An Invitation to Christian Yoga
Priscilla Friedlander's review of, "An Invitation to Christian Yoga," by Nancy Roth.
Nancy Roth, An Invitation to Christian Yoga. New York: Church Publishing, 2005. xix + 96 pp. $16.00 paperback, includes CD. ISBN 9-781596-270084.
In An Invitation to Christian Yoga, Nancy Roth provides biblical and theological reasons to show how the practice of hatha yoga in a Christian context can deepen one’s relationship with God. Drawing upon her experience as an Episcopal priest, while applying exercise physiology, Roth shows how each position is a devotional in itself. Her book’s purpose is to teach Christians how to use yoga as part of their spiritual practice in the form of “body prayer,” integrating body and spirit.
Some Christians may find the idea of body prayer attractive, since Roth provides a theological framework in which a Christian can practice yoga. However, the problem with Roth’s book is the lack of a well-integrated Christian worldview behind her theology. Worship seems to be Roth’s end goal in practicing yoga. It can be a thankful response to the God who created us. Speaking from experience as a fitness coach, it is essential to emphasize that body and spirit cannot be disconnected. Physical exercise can even be a form of worship, since we ought to do all for God’s glory (1 Cor. 10:31). However, Roth’s philosophy on yoga as Christian worship is incompatible with a biblical worldview.
In chapter one, Roth offers biblical grounds for Christian yoga, explaining to the reader that one’s spiritual journey can be enriched by the wisdom of eastern mystical traditions, such as Hinduism. Describing her first experience in a yoga class, she writes: “It did not matter that we had chanted ‘Om’ or that the exercises had Hindu names. My awareness of my own ‘incarnated-ness’ drew me closer to the Incarnate One. The One I encountered…was the God I knew in Christ Jesus.” How can it not matter to a Christian to chant ‘Om’ when the purpose of chanting is to escape reality and be united with Brahman? The Bhagavad Gita declares: “Uttering the monosyllable Om, the eternal world of Brahman, One who departs leaving the body, he attains the superior goal.” Furthermore, the Katha Upanishad says, “the one syllable is Brahma. Whosoever knows this one syllable obtains all that he desires.” Although “Om” has no meaning in itself, Hindu teaching has assigned its chanting a vital role towards uniting with Brahman – the ultimate goal every Hindu desires.
Yet, Roth ignores this critical fact. She desires to synchronize “the gift our brothers and sisters of another tradition have given us” with Christianity. By what biblical basis does she call Hindus brothers and sisters? Does God call the Gentile nations Israel’s siblings? We’re all created in God’s image, but there isn’t any biblical evidence supporting the idea that believers are the spiritual siblings of unbelievers. Thus, when a Christian chants “Om,” she is participating in the goal of uniting with Brahman, and “what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For [Christians] are the temple of the living God” (2 Cor. 6:16). There should be no connection between a believer and Brahman. Furthermore, a Christian may be opening the door to demonic influence if she practices yoga. We’re warned to avoid giving the devil an opportunity to ensnare us (Eph. 4:27).
In his foreword to Roth’s book, Tilden Edwards writes: “What makes a particular practice Christian is not its source, but its intent. If our intent in assuming a particular bodily practice is to deepen our awareness in Christ, then it is Christian.” If a person’s intent in practicing pagan sexual rituals is to deepen his awareness of Christ, should this practice be considered Christian as well? Where does one draw the line? If the source of a bodily practice isn’t biblical, Christians shouldn’t participate in it. Physical exercise is biblical (1 Tim. 4:8), but yoga is found in scriptures that exalt gods other than Yahweh. In this case, both the source of yoga and its intent are not Christian, so Edwards is wrong on both counts. Thus, chanting “Om” does matter. Christians should avoid chanting and yoga altogether.
Yet, Roth’s theological foundation can still convince believers that Christian yoga isn’t an oxymoron. She cites verses in 1 Corinthians to explain how our bodies are instruments from God – to carry him through our lives and our prayer, just as Jesus carried the life of God in his body. Thus, yoga can serve as preparation for prayer or the movements can be prayers themselves. Plus, it not only connects one to God, but to our “companions” throughout all creation. This language suggests pantheistic monism, which teaches that nothing is distinct from God, for God is the universe. Thus, we are all one with each other and with God. Roth merges the idea of Christians carrying the life of God in their bodies with the idea of being connected in Christ to the whole human race. Yet, this is not what the Bible teaches. God is distinct from humans (Gen. 1:27). A believer receives the Holy Spirit (God) at conversion, but this isn’t the same idea as carrying the life of God (1 Cor. 2:12-13). Furthermore, as humans we’re part of the same species, but we aren’t all connected in Christ (Mt. 13:24-30). These conflicting ideas in Roth’s worldview should flash warning signs to the Christian reader.
Chapters two and three guide readers on the setting and proper breathing for yoga. Roth believes that if the God recognized within is the God that we know through Christ, this experience is transferable. In settings where God is called by other names or no name, one can still experience the Christian God. This advice will appeal to religious pluralists who mix and match their religion, choosing the best of what seems good, like shopping for produce at the supermarket. Sadly, some Christians take this approach to their faith. However, Christianity is a one-stop shop with a single choice: accept the teachings of the Bible only. One cannot practice yoga without compromising one’s Christian worldview. Second Corinthians 6:14-15 clearly teaches that one cannot mix light with darkness; Christ has no communion with Belial – or with Brahman!
The fourth chapter assigns Bible verses to twenty-five different exercises and it’s followed by a chapter devoted to “The Salute to the Sun.” Most of the exercises, as Roth mentions, are not religion-specific. I use them with my own clients, and I’m fairly certain that many didn’t originate in the Hindu tradition. The exercises Roth illustrates are simple poses that have been named over time, to include them in the practice of yoga. It isn’t necessarily the exercises themselves that conflict with the Christian worldview; it is often the purpose behind them. The problem lies in joining one’s body and spirit in a prayer that, though intended for the Christian God, was originally intended for Hindu deities. “The Salute to the Sun” is traditionally performed at dawn by Hindus to thank the gods for a new day. Roth creatively combines each movement with a verse of the Lord’s Prayer as a “Salute to the Son.” However, this exercise, among others whose intent is to perform a worshipful posture towards a deity, should be avoided by Christians. There are numerous other exercises through which one can improve flexibility without performing the Salute to the Sun. It is unlikely that the runner’s lunge or side leg lifts are types of deity devotion or are of Hindu origin.
In the last three chapters, Roth explains relaxation and meditation, giving practical ideas on how to practice Christian yoga. She acknowledges that meditation (defined as contemplative prayer), is traditionally a part of yoga practice. Meditation involves a paradox: “that attention to the inmost self is also attention to God.” Again we see pantheistic influence in this statement, though her next words are that “God is intimately within us and yet infinitely beyond us.” Her theological confusion is apparent. And the discerning reader will also find a worldview conflict in Roth’s teaching on mantras. She encourages Christians to use mantras as a part of body prayer. You ought to repeat a “movement mantra” until it becomes part of you. This again is a pantheistic idea. Just as the purpose for chanting “Om” is to become one with Brahman, mantras are intended to become one with our beings. Yet, Jesus taught: “when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words” (Mt. 6:7). Certainly Roth’s mantras, such as “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” aren’t said in vain when spoken in spirit and in truth. However, the risk exists for a Christian to turn such a mantra into vain repetition, which doesn’t draw one closer to God nor glorify him.
Roth’s overall idea of the book – to combine verbal prayers with exercises – is a good one, since Christians should pray without ceasing (1 Thes. 5:17). However, her syncretistic worldview gives believers the idea that it’s biblically acceptable for body prayer to take the form of hatha yoga. Many of Roth’s prayers are examples of what Christians can pray while engaging in physical activity. However, I strongly advise believers against practicing the form of body prayer described in Roth’s book. An Invitation to Christian Yoga only leads more Christians towards theological confusion and a compromised worldview. Roth’s shoulder-roll prayer is “God, be in my head and in my understanding.” As Christians, we ought to pray such prayers. If we truly allow God to be in our heads, we’ll understand that Christian yoga is a logical and theological fallacy.
MA Philosophy of Religion