Yoga: Physical Exercise or Religious Practice?

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 6:16 AM

I originally wrote the following as my first assignment in a class based on the Academic Study of Religion, September 7, 2002. A recent discussion on Yoga made me think of this piece, and it seemed like a good time to post it online.

According to a report by the Himalayan Academy’s Hinduism Today publication, a schism has occurred between Christians and Hindus in the former Soviet Republic of Slovakia (“Slovakia”). The situation revolves around a simple question: “Is Yoga a Hindu religious practice or physical exercise?”

In this particular incident, the question arose when a variant of Swami Maheshwarananda’s “Yoga in Daily Life” program was considered for introduction into Slovakia’s school system. According to the Hinduism Today report, the plan was to offer the class to help alleviate back pain in the students. However, critics of the program have suggested the exercise is much more than a simple substitute for Tylenol.

Apparently, after hearing about this initiative, both Protestant and Catholic Christians sent a clear message – this is not just exercise, it is Hinduism. Bishop Ivan Osusky of the Evangelical Church of Augsburg Confession commented, “Yoga is not [merely] gymnastics. It leads to individualism, which further leads to belief in reincarnation. It is an onslaught of Hinduism” (“Slovakia”). Slovakia’s Catholic Bishops also protested with a strongly worded communiqué.

Christian Apologist Robert M. Bowman, Jr., of the Institute for the Development of Evangelical Apologetics, seems to agree with the Bishops. In an article for Apologetics Index Bowman argues against Yoga, saying “Does yoga conflict with my religion? You betcha. […] Anything that encourages people to believe that spiritual fulfillment can be attained in any religion […] conflicts with my belief that without Jesus Christ people of all religions (even Christianity!) are lost.”

Milan Ftacnik, Slovak’s Minister of Education, disagrees, instead siding with the Swami. The Hinduism Today coverage quotes Ftacnik as saying, “Yoga has existed here for decades and we have not become a Hindu country. Catholics, Baptists, Hindus or Muslims can practice yoga.” The article notes that Ftacnik does not belong to an organized religion.

At the very least, even the defenders of Yoga must admit that its core purpose is religious in nature. According to Lewis Hopfe and Mark Woodward, “Yoga basically follows the Sankhya system, viewing the world as a dualism and teaching that one should attempt to yoke or join the individual spirit to god, the atman, to Brahman.” The tome also notes “The main feature of Yoga is meditation. Meditation is necessary even for the gods if they are to find release from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth” (96-97).

Perhaps the real issue occurs in that the clash is between Christianity, which historically rejects pluralistic acceptance of other religions' beliefs and practices, and Hinduism, which as one Swami put it, “believe[s] not only in universal tolerance, but [… also] accept[s] all religions as true” (71). From the Hindu’s perspective, then, it may seem harmless for Christians to participate in Yoga even if it does have religious overtones, perhaps leaving Hindus to wonder what the problem is.

For now, it seems that connection will delay any introduction of Yoga into Slovak classrooms. After the Christian Democratic Movement threatened to cease support for the ruling coalition government, the administration backed off on the program. Should they choose to renew their push for the program, it will no doubt cause the question of Hinduism’s ties to Yoga to be considered much more deeply then previously. With Yoga’s popularity in many nations, including the United States, the results of this debate should prove to have far reaching effects beyond the small CIS nation.

Works Cited

Bowman, Robert M., Jr. “Does Yoga Conflict with Christianity? A Response to Yoga Journal.” Apologetics Index. Apr. 2001. Sep. 2002 .

“Slovakia's Christians Scuttle School Yoga.” Hinduism Today. Jan., Feb., Mar. 2002.

Hopfe, Lewis M. and Mark R. Woodward. Religions of the World. 8th Ed, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, 2001. 71, 96-97.

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