Is Yoga Dangerous?

Leanna

Recently, a mother in suburban Toronto protested when her daughter received yoga instruction in a public school class. A Roman Catholic, the mother was worried that her daughter was thereby being indoctrinated into the Hindu religion.

Was she?

I’ve taught Hinduism as part of a world religions survey course for close to thirty years. Hinduism is an extremely variegated religion—so diverse, in fact, that many scholars think there is no such (single) thing as Hinduism: the term is just a catch-all for “all indigenous Indian religion.” But yoga certainly is practiced by many forms of Hinduism, and it is Hindu terminology (in the original Sanskrit language) that dominates its practice here in the West.

Still, is yoga in public schools something Canadian Christians should protest? Should anyone? Should everyone?

It depends.

I consulted a yoga teacher: a young woman raised in a Christian family, educated in Christian schools, churched in Christian churches, and graduated from a Christian university (Wheaton College). She also happens to be my niece, and her picture graces the head of this article. Here’s what Leanna says:

“In high school, there was a local studio that offered donation-based yoga. My friend and I started going to classes as a cheap, fun activity.  After a few classes, I fell in love with doing yoga.

“I’ve been doing yoga for nine years. Three years ago, I decided to get certified as a yoga instructor. I have my 200-hour-level training, and with that I’ve taught public and private classes and have trained other aspiring yoga instructors.

“There are so many types of yoga, and people practice them for different reasons. Some people practice for a workout, for mind-body connection, as a treatment for anxiety and depression, for rehabilitation from injuries, or as a spiritual practice.

“Western Christianity often ignores the body in spiritual practice. Growing up in an evangelical Christian household, I was hesitant about attending a yoga class because of the way Christians around me viewed yoga. After practicing just a few times, however, I felt more connected to God than I’d ever felt through any Christian practice I’d experienced. Before doing yoga, I had always loved being physically active, and it made me feel alive. Through yoga, I was able to move my body and connect to God through meditation.

“By meditation, I mean focusing on a particular word or verse or prayer throughout the class. This is called your ‘intention’ for the class. Focusing on one word or phrase for an hour consistently while holding sometimes uncomfortable physical positions is a spiritual discipline.  An instructor helps direct your focus back to your intention throughout the class.

“Depending on the style of yoga, there may be no mention of anything Hindu. However, if I attend a class that has more Hindu elements, I am able to tailor my own practice by the intention that I choose for that class. Some classes will use words in Sanskrit, which some Christians may feel concerned about using. It’s just words in another language that we can focus toward our own spiritual practice.  For instance, classes usually end with the instructor and class members saying ‘Namaste,’ which means ‘the light in me recognizes the light in you.’  I think of this as ‘The image of God in me recognizes the image of God in you.’”

So far, so good. Yoga can be, and has been, adopted and adapted by many people around the world as an aid to wellness. Just as we would have no problem receiving a new technology of agriculture or mathematics from another culture, once we made sure it was safe and good, we should welcome techniques of physical and spiritual health from other cultures.

(We’ve just been passing through a season of Christmas trees, Yule logs, elves, and the like, not incidentally.)

Yet yoga can be the thin edge of a religious wedge. Some of us remember Transcendental Meditation being marketed to western schools as a “scientific” practice with no religious connection…except that by about lesson two, one was being told to offer puja (= devotion) to the guru of the founder of TM. Other distinctively Hindu practices and teachings followed. Such indoctrination in religion has no place in a Canadian public school.

Likewise, “mindfulness” derives nowadays from Buddhism. To be properly aware of one’s situation and to focus on being fully present in “the now” is a concern Christians can endorse. The Sermon on the Mount says as much! But if mindfulness teaching starts encouraging students to empty their minds and leave themselves open to alternative spirits, or to release their desires and settle for mere detachment, we are now in the sphere of doctrinaire Buddhism and that, too, has no place in a Canadian public school.

So what about yoga? Back to Leanna:

“I’d hope every public school would introduce yoga. It’s a great way for kids to be more disciplined and helps channel their physical energy in a positive way. Christian parents could help their child choose a word or prayer for their intention during school yoga practice. The practice of meditation isn’t just a Hindu practice. It’s talked about in the Bible, and Christians should embrace it. Yoga just pairs physical movements and breathing with that meditation.”

So far, so good.

Any farther, though, into Hindu devotion, any talk of releasing “kundalini” energies from one’s “chakras,” and anyone concerned about religious neutrality in public schools—which should be every Canadian—ought to protest. And, as many readers know, I’m on the record as being concerned that Christianity doesn’t get special treatment here, either–whether being granted undeserved privileges or suffering undeserved discrimination.

Clear? Okay, then. And now I have to make a New Year’s resolution to get back into yoga at least a couple of times a week…

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).