga neophyte who possesses all the flexibility of a cast iron skillet, I have little vested interest in the recent squabble Dr. Albert Mohler initiated with his opinion that Christianity is incompatible with yoga. However, part of the arc for Dr. Mohler's argument - that Christian spirituality does not promote the human body as a means for connecting with God - gives me pause.
According to some theologians, participation in yoga is out of bounds, not only because they believe yoga is irrevocably linked to non-Christian practices (mind-emptying mediation, sexual energies, etc.) but also because yoga suggests the physical body as a place where God meets the human. Christians, Mohler says, are not "to see the human body as a means of connecting to and coming to know the divine." Rather, we are to find God by meditating on God's revelation in the scriptures. Apparently, this is an either/or proposition.
This seems an odd assertion when the Christian gospel rests on the Incarnation, the fact that God came in human form to eat with us, laugh with us, cry with us - to physically die and physically rise from the dead for us. When God wanted to offer God's best revelation, God did not send a hologram or a white flash of light into our consciousness but rather Jesus, God in flesh and bone. Unless God is the ultimate utilitarian, there is something about human physicality that God deemed necessary to connect with, to actually become.
Our need to physically connect with God, via our body and our senses, is precisely why God gave us the sacraments. We eat bread and drink wine because we need to taste grace and imbibe mercy. We are drowned in baptismal water because we need to surrender ourselves to the ruin of death so that we can emerge, wet and clean, in the new life Jesus offers. These things are a mystery, for sure. But they are physical. They allow us to encounter God and God's truth in ways that only disembodied words and ideas never would.
The Apostle Paul went so far as to say that our body is God's temple, God's dwelling place. I'm not sure if you could get any more God-body connected than that.
The Hebrews viewed the human as a whole - mind, body, spirit together forming the human person. I don't know what it would even mean to use my mind in a way that is somehow divorced from my physical presence and senses. Of course, as Dr. Mohler reminds us, Christian revelation is centered in the scriptures. Thank goodness, we don't start with a blank slate (or an empty consciousness) in our pursuit of God. However, I can't read the Bible un-physically.
My body is not merely casing for my mind. I hear God in the scriptures (and in creation, friendships and beauty) with my mind and my body. The question is not whether we should connect with God via our body, but rather - how would we ever connect with God other than with our body? This mental/physical division has more in common with platonic dualism than with the teaching of scriptures.
My concern is about more than yoga. A disembodied spirituality has wider implications. When we believe God has this kind of vigorous separation from everyday physicality, it may be difficult to understand God's intention to intersect with other physical spaces. We may unwittingly encourage an abandonment of God's desire for us to care for creation. We may be slow to appreciate why God would want to clean up a neighborhood or stop a war or love the disabled in ways that offer dignity. The Christian message is that God does care about all these physical realities because Jesus is Lord of both body and soul.
Whole Christian traditions, stretching back to the desert mothers and fathers, teach us to pay attention to our body and care for it, to quiet ourselves, to ponder God with our full attentive selves. If yoga offers us holistic ways to be healthier (as God intended us to be) and more in tune with our physical presence (that then allows us to be more in tune with God's presence), we should simply say, "thank you."
As to the lengthier, primary charge that yoga's physical practices are inseparable from its non-Christian spirituality, I would only offer that the whole scenario seems parallel to the early church's debate over Christians eating meat offered to other gods. Some refused the meat because they believed it irrevocably linked to pagan spirituality. Others freely ate the meat because they no longer attached this meaning to it - and they now ate with thanks to God.
Can we really say it is impossible (thousands of witnesses to the contrary) for Christians to use physical movements originally attached to other religions and appropriate them in our (physical) pursuit of the God revealed in Jesus Christ? My hunch is that Paul would encourage us to see this as an area of discernment and freedom.
Of course, some Hindus resist Christians and adherents of other faiths detaching yoga from its religious roots because they feel it expropriates their philosophy and practice. We should listen carefully to these concerns. However, I find it interesting that some Hindus are asking Christians to stop doing what Dr. Mohler insists can't be done - using yoga for purposes other than Hindu faith.
Winn Collier is a columnist and the author of three books, most recently Holy Curiosity. Winn is also the pastor of All Souls in Charlottesville, Virginia. You may connect on his blog at winncollier.com or on twitter.
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