Photo © 2009 Jeff Lynch Photography • Serious Amateur Photography

I am a child of God, searching the scriptures daily.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

On Observing a Yoga Class

Today is a new day, Lord, another day to live for you. I know that you are with me and that I will learn something about you and your loving grace today. I know that you have a specific plan for me and I ask the Holy Spirit to guide me into fulfillment of that plan. Please be with me and protect me from harm. In Jesus' name I pray.

— — —

As I waited for the yoga class to begin, I watched people come and go from the large, well-equiped fitness facility that offers top notch weights, treadmills, stair-climbers, exercise classes, swimming and more. Most members entered looking fresh and clean; those leaving appeared red-faced, sweaty and "worked-out."

Often, I've thought of how much I would like to join a gym such as this one, but my present financial situation dictates that I should refrain from doing so. I don't really mind, however, and try to stick to my home-based workout plan of jumping rope, walking, exercise and stretching routines. But, I've not been as faithful to that commitment as I would like and I tend to blame the extreme heat we are experiencing here in Texas. There's always an excuse, isn't there?

But I sat there that day on a mission. My heart had been moved to discover why so many Christian friends of mine are partaking in something I feel should not be taken up by followers of Christ. The practice of yoga (the Hindi word for "yoke") has come to popularity in our culture as more and more Westerners come to  embrace Far Eastern ideas of health, mindfulness and spirituality. Yoga is universally accepted as part of the New Age movement, yet many Christians have determined that the physical routines of yoga might be beneficial and have expressed the idea that the poses (asanas) and breathing exercises can be performed without overtly delving into the spiritual aspects associated with this ancient practice. I've heard some say, "Well, to me the Wheel Pose is just a back bend, to me the Plank Pose is just a push up." These professing Christians seem to strongly oppose the suggestion that, even if they are only doing yoga as an exercise, there are dangers lurking.

The yoga classes offered at this gym (a Christian-based facility) had been described to me as not having anything to do with spirituality. Noting my concern, I decided the only way to judge for myself was to observe one of the classes. When I reflect back on my life before I came to know Jesus, I am forced to admit that I, too, took yoga classes. Back then, I was looking for spiritual fulfillment. I have sat in meditation for long periods of time, trying to empty my mind of everything but awareness of my breath. I wanted to become "one with the universe," "one with my divine inner self." So now, I needed to see for myself if what my Christian friends had told me could be true. I was not sure the class I would be observing was typical of all of the yoga classes offered, however, I felt that by watching a class, the teacher, the students, I would be able to recognize any "new age" threads that might be interlaced in the program.

So, Bible in hand, and prayers for guidance, knowledge and protection said, I wandered down the corridor to join the yoga students that were gathering outside the room where the class would be taught. One of the first people to greet me was the instructor, a lithe, blond woman who seemed to be ten or so years younger than I. I'll call her Mandy.

Mandy was friendly and welcoming as we engaged in small talk before the room opened up to us. She asked if I had ever been to a yoga class before. I told her, "Yes, many years ago." Despite the fact that I was obviously not dressed to exercise, she invited me to participate, advising that I should do only "what you feel you can." I told her I really was only there to observe and I hoped that was alright with her. She said, "Of course."

When we entered the room, I removed my shoes and quickly made my way to the back, where I sat on the floor and leaned against the wall. I watched as fifteen or so ladies and one gentleman entered and milled about, readying their mats, starting to stretch out and get into position. Several went immediately into the familiar cross-legged posture so linked with yoga: the Lotus Pose. A couple of the students were obviously advanced, evidenced by their being able to attain the full Lotus posture with the tops of the feet being placed on the tops of the thighs. Many placed their hands on their knees, palms up, tips of the thumb and the middle finger touching lightly. Classic yoga. The instructor, meanwhile went about adjusting the lights, the fans and starting the soothing, meditative music that regularly accompanies yoga classes. Quietness settled in.

Breathing correctly is very important in yoga for helping one ease into the various stretches and poses. This class started as other yoga classes, sitting quietly for a moment as Mandy instructed the students to let go of their thoughts and worries and concentrate on their breath, breathing deeply from their abdomen and letting their face relax into a smile. After a few shoulder shrugs and basic stretches, Mandy slowly and methodically led the group through various poses, postures and routines, naming them as she went. The names were familiar to me: Monkey; Downward Dog, Walk the Dog, Cobra, Tree, Corpse, and Sun Salutation, the latter being a routine consisting of a series of poses. Sun Salutation was executed several times during the hour. At more than one point, students were instructed to bring their palms together at the "Heart Center" in a Prayer Pose.

Watching the students attempting to get into some of the positions being taught, I have to admit that I thought the instructor should have been paying more attention to how well they were performing. Many of them had body parts in all the wrong positions. Funny, but I was thinking Mandy should either walk around the room and help students to attain the various postures (as instructors I had in the past had done), or have an assistant who could do this for her. As yoga students go, many of these were poor performers, to say that least. But critiquing the class in this manner was not what I was there for. I quickly brought myself back to the task at hand which was to determine how far removed from the original intention of yogic exercise — the spiritual basis for yoga — was this class.

The class continued on for nearly an hour and ended with a series of relaxation poses including the Child Pose and Downward Facing Dog, and culminated in the Corpse Pose where one lays out flat on ones back, arms to the side, palms up, legs slightly spread and feet allowed to naturally fall outward. After a few moments, Mandy instructed the students to slowly come to a cross-legged seated position, concentrating on their breath and relaxing their faces into a smile. She ended the class with a prayer pose, and, as traditionally done in most yoga classes, spoke the word, "Namaste." She then dismissed the class and the students slowly gathered their gear, put on their shoes and headed out.

I went up to Mandy after the class and thanked her for allowing me to be there. She told me that she hoped I would return. I asked her if she would be so kind as to tell me the name of the CD she was playing. She said it was from a two-CD set titled "Zen" and that she had gotten it from Target. I once again thanked her and left the room.

At no time during the class did I hear the instructor say to "empty your mind," though she several times emphasized concentrating on the breath and letting go of random thoughts. At no time did she instruct the class to repeat a mantra, or to sit quietly in meditation. If I did not have any knowledge of yoga from my past, I would say that this was a very relaxing and calming class in which to participate.

But . . . I do have a past with yoga, thus I am compelled to say I felt there were many nuances permeating the instruction that made me uneasy and was glad that I had prayed so hard before going in. I left with a sincere belief that everything about this class, innocent as it seemed on the surface, offered a classic example of the way the Church has allowed secular humanist acceptance of "all being one" — all gods, all views, all paths.

Let me begin with the name "yoga" and protest that if the class is just a stretching and strengthening class, why is it called "yoga?" Why not call it "stretch class" or something else? Why "yoga?" I feel it is because we are forgetting how subtle the adversary can be when getting us to accept anything that has it roots in paganism, idolatry, mysticism, humanism, the occult or anything else that should be unacceptable to true Christians. The following are quoted from an article titled "The Meaning and Purpose of Yoga"
Like many arts and sciences that are profound, beautiful, and powerful, yoga has suffered from the spiritual poverty of the modern world--it has been trivialized, watered down, or reduced to cliches. The deep and eternal essence of yoga has been misrepresented and packaged for personal profit by clever people. At the hands of some, yoga has been reduced to the status of just another exercise program available on videotape. . . . 
The most important teaching of yoga has to do with our nature as human beings. It states that our "true nature" goes far beyond the limits of the human mind and personality--that instead, our human potential is infinite and transcends our individual minds and our sense of self. The very word "yoga" makes reference to this. The root, "yuj" (meaning "unity" or "yoke"), indicates that the purpose of yoga is to unite ourselves with our highest nature. . . .  
The process of yoga is an ascent into the purity of the absolute perfection that is the essential state of all human beings. This goal requires the removal of our enveloping personal impurities, the stilling of our lower feelings and thoughts, and the establishment of a state of inner balance and harmony. All the methods of yoga are based on the perfection of our personalities and may help to create a new world order. . . . 
Notice: "The very word "yoga" makes reference" to the idea that we can transcend our individual minds.

And did you catch this? "Absolute perfection that is the essential state of all human beings . . . " Huh? I thought we were all sinners and lacking ANY perfection. I thought that Christ was the only "perfect" human! In fact, I know I am right about this.

One of my friends told me, there are "all sorts of yogas." The one he participates in, he said, is a good one, not one of the bad ones. Did you notice that in the third quote above it is stated that  "ALL THE METHODS OF YOGA are based on the perfection of our personalities." All. That means . . . all! Not only Vinyasa, not only Kundalini, not only Bikram or Hatha, but ALL methods. This is revealing.

And then there is the music, admittedly titled "Zen." The following is from my Macintosh computer Dictionary:
Zen |zen| (also Zen Buddhism) noun
a Japanese school of Mahayana Buddhism emphasizing the value of meditation and intuition.
Zen Buddhism was introduced to Japan from China in the 12th century and has had a profound cultural influence. The aim of Zen is to achieve sudden enlightenment (satori) through meditation in a seated posture (zazen), usually under the guidance of a teacher and often using paradoxical statements (koans) to transcend rational thought.
Did you get that? "The aim of Zen is to achieve sudden enlightenment . . . ." Not to just relax, but to "achieve sudden enlightenment." I can assure you, most meditative music used in yoga classes is derived from music composed and performed by musicians that adhere to Zen principles, not to Christian principles. As a Christian, I feel that any enlightenment I receive should come from God, from his Holy Word, not from sitting in meditation or using koans to transcend rational thought. I want my mind focused squarely on God and what he has to teach me.

So what about the postures or poses, asanas. I couldn't help but recall what my friend had said: "To me the Wheel Pose is just a backbend; to me the Plank is just a pushup." O.K. . . . so why not call them "backbend" and "pushup?" Why, when I overheard this friend talking to another about these poses, did they not call them backbend and pushup, but instead called them by their yogic designation? I think this is once again the work of the adversary; subtle acceptance. Named after animals or aspects of human life, yoga poses are symbolic of taking on all of the forms of life and unifying them by giving them expression in our one body. Once again, the idea that all are one.

The use of the term "Heart Center" when performing the Prayer Pose was particularly disturbing as this is reference to the fourth of seven chakras believed by Buddhists and other occult groups to be the sacred energy centers within us that carry us on our journey toward greater awareness and aliveness. They are believed to be power centers within our bodies located along the spine that help to show us the path to enlightenment and integration.

At the end of the class when Mandy said, "Namaste," I could not help but think about the meaning of that word as I had learned it. Within Buddhist practice it is believed that a Divine spark is within each one of us, located in the heart chakra. This is not the same as Christians believing that the Holy Spirit indwells within us. This is declaring that part of us within IS divine. The following is an explanation of the meaning of Namaste :

The gesture Namaste represents the belief that there is a Divine spark within each of us that is located in the heart chakra. The gesture is an acknowledgment of the soul in one by the soul in another. "Nama" means bow, "as" means I, and "te" means you. Therefore, Namaste literally means "bow me you" or "I bow to you." 
To perform Namaste, we place the hands together at the heart charka, close the eyes, and bow the head. It can also be done by placing the hands together in front of the third eye, bowing the head, and then bringing the hands down to the heart. This is an especially deep form of respect. Although in the West the word "Namaste" is usually spoken in conjunction with the gesture, in India, it is understood that the gesture itself signifies Namaste, and therefore, it is unnecessary to say the word while bowing. 
We bring the hands together at the heart chakra to increase the flow of Divine love. Bowing the head and closing the eyes helps the mind surrender to the Divine in the heart. One can do Namaste to oneself as a meditation technique to go deeper inside the heart chakra; when done with someone else, it is also a beautiful, albeit quick, meditation. 
For a teacher and student, Namaste allows two individuals to come together energetically to a place of connection and timelessness, free from the bonds of ego-connection. If it is done with deep feeling in the heart and with the mind surrendered, a deep union of spirits can blossom.
Ideally, Namaste should be done both at the beginning and at the end of class. Usually, it is done at the end of class because the mind is less active and the energy in the room is more peaceful. The teacher initiates Namaste as a symbol of gratitude and respect toward her students and her own teachers and in return invites the students to connect with their lineage, thereby allowing the truth to flow — the truth that we are all one when we live from the heart.
Once again, did you get that? ". . . the truth that we are all one when we live from the heart." Another reference to the oneness of everything. 

My Conclusion

I realize that the likelihood of anyone in this class being possessed by a kundalini spirit or any demon is probably nil, but I can't help but believe that if we call something good, even when it is based on pagan or occult practices, we are walking on thin ice. I think of it like this: If I raised a tiger from a cub and that tiger lived with me, slept in my room, walked with me, played with me — surely, I might call it my pet. But the fact would remain that my pet is actually a tiger, a large predatory animal capable of killing me quickly and easily. It might be that that would never happen, but the possibility is very real. In my opinion, embracing yoga in any form is like owning that tiger — extremely dangerous.

My concern is that my friends are fooling themselves when they say "To me . . . ." That expression is prevalent in today's society where moral relativity is the norm. The idea that what is true and moral to me might not be true and moral to you is exactly what secular humanists embrace and promote. The idea that truth and morality can be different things to different people is totally opposite to the teachings of Jesus: there is ONE truth, ONE way, ONE path. 

I must conclude that participating in and promoting yoga for health only contributes to the doctrine of tolerance that is infecting the Church and that it takes us perilously close to apostatical behavior. Another problem I see in the case of my friends is that some of them are leaders in local churches, and that they might prove to be stumbling blocks to people who are considering answering Christ's call or to new Christians who are not yet well established in the Christian faith. Such people may see these church leaders practicing or talking about yoga and conclude that New Age concepts and spiritual practices are compatible with the Christian walk. I pray that those who are taking these classes for health will find better ways to shape and tone their bodies. I pray this for their sakes as well as for preservation of the reputation of the Church.

As always, 
a sister in Christ,

Addendum: Just one more tidbit about the experience of attending that class. As I was leaving, walking amid some of the students, a small lady tugged on my left arm. As I turned to her she asked, "What was your role in there?" Though I was a bit taken aback by her direct stare and brusquely voiced question, I explained that I had just wanted to observe the class. She wanted to know if I knew anything about yoga. I told her I had taken yoga years before and was just curious as to what this class might be like. She smiled. About that time another lady on my right side grabbed my arm and said, "You must come back!" The first lady then said, "Yes, you must come back!" And another woman who was accompanying them said, "Oh yes! You must!" 

It was very weird and I felt uncomfortable. I quickly bid adieu to this trio and, clutching my Bible, made my way down the corridor, out the door and to my vehicle. I was glad to be out of there and said a prayer of thanksgiving to God.  :)