Yoga Clarification with Classical Sources

Win Corduan

The following material originated in October 2010 as four posts on my blog, which is now no longer functional. I combined these four posts into a single website and had a good number of visitors over the years. But a week or so ago, I revisited the site with the intent of refreshing my mind on the content for the sake of a discussion on the web. It didn't quite go the way I had hoped. I discovered that some of the links were no longer working, and, thus, depriving any further readership of the opportunity to see that I was not arguing against a straw person. One of the main sources had moved to a different location on the web and the older link sent me to a site that was touting the latest in fashionable yoga leggings for women, something that I thought was not really relevant to this post. It took me a while to rediscover the main website of the American Yoga Association, but I found them.

Consequently, you are now looking at a second edition of that site with renewed documentation. In the process I could not help but to add a few more pictures and information. I have deleted references to various people by name, as I'm not sure they want to be drawn back into this discussion. On the other hand, when I'm citing a website that contains its author's name, even if it's from an organization, I give him or her credit for what they have written.

The initial target audience for this discussion was Christians who wanted to decide whether it's okay for them to practice Yoga. But just as importantly, it is a challenge to proponents of Yoga everywhere to stick to the truth about what they're telling the world. Me against a million-dollar industry--I haven't a chance to persuade them to become honest, but maybe I can get a serious hearing from some Christians.

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So, a friend asked me on Facebook what I thought of a certain review of Stefanie Syman's recent book The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America, in which she celebrates the assimilation of this practice into American culture. On the other hand, the reviewer of the book made it quite clear that he considered Christianity and Yoga to be incompatible.

I responded that I thought that, unfortunately, the reviewer's comments were on target.---Why unfortunately?---Because clearly there are a lot of Christians who do not understand the nature of Yoga and are accepting the claims that are made for it by its advocates uncritically. Most likely they do not have access to any helpful information on the topic and can hardly be blamed for succumbing to the influence of incessant deceptions.

In my reply to my friend I added my usual comment that practicing Yoga for its health benefits is similar to partaking of communion for the nutritional value of the wafers and grape juice. [My sacramentally oriented readers may substitute wine.] Someone picked up my comment and published it separately (thank you!), and I also received some critiques. That's when I decided to give the topic a little lengthier treatment.

I must admit that, at first, I had a hard time understanding some of the critical comments that a few people made concerning my analogy. A number of readers raised objections to the effect that there were, too, some significant benefits for one's physical health in Yoga. Those replies befuddled me since I didn't think that I had questioned that point. Then it dawned on me that they were totally missing the point of my analogy; it was not about the respective contributions to one's health, but about turning something that was originally considered to be sacred into the All-American quest towards "developing strong bodies in twelve ways." They apparently thought that I was saying that there is virtually no nutritional value in grape juice and wafers, and that Yoga made no contribution to our physical health either. That was hardly the point. For what it's worth, grape juice, in particular, is really good for you, but when we drink it during communion in church, we are not getting a head start on Sunday lunch. Instead . . . . [let's see how I can get out of this without getting involved in intra-Christian theological disputes concerning the sacraments or ordinances] . . . . the juice is a rigid designator for the blood of Christ that he spilled on the cross to atone for our sins. This is the focal point of communion. It is a thoroughly religious act, which we would presumably perform even if the juice had no nutritional value at all. In fact, as the apostle Paul points out, to hold communion just because you're hungry is a blasphemy (1 Corinthians 11:20-22).

Krishna and Arjuna The other side of the analogy is that a very similar thing is true about Yoga. In these entries I'm trying to show that Yoga is an intrinsically religious practice--always has been and always will be, and it really does not matter whether it does or does not help your body feel better. You don't evaluate religious rites on whether they make you feel better or more spiritual. Similarly, when you do Yoga--unless you wind up turning it into something that really isn't Yoga any more--you participate in a form of Hinduism; you are carrying out actions that were devised for a god other than the one who has revealed himself in the Bible, and are, thus, maybe unwittingly, practicing something that is contrary to your faith.

Some of us older folks may remember how the Guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (the so-called guru to the Beatles) told everyone that Transcendental Meditation was not religious in nature and was compatible with all religions. School systems across America added classes in TM®, underwritten by federal financial support. In 1977 the district court of New Jersey finally put an end to that charade at the taxpayer's expense. See Malnak v. Yogi, 440 F. Supp. 1284 (D.N.J. 1977). It's hardly believable to me that the matter had not been sufficiently studied by the government or school systems before then because its religious nature is as clear as it can be. Similar claims abound from various religious groups, and people often don't realize the nature of the falsehoods or their extent. Yoga has integrated itself so far into American culture that even churches give courses in it.

There are many fanciful claims made about Yoga, which are at best guesswork, at worst deceptions, and in any case inconsistent with each other. Their purpose is very obviously to recruit people to practice Yoga. Let's look at some of the statements made by two organizations that appear to be authoritative and representative of Yoga as it presents itself to the world: an article written by By Dr. Ishwar V. Basavaraddi and published by the Indian government's Ministry of External Affairs for Public Diplomacy, hereafter "Basavaradi" and the American Yoga Association, hereafter "AYA." I will also make reference to other sources as needed for examples.

Claim 1: The Ancient Origin of Yoga

The treatment of Yoga by its Indian advocates is nowadays frequently informed by an Indian nationalist framework ("Hindutva"). According to this ideology, India is the cradle of humankind. On the AYA site we read, "Yoga is a word in Sanskrit, the oldest language in the world and mother tongue of this planet." Hindutva opinion denies the invasion of the Aryan people of the South Asian subcontinent; supposedly they have lived there forever. Consequently, the remains of the earliest civilization in geographic India, the so-called Indus-Saraswati culture should be considered the direct ancestor to later Vedic/Hindu culture. A serious hurdle to understanding this ancient culture is that, even though they had a system of writing, we cannot yet decipher it.

While we're on the topic of Sanskrit, it is true that when Western linguistic scholars first discovered Sanskrit, some of them believed that they had found the original IndoEuropean language, but a quick second look made it clear that such was not the case. Of course, the idea appeals to certain ethno-centric Indian people today. I might also mention that when people use the term "Sanskrit" in this context, they are not talking about classical Sanskrit from around 500 BC, but an earlier form, such as the language of the Vedas, dated to ca. 1500 BC.

A. Prehistoric Origin

Basavaradi: "The practice of Yoga is believed to have started with the very dawn of civilization. The science of yoga has its origin thousands of years ago, long before the first religions or belief systems were born."

AYA: " ...when the material universe was created, first of all the science of Yoga was given to souls which were there ...
"Following the establishment of balances of all forms of life on earth, people came down from a higher planet system and brought Yoga and other knowledge with them. These people spoke the Sanskrit language and the knowledge was named Veda. Thus the first civilization on earth began."

There is no foundation for these assertions other than as ideological or religious dogmas. Neither archaeology nor ethnology offer any support for them. Of course, these writers have a right to believe whatever they wish, but it's necessary for the rest of us to know that these statements are rendered implausible by objective scholarly investigations.

sannyasin The hypothesis put forward by the AYA is intriguing, to put it mildly. I've only quoted parts of two paragraphs because the account is somewhat sketchy and I'm trying to make sense of it by paraphrasing it for you and me. There were souls on Planet Earth going back to the earliest days of the universe, many millions of years ago, before the supercontinent ("Pangaea") started to drift apart. These souls were subject to reincarnation, and even survived the earth's cycles of destruction and re-creation, which occur around every six million years. Were these souls human? It would appear that they were at various times, though it doesn't really matter since souls undergo reincarnation throughout the chain of life forms. Whoever these humans might have been, they were uncivilized in the technical sense of not living in houses in cities. And they were frustrated with the seemingly never-ending chain of rebirths, but did not know of a way out.

Finally, a more advanced race of humans invaded the earth. They occupied a higher rung on the ladder of spiritual development; they knew the way to moksha, the escape from the cycle of reincarnations. They became known as "aris," enlightened people. They spoke Sanskrit, which they must have taught to these truly ancient hominids as they developed the capacity for speech. The aris and newly instructed humans erected the first civilization, which has remained in place in India ever since. As the supercontinent split up into the various continents as we know them, inferior civilizations arose, and Sanskrit became corrupted into other languages. However, traces of the original culture and language can still be found all over the world. The place where this knowledge (Veda) is still found in its purest form is India, and the path to enlightenment is, needless to say, Yoga.

There are some serious issues with this claim other than that there is no evidence whatsoever to support it. The timing is off regardless of how old you believe the world to be. Obviously this whole scenario is incompatible with the teachings of the Bible. But even on its own, this theory is flawed. The account includes Pangaea, a well-known scientific theory, but then discards the further implications of it. That's what we call cherry-picking. The break-up of Pangaea occurred, according to a scientific consensus, around 175 million years ago, so these events must have taken place before that time. The oldest known presumptively human ancestor fossil, called Graecopithecus freybergi is currently dated at 7.2 million years ago, so the other 16.8 million years of human remnants must have been buried in the various purges of the earth. How can you know this apart from accepting it as an article of (Hindu) faith?

man in kolkata The word ari refers to a devoted, faithful person. It does not carry the connotation of "enlightened" or "knowledgeable." The bending of word meanings by translators to suit their religious preference is a big obstacle for anyone studying Hindu texts in English only.

Another crucial point is that this hypothesis is not derived from any classical texts. It is a relatively modern invention, ultimately intended to provide an impression of ancient glory for India and Yoga, its international export.

A slightly different facet is provided by Professor Vivek Kumar, who neither invokes visitors from an alternate world nor places Yoga's beginnings at the creation of the earth, but reveals to us what must have been going on in the minds of the early people who discovered Yoga.

The ancient training and teachings of Yoga have been in existence for five thousand years or more. In ancient times, there existed a desire for explorations of personal freedom, health, long life, and self-understanding which eventually led to this system of physical and mental exercise, called Yoga, which has since spread throughout the world.

Kumar ascribes emotions and motivations to ancient people on the basis of his own presuppositions; actually, there's no evidence for them. Given the present stand of knowledge, such observations can be nothing but inventions. Maybe the people who lived in India more than 5,000 years ago were longing for personal freedom, health, etc., but, then again, perhaps the the overwhelming majority of them were oppressed and were forced to engage in sexual rituals by a powerful minority of overlords. We have no access to their minds or spiritual dispositions. Furthermore, as already stated and about to be amplified, even if he were correct in his psychological diagnosis, there is still no good reason to believe that these people in question devised or discovered Yoga.

B. The Indus-Saraswati Valley Evidence

ISVCIn the Northwest of India and Pakistan there lived an ancient people with a quite distinctive culture. We refer to it nowadays as the Indus-Saraswati Valley Culture after the two rivers in the region (hereafter: ISVC). Of the two, only the Indus is known as a physical river; the Saraswati River is not identifiable at the present and may possibly be a mythological stream. The ISVC has also been called by the names of some of the cities associated with it as the culture of "Harappa" or "Mohenjo Daro." An important piece of information concerning the ISVC is that many objects recovered from those sites contain marks that could be a form of writing. However, it has not yet been deciphered, let alone translated. We can only make negative inferences: It's not a script like any known ones; it does not conform to the pattern of any known language, including Sanskrit.

Archaeologists have uncovered a sizeable number of objects among the remnants of the ISVC that give us some clues about the religion pf these ancient people. They made their living with agriculture, and--very typical for such a culture--the religion emphasized fertility.

Basavaradi: "Yoga, being widely considered as an ‘immortal cultural outcome’ of Indus Saraswati Valley civilization--dating back to 2700 B.C.--has proved itself catering to both material and spiritual upliftment of humanity. ...The Number of seals and fossil remains of Indus Saraswati valley civilization with Yogic motives and figures performing Yoga Sadhana suggest the presence of Yoga in ancient India. The phallic symbols, seals of idols of mother Goddess are suggestive of Tantra Yoga."

The AYA page does not mention the ISVC, perhaps because it would be somewhat of a strain to maintain that the original people on the subcontinent spoke Sanskrit, which they must have learned from their extraplanetary visitors, while the language of the earliest known civilization in the region is definitely not Sanskrit. What we see in the ISVC writing shows no relationship to any known Indian language or script. The artifacts in question are definitely indicative of a sexually-oritented culture. As Basavaradi allows, they may possibly be indicative of a precursor to the movement called "Tantrism," which typically culminates in ritual intercourse. Nevertheless, even though there are forms of Yoga associated with Trantrism, the presence of Tantrism itself does not entail its embodiment in Yoga.

Indus Valley Proto-Shivas

Gorakshasana" The main pieces of evidence for Yoga in the area are a few seals found in the ISVC sites that may possibly picture an early form of a figure who became known as Shiva in Hinduism, more specifically in his form as Pashupati, the "Lord of the Animals." We don't know that the person depicted is identical to the one who would later be known as Rudra or Shiva, but the figure is not inconsistent with some later characterizations of Shiva. A more positive and definitive identifications would outrun the available data. My personal inclination is to think that, given the many different forms in which Shiva appears throughout Hinduism, it's likely that soon after their invasion the Aryans added this form to his various others.

Shiva Lingam-Yoni Several websites shoot themselves in the foot, so to speak. After showing what they consider to be the overlap in symbols between Shiva and the ISVC depiction, they oversell the significance of their intended conclusion by stressing that these symbols are world-wide. But then, unless there were a universal cult of Shiva, which there isn't, they've given away their case. Of course, there are Hindu teachers, such as Guduru Venkata Ramanaiah , who maintain that we all worship Shiva; we just give him different names. However, surely that declaration is a piece of dubious religious imperialism.

Anyway, Proto-Shiva is shown as sitting in what became known as the "Gorakshasana" position in classical Yoga. The hands are held in a rigid mudra close to his knees, his heels are yoined at their soles without overlap. But these attributes are eclipsed, however, by the very evident tumescence that the figure is sporting. The other evidence . . . sorry, but there isn't anything better that gives evidence of Yoga. And there probably won't be any until someone decodes the writing, at which points some of the assumptions that people are making are just as likely to be tossed out as reinforced. There are several representations of this proto-Shiva, and there may be other links from the ISVC to Aryan/Hindu culture, but the evidence does not add up to a conclusion that they practiced Yoga, as advocated by its aficianados. The fact that this proto-Shiva and the Shiva of Hinduism generate a lot of sexual symbolism is beyond doubt. A very popular depiction of Shiva is in the Lingam-Yoni, a symbolic representation of Shiva conjoined to a goddess, as pictured on the right.

C. Yoga in the Rig Veda

Hinduism has four main religious texts, called the Vedas, the earliest of which, the Rig Veda, was probably composed around 1500 BC. Other writings, called Brahmanas, Sutras, and Upanishads were connected to the Vedas and are frequently also referred to as "Vedic." Basavaradi merely mentions them in passing as just one of the early written sources concerning Yoga. The AYA simply refers to the insights of Yoga as "Veda," and most people would probably assume that this wisdom is what is recorded within the written Vedas. It would certainly strengthen the case for the remote age of Yoga if we were to receive more specific information about Yoga in the Vedas, particularly the oldest one, the Rig Veda.

The matter becomes frustrating when someone supposedly can give more details, but doesn't. For example, Tim Burgin, a Yoga instructor and accomplished bead artist, specifically mentions the appearance of Yoga in the Rig Veda on the Yoga Basics website.

As the oldest texts in any Indo-European language, it’s astounding that within these works the foundations of yoga are established, with yoga being defined as "yoking" and as a "discipline." The Vedas provided the spiritual core and philosophical foundations for the future development of both yoga and Hinduism.

Several comments made by readers on that page have asked the author for a bit more information concerning the references to Yoga in the Rig Veda, but received no answer. I, too, presented that question. Since the site is moderated, somebody must still be lookng after it, but no answer has been forthcoming. I went back to the site a few days later and supplied the information myself. All-in-all I'm grateful to Mr. Burgin for giving me the opportunity to contribute some facts to satisfy the curiosity of the visitors to his site.

The "Replenish Living" website gives us helpful information on the word "Yoga" in the Rig Veda without specific references, and then spreads itself into a generalization across a thousand years.

During the Vedic times, Vedic priests were generally self-disciplined and avoided any forms of indulgence instead [sic]; they performed sacrifices which were known as yajna and used poses that most researchers believe are the precursor of the kind of Yoga poses we use today in the modern world.

I trust that the compliments the site pays to the decorum of the Vedic priests are valid. Undoubtedly, somewhere within the millennium beginning with the Rig Veda people started to add certain poses, viz. the physical positions (asanas) of Yoga, to their worship and meditation. Yoga must have started somewhere, and it makes sense to locate its beginnings around 600 BC. But the Rig Veda does not mention any Yogic poses asumed by any priests. Thus, that particular claim is yet another shot into the dark.

Then I discovered an extremely helpful website by Yoga instructor Mark Giubarelli that lays out the data for its readers. Once I had the references used by proponents of "Yoga" in the Rig Veda, it was easy for me to turn to the text at the International Sacred Texts Archive (ISTA) and see what was actually there. Giubarelli shows an uncommon bit of candor when he states that the typical Yoga poses are of comparatively later origin. But then again, he doesn't tell us what the word "yoga" actually means in the Rig Veda.

According to some yoga can be traced back to over 5,000 years ago but many suspect think that yoga may be up to 10,000 years old. The earliest literature was found around 1500 B.C.E and the yoga poses are more modern than you think.

I'm not sure what it means to "suspect" the age of a religious practice without evidence, but let's leave that issue to the side.

I shall attempt to lay out a table that gives us Giubarelli's information alongside that found in the ISTA. The last-named site allows us to switch back and forth between the original Vedic with a transliteration and the 1896 English translation by Ralph Griffiths. I have taken the liberty to make a few corrections to the transliteration. "RV" stands for Rig Veda, the numbers after it are for the book (1-10), the specific hymn, and the verse. E.g., "RV 1.1.1" means "Rig Veda, book 1, hymn 1, verse 1."

RV 1.18.7 2nd line:
He (saH) promotes (invati) the
yoga (yogam) of thoughts (dhInAm)”.
He without whom no sacrifice,
e’en of the wise man, prospers;
he stirs up the series of thoughts.
RV 1.30.7 In each yoga, we invoke the Strong (Indra);
in each struggle
In every need, in every fray
we call as friends to succour us Indra the mightiest of all.
RV 10.114.9 who knows the yoga of the metres here,
who has gained the “word” (Vak)
the subject and object of thoughts?
who is called the eighth Hero among the conductors of order? Who has perhaps controlled the (two) bay horses of Indra!
What sage hath learned the metres' application?
Who hath gained Vāk, the spirit's aim and object?
Which ministering priest is called eighth Hero?
who then hath tracked the two Bay Steeds of Indra?

The most obvious point that stands out is that Giubarelli does not translate the word "yoga" at all, but leaves it stand. He does conclude this section with a quote from Kiran Krishnan, an electrical engineer and self-proclaimed expert in a truly impressive amount of subjects.

Yoga in Rigveda means the spiritual yoking, the synchronizing of the divine thoughts / speech with the spiritual car of mind to start the spiritual journey.

Kiron Krishnan

Even without my further elaboration below, it is obvious that you cannot glean that information from the passages quoted. This is a clear case of eisegesis, viz. reading something into a text that is plainly not there.

So, despite the caution at the outset, by foregoing a translation of "yoga," and ending with the quote by Krishnan, Giubarelli is still leaving readers to think that "yoga" in the Rig Veda must refer to a special belief or practice. From there it is a short step to imagine the Vedic priests assuming various physical poses as they carry out their sacrifices and laying the groundwork for "classical" Yoga. However, there is no reason to believe that Vedic priests did so. If I may get a bit ahead of the story, just in order to forestall any disorientation, let me point out that Yoga must be considered to be one of the alternatives to Vedic ritualism. Beginning to flourish 1,000 years after the Rig Veda, it was a dissenting school, opposing the strict ritualism of the Vedas, and thus it would be unlikely to be taught in the Rig Veda.

krishna and arjuna Griffith, on the other hand, ingeniously finds ways of not using the word at all and supplies various different paraphrases: series of thought," "every need," and "the metres' application." What is intriguing about this method of his is that in other places he give a straight-forward translation of "yoga" as "yoke," the initial literal meaning of the word. For example, in the verse that comes right after his translation as "application," he translates yukta--same stem as yoga--as "yoked" (RV 10.114.10). In that instance the subject is the harnessing of the two horses mentioned in v. 9. But then it makes more sense to translate "yoga" in v. 9 also as "yoke," viz. being tied to something, linked up, maybe even dragging a burden. That meaning fits well into the hymn as a whole, which is a description of the complexity of Vedic deities and semi-gods and their worship, culminating in the exclamation of how difficult it is for anyone to fulfill all of the required duties, likening it to the task of controlling and yoking up Indra's two steeds. "Yoga" here appears to refer to the difficult assignments connected to all the various gods and spirits along with their accompanying rituals.

In RV 1.30.7, Griffith translates "yoge-yoge" as "in every need," which is much more helpful than "in every yoga." The verse really makes little sense if "yoga" is not a heavy weight bound upon us that, like all other struggles, requires the intervention of the powerful god Indra.

We do not see a negative connotation in RV 1.18.7. But the basic meaning as "yoke" is there as well. Griffith tells us that the god brings about a "series of thoughts." But what is a series other than various items "linked" together?

My conclusion on this point, then, is that in the Rig Veda, the word "yoga" retains a very simple meaning: just as horses are linked together in a yoke, so our thoughts may become linked together, and we may be chained to our frailty and the burdens of maintaining proper relationships to the gods. The word can include negative connotations, but that does not have to be the case. The point is that the meaning here is nothing that foreshadows a unique school of Hindu thought or practice in the future. The word "yoga" appears in the Rig Veda, but it means "link," and it has nothing to do with the eventual distinctive practices of Yoga.

We can say with confidence that Yoga, as commonly understood, is not as ancient as it is made out to be by many of its proponents. Nevertheless, I would think that 600 BC does qualify as ancient, and it's pretty clear that by that time a true Yoga was becoming a part of the religious environment on the Indian subcontinent. Still, there are some further misconceptions that need to be corrected.

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Claim 2: The Non-religious Nature of Hatha Yoga

The sixth century BC, frequently called the "axial age," saw a widespread emergence of alternatives to religions that were dominated by priests and their rituals. In India, this revolution manifested itself by the innovations of alternative religions, e.g., Buddhism and Jainism, and the advent of the six distinct schools of Hindu philosophy. I'm listing them here for further reference a little later

Purva Mimasa "Ritual is greater than knowledge." A philosophical underpinning and promotion of Vedic ritual.
Vedanta. A pantheistic monism called Advaita Vedanta that arose out of the Upanishads. There were other philosophies that are connected to the Upanishads, but Advaita became the most prominent one.
Vaisheshika The classification of objects in the universe.
Nyaya Logical realism
Samkhya Atheistic dualistic pluralism. Souls must find their way out of their physical confinement towards spiritual liberation.
Yoga Assumes the fundamentals of Samkhya, but adds a god (Ishvara). Promotes liberation with the "eight limbs" that include physical poses and breath control.

So, the first actual direct evidence we have of Yoga as a separate, distinctive school is from the second half of the first millennium B.C. Then the dam burst, and we have a number of different kinds of Yoga that emerged in the ensuing context, e.g., the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, which identifies itself as a precursor to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The beginnings of Yoga are indisputably Hindu; however it eventually also found a home in the Yogacara philosophical school of Buddhism and served as an example for Jain practice. As we have seen, there is no shortage of writers who are claiming that Yoga is pre-Hindu, and the reason, as we have now demonstrated, is that they want to take it out of the realm of religion. One must ask, however: Then why insist that the person pictured in that embarrassing posture is the god Shiva? You can't have it both ways. Either drop the religion-disconnection or drop the identification of Shiva. But please: don't treat us to a non-religious Shiva.

Hittleman Yoga Some people try to avoid the religious implications of Yoga by forcing an exaggerated distinction between the Yoga taught in the Yoga Pradipika, called Hatha Yoga, and that of the Yoga Sutras, called Raja Yoga. The former they insist, is purely physical, endowing your body with greater flexibility and contributing to your overall health. It's only the later forms of Yoga where the religious elements come into play. Richard Hittleman in his classic popularization, Introduction to Yoga tells us that "Hatha Yoga ... is primarily concerned with the physical aspect of our being." He doesn't hide that there is a spiritiual side as well, though he doesn't expound on it in this book. So, you might practice the postures (asanas) and the breathing methods (pranayama) and feel that you can ignore the spiritual dimension that is not entirely absent either. But look at the cover of his book pictured on the left. The two people practicing Yoga are inserted into the Chinese yin-yang symbol. The promotion page announces that "Yoga classes have brought spiritual and physical fulfillment to millions." And, in fact, in other writings and his television series Hittleman was not reticent to tout the spiritual dimensions of Yoga.

The distinction between Hatha Yoga and Raja Yoga is only hierarchical. Both are religious/spiritual in nature; one is considered more advanced than the other. The idea that Hatha Yoga is purely physical does not stand up. Here are the first verses of the first chapter of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika:

Salutation to Adinatha Shiva who expounded the knowledge of Hatha Yoga, which like a staircase leads the aspirant to the high pinnacled Raja Yoga. Yogin Swatmarama, after saluting first his Guru Srinatha explains Hatha Yoga for the attainment of Raja Yoga.
Owing to the darkness arising from the multiplicity of opinions people are unable to know the RajaYoga. Compassionate Swatmarama composes the Hatha Yoga Pradipika like a torch to dispel it.

Matsyendra, Gorata, etc., knew Hatha Vidya and by their favour Yogi Swatmarama also learnt it from them.
The following Siddhas (masters) are said to have existed in former times: ---[There follows a list of 33 names, beginning with Shiva.]---
These Mahasiddhas [great masters of magic power], breaking the sceptre of death, are roaming in the universe.
Like a house protecting one from the heat of the sun, Hatha Yoga protects its practiser from the burning heat of the three Tapas; and, similarly, it is the supporting tortoise, as it were, for those who are constantly devoted to the practice of Yoga.
A Yogi desirous of success should keep the knowledge of Hatha Yoga secret; for it becomes potent by concealing, and impotent by exposing.

So much, I would think, for the idea of Hatha Yoga not being religious. Its basic text tells us that it was taught by Shiva, and that thirty-three masters have escaped death and are roaming the universe, a picture that strikes me as somewhat unsettling. For now, it appears that the practice of Hatha Yoga will lead to Raja Yoga, but in the meantime it already provides magnificent spiritual benefits.

Claim 3: Yoga is not a Religion.

You're going to have to look long and hard to find something written by a proponent of Yoga for the Western world that does not insist that Yoga is not a religion. There is one significant exception which I shall bring up further below.

Basarvadi: Yoga does not adhere to any particular religion, belief system or community; it has always been approached as a technology for inner wellbeing. Anyone who practices yoga with involvement can reap its benefits, irrespective of one’s faith, ethnicity or culture.
Yoga Basics: Though yoga’s ultimate aim is lofty, its essence is practical and scientific as it emphasizes direct experience and observable results. It is not a religion, but a practice of personal inquiry and exploration. As the cultural and religious diversity of practitioners attest, yogic philosophy speaks to universal truths that can be incorporated within any belief system.

Of course, Yoga is not a religion in itself, as we usually think of "religion." Neither is baptism, praying five times a day (Islam), or wearing the sacred shirt (Parsi). But these observances are deeply ingrained into their religions. So the right question is not whether Yoga is a religion, but whether Yoga is essentially religious, and, as we just saw, a number of promoters of Yoga proclaim that it is not.

Now let us note how the two quotations above characterize Yoga. Basarvadi tells us that it has always been a "technology for inner being," and that anyone of any faith can practice it. The Yoga Basics site protests that, rather being a religion, it is scientific in nature, designed for personal growth based on universal principles, and thus, we can infer that members of any religion can practice it and reap its benefits.

The AYA page gives with one hand and takes with the other.

AYA: Although Yoga presents detailed information and techniques regarding the ‘soul’, Yoga is not a religion. Yoga is a spiritual science. By learning this science, an individual understands the fundamentals of all religions. Yoga is a universal development system.

The factor that differentiates Yoga from religion is its perspective on the body, mind and emotions. Religions perceive the body, mind and emotions as an obstruction on the path to enlightenment and as a means of sin. Whereas Yoga teaches that the body, mind and emotions are a part of the universal truth and how it can be used for humankind to develop, become enlightened and ascend.

It would appear that, according to the AYA, both of these propositions must be true: "Yoga transcends all religions and constitutes their foundation" (first paragraph), and "Religion and Yoga are mutually incompatible" (second paragraph). But those two statements are inconsistent. With regard to the second option, if it were an accurate description of religion (which it is not), one would have to choose between either practicing Yoga or a religion. That's undoubtedly not what the writers of the website had in mind, but they certainly overstated their case for Yoga not being a religion.

There's really no point in beating around this bush; Yoga, as normally perceived, is deeply tied to its religious roots. The "Yoga Basics" website, having declared Yoga as a non-religious science includes a page titled Yoga 101 relating the philosophy of Yoga. That page mentions the philosophical schools of Hinduism and their ways of achieving redemption (moksha). It concludes:

The ultimate goal of Yoga is a sustained state of pure awareness called Moksha or Samadhi. Yoga is the transcendence of the mind to realize the “true self” or “highest self.” This experience of pure consciousness is our true nature. In this state of liberation, all mental and philosophical constructs fall away. In essence, yogic philosophy is a necessary means to deepen one’s yoga practice and to reach enlightenment.

This is not just ""Yoga 101," it is also "Hinduism 102." Furthermore, Christianity and the goal of personal enlightenment by means of discovering our true or highest self are not compatible. Biblical religion focuses on God and our redemption in Christ, not finding our own divine nature. The table below lists all of the classical sources on Yoga that are not tied to Hinduism or one of its off-springs.

But let's be done with trying to make sense of the strategic ambiguity. Yoga in its classical expression includes a god, one of the signs that lead us to infer that a set of beliefs is religious. It is true that not all schools of Hinduism prescribe belief in a god. There are atheistic schools of Hinduism, the most prominent one being the dualistic school of Samkhya. (I'm sorry, but if you find the idea of an atheistic school in a religion befuddling, I can only issue you a rain check for the moment.) In fact, the school of Yoga has a close affinity to the metaphysics of Samkhya, but there is one crucial difference. Yoga's view of the world includes one item that is not a part of Samkhya, namely a god. In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali the god goes by the generic term, Ishvara, which can be translated as "the Lord" or "God" (sometimes also as "the Creator," though probably not in this context). Ishvara, as described in the Yoga Sutra is a god who is completely at rest.

I need to branch out a little more in order to explain the Yogic understanding of Ishvara. There is a basic assumption that is shared by virtually all Indian schools of religion. It appears prominently in Buddhism as the first of the Four Noble Truth, "To live is to suffer," and it shows up very clearly in the first aphorism of the Samkhya Sutra: "Well, the complete cessation of pain [which is] of three kinds is the complete end of man." Life entails suffering. The suffering is exacerbated by the seemingly unending cycles of reincarnation (samsara ). What distinguishes the schools, at least in part, is the cause to which the suffering is attributed. In Buddhism, suffering is caused by attachment to an impermanent world. In Vedantic Hinduism it is caused by ignorance of the Atman-Brahman identity. In the philosophical school of Yoga, it is motion or change that besets us and causes us grief. It is the fact that we live in a physical world (prakriti) in which change is a constant factor that our souls (purusha) cannot find release.

But how do we escape from the constant flux? This is where in the Yoga Sutras the god, Ishvara, comes into play. He serves as the object of our meditation because he is immovable and immutable. This is how Patanjali describes him. I'm including the translation found in BonGiovanni, The Threads of Union: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. This is a popular and helpful translation, which can be found in many places on the internet, but unfortunately none of them come with any further bibliographic data. Patanjali declares:

Source Sanskrit Transliteration Literal Translation BonGiovanni's Translation
Yoga Sutra 1:24 kleshakarmavipākā-shayairapararmashtah purushavishova Ishvara Ishvara is a particular, widespread soul that is immune to hindrances, karma, and undesirable results. God is a particular yet universal indweller, untouched by afflictions, actions, impressions and their results.

The ISTA has another alleged translation of the Yoga Sutra, but that one is distorted by the translator's imagination. He actually attempts to squeeze the Yoga Sutra into the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta. That's like turning Hegel into a logical positivist. There is a form of Yoga connected to Advaita Vedanta, as I mentioned above, but that one is not expressed in the Yoga Sutra. Ishvara and Yogin This practice of making serious revisions in the process of presenting South-Asian texts as "translations" is rather widespread, which is why it is important to have some knowledge of Sanskrit when dealing with them so that one can sort out what is real, what may be an error, what has all the signs of a deliberate revision, and what could just be a supposedly well-meant deception.

So, what the yogin attempts to do in this context is to become like the god whom he worships. He needs to focus his thoughts so that they become steady and imperturbable. And he needs to steady his body. Why does Yoga entail assuming certain postures (asanas) and then holding them? It's not for the isometric exercise value because the muscles are not put up against an external resistance. Nor is it for any isotonic value because you are not moving. It's the emulation of the total stillness of Ishvara. The longer you practice, the longer you can hold the asanas, and, thus, the more adept you become. Where is the purpose for that? Physiologically, you don't gain anything after a point. But the spiritual value increases because you are becoming more and more like Ishvara; the external posture supports the internal (mental, spiritual) balance.

I have told numerous times how, when I was already in my Ph.D. studies, my department chair told me to get educated after I had just said something utterly ignorant with regard to Hinduism (and mercifully I do not remember what it was). So, I read Frank Noss's Man's Religion and took a seminar in Eastern religions. In the seminar, when it came to dividing up topics for student presentations, I immediately chose Samkhya/Yoga. You see, at the time, I had purchased a popular book on Yoga and was practicing my asanas and pranayamas daily because I thought it would be good for my nervous system. (At that time the nature of my issues were not yet widely recognized, and I was trying to take things into my own hands.) Thus when I made my presentation and had talked about all the esoteric matters such as prakriti, purusha, the gunas, and Ishavara, I also described some of the postures and the breathing component. The latter goes by the name of pranayama, and in the book it took the form of "alternate nostril breathing"; I now know it as nadi shonadhana pranayama. I noticed that, as I was describing some of the techniques, some of my fellow students were trying to make a few gentle attempts at the asanas while remaining in their seats.

mayurasana When I got to alternate nostril breathing, I perceived a very obvious sense of confusion in my audience. In the book I had bought, Hillerman's Introduction to Yoga, the apprentice yogin is instructed to breath air in through his right nostril while counting to eight, hold his breath for a count of sixteen, then exhale it through his left nostril to a count of eight. Then you reverse the process. Repeat five times before moving on to the next posture. Progress in pranayama consists of extending the lengths of time for each phase of the exercise, particularly for the one where you hold in your breath. As I was narrating this regimen I was having a riot watching my colleagues contorting their noses and ultimately their entire heads attempting to manipulate their nasal muscles so as to control on which side to inhale or exhale air. In fact, it was so funny to me that I forgot to tell them that one does so simply by alternately closing off one nostril at a time with a finger. There is no special nasal dexterity required. The emphasis is totally on the regulation of breathing.

So, how does alternate nostril breathing contribute to your body's flexibility? Obviously it doesn't. Whatever good it is supposed to do must lie somewhere else. No doubt getting lots of fresh air is good for you. But pranayama restricts the amount of air you take in. Okay, there's no need for me to play games. Breathing regularly is a sign of feeling at rest, and you may also start to feel more at rest if you force yourself to breathe more evenly. If you are trying to calm someone in a panic, you may attempt to get him or her to breathe more slowly. Buddhism encourages people to breathe consciously and regularly, heightening their self awareness (which is ultimately supposed to lead to their non-self awareness). So, is pranayama merely supposed to calm down and relax people?

Yes, to some extent pranayama contributes to the yogin's relaxation, but that's only the beginning. Remember our discussion on the reason for the asanas--to emulate the immovability of Ishvara. Mircea Eliade, whose book Yoga: Freedom and Immortality (Princeton, 1969), is not without issues, but still possibly the best book around on Yoga, likens the efforts of the Yogin to becoming like a plant, which is not a bad analogy as long as you ignore botanical phenomena such as phototropism and the common idea that plants grow better if you talk to them or play Mozart for them. And yeah, you also have to ignore plant respiration--inhaling CO2 and exhaling O2. The ultimate aim is not to breathe at all.

Here is a statement by Patanjali, author of the Yoga Sutra. Forgive me for being pedantic about it again, but I feel that it is important that--in contrast to the rewritings by translators who want to tone down words for Western ears--you can (at least theoretically) check it out for yourself.

Reference Sanskrit Literal Trans Bongiovanni Eliade
Yoga Sutras
tasmin tsati shvāsapashvāsayorgati vicchedah prānāyāmah

That done [tasmin tsati], Pranayama ceases [vicchedah] the inhaling and exhaling movement [shvāsapashvāsayorgati] When that exists, control of incoming and outgoing is next. Pranayamah is the arrest [vicchedah] of the movements of inhalation and exhalation and it is obtained after the asanas have been realized (p. 47).

Eliade on Yoga Since Eliade quotes the verse in the middle of a discussion, he adds the reference to what "that done" stands for, namely, after one has mastered the basic asanas, but he is accurate in giving the precise meaning in this case. The word vicchedah means not just to "control", but to "cease, stop, cut off." You may have heard about yogins being buried underground without air for hours. The idea is supposed to be that after decades of pranayamah exercises, some of these gentleman have altered their physiology sufficiently to be able to get along without drawing a breath for long, long times. Eliade (p. 49), who may have personally witnessed such demonstrations vouches for their integrity, but I must say that I remain skeptical. Regardless of the truth of such stories, they illustrate the goal of breath control as totally in line with the purpose of Yoga, the emulation of the unchanging Ishvara.

Needless to say, if that's the ultimate goal of pranayama, it's hard to place it into the context of any other religion.

Oh yeah, before moving on, you may want to know what happened to me and my own foray into Yoga. I can't say that spending half an hour a day exercising and maintaining quiet didn't do me any good, though obviously it didn't help at all with some fundamental neurological issues. And then, after I had studied it for my seminar presentation, there was no way I could continue with it. Recognizing that I was drawing on the insights from religions contrary to God's Word, it had become impossible. There are other ways of getting exercise. It's easy to declare that one is willing to give up one's life for the Lord; it's a lot harder to give up one's comfort. But sometimes that is called for.

Yogic Meditation

No matter how you look at it, Yoga in its original setting became quite complicated. As the idea caught on in India, it was adopted in various circumstances by different schools of Hinduism. Thus, yoga and religion are both meant to bring us to the same end: linking up and binding with God. Let me just list a few types of Yoga in Hinduism, and then I will elaborate just a bit.

Type Source Outcome
Hatha Yoga Hatha Yoga Pradipika Physical and Spiritual Liberation, Immortality
"Raja Yoga": The type that follows the actual Yoga school Yoga Sutras of Patanjali Liberating your individual soul (purusha) from the constraints of the phenomenal world (prakriti) and attaining redemption (moksha) by emulating Ishvara
Jñana Yoga Upanishads and other writings along the Advaita Vedanta school Realizing the identity of Self (Atman) and the one true spiritual Reality (Brahman)
Bhakti Yoga (in general) Various Scriptures on particular deities, e.g. Vishnu Devoting yourself to your god or goddess and experiencing their divine love and bliss(Shakti)
Karma Yoga Bhagavad Gita Devoting all your thoughts and actions to Krishna
Tantric Yoga "Tantras": frequently dialogs between a god and a goddess Liberation from spiritual bondage by accepting the reality of pleasure and the coincidence of opposites
Left-handed Tantric Yoga Various Tantras Attaining oneness with the Absolute by acting out sexual union.

We shall focus on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. To practice it correctly, you have to follow 8 steps, known as the "Eight Limbs" or "Eight Members." Let's look at them for a moment.

eight limbs    1. Yama (self-restraint). Discipline is the most basic requirement. If you practice lying, stealing, sleeping around, being envious of others, or hurting people, you're making a mockery of Yoga, not to mention sinning from a biblical perspective. So many television shows and movies depict couples having a casual affair and doing Yoga together, either for relaxation or arousal; this is a farce. Yoga is not a form of entertainment or foreplay, not even in Tantrism.

   2. Niyama (fixed observance). Here are some positive injunctions. The Yogin must purify himself, be devoted in his pursuit, and become content in his rather austere quarters and life-style.

   3. Asanas (physical poses). As mentioned above, the aim of the different positions is ultimately to imitate Ishvara, the god, by practicing immovability.

   4. Pranayama (breath control). Again, we have already brought up this point. Pranayama also fits into the scheme of becoming more like the god who does not breathe at all.

   5. Pratyahara (mind control). This limb is also called "withdrawal of the senses." We live in a world where, unless we learn to do otherwise, our thoughts and minds are forever disturbed and redirected by what we see or hear. A mature yogin is able to shut out such distractions and see himself as one with whatever his object of meditation may be. It is the sublimation of the subject-object difference. If you have been focusing on a piece of glowing coal, the god Ishvara, or a blade of grass, your mind now becomes one with the coal, the god, or the grass. In one sense, "mind control" means the very opposite of what the words appear to say. You lose your mind insofar as you lose awareness of your individuality as a single being in contrast to other individual entities. This state if often called "non-duality."

6. Dharana (concentration). You might wonder what could possibly be left after the previous "limb." It is the difference between epistemology (knowledge) and ontology (being). Having given up the knowledge of yourself as distinct from, say, the coal, you now actually experience yourself as the coal. You are the coal, god, the world, and thus they are subject to your control.

This rung of your spiritual ladder can become extremely dangerous because presumably you now have powers beyond imagination. The physical world is subject to your magical forces, called the siddhis. Earlier I mentioned the phenomenon of Yogins supposedly being buried alive for hours. Another common example is teleportation, sometime incorrectly called "bilocation." The Yogin says "namaste" in the sense of "good bye" to his friends in Mumbai, and a few seconds later says "namaste" in the sense of hello to his friends in Kolkata. Such, at least, are the claims. But, as I said, acquisition of these siddhis is a liability because of the possibility of enjoying them too much and letting yourself get stuck on this level. If you allow that to happen, you might be a big hit at parties, but you will not only forfeit the liberation of your soul, but you could wind up using them for evil. Thus, you need to transcend the powers, leave them behind, and continue on with the last two stages.

7. Dhyani (meditation). Even though "dyani" actually just means "meditation," this rung is very different from what you have done before because now you let go of all objects in your mind: the coal, the god, the blade of grass. The object of your consciousness becomes pure consciousness.

8. Samadhi (trance, enstacy, moksha). And, once you have attained the previous level, you may now enter the last phase, samadhi, which is frequently translated as "trance." Writers often emphasize that you are now in a totally self-contained state of pure nonconscious consciousness. It is enstancy (finding your goal at the deepest level inside of yourself) as opposed to ecstasy (aiming outside of yourself), and you have attained moksha (aka release, nirvana, and so forth). Eliade refers to this stage as catatonic, and that seems to be a clinically accurate label.

Krishna Other forms of Yoga have other methods and aims. It is interesting to me that the "Back to Godhead" site hosts an article in which the author, Satyaraja Dasa, attempts with limited success to line up devotion to Krishna with the eight limbs. However, that site also does not play games and comes right out to says: "Thus, yoga and religion are both meant to bring us to the same end: linking up and binding with God." This is the exception to which I alluded early on in this discussion.

Christianized Yoga?

So, I trust that any Christian reading my summary will realize that in its original form Yoga is steeped in the Hindu religion, and it is not something we should engage in. Yoga is not religiously neutral. People may say that they are only practicing the postures and breathing for the sake of calming down and better health, but I have tried to show that the asanas and pranayama have a religious purpose by themselves. They are intended to emulate Ishvara in order to realize immortality, or, in other forms to bring about unity with a god, one's Self, and so forth. These external things are only the gateway to the spiritual dimension of finding your true identity by letting them guide you into the deepest recesses of your soul--so deep that it's a different level of consciousness.

church in Kolkata So, you say that you are only sticking strictly to the physical side of Yoga. That's not really possible because the physical side of it is already tied to the religious background. Can you be baptized apart from the spiritual meaning, just because it is good to be cleaned by water? Yoga is an idolatrous exercise, and to deny that fact entails closing your eyes or deceiving your conscience. Furthermore, I know that many people make fun of slippery-slope arguments, but--as is the case so many times--the best resolve to draw a limit can't keep you from going further and further into the spiritual side of Yoga. You do not have the inner spiritual strength to fight the forces that lure you away into a realm that you did not intend to visit. Compromise is not only a concession that is very hard to retrieve, it is also a sign that you cannot resist such enticements in your own strength.

But can't we do Yoga in a Christian context, replace Ishvara with Jesus and get closer to God with Jesus-Yoga? And how can you do this? What do asanas and pranayama have to do with Jesus, our Lord and Savior? How do you get closer to him by standing on your head and regulating your breath? Is physical flexibility a Christian virtue, maybe something that the apostle Paul forgot to include in his list of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5? Of course, Christians ought to be good stewards of their bodies and live healthy lifestyles. Breathing regularly and taking time to quietly meditate on Christ as revealed in Scripture is a good thing. You can create a form of Christian meditation that is based on the Bible as well live by principles to increase your physical and mental health. But if you do so consistently, your goals and practices will be different from those we associate with Yoga, and the label is no longer appropriate. I can only encourage Christians to do so.

Serampore Baptist Church But couldn't we say that practicing Yoga is one of those gray areas where it's okay for some people, but not others, as described in 1 Corinthians 8? That chapter is about whether a Christian is allowed to eat food offered to idols, and Paul's answer is a qualified yes--qualified even more later on in the book. He begins by pointing out that we know that the idols to whom food has been offered are not real. So, if we do not make an issue of the origin of the food, it's okay to eat it. The larger part of his answer here concerns looking out for each other's welfare, making sure that your actions do not cause a weaker brother to stumble. In this case, this admonition would translate into taking account of the possibility that someone seeing you freely engage in Yoga starts to emulate you and gets sucked into Eastern mystical religion. As stated above, it certainly is a real possibility, if not probability.

But it's still not entirely to the point. What is clearly not allowable is for Christians themselves to offer food to idols. Even though it's okay for them under certain circumstances to consume the fall-out of non-Christian rituals, it is never permissible for them to engage in non-Christian forms of worship. And, I'm afraid, that's the essence of Yoga.

If you are a Christian caught up in Yoga, and this discussion has shown you that you should not participate in it, my gentle advice to you is simply to hang it up. As I mentioned above from my own experience, I understand how alluring Yoga is, but I also knew, once I realized the spiritual implications, that I had to let it go.

There is no need for a great ceremony of renunciation or for self-punishment for having done Yoga. We live in the light of the gospel, not the law. As a Christian you already know that Jesus died on the cross for you, and whatever you are doing or have done is covered by his blood. So, letting go of a questionable practice is merely one step in your Christian growth. May you see that the Lord will fill your life in such a way that anything else contrived by human beings pales by comparison.