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Yoga Trends

Reconcilable Differences

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

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In 1975, after years of looking east, I took the yogic leap and began following the teachings of Swami Muktananda. Later that year this disaffected Jew found himself chanting the morning “Guru Gita” with the regulars and Muktananda himself at his Emeryville, California, ashram. Mounds of incense smoldered on silver platters, their sweet, ghostly smoke beckoning us deep inside ourselves. The weird chords of a harmonium, like some extraterrestrial pump organ, accompanied our journey into spiritual hyperspace. On the wall a large portrait of Muktananda’s guru, Nityananda, his gaze fixed on some dazzling inner realm, promised similar fruits to the most dedicated among us. With a critical mass of chanters, I lost myself in the verses, elevated to a state of meditative ecstasy. Although I was doing much more chanting than mentating at that moment, I thought: “Now this is how I’d always wanted a synagogue to be!”


Later that year, I began doing hatha yoga to begin bringing more awareness to my posture and movements. By involving my body, my practice seemed to fill a huge hole in my spiritual life. My relatives had become steadily more pessimistic about my Jewish future since my casual approach to my Bar Mitzvah 12 years earlier, but in my own mind, I was just now hitting my spiritual stride.

I was hardly alone. In ashrams and yoga classes across the land, a sizable chunk of the largest generation in American history was having experiences much like mine. While many made a clean break with the religion they were raised in, others strained to blend old faith and new, West and East. Today yoga continues to bump up against other faiths, but in different ways. With yoga more popular than ever, many come to it without ever having rebelled against the teachings of their original religion. In addition, many yoga students who did rebel in the ’60s and ’70s have returned, without leaving yoga behind, to the church or synagogue. Some do it “for the kids’ sake,” some to explore their spiritual roots. Still others have dived headfirst into new faiths—Buddhism or Islam, say—and taken up yoga as well. Whichever of the above scenarios comes closest to your own experience, you’ve undoubtedly confronted some tricky issues. If yoga clashes with your faith, how do you work out joint custody—of you? If you’re trying to patch together a personal spirituality from your religion and yoga, where do you place the seams?

Yoga and Religion: Is There a Fit?

The question of whether yoga conflicts with religious faith is one that troubles some yoga practitioners. In general, yoga is taught here in a way that strips away much of its Indian context. On the other hand, teacher and students will commonly greet each other in Sanskrit with a pleasant “Namaste,” which means “I honor the Divine within you.” And many classes conclude with a short meditation involving a Sanskrit mantra. But even these minimal, innocent-seeming customs are potentially controversial for many. Fundamentalist religious leaders of any major Western tradition would probably say that pursuing a God within subverts worship of God without. Mantras that invoke a Hindu deity? Those too would alarm fundamentalist Christian, Jewish, and Muslim clergy alike.

“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.

By the same token, not all Orthodox Jews are fundamentalists, and many do practice yoga without guilt, points out Myriam Klotz, a Philadelphia-based rabbi in the Reconstructionist branch of Judaism who also teaches yoga at Jewish centers nationwide. Klotz feels that Jews can find a fit for yoga in the traditional teaching about harmonizing kavannah (in Hebrew, intention) and kevah (religious structure). “The sense is that spiritual maturing is knowing how to balance kevah and kavannah,” she says, “and for each person that’s going to look a little bit different because—this is getting into a more mystical, Hasidic teaching—all people have in the root of their soul a particular truth that is theirs to give birth to in their lifetime.” For Klotz, yoga is a perfect tool for nurturing kavannah, in herself and others: “I try to apply that same witness consciousness that I learned in yoga to my spiritual life as a Jew. So what that means, for example, is that when you pray from a Jewish prayerbook, take the time to let the prayer be meditative, breathe through and in between the words so that you feel the spaciousness of intent in the liturgy, not just the flat and crowded words on the page.”

Authorizing asanas

Even if yoga and religion can wed happily, many religious people feel compelled to get permission first—from their religious leaders, their families, or the recorded teachings of the faith. In the same way that Klotz has found a place for her yoga through the deep teachings of Judaism, Fox suggests that people of any major faith will find an actual resonance with yoga in their own religious roots if they look below the surface: “Most Westerners are unaware of the mystical depth of their own tradition. [For instance, most Christians] don’t know Meister Eckhart or Hildegard von Bingen. They don’t know of Thomas Aquinas’s mysticism. They don’t know Jesus as a mystic.” Demand more of your tradition, Fox urges, and you will find it.

Of course, even if you make peace inwardly between your yoga and faith, religious leaders or family members may still worry that you’re “leaving the fold.” If quoting Eckhart or Hasidic writings or the prophet Mohammed won’t reassure them, what will? Sharon Salzberg, the prominent Buddhist meditation teacher and author of A Heart as Wide as the World (Shambhala, 1997), suggests that when you’re trying to explain to skeptics what yoga means to you, focus on your experience: “The point is to describe the benefit you’re getting within, because what people are really trying to say is that they care about you and what you’re really trying to say is that you’re getting benefit.”

Sylvia Boorstein, another leading Buddhist meditation teacher and a former yoga instructor, offers similar advice because that’s what’s worked for her as an observant Jew. Like many Americans, Boorstein first learned yoga outside of a specific cosmology and that made it easy to own. “When I learn through direct experience, then it’s not something I believe in, it’s something I know,” she notes. Experience is also the basis for how she incorporates yoga into her Jewish outlook: “The truest thing I can say is that my yoga and mindfulness practice are ways of waking up my attention so I have presence. Then I can do the things [associated with being a good Jew]—serving others with a pure heart, loving everybody as much as I can.”

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.'”

Kripalu’s Jonathan Foust is less concerned about yoga’s integrity in the current climate. “On one level,” he says, “people are attracted to yoga for physical health, which is totally fine. But my feeling is that as we practice, something awakens inside us. Each one of us in our own way is seeking our own path. And I agree that there’s a difference between digging one well and digging deep and digging many wells and perhaps not reaching water. But there’s that great saying that seeking your path is the path, and I think that yoga can be a tremendous tool for finding one’s own path.”

The New Universalism

Despite the fears of many religious authorities, yoga is rarely taught in America in such a way that would seduce students away from their religious faith. Not only would that be disrespectful, it would be bad marketing. It is both kinder and smarter to meet people where they are spiritually, as Kripalu and other major yoga centers figured out long ago.

Still, yoga is affecting how religion is practiced in America—for the better, in the minds of many progressive religious leaders. Where once yoga was an add-on for spiritually adventurous worshippers of Western faiths, true cross-fertilization is now taking place between yoga and other traditions. Myriam Klotz and M’eshyah Albert teach yoga within a Jewish context at retreat centers such as Elat Chayyim in the Catskills. Matthew Fox draws freely from yoga and the whole array of worldwide mystical teachings in his work at the Oakland, California-based University of Creation Spirituality, which he founded and heads.

Yoga is even becoming entwined with another Eastern practice popular in the West, Buddhist mindfulness meditation. Major players such as Kripalu and the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California, are now dialoguing about possible collaborations. Anna Douglas has pioneered the use of yoga to complement mindfulness meditation at Spirit Rock. From the yoga side, Kripalu’s Stephen Cope, author of Yoga and the Quest for the True Self (Bantam, 1999), has proclaimed the benefits of mindfulness techniques for yoga students.

The message, observes Sheila Weinberg, is that each tradition has something to teach the other. Religion has done damage as well as good, she says, “so we have to find the life-giving aspects of all the traditions.” Yoga is one of those aspects. “The major goal for everybody,” she adds, “is to move into a spirituality that is grounded, that’s embodied, that is practiced, that works.”

Contributing Editor Alan Reder is the author or coauthor of five books. His article on meditation appeared in YJ’s January/February 01 issue.