Taking a Position on Yoga Isn’t Simple

It’s getting complicated out there:

A spate of unsavory controversies in the United States is cracking up yoga’s wholesome image, with accusations of financial fraud, sexual misconduct and copyright issues involving asanas (positions) plaguing the community.

As a result, India, the land where the physical, mental and spiritual discipline of yoga began in ancient times, is truly getting itself into a twist.

The intensifying debates around yoga seem all the more pertinent considering the staggering reach of the discipline and the exponentially growing business around it.

A large part of the problem is that the Americans have gotten in the act.  Today, as the article points out, we have 100,000 yoga instructors in the U.S., while India, with more than three times the population, has only 175,000.  And we’ve enlisted the services of another group with a supply glut–attorneys–to really mess things up with intellectual property issues.  It’s hard to understand how one can put a legal lock on something that’s been around as long as yoga has, but that hasn’t stopped the American legal system from doing it anyway.  (My wife would pinpoint the problem in this way: this country has more blondes than India. But I digress…)

Many Christians have reservations about getting into yoga because of its Hindu origins.  The Hindus are worried too, because they claim that yoga is getting away from its Hindu origins.  But is yoga originally Hindu?  Maybe not:

However, many believe that the provenance of yoga goes back to the Vedic culture of Indo-Europeans who settled in India in the third millennium BC, long before the tradition now called Hinduism emerged. Others trace the first written description of yoga to the Bhagavad Gita, the sacred Hindu scripture believed to have been written between the fifth and second centuries BC.

The Indo-Europeans, whose queasiness about the future was documented in an earlier post, didn’t leave much certainly about the past, either.  And that, of course, leads to a discussion of the mutual influence of Indian and Roman culture, which certainly impacted Christianity in its early centuries.

What we need is some enlightenment on the subject.  But that isn’t going to happen if Deepak Chopra has anything to do with it.  As he put it in the Washington Post (a publication frequently lacking in enlightenment):

The whole point of yoga is to achieve enlightenment, and that the most revered practitioners, whether known as yogis, swamis or mahatmas, transcend religion. In fact, even if yoga were granted a patent or copyright by the United States Patent Office, there is no denying that enlightenment has always been outside the bounds of religion.

Both Buddhism and Christianity would argue that point, the former for obvious reasons (the whole religion turns on one enlightenment) and the latter for reasons I discuss here.

Enlightenment, however, can be defined differently.  The enlightenment that many Americans seek to find in yoga isn’t spiritual but personal, i.e., becoming physically lighter than before.  There are other ways than yoga to achieve that, and part of that is to deal with the “knife and fork culture” that we have inside and outside the church.  But we already have good advice on that and other related issues, from the Sermon on the Mount:

“That is why I say to you, Do not be anxious about your life here–what you can get to eat or drink; nor yet about your body–what you can get to wear. Is not life more than food, and the body than its clothing? Look at the wild birds–they neither sow, nor reap, nor gather into barns; and yet your heavenly Father feeds them! And are not you more precious than they? But which of you, by being anxious, can prolong his life a single moment? And why be anxious about clothing? Study the wild lilies, and how they grow. They neither toil nor spin; Yet I tell you that even Solomon in all his splendour was not robed like one of these. If God so clothes even the grass of the field, which is living to-day and to-morrow will be thrown into the oven, will not he much more clothe you, O men of little faith? Do not then ask anxiously ‘What can we get to eat?’ or ‘What can we get to drink?’ or ‘What can we get to wear?’ All these are the things for which the nations are seeking, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But first seek his Kingdom and the righteousness that he requires, and then all these things shall be added for you. Therefore do not be anxious about to-morrow, for to-morrow will bring its own anxieties. Every day has trouble enough of its own.” (Matthew 6:25-34)

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