May 25, 2013

Is Yoga just Christianity in Disguise?

Four Parallels

The West has fallen in love with yoga; our devotion has created a $10 billion industry.

As we become increasingly post-Christian, I think, we are looking for something to fill the void of spirituality and community without feeling oppressed by dogma.

But wait: yoga does have a dogma and it’s wearing skintight pants.

Or, no pants, in this case.

When something new comes into a culture, we try to fit it into the thought structures and values that are already in place. Here in the West, those structures are informed by Christianity, capitalism and imperialism. We love something, so we do what we’ve always done: share it, sell it, spread it and save the world with it.

Have you accepted Downward Dog into your heart as your true Lord and Saviour?

To be clear, my problem isn’t with yoga or Christianity. Like most religions and worldviews, at heart they are both loving, compassionate, and intelligent. But the more institutionalized something becomes, the more it grows dogma like a fungus between the toes.

Let’s look at some problematic ways we are toe jamming yoga into Christian structures:

1. Preachers:

A major aspect of most branches of Christianity has been spreading the good word; the word gets spread through charismatic leaders that could sell religion to the Pope. These leaders read the scriptures and interpret them for their followers, so one must always turn to an authority to maintain a relationship with the divine.

The mark of a great yoga teacher is a way with words, and an ability to sell Lululemons to a lion. These great yogis interpret knowledge, pass it on, and often become celebrities.

Carol Horton, in her new book Yoga PhD, writes:

Yoga classes can spark the same processes of transference and counter-transference that psychologists are trained to handle.Yet, yoga teachers and students typically have no awareness of them whatsoever. Consequently, the tendency for students to idolize teachers and for teachers to unconsciously encourage their adulation runs unchecked.

Blaming the snake-oil sellers is fun, but too easy. Many celebrity yogis are excellent humans who keep asking not to be called “Master” (Janet Stone) or announcing that “The age of the Guru is over!” (Eric Stoneberg). Still, we are so unaccustomed to the idea that a personal relationship with the divine could be enough, so deeply conditioned not to think for ourselves, that we look to these authorities and wait for them to falter so we can deride them the same way we do the stars on the covers of trashy magazines.

2. Sex Scandals:

Catholic leaders have become especially notorious for sexual misconduct and dramatic downfalls. With such inhumanly high expectations in the moral code, perhaps they crack under the pressure. Possibly, it’s a good context within which to get away with it. After all, we are surprised every time.

Many great yoga Gurus trip over their high pedestals when they are discovered for sexual misconduct (like those listed here, and, recently, Bikram Choudhury). Perhaps the power goes to their heads and they start picking starry-eyed young women like ripe fruit from their field. Perhaps it’s all too easy to get away with it in the yoga communities: after all, we are surprised every time. 

3. Dogma:

Dogma is the explicit and implicit rules that make up the worldview and ideology of a certain group. Explicitly, Christianity has the 10 Commandments. Implicitly, the judgment on whether or not someone is a “good Christian” comes through cultural assumptions, values, and Bible lessons hand-picked by preacher men.

Explicitly, yoga’s dogma is laid out in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, a terse, difficult to comprehend text that has been interpreted and reinterpreted my many Eastern and Western scholars, keeping the dead language Sanskrit about as open to the public as the Bible was before Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg.

(This was like a 1517 version of tweeting your opposition to the Man. Luther championed a personal relationship with the divine that wasn’t overlorded by powerful people trying to sell you things. This began the Protestant Reformation, an beautiful idea that, in its turn, got swallowed by its own dogma, and still informs our culture.)

The Sutras contain the Yamas, which are ethical guidelines for a “yogic” life, including Commandment-like instructions to tell the truth, do no harm, avoid stealing, coveting and sexual excess.

These ethical guidelines are perfectly reasonable. Trouble comes with interpretation, and the tendency in some to use these ethical precepts as weapons rather than as tools, specifically when we want to keep ourselves in the “good Christian/ good yogi” box and push other people out of it.

Dan Savage provided an excellent example of an unfortunate misreading of the Yamas. A woman called into his sex advice podcast, and told him how her husband, with whom she was having a happily consensual BDSM love life, got into yoga and non-violence (ahimsa Yama) and stopped wanting to have sex that way.

Instead, he told her he thought it was “sad” that she wanted to be “hurt” in bed. Savage points out that this judgment and alienation hurt his partner much more than a little consensual spanking would have done.

We know we are in trouble when yoga starts ruining people’s sex lives—as Janet Stone points out, it’s best to “keep your ahimsa to yourself.” 

Yoga culture’s implicit dogma has manifested as an image of the ideal yogi. This image has swum up through the lens of capitalism, and is used to sell bikini bodies and solutions to all emotional and mental problems caused by our stressed out society (medication-free!).

Yep, this is easy for anyone to do.

We are using insecurity marketing to sell yoga with graven images of a person you wish you could be: generally, a young, white, beautiful, flexible, vegan, non-smoking, free-range, antibiotic-free, orgasmic birth-giving, skintight pant wearing, positivity spouting woman.

This woman is similar to what our ideal woman has always been: placid and innocently sexual.

This form of advertising is usually justified by yoga companies with a “whatever gets them in the door” statement, which assumes the true force of yoga will be strong enough to break through the thickening veil of this impossible ideal.

4. Imperialism

What we are doing with yoga, in part, is called “cultural appropriation”: we are cherry picking aspects from another culture and reusing them within our culture’s structures without fully understanding what they mean. At best, this is a compliment to the culture we are appropriating, and at worst, when the power is imbalanced, it can become oppressive, twisted, and, well, inappropriate.

I’ll illustrate with the following quotations:

a)  Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu: “May all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may my life contribute in some way to that happiness and that freedom for all” (The Jivamukti mantra)

Sharon Gannon breaks it down: 

lokah: location, realm, all universes existing now

samastah: all beings sharing that same location

sukhino: centered in happiness and joy, free from suffering

bhav: the divine mood or state of unified existence

antu: may it be so, it must be so

Gannon adds that “antu used as an ending here transforms this mantra into a powerful pledge,” presumably creating the missionary-like call to action. I always wondered why the English translation was so much longer than the Sanskrit.

b)  “Justice and compassion are deeply ingrained in Christ’s command to love others as we love ourselves.” (from the Christian and Missionary Alliance in Canada)

Nothing against this particular group, but there is a long history of loving others through missionary work by violently imposing your values on them. One of many examples is Canadian Residential Schools, which were set up to “civilize” the natives by forcing our religion and our language on them, often with a strong dose of mental, sexual, and physical abuse.

c) “Why do you resist? We only wish to raise quality of life for all species.” (The Borg, Star Trek TNG, Season 4, Episode 1)

The Borg are a “collective consciousness” who are attempting to assimilate Earth and all its humans in order to take on their knowledge and experience. The Borg is pretty much the worst villain the TNG crew ever meets, and as we can see, the intention there is quite sweet.

Andi Macdonald, in her thought-provoking article on the dangers of good intentions in the context of yoga and global action, writes:

“This desire to serve, combined with a whole lot of privilege, mobility, and a growing retreat culture has lead to the growth of a new kind of missionary work: “yogis” travelling across the world to help those who are “less fortunate”. At first glance this trend might appear not only innocent, but perhaps even positive. What could be wrong with people wanting to put the values and lessons they’ve learned on the mat into action to help others? But perhaps this trend is not as innocent as it appears. In fact it is my feeling that this growing trend in yoga-based missionary work is a veiled extension of colonialism and imperialism, however well intentioned it may appear.”

Admittedly, sitting curmudgeonly at home writing critical articles about everything is not the best way to make the world better place.

It’s important, though, to look at the thought structures we already have in place and the ways we tend to use them. I’ve always believed yoga has the potential to be revolutionary because it encourages an empowering personal relationship with the body, the mind, and the divine that doesn’t need the value judgments of any authority.

Perhaps through this relationship we can start to figure out better ways to do this.

So let’s return to our mantra, and I’ll go ahead and edit it through my own value lens:

Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu: May all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may my contributions to that happiness and freedom be blessed with critical thinking, self-awareness, and an open mind.



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Ed: Bryonie Wise

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