Is Yoga Demonic?

Posted by in News & Culture

There is much buzz lately over the question over Yoga’s alleged demonic roots and the legitimacy or illegitimacy for Christian practice.  Both Mark Driscoll and Al Mohler have made stands against Christians practicing Yoga.  It is not just evangelical voices making these claims.  Although he would probably disagree with the calling Yoga demonic, Rajiv Malhotra argues that Yoga is not congruent with Christian faith and practice.  Others enter the conversation through satire.

What these men (not to mention the many others who address the same thing) address is not a new idea at all.  The purpose of this post is not to address the issue of Yoga itself, rather to address the addressing of Yoga.  There are three pitfalls those who critique Yoga, or any other religion or religious practice, need to be wary of*:

Pitfall 1: Inconsistency/Incompleteness.

What ever stand we make on a religious practice we should be willing to logically, systematically, and consistently apply it to like beliefs and practices.  Why go after Yoga?  Why not go after scented candles and ladies shampoos?  By contrast, there are far more people using such products than can get into the firefly pose (Or perhaps it is like flying vs. landing and getting out of the pose is the real trick…).  There is nothing wrong with scented candles and shampoos, but, like Yoga, aromatherapy is equally rooted in the eastern monistic worldview (EMW).  Most people do not realize that Yoga is only one practice in a family of practices related to the EMW.  A short list of these practices would include homeopathic medicines acupuncture, meditation, aroma therapy, color therapy, chiropractic medicine, martial arts, and feng shui.

The foundational principal of the EMW is that all that exists is ontologically one.  If they are to choose between mind and matter, they would choose mind.  All that exists in this world is the projection of people’s minds.  Statements about the “spark of the divine” within are a result of this monistic construct.  If there is only one thing in the world and we are all part of it, and this thing is divine (not in the personal transcendent sense), then the divine is within us.

The problems of the world, be they war, disease, or simply stress, are caused by the individual pieces of the “divine” (Hindus call this Atman) being separated from the whole of the divine (Hindus call this Brahman).   Happiness and harmony, both in the here and now and eschatologically, is gained via uniting Atman and Brahman.  The EMW can be seen in such movies as Star Wars, The Matrix, and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.  On the practical level, people experience problems when their lives are out of sync with the cosmic forces of the universe.  To fix these problems, people participate in practices which restore their connection to the whole.  Eastern medicine teaches that there is a life force flowing through everything.  When these forces are obstructed or imbalanced they cause pain and sickness.  Ancient chiropractors and acupuncturists help remove these blockages via their medicine.  Conversely, one who is able to achieve a high level of unity with the whole become very powerful persons, one example of that would be martial arts.  One who is a master of such, allegedly, is able to harness the power within him, which is also within his foe and the world around him and he is able to manipulate these for victory, much like a Jedi.

As all of the practices listed above are equally related and grounded in the EMW, there is a sense in which they should either all be rejected or accepted.  Perhaps those who critique Yoga as being demonic are indeed willing to group all of those practices and condemn them as equally demonic.  However, a willingness to be consistent is not enough, particularly if one is consistently wrong.

Pitfall 2: Preachy rhetoric.
Lets assume for a moment that Yoga is indeed demonic.  Simply declaring that fact is not necessarily the best course of action.  Southern Baptists have historically been rather forward in making remarks about other religions.  The two that come to mind are “God does not hear the prayer of a Jew” and Jerry Vine’s comments about Muhammad.  Again, assuming these statements are correct, this is not the way or place in which to expound these thoughts.  Preaching to the choir for a hearty “amen” may be the kind of stunt which prohibits us from having a prophetic voice to the lost in the community.  There is nothing wrong with fiery preaching, however, when very public individuals (with podcasting and youtube, that means just about all of us) make incisive statements, they should always first consider how this will effect people’s receptivity on the front lines.  We shouldn’t go on TV, youtube, or the blogosphere and declare that Roman Catholics are idolaters.   There are more productive venues and methods without the high-strung rhetoric to address the theological beliefs of Roman Catholics    There is a difference between being through provoking and just being provoking.  But what if the connection between the demonic and Yoga is tenuous?

Pitfall 3: Post hoc ergo propter hoc (drawing a false connecting between cause and effect).
There is a propensity among preachers to, no pun intended, demonize that with which we disagree.  In the Independent Baptist church I attended in my youth, the preachers would often lambaste those who read, used,  and translated the NIV.  Rather than just explaining it as an academic difference in translation methodology, they would theologize the NIV position as absolute sin.  They couldn’t just say that the other guys were wrong or that there was a legitimate difference of opinion.  They were in sin, and a few of them are alleged homosexuals (I have actually heard that last part).  This kind of rhetoric, sadly, typifies many Christian disputes.  When the dispute moves outside of the Christian tent, however, the temptation shifts from calling it sin to calling it demonic.  There are perhaps times when this is hyperbole.  However, when one speaks literally they are overstating their claim unless there is some kind of actual evidence of demonic involvement.  Is everyone who espouses a false belief possessed by a demon?  That is a little too simplistic an answer.  When I read Plato I recognize an occasional element of truth mixed in with his common errors.  Was he possessed by a demon?   Is platonic philosophy demonic?  I don’t think so on either account.  That doesn’t mean that we can’t say that he is wrong.  It just means that when someone is wrong, we don’t need to go the extra mile in calling it demonic.  His beliefs do not accurately depict the world; they are false.  This should be enough.  When we overuse and abuse “demon” and “demonic” we can inadvertently affirm the reality of that which we oppose.

Pitfall 4: Affirming the ontological reality of false beliefs.
There are many arguments concerning religious practices and beliefs in other religions wherein the one arguing against something does so in such a way that he nearly affirms the reality of that against which he argues.  Many who argue too strongly concerning the distinctions between the “God of the Quran” and the “God of the Bible” or against the “Jewish God” inadvertently affirm henotheism–the belief that there are many gods, but ours is for us, and is probably bigger and stronger than theirs.  Paul Hiebert, the missionary anthropologist, says:

While seeking to understand the explanation systems of other cultures, missionaries must not equate these beliefs with ontological truth.  Not every spirit named in another culture is, in fact, a real spirit.  Some are guises of Satan and his hosts; others, such as the Spirit of Small Pox and the Spirit of Lightning, are better explained in scientific terms; and still others are cultural phantasies.  (Hiebert, Folk Religions, 169).

Yoga makes you limber and sweaty.  Yoga is rooted in a worldview that does not correspond to the world as it is.  The power of that worldview influences the practitioner of Yoga effectively and negatively only in so far as the practitioner believes its claims and orders its life around the worldview.  Though orthodox practitioners might dispute the fact, one can practice a religious practice without believing (and as Mohler points out, even being aware of or understanding) the associated beliefs.  If you use shampoo designed for aroma therapy (chances are you do), you are not in danger of inviting demonic activity into your life for no other reason than aroma therapy is simply false.  Changing the smell in your house does not bring you closer to unity with the one, Brahman, the force or George Lucas.  This is true because monism isn’t real.  In the same way, Yoga does not produce on its own claims because the world is not actually structured for it to work.

In the coming years churches and individuals in the west will be faced with the issue of pluralism.  Globalization is forcing these decisions and discussions on people.  One hundred years ago, the people in these same places might have never even heard of some of the beliefs and practices that are now held by their neighbors.  We can neither accept nor reject everything; both of these conclusions are premature.

*I am not accusing any person quoted here of having fallen into the pits I describe.  These pits are just common mistakes for those who enter the discussion.  No theologians were harmed in the making of this post.