There is a thought provoking essay in the recent Religion Dispatches by Andrea R. Jain titled "Is Downward Dog the Path to Hell?". The essay touches on the controversy in evangelical circles over the popularity of yoga in America and the West, evangelical opposition to the practice, and the formation of evangelical alternatives to it. This kind of critique is not new to evangelicalism, even if the national attention it is receiving is. But what is surprising in this essay is that fundamentalist Hindus are united with evangelicals in their concern, albeit for very different reasons.
With this post it is not my intention to weigh in on whether the practice of yoga by evangelicals are permissible or not, but rather, to note other implications that follow from Jain's piece. Following are some excerpts from Jain's article which I found significant for evangelical reflection:
"But this attempt to produce a monolithic vision of yoga ignores the fact that it, like religion itself, is anything but a stable phenomenon. Yoga has a long history whereby adherents of numerous religions, including Hindu, Jain, and New Age traditions, have constructed and reconstructed it anew. Even Hindu forms of yoga vary widely in ideology and practice. Thus yoga does not belong to Hinduism nor any other monolithic tradition.The ideas included in the above paragraphs must be factored into evangelical analysis of yoga as a practice, both in terms of a proper understanding of it, as well as in assessing its (im)permissibility as a practice for Christians.
"But evangelical Christians have an odd bedfellow in the argument for a monolithic vision of yoga as Hindu: some Hindus. They reflect the same ahistorical, religiously fundamentalist tendencies but with an entirely different agenda. The two agree that yoga is Hindu and that its global popularity is a bad thing. But rather than argue that yoga’s popularity is bad because it is incompatible with Christianity, they claim that non-Hindu yogis fail to give Hinduism credit for being the tradition from which yoga arose.
"Both the evangelical Christian yogaphobic position and the Hindu essentialist yoga-belongs-to-Hinduism position reflect religious fundamentalist tendencies to define ideas and practices not as human constructs that are subject to change over time, but as monolithic stable products that belong in specific traditions and accordingly do not belong in others."
Further along in the essay Jain draws attention to yoga's place in the West as a part of consumer culture, with its underlying metaphysical concerns, and specifically as a practice which draws upon the idea of the sacralized body. She writes:
"In this new phase of capitalism, the attainment of physical fitness transcends the mere exchange of capital for material goods. Physical fitness is sacred. Modern yoga fits right in with this socio-historical context. In other words, modern yoga is a reflection, not of “spooky” Hindu gods or “demonic” practices, but of our contemporary culture’s tendency to envelope physical fitness into the sacred routine of self-development."My hope is that evangelicals will not get bogged down by Jain's dismissal of concerns over "spooky" religious aspects of yoga, but will pause to consider that perhaps we have lost a sense of the body as sacred.
Whether evangelicals accept the legitimacy of yoga as a practice compatible with Christianity, Jain's essay provides food for thought in a variety of other contexts.
"Transcendent in America: Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements as New Religion"