Dear India,

I would like to thank you for gifting the world with the beautiful practice of yoga. I would like to apologize for all of the ways that Christians (including myself), have intentionally or unintentionally, disregarded your religious and spiritual traditions and overlooked their contributions to the world for thousands of years. I would like to acknowledge our indebtedness to you India, for your rich philosophical traditions and practices. Thank you India, for sharing your gifts with the world.

My heart is broken over division within the yoga community. As a Christian practicing yoga, I have seen this division up close, hearing heated protests from both Christians, as well as those who hold a Hindu philosophy (referred to as Hindus in this post). I have discussed some of the concerns Christians may have with the practice of yoga in a previous blog post.

In the next several posts, I would like to discuss some of the concerns that I have heard from those who come from a Hindu background and worldview. My hope is to build understanding and to generate thoughtful and respectful conversation between seekers, both Hindu and Christian alike. May PEACE (shanti) and LOVE (maitri) and prevail…

Asteya and stealing yoga

In the Eight Limbs of Yoga, discussed in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, a book compiling the theory and practice of yoga, the third yama, or ethical guideline, is Asteya, the practice of non-stealing. At first glance, this means abstaining from taking something that is not yours.  However, the wisdom of Asteya delves deeper to include abstaining from taking anything that is not offered to you, including material objects but also more abstract objects such as time, thoughts, energy, emotions, ideas, and perhaps even yoga.

One of the loudest Hindu arguments, or protests, that I have encountered about Christian’s practicing yoga is the way in which Christians have casually stolen many of the Indian spiritual practices of yoga with no acknowledgement or homage given to the culture through which these practices were birthed and nurtured for thousands of years. This “theft” has often been accompanied with attempts by Christians to purge these spiritual practices of their Hindu roots in order to suit a Christian audience. Christian organizations, often with good intentions, have “rebranded” yoga, renaming the postures and practices birthed in an Indian culture to fit into a Christian worldview.

Additionally, exclusivist beliefs and judgements that are sometimes expressed by those of the Christian faith have further widened the chasm between Christian and Hindu yogis. While many Christians have found the practice of yoga beneficial, it would seem that they do not value the philosophies, culture, or people through which the practice originated. With this perceived thievery, it is no wonder the people of India, and the Hindu faith, have a distaste for “Christian yoga” or any of its variant forms.

As Christian practitioners of yoga, we must ask “have we stolen yoga?” If so, what were our intentions? We must seriously consider how the eighth commandment, “Thou shall not steal” might apply in this situation.  (Exodus 20:15) Lastly, and maybe most importantly, how will we respond when confronted with the realization that we have inadvertently hurt our Hindu brothers and sisters in the efforts to bring yoga to the Christian community?

For the serious Christian yogi, we will be asked to examine our Christian dogmatic exclusivity and are required to remember that ALL truth is found in the person of Jesus Christ, who is the Truth. (John 14:6) Therefore, we can enter into the spiritual practices and philosophies of yoga searching for common Truth that was revealed in the Word of God and the person of Jesus Christ. We can enter and engage the culture with the intention of seeking where God is already revealing himself and prepared to speak Christ intelligibly into the conversation and culture. (Acts 17:22-31; 1 Peter 3:15)

Aparigraha and the gift of yoga

While it is true that those who are “stealing” yoga would do well to apply the truth and wisdom of Asteya, there is a flip side to this conversation. It is interesting to note that a criminal charge of theft, or larceny, requires that the specific intentionof the theft permanently deprive another individual of his or her property. Thus the accusation of theft brings some interesting and thought provoking questions with it.

  • Can yoga be owned? If so, who owns yoga?
  • Is the gift of yoga meant only for those who hold a Hindu philosophy?
  • Can something be stolen if it was meant to be given away?
  • Do Christian yogis intend to deprive Hindus the practice of yoga?
  • Is there enough “yoga” to go around for everyone?

The fifth yama in Pantajali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga, Aparigraha, translated as ‘non-greed’, ‘non-coveting’, or ‘non-hoarding’, urges us to let go of everything that we do not need; a practice easier said than done. Greed often stems from the belief that one does not have enough. Greed tells us that when someone else receives something, it takes away some of our own provision. Biblical teaching agrees with the yogic philosophy that worldly possessions cannot truly be possessed and will eventually be destroyed. (Matt. 6:19-20) The wisdom of Aparigraha teaches us to possess only as much as necessary, keep only what serves us in the moment, and to let go when the time is right.

I see a picture in my mind where the people of India are holding the gift of yoga.

In one scene, Christians take yoga away and India is scorned as ignorant, judged as heathen, and the spiritual discipline of yoga is renamed and rearranged to suit a Christian audience. In this situation, the practice of yoga is stolen, interfaith dialogue is stunted, and the division between Hindus and Christians increases.

In another scene, Christians take yoga away and acknowledge India, and the Hindu faith, for holding deep wisdom, sharing a particular revelation of God, and birthing a powerful spiritual discipline. In this situation, the practice of yoga is a gift freely given, interfaith dialogue is encouraged, and both Christians and Hindus have an opportunity to share and learn from one another.

The practice of yoga calls us down our own individual path of self-inquiry, inviting us to observe the unique “turnings and colorings” of our minds.  The discipline of yoga requires that we examine our thoughts and beliefs, cultivating discernment, awareness, self-regulation, and a higher consciousness. As yogis, we are each asked to do our own work.

Where are we stealing what doesn’t belong to us?

Where are we holding on to more than is necessary?  Where do we need to let go?

The study and application of Asteya and Aparigraha, might just be the balm needed to begin to heal the rift between Christian and Hindu yogis.  I pray that we would all be faithful to do our own work. In that spirit, I will finish where I began, with a sincere apology and the bright hope of walking the path of yoga authentically in the Love and humility of Jesus Christ.

Shanti & Maitri (Peace & Love)

*** Shared with permission from CYA Master Trainer, Cornerstone Founder & Contributing writer, Kelly McClellan.  You can follow Kelly and more of her musings HERE.