Meditating on Yoga
On Nov. 22, the National Fatwa Council (NFC) issued an edict that yoga is haram (prohibited) for Muslims. Earlier on, Prof. Zakaria Stapa of the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Islamic Studies Centre had remarked that practising yoga could deviate Muslims from their faith. His statement drew negative reactions from yoga instructors and students.
The president of the Malaysia Yoga Society lamented the misunderstanding and said that Malaysian yoga was different from the practices in India which incorporated religion and spirituality. It was “more of a treatment modality” (TheSun, 23/11/08)
Many view yoga as a form of exercise to strengthen and improve their muscles and breathing as well as to relax their mind, thus keeping them in good health. But why has it become such a big issue to certain religious groups? The bone of contention seems to be the meditation techniques – or “curbing the mind” as some call it. While it has been argued that these techniques are scientifically proven to improve one’s health and have nothing to do with religion, yogis – practitioners of yoga who have reached an advanced spiritual state – think otherwise. They are adamant that yoga, regardless of how it is branded, is Hinduism.
Within the Christian community, yoga too has been a controversial subject – some have reservations while others see nothing wrong as long as those who practise do not deviate from Christian faith. Rev. Dr Herman Shastri, the General Secretary of the Malaysian Council of Churches, opined that it was all right so long as Christians do not pray “to other Gods while practising yoga” (The Star, 31/10/08). However, some Christians disagree, and like the yogis, they firmly believe that yoga cannot be separated from its Hindu roots even if one takes away the spiritual underpinning and practises only the physical exercises.
Still others hold that yoga can surely be redeemed for God’s good purposes because our God is a redemptive God. A growing interest in Christian Yoga was thus developed, particularly in America, replacing Hindu spirituality and philosophy with Christian spirituality and theories. Such concept, nonetheless, did not go down well with certain groups.
The American Hindu Foundation, in its response to an article “Stretching for Jesus” featured in Time magazine (25 Aug. 2005), commented, “Hindu Americans are rightfully outraged by the brazen appropriation of one of their vibrant faith’s most lasting contributions to this country’s health, well-being and popular culture.” It called Christian Yoga an act of “intellectual property theft” and accused evangelical Christians of proselytising and converting Hindus in the guise of Christianised Hindu practices. Some Christians who formerly practised yoga think that Christian Yoga is an oxymoron.
In actual fact, Christian yoga, according to Dr Ng Kam Weng, director of Kairos Research Centre, fails to understand how yoga meditative exercises (especially the breathing techniques and the mantra chanting) work to disrupt our mental function. Change of name does not change the process, he says.
Yoga is an ancient practice that originated from India. The goal of the practitioners is to achieve oneness or union with the Absolute through physical and mental disciplines. Dr Ng emphasises that one must keep in mind the historical connection between yoga and Hinduism and how such practices are traditionally integrated with its own philosophy and spiritual worldview. The physical exercises are merely initial steps to prepare oneself to become more attuned to a higher reality.
Perhaps the question for many Christians would be: Is it possible to separate the physical exercise from the spiritual aspect?
“In theory it is possible for Christians to separate the physical exercises from the spiritual exercises. I have in mind Christians who just want to try out some postures to stretch their muscles when they exercise at home. Others who are more serious may try out *Pilates. However, those who take yoga seriously will soon find that yoga is offered as a package deal. Meditation is the main ingredient to achieve spiritual enlightenment. In other words, serious yoga instructors do not separate the form from the substance,” Dr Ng explains.
He also clarifies the difference between Christian and yoga meditation. The former carries a positive function as meditating on the glory of God and His manifold works inspire the Christian to praise and love God; it is relationship and content oriented. The latter, in contrast, has a negative function; it deliberately empties the mind of rational thought processes and eventually leads to the dissolution of ego or the inner self. Dr Ng cautions that Christians should be wary of such exercises in dissociating the mind from its normal function since this may leave one vulnerable to external spiritual influence.
Some may have reportedly found peace with yoga meditation, but others have developed mental dysfunction, e.g. hallucination, outburst of uncontrollable energies through the body and emotional trauma. According to renowned psychoanalyst Carl Jung, “The deliberately-induced psychotic state, which in certain unstable individuals might easily lead to a real psychosis, is a danger that needs to be taken very seriously indeed.”
Dr Ng urges Christians, who are practising yoga or who are thinking of taking it up, to seriously consider their motive for doing so. If it is merely for physical exercises, there are other alternatives; if it is for meditation, we need to seriously consider the basis of yoga meditation as it is traditionally practised.
“Why would I hitch my Christian faith to a process which might render myself vulnerable to influence from deceptive spiritual forces?” he asks.
While yoga practices are culturally not wrong, Christians are encouraged to exercise spiritual discernment in making their choices.
*Pilates (pĭ-lä’tēz) – A system of exercises that promote the strengthening of the body, often using specialised equipment. Named after Joseph Pilates (1880–1967), German-born American physical fitness instructor who developed the system. – The American Heritage® Dictionary
For your reading:
Yoga and the Body of Christ (bk) by Dave Hunt (http://canaanland.com.my/index.php?act=viewProd&productId=14804)
"Non-Muslims have a right to comment on fatwas" & "Fatwa Council Bans Yoga: Non-Muslims told not to comment" by Ng Kam Weng (http://libertysentinel.wordpress.com/)