[su_note note_color=”#d5d5d5″ text_color=”#91201f”]The following is a reprint from Volume 3, Issue 8 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “A Matter of Conscience,” available for free for a limited time. You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.[/su_note]
My first prenatal yoga class, I tried to pretend the picture didn’t bother me.
It was huge—at least five feet tall, framed imposingly, colored in bright pinks and blues as if the figure had posed on the beach at sunset.
She was a Hindu goddess, I thought. I didn’t know which or have any idea what she represented. It was her multiple arms that tipped me off.
She gazed at me as I fetched a yoga mat from the back of the room and found a place behind some of the regulars.
I was at Soul of Yoga, a studio I’d selected because of its convenient proximity to my house. My midwife had recommended prenatal yoga; I figured the class I chose didn’t matter much. As far as I knew, yoga was yoga was yoga: stretches and poses, and funny Sanskrit names.
Are we showing respect to the people and practices of another culture when we claim we can strip an age-old practice of its religious core?Only now, looking at the picture on the wall, I wondered if I’d been naïve—and why I hadn’t gone to the YMCA.
After all, I was a Christian, not a practicing Hindu. And where I come from—Encinitas, California, population 60,000—one should probably know the difference.
Even for a California town, Encinitas is notably awash in Hindu—or is it New Age?—influence. An outpost of Paramahansa Yogananda’s Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) is smack dab in the middle of our downtown, with beautiful gardens overlooking the Pacific, an ashram, and a temple. Yoga studios easily outnumber churches, and our most famous local beach is nicknamed Swami’s.
Not that this northern suburb of San Diego is lacking for Christian culture: two of San Diego County’s biggest churches are a short drive away. And for Christians, at least, the local culture is generally conservative.
As far as I can tell, most of my Christian friends and acquaintances—even those who practice yoga—are suspicious of the SRF and everything associated with it. I have friends who walk through Encinitas and pray against the SRF’s influence; at my church, the SRF, if mentioned, is mentioned derisively.
I have been suspicious too.
Years ago, a friend of mine mentioned wandering through the SRF’s gardens.
I gasped, “You went there?”
She gave me a confused look, and it struck me that my shock was over a bunch of succulents.
More recently, passing a Ganesh statue inside a local café, I wondered, exactly, what to make of it. Is it an idol? Should it affect me? Should I care that my children stroke its trunk?
The painting in that prenatal yoga class brought my nebulous discomfort to a sharp point. I had signed up for yoga without any idea about what yoga really is. Should I have been surprised that a goddess came along?
I breathed in and out, unsure of myself. Our Father, who art in heaven, I prayed, imagining the prayer like a deflector shield in Star Wars. I kept praying as the teacher chanted in Sanskrit and talked about chakras.
But I knew Jesus is sovereign over all influences around me, and I thought of myself as enlightened. When I lifted my leg into tree pose and balanced, I told myself that because Paul spoke of the possibility of eating food sacrificed to idols, I could partake of yoga without being affected by its roots.
After attending the classes I paid for, though, I decided to get a prenatal DVD and stay at home. Even if Jesus is sovereign, I wasn’t sure I could honor the soul of yoga and my own.
A few years later, when a (presumably Christian) family filed a lawsuit against a yoga program in local schools, I judged them.
The kerfuffle started when the Jois Foundation, which develops in-school yoga curriculum, was awarded two million dollars by Encinitas schools.
Not long after, the family charged that the yoga program was inherently religious.
Pshaw, I thought. It doesn’t have to be. Sure, I didn’t feel comfortable in all yoga studios, but yoga itself is wonderful. And Jesus is Lord. So why were those parents embarrassing the other Christians in Encinitas by showing their intolerance?
The suit ended in victory for the yoga program. According to the San Diego Union Tribune, a Superior Court Judge ruled that “yoga itself is religious, the school district’s version of it is not.” The judge’s decision keeps local students on yoga mats and some Christian opposition to it simmering.
But I felt more enlightened—more tolerant—more secure.
Until I read something about bindis.
Years after my yoga class, I’d taken to following various blogs dealing with racism and racial reconciliation. When Halloween rolled around, several of them mentioned the problem of white Americans treating world culture like a cheap PartyCity costume.
Cultural Appropriation, the bloggers called it. It happened all year, with Victoria Secret models wearing Native American feather headdresses or Miley Cyrus twerking at the MTV Music Video Awards. Or—and this is where I paused—Selena Gomez sporting a bindi, that small red dot that South Asian married women traditionally wear between their eyes.
The bindi made me think of yoga, and yoga made me think of my own nervousness in the local studio. I typed yoga cultural appropriation into my smartphone, and I was astonished when Encinitas leapt out at me from one of the results.
When I clicked on the link, I found that people of South Asian descent were criticizing the judge’s ruling in that school case—and “tolerant” attitudes toward it like mine.
The first blog post I read is by Anupreet Sandhu Bhamra, a blogger and yogini. She wrote, “To me, the whole debate on whether Yoga teaches religion or not, is blatant cultural appropriation of Yoga… [I’m] unhappy that this debate has robbed Yoga of its true origin, and meaning.”
Sandhu Bhamra’s critique of the ruling takes her an entire post to explain, because Hindu traditions, faith, and theology don’t fit neatly into Western categories. Even the words “Hindu” or “Hinduism” are labels invented by Westerners for this ancient tradition. But she argues that though yoga isn’t religious in a Western sense, it is grounded in “the Sanātana Dharma,” or the eternal law—which is what traditional Hindu believers call their faith, worldview, and way of life.
As Sandhu Bhamra puts it, “In the end, all [yoga’s] poses, breathing, still point inwards—to the Brahm, to the Absolute Divinity within, to Sanātana Dharma.”
I’d assumed that by taking all of the Hindu parts out of yoga, I’d make yoga Christ-friendly. But now, my very attitude strikes me as problematic. Just like Selena Gomez’s fashion choices, I’m assuming I can use yoga for my own ends, in my own way, without worrying about whether I’m twisting or disrespecting its essence.
I realize that my “tolerance” is really just a combination of ignorance and arrogance. Given Sandhu Bhamra’s critique, I consider this: The Christians pushing back against yoga in schools have been much more honest with themselves than I have.
It does not make me feel better to read DecolonizingYoga.com.
“Did you know that Yoga and Ayurveda were banned in India under British rule and colonization?” writes Susanna Barkataki.
In her post, Barkataki shares painful experiences in American yoga studios, like the time when an Om symbol was hung the wrong direction, making her feel that her culture was “being stripped of its meaning and sold back to me in forms that feel humiliating at best and dehumanizing at worst.”
Barkataki shares some helpful ideas for “decolonizing” our practice. Among other ideas, she suggests self-inquiry, asking hard questions, and learning “the complexity, culture and history from which this tradition comes.”
But reading the article makes me want to hide. The more I learn about Western colonial arrogance, the more I see it in myself. The more I learn about how Christianity has been used to justify violence against other cultures, the lower I hang my head.
I love my faith. I love Christ. But it grieves me to learn about the pain that’s been justified in His name.
And I wonder if it’s possible for someone like me—a white, wealthy Western Christian woman—to decolonize myself. Is it even possible for me to stay true to my own theology and faith while treating my neighbor with respect?
Oddly, it might make me feel better if Hindu people were a little less generous with their culture. I wonder if I’ve treated the hand of friendship they’ve extended as if it’s dirty.
The founder of the SRF, Paramahansa Yogananda, was one of the Indian gurus that first shared yoga here. Even more famously, B.K.S. Iyengar took the vast philosophy of yoga and made it accessible to Westerners through his books and teaching.
It’s important to note that though Iyengar and others taught the full tradition—what the ancient Hindu philosopher Patañjali called “the eight limbs” of yoga—Americans are familiar with only a miniscule portion. Yoga in its entirety comprises, among other things, moral commandments, bodily purification, breathing, and meditation, and a kind of super-transcendence—not just physical postures.
But even the portion of yoga most Americans know is only here because Iyengar shared it with us.
As I speak to yoginis—yoga teachers—who are themselves of South Asian descent, I am humbled by their spirit of hospitality.
Dr. Rammohan Rao, a yoga teacher and Ayurveda practitioner, cited an ancient Sanskrit dictionary’s definition of “Hindu” in a post after the Encinitas verdict, which says “a Hindu is one who dispels unhealthy thoughts and actions.”
Later, on the phone with me, Rao says, “Martin Luther King kept pursuing non-violence. So, by definition, he is a Hindu.”
Rao disagrees that Americans have culturally appropriated yoga:
“I come from Hyderabad, which has 6 million people, and it has one or two yoga studios. But here in the US, my town of sixty-thousand has four studios.” He says that yoga’s popularity here has increased interest in it and in India itself. “This country has done a lot of good for yoga.”
Rao doesn’t have any problem with Christians or others dispensing with any Hindu religious aspects of yoga in their practice. “Invoke your own God,” Rao said. “You can always talk to the teacher and ask what the chants are saying and what you are invoking. If people are uncomfortable, they can always change it.”
Being a good neighbor is all about hospitality, isn’t it? I’ll be honest: I was moved by the generosity of spirit of both Rao and Anupreet Sandhu Bhamra. Both were patient, trying to explain concepts entirely foreign to my worldview. Both expressed a desire for me to be able to experience yoga in its wholeness and have it lead me to enlightenment. Over and over, I kept feeling like yoginis, ancient Hindu writers, and yoga itself were extending a hand of friendship to me.
I would like to feel welcome to take that hand firmly in mine and shake it with joy. I love Jesus. I believe He’s sovereign over all and, thus, would be at the heart of Sanātana Dharma.
But Christianity is a faith of much more clear-cut definitions than the tradition that gave us yoga. We worship a God who called Himself “jealous.” I love my faith, and I don’t wish to change it into something it’s not. I want to have integrity in how I worship.
Can I accept that even if practicing yoga doesn’t change my religion, it might make me a Hindu? Is that bad? Is it perfectly okay with both Hindus and Jesus?
It strikes me that the dilemma, as Christians see it, is akin to two dance partners looking at each other from across the floor. The Christian considers asking yoga to dance, but wonders, given her loving husband, if that’s really appropriate.
Yoga shakes its head and says, Hey, it’s not like that.
The Christian gets it, she really does, but she wonders whether her spouse would agree.
And then wonders why she’s at a club if she’s not willing to dance in the first place.
Maybe I’d have an easier conscience if Christianity didn’t have a troubling colonial history. If I didn’t feel like our modus operandi has been to try to dominate or erase other cultures, I could say Jesus is Lord without feeling like I should apologize.
That’s why Pastor Joe Suozzo’s support of Christians practicing yoga touched my heart. Suozzo and his wife, Dianne, planted churches in India for 10 years and worked to contextualize their ministry within Hindu and Indian customs and culture.
Suozzo was influenced by earlier missionary E. Stanley Jones, who “established ashrams and suggested that some of the aspects of Hindu culture should be seen as an ally with the gospel rather than an enemy.”
For example, Dianne took to wearing traditional Hindu marriage symbols of marriage, like a bindi and a sari, to communicate to her neighbors and friends that she took her marriage seriously. The Suozzos looked to Hindu worship traditions and ashrams for how to communicate the gospel in Indian, not Western, contexts.
In his essay, Can Yoga and Christianity Go Together? Suozzo distinguishes between contextualization—“an attempt to take the gospel message, make it relevant to its hearer and adapt it to the culture of its hearer”—and syncretism—“compromising core tenants of the faith.”
“When the outsider enters into Hindu culture, the temptation is to believe that there is nothing within Hinduism and its complex expressions that can be embraced,” Suozzo says. “Without contextualization in the Hindu world, the gospel…is simply another cultural expression of the West that previously held India captive under colonial rule.”
Suozzo points out that Paul himself practiced contextualization—taking a Nazarite vow while he emphasized that Gentiles did not need to follow Jewish law and placing Christian thought in the context of Stoic philosophies to preach on the Areopagus. Later Christians, like Thomas Aquinas and Augustine, developed their theology while rooted in polytheistic Greek philosophy.
What moves me about Suozzo’s stand on yoga is that it’s clearly grounded in conversation, relationship, and respect for Indian people. He keeps his theology centered in Christ while not denigrating the culture he’s preaching to.
I doubt he does it perfectly—or that I could either—but like all dancers, he recognizes that there’s a give and take when you’re embracing someone.
If yoga were just about exercise to me, I wouldn’t care so much. But about two years ago, Jesus came to me in a sun salutation.
That day, I had realized that I was not the kind of Christian I wanted to be—that cynicism was a long habit, instead of hope, that my spiritual practices leaned more toward rigidity and legalism instead of faithfulness. I despaired of my own brittle spirituality.
Unable to sleep, I raised my eyes to God in the asana and imagined bowing down low before Jesus. Just as my hands reached the floor, I broke down weeping. Somehow, putting my body through the positions of yoga and worship together made me realize just how desperately I wanted Jesus in my life.
In that moment, I realized that the cynicism, frustration, and perfectionism I hated about myself were beside the point. The truth was that I was in God’s arms. He was not going to let me go.
I realized right then that I could not change myself. No, God would have to.
I’ll be honest: As I wrote this piece, I lamented again that I was not the Christian I want to be. I’m often arrogant and have inherited troubling attitudes and histories. I’m eager to dismiss hard questions about yoga because the answers might be inconvenient. And I’m not sure my doubtful faith could manage a real give-and-take with the culture yoga comes from.
Even many of the questions I asked—treated with incredible patience by Anupreet Sandhu Bhamra—were, as she cautioned me, grounded firmly within Western assumptions that don’t address yoga’s essence. As a result, this essay is probably full of cultural biases and misinterpretations.
And to top it all off: here I am, a white woman, noodling about my personal journey through someone else’s culture. The effrontery of it makes me shiver.
But I’ve learned something from yoga: holding still in the midst of great discomfort expands your heart.
My inquiry into yoga, hospitality, and cultural appropriation has not easily answered my main difficulty: Should I keep doing yoga at all? But it seems like giving yoga up altogether is to believe that perfection is something I can achieve on my own merits.
I won’t stop culturally appropriating yoga by writing one essay. But I don’t think I’ll solve the problem by running away, either. Inadequate as I know my heart is, how can it grow if I don’t continue to question, practice, and learn?
I’ll do so with more honesty, by listening to those who know better, learning more about the whole of yoga, and by speaking my struggles and questions out loud. If I’ve learned anything from yoga—or from Jesus—it’s that the hard work of being a good neighbor doesn’t happen in the blink of an eye, but through a long obedience in the same direction.
Image: Jay Alders