I started practicing yoga daily when I was fifteen. I discovered relief from my back pain, a desire to help others, and a fruitful career opportunity in teaching. Now as a thirty-year-old, after publishing a yoga e-book, registering my own yoga school with Yoga Alliance, and successfully leading my first RYT200 (Registered Yoga Teacher) training program, I’m saying goodbye to the whole endeavor. It has been the most life-altering decision I’ve ever made. And spiritually, the most important one.
When I say spiritually, I don’t mean some general new age spirituality. I’m talking about my Christian faith. No matter how much I tried to defend my title of Christian Yoga Teacher to friends who questioned the combination, in the end, it didn’t make much sense to me either. You might be thinking, “What about Holy Yoga or Faith Yoga?” and trust me, I get you. I taught Christian yoga classes at my local church. I prayed over my students, we meditated on Scripture, and we practiced yoga poses with what I thought were the purest of intentions. I knew how to persuade my friends, family, and students that yoga was redeemable.
But all of those justifications started to crumble under the weight of some hefty contradictions.
Teaching from religious texts – In order to get my RYT200 curriculum approved by Yoga Alliance, I was required to distribute 30 hours of my teacher training course to the “Yoga Humanities.” This included major yogic/Hinduism texts like the Yoga Sutras, Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads, Vedas and other ethical guides. I also had to distribute 75 hours to the application of Hinduism philosophy through asana (poses), pranayama (breathing), and meditation. During that allotted time, students would learn about the koshas, kleshas, chakras, nadhis, pranavayus, pratyhara, dharana, dhyana, samadhi, mudras, mantras, and chanting. It was during teacher prep that I realized yoga was more than just a physical practice. (See the Yoga Alliance RYS / Registered Yoga Studio requirements below.)
Yoga’s original purpose – Yoga literally means “to yoke” or to unite your soul (atman) with the supreme soul (Brahman-the creator god of Hinduism). The purpose of all the chanting, poses, breathing techniques, mantras, etc., is spiritual awakening.
Western Sterilization – Hindu spiritual leaders today do not separate yoga from Hinduism. On the West however, we’ve tried very hard to sterilize yoga – to take the religion out of it and replace Hinduism with New Age Spirituality, or just take religion out of it all together. The defense of yoga I hear most often is, “I just practice the physical part.” But this past year I started to investigate whether that was really possible.
The intention of invoking deities – What if I were to tell you that yoga, in its roots, was intended to be deeply spiritual. I want to be careful here, because I don’t think that one religion owns all movement. But many yoga students are oblivious to the fact that a sun salutation was intended as worship of Surya, the sun god, or that moving into dancer pose is a way of imitating Shiva. Many poses I did daily for over a decade were named after a Hindu god or a story about a god. There was an underlying religious purpose to the chosen poses, sequences, and the structure of the class. The purpose of corpse pose at the end of class, for example, is to find stillness, or death to your self, so that you can unite with your higher self or ultimate consciousness. This is why at the end of a yoga class, after corpse pose, a lot of instructors say namaste. Namaste means “the higher self in me sees the higher self in you” or unsterilized, “the god in me sees the god in you.” The process of invocation and manifestation is complete, and a bow seals the practice or ritual. This is not to say that when I’m forward folding, stretching my knee, or lying flat, I’m automatically participating in the invocation of Hindu gods. But the poses and sequences were put together with the intention of worshipping Hindu gods. Similar to Islamic daily prayers, where each position of reaching, folding, bowing, rising, and reaching again while reciting prayers are an act of devotion to Allah.
Calling upon the names of gods – Before the asana (physical) practice starts, most studios will begin class with mantras, chanting or OM. The mantras are spoken in Sanskrit, so most students don’t know that they are actually saying, “I bow to the lotus feet of the Supreme Gurus…I prostrate before the sage Patanjali…” (excerpt from the Ashtanga Yoga Opening Mantra). I’ve also been to many classes that chant OM at the top or closing of class. If you have listened to this chant, you’ve heard the practitioners sing out three drawn-out letters: A-U-M. Did you know that the letter A represents Brahma, the letter U represents Vishnu, and the letter M represents Shiva? Or that the hand positions (mudras) teachers ask you to do during poses are Hindu prayer gestures?
The serpent – This leads me to the chakras. This is probably the most popular topic among yoga practitioners, besides horoscopes, tongue scraping, and healing stones. Except chakras are talked about as circles of energies that when opened through specific poses, meditative practices or breathing techniques, they can facilitate physical and emotional transformation. What these yoga practitioners probably won’t mention about the philosophy is the serpent that sits coiled at the base of your spine and travels through these opened chakras until finally coming to your “third eye center” and through the crown of your head. (See the article titled, “What Really Is “the Kundalini?” on this website for a shocking expose’.)
Emptying the mind – My students started to complain about feeling like they were being choked during meditation or suddenly freezing cold at the end of practice during corpse pose. Some said they were on the verge of a panic attack. I didn’t get it. All I had asked them was to lie still and relax and use this time to take their mind off of the worries of the world. Yoga was supposed to be good for your physical and mental health. Meditation was always one of my first recommendations for improving a student’s emotional wellbeing. After all, wasn’t emptying the mind of all fear, anxiety, and anger kind of the point of meditation? And that’s when a sister in Christ pointed me to the Bible. She reminded me that while meditating (focusing) on God’s word is biblical, emptying the mind through transcendental meditation is not. God doesn’t ask us to empty our minds. Romans 12:2 says we are to be transformed by the renewal of our minds:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1–2)
Through this process of shedding yoga, I’ve encountered a lot of backlash from the yoga community, and a lot of questions from my very confused family and friends. When I get asked, “What if it’s just exercising, and there’s no chanting, and my instructor plays worship music?” I answer with, “Then why call it yoga?”
You don’t have to yoke to Brahman / practice yoga to get a good stretch or workout. You don’t have to empty your mind to relax your body. There are so many different forms of low impact, good-for-you exercise: a lot of which I plan to explore here on my blog in the near future. From here on out, I teach movement, I practice movement. I’ve closed my school, ended all my yoga classes and privates, trusting that God is more important than my career and that He will show me the next step to take. I’ve come to realize it’s contradictory to worship Jesus while practicing Hinduism or identify as a follower of Christ while endorsing yoga. I can’t serve two masters. And I don’t want to lead my brothers and sisters in Christ astray.
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