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Crisis of Monotheism: Is Committing Acts of Yoga Heresy?

There is a specter haunting the Abrahamic faiths, with guilt-ridden health nuts and bored human-interest journalists alike accelerating matters toward the violence of a "definitive decision":, with bloody...

Apr 9 2012, 8:30pm

There is a specter haunting the Abrahamic faiths, with guilt-ridden health nuts and bored human-interest journalists alike accelerating matters toward the violence of a definitive decision, with bloody schism sure to follow. Doctrinally, the controversy is at least as knotty for our times as Arianism, monophysitism, or caliphal succession were for theirs. To be a modern means certain minimum metaphysical attachments: a smartphone, some concern about one’s transfats and glycemic load, yoga. But this last is, genealogically at least, a religious ritual — Hindu to be exact — and not one particularly wedded to the whole “you shall have no god before me” business. “Om” may well now be the sensitive, sinewy athlete’s version of, say, a crude hooah; it remains an incantation to Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.

What’s a committed monotheist — or even a serious Catholic (j/k!) — to do when giving up a basically demonological practice means jeopardizing your incredible glutes? Rationalize, temporalize, syncretize! Or as the New York Times reported in this Sunday’s paper from the front lines of dog-mat-ic accommodation:

As a community activist in Queens, Muhammad Rashid has fought for the rights of immigrants held in detention, sought the preservation of local movie theaters and held a street fair to promote diversity.

But few of those causes brought him anywhere near as much grief and controversy as his stance on yoga.

Mr. Rashid, a Muslim, said he had long believed that practicing yoga was tantamount to "denouncing my religion."
"Yoga is not for Muslims," he said. "It was forbidden."

But after moving to New York in 1997 from Bahrain, he slowly began to rethink his stance. Now Mr. Rashid, 56, has come full circle: not only has he adopted yoga into his daily routine, but he has also encouraged other Muslims to do so — putting himself squarely against those who consider yoga a sin against Islam.

Yoga can be Islamized, the Times informants report, “if the Sanskrit benedictions are left out. . . and women’s skin-tight yoga gear is traded for more conservative garments.” (No word why men’s increasingly skimpy yogawear gets a pass.) Indeed, Mr. Rashid came to see Islam’s five-times-a-day prayer as a variation on the yoga theme — complete with special mat, joint-busting kneeling, and remonstrations of centeredness. This concordance was not understood as sacrilegious.

But wait, you ask, didn’t I read this exact article two week ago? No, that one, from NBC News, concerned the Christianization of yoga — though this being America, Christianity here meant something like “gettin’ rid of them foreign words”:

Jessica Heller liked what power yoga did for her body. But she loves what Holy Yoga does for her body and spirit.

Heller, 29, found the Christian-based yoga practice when she moved back to her native Phoenix from Denver. To her, the environment was more inviting, and more like a community than at a "regular" yoga class. And, "it brought in a spiritual element that aligned with my personal belief system and resonated so much more deeply," she said.

Millions of Americans do yoga for its well-known mental and physical benefits. But some devout Christians are uncomfortable with yoga's Eastern roots, and its association with Hinduism. Holy Yoga, and other "Christ-centered" practices such as Yoga for Christians, Scripture Yoga and Praise Moves offer the advantages of yoga, without all the “om”-ing.

"We can absolutely service the people who are afraid of yoga because they thought yoga was incompatible with Christ," said Brooke Boon, founder of Holy Yoga. An avid yogi since 1998, Boon stopped practicing when she first came to her faith. But then she began "spending alone time with the Lord, on my mat, and it totally awakened my practice." And in 2003, Holy Yoga was born.

Classes begin with a Bible scripture that forms the theme for the class. The poses are the same ones you'd see in a "secular" yoga class, though instructors sometimes opt not to use the Sanskrit names. Chaturanga becomes "high-to-low push-up," and Savasana is “corpse pose.”

[I will not be commenting on last week’s intervening NBC News piece on “‘Broga’ [for] men wary of yoga” except to invoke that old Zoroastrian proverb: Two’s a trend; three’s a satanic viral marketing campaign.]

To complete the desert-god triangle, consider Tablet Magazine’s probing essay from 2010 titled “Is Yoga Kosher?” The rather squishy, suspiciously Anglican-sounding conclusion: “But maybe my uptight approach to religion requires yoga and its nuances of illicit practice to help me remain flexible in my spirit, as well as my body. Maybe having something that isn't so easy to reconcile, a gray area, is good for me.”

What’s going on here? It seems the yogically religious are forming a combined interfaith front against the conservative forces that saw Muslim clerics in Malaysia and the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Summary declare separate yoga fatwas in 2008 and 2010. One’s reminded of the Chinese Rites Controversy of the 17th and 18th centuries — except here the Jesuits aren’t just claiming that the Beijing mandarins’ silly habit of worshiping their ancestors is a purely civic practice that shouldn’t preclude their acceptance in the one true faith; they’re asking to get in the act themselves. Again, great for the glutes.

Unfortunately, any reflective inquisitor has to be with Pope Clement XI on this: Heresy is heresy, no matter how good you look.