It May Be Christian, But Is It Yoga?

Kevin Flynn

Many of the people who are interested in this network of Christians who practice yoga are familiar with the debates, even battles over whether the practice can genuinely be Christian.

Years ago, when a group of us who had gathered for the biannual Oak Ridge retreat determined to launch a website to share our enthusiasm for yoga practice, we had no little debate over whether to speak of “Christian yoga” or not. Dana Moore half facetiously suggested that we circumvent the debate altogether and just speak of doing “contemplative calisthenics.” In the end we opted instead for “Christians Practicing Yoga” -- a description of those who do the practice, rather than a suggestion that there is a distinctly Christian version of yoga. In fact, people in this network practice yoga in many different ways, with formation in the diverse subtraditions found throughout the West: Iyengar, Ashtanga Vinayasa, Sivananda, Kripalu, Flow, Yin, etc. Further, they relate the practice to their Christian faith in many ways. The bottom line seems to be that what makes the practice Christian is those who do it.

But I have another question: what makes a practice a yoga practice?  In popular parlance, yoga equals the practice of certain postures – the modern postural yoga described by such scholars as Elizabeth De Michaelis, Mark Singleton, and Andrea Jain. They document the transformation of a practice once largely confined to hermits and renunciates seeking liberation to a practice suitable for a modern bourgeoisie seeking stress reduction and good health.

Kevin in the yoga hall at Vidyavanam Ashram, Boothanahalli, Bannerghatta, Bangalore, 2017

Kevin in the yoga hall at Vidyavanam Ashram, Boothanahalli, Bannerghatta, Bangalore, 2017

When Swami Vivekananda presented yoga at the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago in 1893, he had little interest in speaking of postures and the like. His emphasis was on spiritual transformation. Nevertheless, over time, postural practice has become dominant, even in India. I for one do not lament this transformation. Not only does this seem to me to be a legitimate, if not inevitable, aspect of the ongoing evolution of yoga, it is the one to which I was introduced and which I continue to find endlessly fascinating and undoubtedly life-giving.

At the same time, one does hear complaints that the “spiritual” aspect of yoga is neglected in many if not most studios. That often means little or no attention to the other seven limbs of Patanjali’s eight, much less any other of the texts and traditions associated with this ancient tradition.

So what is it? What is the “it” that makes it yoga?

The human body can assume only so many positions, and as Singleton pointed out, many of the “classic” asanas had their origin in European systems of physical culture. Is it about attending to Patanjali’s Sutras, presented by B.K.S. Iyengar as the Ur-text of yoga, despite its being but one of many, many others? If some Christians are suspicious that yoga is a secret vehicle for Hindu proselytizing and baptize the postures as “Praise Moves,” does the change in nomenclature change the practice? Would “Contemplative Calisthenics” be something very different?

What do you think? What for you is the irreducible core of a practice that makes it yoga?


Cover Photo: Christ Church Cathedral, Fredericton, New Brunswick. Photo by Kevin Flynn.