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Reconcilable Differences

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

By Alan Reder

But what if the religious people in your life won't let you sidestep the doctrinal controversies (for instance, the propriety of chanting a Hindu deity's name)? Fox sees no problem with challenging them back: "I love that line from Eckhart about 'I pray to God to rid me of God.' If there's been too much God-talk in our brains, then other names, whether it be Brahma, Shiva, Shakti, what have you, can add to our repertoire. It's not a subtraction. If our God is so fragile that He or She is threatened by new names then we ought to look at that." In fact, to him, true idolatry (worship of a God other than that of your religion) has nothing to do with labels: "How much idolatry are we committing in terms of money or power or fame or cars or big homes or stock or family? I think it's a very narrow thing to define idolatry just in terms of alternative names for divinity. The fact is that the real idols that we fall into—not just as individuals, but as a culture—are the things that are really killing our soul."

The Other Side of the Coin

There is a flipside to the issue of integrating yoga with religion. Few would deny that yoga provides health benefits that no Western religion can match. And many would agree that yogic meditation enhances Western religious practices.

But if one plunges with both feet into yogic spirituality while also pursuing a conventional faith, one risks what theologians call syncretism—or "riding two horses at once," as Needleman puts it. "It's very hard sometimes to try to be a deep Christian contemplative and at the same time be a Hindu—a Vedantan, let's say," he notes. "Not because they disagree but because the imagery sometimes is so conflicting."

Reconstructionist rabbi Sheila Weinberg also believes that syncretism is a real danger for yoga students. With Sylvia Boorstein, Weinberg coleads workshops in mindfulness for Jewish leaders. She also incorporates Sun Salutations and Tibetan exercises into her morning prayer ritual. But the spiritual context itself—in her case, Judaism—never changes. "I think you have to choose a community and history and identity that's going to be your home," she says. "And then I think it's possible to borrow really excellent, valuable practices that can be seen as nondenominational from other traditions. [But only if] we don't start getting confused in terms of belonging to many different communities, because then everything will be dissipated."

Huston Smith cautions anyone who mixes yoga and religion to consider the ego that does the mixing. Many people, he notes, approach their spirituality "salad bar" style, as if saying to themselves, "Oh, I think I'll take a little hatha yoga for my body and a little vipassana for my meditation." Observes Smith: "As [late Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chˆgyam] Trungpa said, the error there is thinking you know what you need. But if you knew that, Trungpa concluded, you would already be at the end of the spiritual path instead of the beginning."

Some fear that blending yoga with another faith can dishonor yoga itself. Cohen-Keiner worries about this even as she continues to walk the line between yoga and her religion: "How much integrity do we have within the yogic tradition if we're going to pull little pieces out of it and say, 'this works for me now'?" she asks. Along similar lines, she adds, "As Native American traditions move out [into the wider society], there are people in that community who are really happy that their technologies and teachings are being shared and there are others who are saying, 'White people don't get it.'"

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Reader Comments


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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