I’m currently The Yoga of Jesus and though I’m not far into it, the idea of Christianity and yoga not being complimentary has been something that has always bothered me. Some Christians think of it as being a part of Hinduism or Buddhism, which would detract from practicing Christianity or faith in Christ. Some think of it as against the teachings of Jesus to look inward at all.
The Yoga of Jesus, which does seem to reach a little from my current perspective, totally refutes this idea. It’s a foundational type book that explains universalism to a certain extent. It’s pretty interesting so far. Also, a lot of yoga is exactly in keeping with both the teaching of Jesus and with the Ten Commandments.
First, let’s take a look at the Ten Commandments alongside the yamas and the niyamas. Ahimsa corresponds to the 7th, 9th, and 10th commandments, also the 4th commandment in that speaking with way to God is harmful. Asteya is essential the 8th and 10th commandment. Brahmacharya reminds us to hold the first 5 commandments and walk with God and forget about those things in the world that take you from following Him. Similarly, Brahmacharya and Aparigraha can be considered a part of the 10th commandment.
Practice of the Ten Commandments and/or the yamas, put us on our way to practice of the niyamas as well. One could even argue that the niyamas would help us in our practice of both. The Ten Commandments are even followed in the Law be ritual cleansing meant to purify the people as the first niyama of santosha reminds us to do. Striving to not covet means that we strive to be content, but these first two can only really happen if we stay disciplined and continue to study ourselves and how we are doing with following these commandments as both tapas and svadhyaya do. Finally, the culmination of following the Ten Commandments is a surrender to God, which is the last of the niyamas but also the basis of the first three commandments.
Of course, I have seen yoga studios that cater to the Eastern religions, but that’s a choice and it’s a freedom that we have in the US. Some also use the Eastern religions for themes in practice. Personally, I hesitate to do so as I do not practice those religions and find that would be overstepping into cultural appropriation for me. That said, I don’t feel that way about practicing at home and reaching for Jesus or God through yoga because of the Yoga Sutras and now The Yoga of Jesus. Yoga isn’t a religion in itself and doesn’t cater to a religion. It is a path to ready mind and spirit for communion with God.
A path. Following the 8 Limbs, we start at being generally good people and work on actions that lead us to purity, contentment, and surrender to God. These are the characteristics most associated with Jesus too. They are characteristics that Christianity wants us to strive for. Yoga shows us how to do just that.
In theory, Christianity could do that too, but it’s gotten much messier than that. Christianity tends to be a stick to beat other Christians with, and sometimes those who believe other things too. Following Jesus, should be following the Law and His teachings. So let’s look at that with the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain.
First, the Beatitudes. These are blessings put on people who are in different states of suffering and those who lessen that suffering. Those who mourn and those who are merciful, right? Suffering is a part of life, unfortunately, but even the practice of yoga seeks to lessen the suffering of others and practice causing the least amount of suffering possible through the yamas. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus goes on to expound on the several of the commandments, explaining that even smaller aggressions and lust itself tears us away from surrender to God. In this way, He also explains ahimsa and apraigraha as the yogis are supposed to practice it. Love your neighbor can seem a little more complicated, but He is encouraging us to treat our neighbors and those who treat us poorly in the same way we treat those we love. The yamas also do not make the distinction between whether or not you actually like that person.
Further, aprigraha and Bramhacarya involve giving to the poor and not holding onto excess and keeping only what is necessary while allowing God to provide for you. The rest of both sermons go on to explain that we are building a foundation to reaching God with the things that we do because of the way we do things informed by our thoughts and beliefs. Despite that many think of looking inward as against Christianity, Jesus urges us to look at ourselves first and practice not judging others, being a good true that bears good fruit, loving our enemies as much as ourselves, not hoarding our treasures on earth, not looking for retaliation, and generally reaching for God instead of anything on earth. He teaches to fix ourselves rather than worry about what other people are doing except in the case of being able to bring an end to someone else’s suffering, which makes us a blessing.
These are the same thing the first two limbs of yoga teach us to do. Likewise, the act of asana helps to prepare the body, mind, and therefore spirit for long periods of prayer. Funny enough, the next three limbs (asana, pranayama, and pratyahara) are together considered the path of knowledge. They teach us to listen to the body for wisdom through stillness and breath which leads to disregarding the body to listen for God. Given how long Jesus sits in prayer throughout the parts of the New Testament that I’ve read already, I find it hard to believe that He didn’t practice these or the next few limbs either.
In The Yoga of Jesus, Paramahansa Yogananda makes the case that the twelve years of Jesus’s life that are missing in the Bible were spent in India, where He sought the Three Wise Men that had found Him after His birth and learned their wisdom with yoga. Though I’m not convinced, it’s an interesting thought. Yoga is older than Christianity. What if Jesus did learn how to listen to God before He had the Holy Spirit and that’s how He knew how He was going to do all these things?
As usual, I don’t presume to have the answers, but I find these ideas interesting to study and learn about. I don’t personally find yoga and Christianity to be at odds for three reasons. The first is that yoga is not a religion and does not inherently cause us to practice with the aim of finding one deity over another. It’s a choice of the practitioner. It’s a discipline. Again, some studios steer attendees toward Eastern practices, but no one studio has the answer to how yoga must be practiced and there tend to be so many that it’s not generally difficult to find one with the flavor you need.
The second reason is that as a discipline, it can help the practitioner listen to the voice of their God or remember and meditate on the teachings of Jesus. It’s designed to help those of us who are not inherently spiritual find that piece of ourselves, to help us pray, to help us learn to listen, to help us learn to surrender when we are more of the controlling type of person.
The third reason is that it also holds the moral observances and virtues of Christianity. It supports the idea that these are universal in nature, that being a good person isn’t just Christian, which even Christ taught when He taught about the Good Samaritan and that the Gentiles should be invited to the Kingdom of Heaven in the first place.
I could see it as easy for yogis to veer off the path of Christianity as the Vatican seemed to be worried about in Aspects of Christian meditation and “A Christian reflection on the New Age,” but only if the practitioner doesn’t use the entire discipline and doesn’t remember God while practicing. Maybe it’s more of a problem for people who don’t feel God as strongly at church as during savasana. But is God less at the yoga studio than savasana if He’s everywhere all the time?
On a semi-side note, there’s also all the proven physiological effects that the poses of asana have on people when they do yoga. There’s what you learn about yourself on the way down into a pose, which in many ways translates over to ways to improve life (like learning to let go) and then there are the poses that specifically trigger different responses that are necessary to a more Christian approach to life. Though not everyone may need the extra help, I have been one of those people to benefit from this. Even the breathing exercises help to clear the mind and calm someone down before acting out or letting anger make decisions for us. There are also countless other physical benefits to yoga that everyone could use at any age, like maintaining mobility with the more gentle movements. My favorite book for this is The Science of Yoga which takes an entirely secular approach to explaining the physical benefits of the asanas alone.
I know that I tend to overthink things concepts such as these. I have been the type of person who doesn’t feel anything at church and in some ways, yoga brought me back around to my own faith and my own desire to listen for God out of some of my own suffering. Clearing my head with practicing the path of knowledge helps me be a better Christian, it helps me surrender to God’s will in a way that I am not capable of without it. I know everyone is different, and maybe it distracts for some, but I can’t be the only person who has used the 8 limbed path of Yoga to find the same God I’d always worshipped and to come back around to Jesus.