Jesus Willies, Yoga Villies
Some readers expressed misgivings about the idea of "Christian yoga," and while I suppose that's understandable, the fact of the matter is that Christianity has never existed in a vacuum, and has always been influenced by (and in turn influenced) its surroundings. For example, the early fathers clearly attempted to integrate (or at least reconcile) their new ideas with the best of Greek thought, especially Plato, as did Aquinas with Aristotle. The Roman Church obviously took on many of the characteristics of hierarchical Roman government, whereas democratic "American Christianity" tends to be much more horizontally organized, sometimes consisting of a single church.
So unless you believe that Christianity must maintain itself in exactly the culture in which it first appeared, it is possible to imagine it arising and developing in a different cultural matrix. In fact, irrespective of your nation or culture, we all still have to reconcile revelation with everything else we know to be true of the world. Plus we have to integrate it into a culture that preceeds us, just as we must talk and write about it in a language we did not invent but which precedes our entry into it. (Speaking of which, one reason why I'm an advocate of English as the national language is that if it was good enough for Jesus, it should be good enough for the rest of us.)
Speaking of the impact of culture on belief, to say that Christianity may be reduced to merely having a personal relationship with Jesus is to say something that no Christian ever believed until quite recently. In short, this is an ultra-modern view, no doubt influenced by our western culture that so values individualism. Likewise, the idea that the Bible speaks for itself and requires no interpretation is a very new idea. The fact of the matter is that living tradition preceded the Bible, not vice versa. It is not as if people read the Bible and became Christians. Rather, there were early communities of Christians, out of which the Bible was written and assembled.
So it is always possible to imagine divine revelation being inflected though a different cultural lens. In fact, it's unavoidable, just as it must be inflected through this or that individual brain. It is thoroughly interactive, the interaction being between eternity and time, or whole and part, or vertical and horizontal.
I myself do not come to yoga via Christianity, but rather, the reverse. I began practicing yoga many years ago. Like most everyone else, I had a spiritual impulse, but I encountered no form of Christianity that satisfied that impulse. It was only much later that I stumbled upon a strand of Christianity that I found entirely compatible with yoga. Which, I should emphasize quite clearly, is not to reduce Christianity to yoga. Rather, it is only to say that I discovered a form of Christianity that spoke to my particular "culture," as it were. And I suppose my culture is a rather small one, consisting essentially of me. But what is so interesting is that the strand of Christianity I found most compatible is the earliest Christianity of the desert fathers, which is in turn most adequately preserved in Orthodoxy, which we didn't hear much about in America until relatively recently.
When most westerners speak of yoga, they are usually referring to hatha yoga, which is only a peripheral part of a complex and sophisticated approach to spirit. Hatha yoga is the yoga of the body and breath. Unlike western exercise, it is never regarded as a thing in itself, but as a means to silence the mind, to dislodge vital energy that becomes "trapped" or blocked in our bodies, to open ourselves to divine energies, and also just to create a fit and supple body for the purposes of living long enough to harvest some of the spiritual seeds we have planted along the way. There is simply nothing about this "psychosomatic technology" that cannot be immediately transferred to a Christian context. I mean, please. If baseball players can make the sign of the cross before every at bat, or football players can engage in group prayers before trying to injure and maim one another, I don't see how anyone can object to yogic exercise in a Christian context.
In the past, I have spoken of the uniqueness of Christianity, with it's emphasis on the human body. It's one thing to say that God dwells in the human body, but exactly what is the human body, and how does it work? Lisa will be the first to tell you that most people don't know how the body works, and as a result, develop all kinds of bad habits that not only affect physical health, but also mood, and by extension, spiritual receptivity. Again, this is not to reduce spirituality to physical fitness, but to always understand fitness as having a telos, or an end, which is in spirit.
For me, I am never more receptive to the influx of divine energies than after a session of hatha yoga. It is a perfect time for prayer and meditation, because to a certain exent, it places you in the relaxed, centered, and open state of mind that you want prayer to accomplish. In other words, it just makes prayer that much more effective (and when I speak of prayer, I am not referring to petitionary prayer, but more simply to sitting before God and opening the heart).
Now, as I said, hatha yoga is just a peripheral aspect of yoga. There is bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion to God; raja yoga, the yoga of meditation; jnana yoga, the yoga of knowledge; karma yoga, the yoga of selfless action; and subdivisions such as mantra yoga, which involves repetition of a divine word or phrase -- which is not dissimilar to the repetition of the "Jesus prayer."
Again, I probably sound defensive, but I don't see any conflict here with Christianity, and in a way, this breakdown into the different forms of yoga provides one with a way to discuss certain aspects of Christianity that are present but often underemphasized, which in turn causes people to look to the east for spiritual nourishment.
One important point is that people tend to have a personality style that is more fitting for one particular form of yoga -- a Mother Teresa comes to mind, who practiced a very rigorous form of what might be called "Christian karma yoga," involving selfless devotion of one's actions to the Divine -- including the divine who is present in everyone. This kind of selfless action leads to ego transcendence, for the simple reason that you are constantly ignoring the promptings of the ego.
Some people are more pure jnanis (the yoga of knowledge and wisdom). Frithjof Schuon or Unknown Friend come to mind. True, spending one's life thinking and writing about God might seem like a small thing compared to feeding the poor and sheltering the homeless. And yet, without preserving and honoring the kind of wisdom taught by Schuon, the world is hardly fit for human beings. It's no longer a human world, so what's the point of living in it?
Well, I better sign off for now. I encourage you to avoid making any sharp judgments just yet, as I've barely gotten started, and that was a rather disjointed preramble. At least wait until my ideas are fully half-baked. I should have more time to lay out my case by Wednesday. I should also add that I myself don't know where I'm going with this, so we'll just have to wait and see what comes out.
I am again reminded of what happened some 1500 years ago, when the revealed religion of Christianity reached western China and met up with what is probably the greatest natural religion, Taoism. The following is adapted from a wonderful ode to the mystery of the primordial light and logos, written by someone named Jingjing in 8th century China, who spontaneously merged Taoism and Christianity, undoubtedly because, like me, he was a multi-undisciplinarian who didn't know any better:
"In the beginning was the natural constant, the true stillness of the Origin, and the primordial void of the Most High. The Spirit of the void emerged as the Most High Lord, moving in mysterious ways to enlighten the holy ones. He is Ye Su, my True Lord of the Void, who embodies the three subtle and wondrous bodies, and who was condemned to the cross so that the people of the four directions might be saved.
"My Lord Ye Su, the one emanating in three subtle bodies, hid His true power, became a human, and came on behalf of the Lord of Heaven to preach the good teachings. These teachings can restore goodness to sincere believers, deliver those living within the boundaries of the eight territories, refine the dust and transform it into truth, reveal the gate of the three constants, lead us to life, and destroy death.
"The Lord set afloat a raft of salvation and compassion so we might use it to ascend to the palace of light and be united with Spirit. He revealed the workings of the Origin, and he gave us the method of purification by water. Thus we purify our hearts and return to the simple and natural Way of the truth. This truth cannot be named, but its power surpasses all expectations. When forced to give it a name, we call it the Religion of Light. The teachings of the Religion of Light are like the resplendent sun: they have the power to dissolve the dark realm and destroy evil forever."