Can yoga be dangerous? Some think so
Yoga's connection with Hinduism is a cause of worry for some, finds Arthur J Pais
"Be still and know that I am God," is the mantra Susan Bordenkircher, who has taught classes ranging from step and kick boxing to body sculpting, uses while teaching Christian yoga.
Used by hundreds of instructors across America, Christian yoga combines the classic yoga postures with Christian meditation.
Alabama-based Bordenkircher was not happy with traditional yoga because she knew it was connected with Hinduism, especially the chanting of Om. She then developed a regime of hatha yoga stretches and poses with Christian meditations. Her students "quiet the mind," she says, and "come to God with no baggage."
Author of Yoga for Christians, her classes are "taught in an environment that's Christ-centered", she has often said.
Christian yoga incorporates readings from the Bible, especially from the New Testament, Christian praise music, and a narrative that is Christ-centered. At the Breath of Life Christian yoga class, the instructor tells the students to "Open to His grace. Surrender your heart to The King".
Image: People gather to practice yoga at Times Square
Photographs: Mike Segar/Reuters
'It's what you take with you to the mat'
Yahweh Yoga, based out of Chandler, Arizona, has taken the concept of bhakti yoga and reshaped it by implementing Christian beliefs. It offers certifications to yoga instructors nationwide in the practice of Christian yoga. There is no Sanskrit chanting here but Christian music and prayers.
Its mission statement reads, "Yahweh Yoga is passionate about growing, educating and enabling individuals to improve their physical, mental and emotional health while deepening their relationship with God."
Danna West, a member of First Methodist Church in Canyon, was quoted as saying in an interview that yoga 'is a methodology, not a religion. My classes start off with a scripture reading, and we listen to Christian music. It is very Christ-centered.'
West said Christians can take their faith with them to focus on in any yoga class, Christian-based or not. "It's what you take with you to the mat," she added.
Christian yoga has been spreading. Last year, many churches in the southern Gulf states offered Christian yoga to offset the tension and worries caused by the massive oil spill.
But if Christian yoga is so different from traditional yoga, why should it still be called yoga, a reporter for Christian Broadcasting News asked.
Image: People perform yoga as part of prayers for world peace
Photographs: Parivartan Sharma/Reuters
Christian yoga an oxymoron?
"I really think this has the opportunity to be an outreach tool to people to have it in a positive mode, and a Christian mode, as related to the other. And if we take 'yoga' off it, they won't even come because that's what they may be looking for," said Randy Wooden, pastor of Kingdom Life Ministries in Chesapeake, Virginia.
Lorie Johnson, who has been studying the Christian yoga phenomenon, writes that within the Christian community there are those who have no problem with the Hindu influence on yoga or the influence of Eastern religions on the martial arts.
"Then there are those who believe there's simply no problem if you change the focus to be on Jesus," Johnson writes. "Still, a third group believes it is impossible to separate the Eastern religions from yoga and/or the martial arts."
The term Christian yoga is an oxymoron, says Laurette Willis, who was introduced to yoga as a child and practiced it for over two decades before turning to Christianity 23 years ago. Now, she tours the United States, speaking of "the dangers of yoga", asserting that yoga is a "missionary arm of Hinduism".
"We don't often think of other religions having missionaries," Willis writes on her website, "but the philosophy and practice of yoga have been primary tools of Hindu 'missionaries' to America since 'Indian priest and mystic' Swami Vivekananda introduced yoga to the West at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago."
Image: Yoga students hold a pose during an afternoon class at a yoga studio in New York
Photographs: Jamie Fine/Reuters
'What if there is an alternative to yoga'?
She has developed her own exercise regime called PraiseMoves with movements accompanying to Christian chants.
"Yoga's breathing techniques may seem stress-relieving, yet they can be an open door to the psychic realms," she warns on her website, and quotes the one of founding theologians of the Christian faith, St Paul, who referred to Satan, "the prince of the power of the air."
In an interview with Today's Christian Woman magazine, Willis asserted that surrendering to the 'group mind' in yoga classes could lead to students being oppressed by demonic spirits such as depression, and fear. She says about 10 years ago, she began praying for an idea for a Christian alternative to yoga, and "the Lord led her to create PraiseMoves".
She burned her New Age books including the ones on yoga and did not want to think of yoga for a long time. But in 2001, she suddenly thought, "What if there was an alternative to yoga that provided exercise while spiritually moving Christians to praise the Lord? Hence, PraiseMoves."
"I am careful to tell people it's not Christian yoga," she writes. 'What would you say about the woman who says she's a 'Christian Buddhist?' Wouldn't you think she's bit confused?"
Image: Over 200 people practice yoga at Times Square
Photographs: Chip East/Reuters
An anti-yoga crusade
"Christian yoga" is an example of syncretism (an attempt to blend conflicting beliefs, religions or philosophies). Actually, PraiseMoves is a Christ-centered alternative to the practice of yoga," Willis writes.
An in-demand motivational speaker, she admits that some of the postures in her exercise programme resemble yoga postures.
"These are just good, healthy stretches," she said in a talk. "Each posture in PraiseMoves is named for something in the Bible and has scripture with it that we meditate upon while doing the posture."
In her videos and classes, there is constant reminder of the Bible with every movement. For instance, when her legs are straight, and arms extended to the side, you think of a familiar posture in Jesus's life. Jesus said, she will remind her students quoting from St Mark's Gospel, "Whoever desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me."
Willis, and her husband Paul -- who she says was a New Ager like her but is now a born again Christian -- live on a 40-acre ranch in the Ozark foothills of northeastern Oklahoma.
She has taken her anti-yoga crusade to more than 50 conservative schools and universities, and says over 500,000 students have listened to her. She says she found no salvation in yoga and other Eastern spiritualities.
Image: A couple practises yoga on Magic Island in Ala Moana Beach Park in Honolulu, Hawaii
Photographs: Lucy Pemoni/Reuters