A few weeks ago, a Baptist minister in Texas started a rumble, or at least a small brouhaha, when he declared that yoga is not suitable for Christians. His point was that using the body for spiritual practice contradicts basic Christian principles.
But his basic complaint seemed to have more to do with the fact that yoga comes out of a country whose main religious culture is Hindu. (Though, of course, Indian Christians are found all over the sub-continent and throughout the west as well.)
Then, last week, a group of Hindus took up the issue from a different point of view. They criticized the Western practice of divorcing yoga from its Hindu roots. Yoga comes from Hinduism, they said, and it should be taught in the context of the Hindu tradition.
So, what is yoga? Is it a system of physical culture? Is it part of a Hindu religious tradition? Is it a practice, like meditation, that is doctrinally neutral and therefore adaptable to any religious culture?
We've been considering these questions ever since yoga first made its way to the West.
In fact, the minister's attack was oddly similar to the fervid denunciations that some mainstream Christian leaders leveled at yoga when it came to the United States in the early 20th century. The first Parliament of World Religions in Chicago had introduced Vedanta and meditative yoga to America, and in the years following this landmark event, Indian teachers like Swami Vivekananda and Swami Ram Tirtha were joined by western teachers to teach different forms of yoga philosophy and meditation to the cultural creatives of the time. Most of their students were well-educated, upper-middle-class men and women, including society leaders and even some otherwise staid industrialists. The press treated the Indian teachers as exotics, the western teachers as charlatans, and mocked the western students who followed them. But in the years that followed, a growing movement towards the physical culture of hatha yoga began to gain ground in this country, side by side with the growing interest in alternative medicine, vegetarianism and "health food" (as it was known for many years). By the 1970s, yoga studios had sprung up in major cities. Today, of course, yoga is taught in gyms and health clubs, in schools and colleges and even in kindergarten. Well-dressed people tote yoga mats through the streets of our cities, and no one looks twice.
Hatha Yoga, as practiced by most people in mainstream western culture, is as much about physical health and well being as it is about spirituality. The standard series' of physical postures, breathing practices, sometimes mixed with meditative concentration, fits in well with healthy-conscious lifestyle, without requiring anyone to adopt a belief system or creed. This type of yoga is objective, non-religious and easily adaptable either to a totally secular approach (as in the fitness club) or to being incorporated by mainstream Christian and Jewish centers, churches and synagogues
On the other hand, yoga has gifts to offer that go far beyond the physical. In its original, classical form, hatha yoga is part of a comprehensive system of spiritual philosophy and self-culture that comes out of the Indian tradition. So classically -- and in many contemporary yoga schools -- the physical postures are taught in a context that includes moral and ethical precepts, meditation, and teachings about the nature of reality, aimed at aligning the individual with his or her divine core. Usually, the teachings come from the tradition of Vedanta, from other non-dual traditions like tantra or from the Hindu devotional paths. All these systems have in common an understanding that the soul of a human being is inherently divine. And many of them teach that the divine appears as the world, that there are many paths to the same truth, and that the individual and God are one. This type of philosophically-based yoga practice would probably not be acceptable within conservative or evangelical Christian traditions, or in orthodox or conservative Jewish traditions, that believe that the divine is only beyond or apart from the human body and the world.
It's definitely true that the deep gifts of yoga are not just physical. Yoga is more than physical posture. It is a profound system for yoking the individual and the divine.
But as pure physical culture, hatha yoga is adaptable to nearly every tradition, and can be of enormous value for its effect on health, strength and well-being. And in our increasingly global society, it remains one of the great gifts of the east to the West.
An acknowledged master teacher of meditation and former swami in one of the Saraswati orders of India, Sally Kempton's new book Meditation for the Love of It releases January, 2011 (Sounds True). A teachers' teacher whose students now include leading teachers of yoga and meditation around the world, Sally writes the popular "Wisdom" column for Yoga Journal.