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Reconcilable Differences

The question on everyone's mind: Does yoga conflict with my religion?

By Alan Reder

"There's something of a polarization in the American religious scene between the liberals and the conservatives," says religious scholar Huston Smith, author of the classic The World's Religions (HarperSanFrancisco, 1991) and the recently published Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief (HarperSanFrancisco, 2001). "With the liberals, there would be no conflict [with yoga]....If you go to the conservative side of the spectrum, they would likely see anything from a different religious tradition as being heretical and to be avoided."

In the view of scholars such as Smith, Jacob Needleman, or "Deep Ecumenist" theologian Matthew Fox, all of the major religions at their deepest level offer alternate routes to a common destination. Indeed, Fox's new book, One River, Many Wells (Tarcher/Putnam, 2000), documents the underlying insights uniting the faiths by quoting both a rainbow of scriptures and the words of great teachers. But both Fox and Needleman, professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University and author of A Little Book on Love (Doubleday, 1996), are quick to add that the world of religion is not just a world of spiritual ideas. It is also a world of institutions and the people empowered by them. And people with institutional power often behave—well, institutionally, to preserve the entity that gives them authority. Thus, while you might not see why your religion wouldn't permit yoga, your religion's leaders may reply that the devil, quite literally, is in the details.

Needleman notes, "Islam is certainly one of the great paths, and there are many followers of Islam who speak about it that way. But as it's often practiced, it can be very exclusivist, just like certain forms of Christianity. [In the same vein], talk to an Orthodox Jew in New York or Jerusalem about how Christianity and Judaism are each one of many paths, and you may get a sharp knock on the head."

In fact, Judaism, perhaps more than any other Western faith, exemplifies the dilemmas that a religious yoga student can face. Judaism boasts its own rich tradition of esoteric teachings, perhaps even its own yoga of sacred movements and postures, says Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Keiner, who contributed to the anthology Meditation from the Heart of Judaism (Jewish Lights Publishing, 1997). Much of that wisdom, however, was handed down orally, not recorded. Many centuries of persecution and exile broke the oral chain, permanently erasing some teachings. In fact, 90 percent of the European esoteric teachers were wiped out during the Holocaust alone, Cohen-Keiner says. Thus, sadly, Judaism survives today as somewhat damaged goods, she observes. The mainstream religion, with its vibrant ethical and intellectual tradition, may be in good shape, but the mystical teachings are like a book with some crucial pages missing. Thus, many Jews who study yoga may be answering some deep historical calling to complete themselves.

Yet when they arrive, the most Orthodox among them sometimes fear that the atmosphere isn't kosher enough for them to stay. Jonathan Foust, director of curriculum at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Lenox, Massachusetts, recalls that on several occasions Orthodox Jews have worried about the altars on Kripalu's premises, even though it is Kripalu's policy to teach yoga without dogma. "We strike a fine balance here at Kripalu. We want to honor the tradition of yoga and at the same time meet people where they feel safe," says Foust. Kripalu's welcoming attitude notwithstanding, Jewish law prohibits the worship of any but the One God. Fundamentalist Jews, like fundamentalists of other faiths, take such things literally, putting many Hindu cultural objects and mantras off-limits.

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And what if you're a nontheist? How do we reconcile our knowledge and spirituality with all of the references to a "deity" that always seem to appear in my yoga reading? There is always a reference to "god" in relation to the spirituality found in yoga. Am I missing something?

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