Yoga means bringing together mind, body and spirit, but in Western yoga, we've distilled it down to body. That's not even yoga anymore. If the goal is to look like Madonna, you're better off running or spinning."
--Shana Meyerson, a Los Angeles yoga instructor, in a Time magazine article on the rise of yoga-related injuries.
Holly sez: A couple years ago, I wrote about my personal objections to yoga. Essentially, I don't practice yoga anymore because its spiritual elements clash with my Christian faith. Specifically, yoga is a Hindu spiritual practice that pays homage to gods and is intended to bring practitioners into alignment with the universal mind (to reach enlightenment). My personal spiritual focus is on worshipping the one true God and pursuing the things he wants in my life. I don't believe in the universal mind or that I have the ability to reach a god-like state of enlightenment.
Since I had a lot of sources that agreed with my interpretation of yoga (ie. being a Hindu spiritual practice that supposedly connects mind, body, and soul), I didn't think my ideas were all that controversial. Prominent Hindu yogis have publicly stated yoga is more than exercise. So I was somewhat surprised when my little story started showing up on websites, blogs, and discussion boards. Some people said I was yet another example of Christian intolerance (I expected that). Many--including some Christian websites--said I was a crazy person who didn't understand yoga was merely exercise.
Even before I became a Christian, I knew yoga wasn't merely exercise. I used to be involved in my New Age practices, and I was long drawn to yoga for its spiritual component. I didn't even know about the Hindu connection back then, but I liked the idea of using the body along with the mind to "empty" myself and reach a state of numbness.
After I became a Christian, I still didn't know yoga was a Hindu practice. But I sensed something felt wrong when I went to yoga class. So I looked into it, and when I discovered the Hindu spiritual connection, my discomfort immediately made sense. Then I wrote about it.
Over the years, I've seen many defensive comments on how American yoga is just good exercise, and nothing more. I understand why people don't want to believe it has a spiritual component. Surely there are some American yoga classes that are merely stretching classes. The label "yoga" is hip and current; it provides a better selling point than "stretching," which sounds like a low-impact class for senior citizens or pregnant women.
Perhaps Americans don't like their exercise to be spiritual. Our country isn't overrun with Christian exercise programs, despite being a nation whose citizens largely identify as Christians. Exercise is supposed to be physical, with measurable benefits like muscle definition, weight loss, and lower blood pressure. Like the separation of science and religion (the former which identifies itself as measurable and verifiable), perhaps we think physical exercise should be separated from spiritual exercises like meditation and prayer.
Mostly, I think folks feel the need to defend yoga because it is extremely accessible. There's something for everyone: Yoga can be practiced by the very young and the very old. The stretches are good for people with physical limitations as well as professional athletes. It's a low-impact workout that can be started without any pre-conditioning, which makes it available to those who are overweight and/or out-of-shape. So, when some nasty writer like me comes along and says, "Hey, this isn't a good practice for Christians for these reasons," it makes sense folks would get mad. I'm attacking the unifying character of yoga, in essence stating it isn't for everyone.
People may not accept that yoga originates in Hinduism and is still considered their spiritual practice. It doesn't make the statement less true. But I've got some new news to get those defenders of yoga spitting fire again. According to a study by the American Council on Exercise (ACE), yoga isn't the all-around exercise some folks want it to be. (ACE is a national nonprofit organization that tests exercise products and programs, and creates the standards for fitness instructor certifications.) The study found yoga doesn't improve cardiovascular health. Though there are some strength benefits, it's no match for weight-training for building muscle. Weight-training makes people much stronger more quickly than yoga. And yoga doesn't burn many calories--you'll get better weight-loss results from even low-impact aerobic activities like walking. Says John Porcari, who headed up the ACE study, "People’s expected benefits need to be in-line with reality. People often try to make yoga into this all-encompassing thing. Americans have changed yoga and tried to morph it into programs that will hit every aspect of fitness, but it was never designed that way.”
According to the study, yoga is a good addition to other exercise because it best provides flexibility, balance, and relaxation. So does stretching. I've been adding stretching to my workout for years, and I can honestly say the only thing that's missing is the "yoga" label and the Hindu spirituality.
1) The American idea of separating church and state often seems to extend beyond government issues. What are some ways you've seen this idea in action?
2) Some people called me intolerant for refusing to do yoga due to the spiritual element. To me, it's much more intolerant to deny there is indeed a Hindu spiritual element.
How might you feel if people used a Christian spiritual practice, such as communion or the Lord's Prayer, and denied it had Christian roots? (For example, if a large group of people claimed communion was more about getting a good boost of nutrition and could be utilized without any spiritual connection.)
3) What does the word "tolerant" mean to you? Is it necessary to keep mum about something you know is true in order to be tolerant? Is is necessary to keep your beliefs and opinions to yourself in order to be tolerant?
4) What are the benefits to being tolerant? What are some possible negative effects of being overly tolerant?