BY PETER SMITH • PSMITH@COURIER-JOURNAL.COM • SEPTEMBER 21, 2010
Yoga can be dangerous to Christians' faith, the president of Louisville's Southern Baptist Theological Seminary warns.
The popular discipline of meditation and stretching is so interwoven with Eastern mysticism that it is “at odds with the Christian understanding,” Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler wrote on Monday on his blog.
Dayna Gelinas, who teaches yoga from a Christian perspective at New Day Yoga in Kennesaw, Ga., told The Courier-Journal she shared Mohler's concerns about the Hindu roots of the practice. But she said that just as followers of other religions lift their arms, kneel and prostrate in worship, that shouldn't prevent Christians from using such physical practices.
“My yoga practice is a celebration of what I have through Jesus,” she said. “… As a Christian, I see practicing meditation as practicing quiet prayer. So I'm sitting in God's presence, resting in the work that Jesus has done.”
Mohler wrote that “in contrast to assumptions intrinsic to Yoga, Christianity teaches on the basis of the Holy Scriptures that salvation becomes the personal possession of an individual through faith alone in the redeeming work of Jesus Christ.”
Mohler did not immediately return an e-mail message for further comment. His stance is hardly unusual.
The Web sites of other doctrinally conservative churches, such as the Lutheran Church- Missouri Synod and the Assemblies of God, contain writings warning of physical and meditative practices linked to historic Eastern religions. That theme has been sounded by many conservative evangelicals since the 1960s, when such practices grew in popularity in the West.
While the Roman Catholic Church has no official stance on yoga, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last year called reiki, an alternative medicine with roots in Japanese Buddhism, lacking in scientific validation and said it contradicted Christian teachings on healing.
Douglas Groothuis, a professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary, agreed with Mohler in a discussion between the two on the latter's Web site, calling yoga an “alien spiritual practice” that teaches people to look within themselves rather than to Jesus for salvation.
Mohler cited the book “The Subtle Body,” by Stefanie Syman, who traces the social history of yoga from an exotic import from India — when its ties to Eastern religions were openly acknowledged — to a modern practice considered so tame that a children's yoga program was incorporated without controversy into this year's Easter Egg Roll at the White House.
“Christians are not called to empty the mind or to see the human body as a means of connecting to and coming to know the divine,” Mohler wrote. “Believers are called to meditate upon the Word of God — an external Word that comes to us by divine revelation — not to meditate by means of incomprehensible syllables.”
Mohler's posture has drawn a mix of bafflement and criticism from those who practice yoga, which is even taught in many churches and which many people see as unrelated to its ancient roots in India.
Nicole Soteropoulos, a Louisville yoga teacher, called Mohler's stance “an ignorant statement, based on fear,” and invited him to one of her classes.
“Yoga is an exercise, health and wellness system,” said Soteropoulos, who describes herself as spiritual. “It's so old that it belongs to humanity. It's not based on a religion.”
While some people use it for spiritual practices, many practice it for its physical benefits, such as a reduction in stress, heart rate and blood pressure. Soteropoulos said she gave up smoking and lost 60 pounds as she began practicing yoga.
“I've never had a person leave a class who felt worse than when they came in,” she said.
Yoga is a “mind-body practice … with origins in ancient Indian philosophy,” according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health.
It involves numerous lineages of teachings, but most popular forms in America stem from the “hatha” lineages and include various postures, breathing exercises and meditative techniques.
The book notes a vast array of yogic practices in various Eastern religions, some of them seeking to tap sexual energy, and said yoga's adoption in America reflects a “truly post-Christian, spiritually polyglot country.”
Mohler interviewed Syman for a podcast and asked her if the concept of a Christian yoga makes sense.
“In some ways it does,” she replied, calling yoga in general “a technology that can be used to transform your consciousness.”
“If you're looking to have this specific realization outlined in the yoga scriptures I think it makes a little bit less sense because you have to then take on some more of the metaphysics and theology” in those ancient Indian texts.
At Yoga East on Frankfort Avenue on Tuesday, instructor Kara Price guided about a dozen students as they stretched in various poses on floor mats, reminding them to breathe deeply and gently encouraging them to focus on “whatever brings you closer to what is important to you.”
“It clears my mind, it gives me peace,” Rose Cooper said afterward. “I don't think it detracts” from her Christian faith, she said.
Nancy Sparrow, a Roman Catholic who took the class, agreed that yoga “calms you down for meditation” and enables her to focus on her faith.
“Most people come to yoga because they're looking for a fun and effective form of exercise and well-being,” said Laura Spaulding, president of Yoga East. “Yoga provides that. Some people say that's spiritual or religious, and other people say, ‘It makes me feel good.'”
Reporter Peter Smith can be reached at (502) 582-4469.
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