Friday, August 24, 2007

Dangerous Meditations: Saying No to Yoga

[The following article was originally run in a slightly different form in Christianity Today in 2004. I am reprinting it here because of my extreme concern over the number of Christians who are attempting to mix Christianity and yoga. As I said in The New York Times in 2005, if it is really yoga and it is really Christianity, the two cannot be mixed. But sadly, churches and Christian organizations are sponsoring yoga classes.

I hate to pull rank, but sometimes it has to be done. I have been studying religion, philosophy, and theology for over thirty years. I have written five books on New Age spirituality, given hundreds of lectures and sermons on it, and participated in debates and panel discussions. I have engaged in intense spiritual warfare on this matter. To practice yoga is to open oneself to spiritual darkness. Let us instead take on the yoke of Jesus Christ (Matthew 11:28-29) and repent of all counterfeits. God is willing to forgive, restore, and empower on His terms.]

Overstressed Americans are increasingly turning to various forms of Eastern meditation—particularly yoga—in search of relaxation and spirituality. A recent Time interview with Gloria Steinem shows her matter-of-factly sitting in the lotus position. But underlying the meditative practices stemming from the religions of the East is a worldview in conflict with meditation and spirituality, despite the fact that many Christians are (unwisely) practicing yoga. Many Eastern religions teach that the source of salvation is found within, and that fundamental human problem is not sin against a holy God, but ignorance of our true condition. These worldviews advocate mediation and “higher forms of consciousness” as a way to discover a secret inner divinity.

Yoga, deeply rooted in Hinduism, essentially means to be “yoked” with the divine. Yogic postures, breathing, and chanting are designed not to bring better physical health and wellbeing (Western marketing to the contrary), but to bring union with God Brahman (a Hindu word for God). This is pantheism (all is divine), not Christianity.

Transcendental Meditation, founded by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, is a veiled form of Hindu yoga, despite its claims to be a religiously neutral method of relaxation and rejuvenation. TM initiates are given a mantra (a Hindu holy word) to repeat while sitting in yogic postures and engaging in yogic breathing in order to find God within their own being, since God (Brahman) and the self (Atman) are really one. Despite their differences, the various forms of Eastern meditation aim at a supposedly “higher” or “alerted” state of consciousness. This is because they claim that our normal consciousness obscures sacred realities. Therefore, meditation is practiced in order to suspend normal rational patterns of thought. This helps explain why so many Eastern mystics claim that divine realities are utterly beyond words, thought, and personality. In order to find “enlightenment,” one must extinguish one’s critical capacities—something the Bible never calls us to do (Romans 12:1-2). In fact, suspending our critical capacities through meditation opens the soul to deception and even to spiritual bondage.

The biblical worldview is completely at odds with the pantheistic concepts driving Eastern meditation. Rather than claiming that salvation lies within, the Scriptures affirm that we are spiritually incapacitated by our sin against a personal and holy God. Consequently, we require a supernatural rescue from beyond ourselves. Jesus taught that our inner nature makes us unclean (Mark 7:21-23). Paul amplifies this by declaring that we are “dead in our trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). We cannot find either God or virtue within since “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

We are not one with an impersonal God, but are estranged from God because of our “true moral guilt” (Francis Schaeffer). No amount of chanting, breathing, visualizing, or physical contortions will melt away the sin that separates us from the Lord of the cosmos—however “peaceful” these practices may feel. Moreover, Paul warns that “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14). “Pleasant” experiences may be portals to peril. Even yoga teachers themselves warn that yoga may open one up to spiritual and physical maladies.

The answer to our plight is not found in some “higher level of consciousness” (really a deceptive state of mind), but in placing our faith in the unmatched achievements of Jesus Christ on our behalf. If it were possible to find enlightenment within, God would not have sent “his one and only Son” (John 3:16; see also 14:6; Acts 4:12; 1 Timothy 2:5) to die on the Cross for our sins in order to give us new life today and hope for eternity through Christ’s resurrection. We cannot raise ourselves from the dead.

But those who have followed the call of Christ to repent of their sins (Matthew 4:17) and turn to him in faith are challenged by Scripture to come before God through prayer and meditation. The biblical concept of prayer assumes that rational and meaningful communication between God and humans is possible. We offer our praise, petition, intercession, and thanksgiving to a personal God through human language. In other words, prayer is propositional—however emotional it may also be. The Lord’s prayer, for example is based on revealed truths about God and creation (Matthew 6:1-6; see also 1 Thessalonians 5:17). There is no summons to suspend rational judgment even when prayer through the Holy Spirit is “with groans that words cannot express” (Romans 8:26). Nor should we repeat words meaninglessly to induce a trance (Matthew 6:7). Biblical meditation means pondering God’s revealed truths and reflecting on how they pertain to us. David revels in the richness of God’s law throughout Psalm 119. He encourages us to meditate on it: “I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways. I delight in your decrees; I will not neglect your word” (Psalm 119:15-16). Since all Scripture is God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:15-17), all of it is profitable for meditation in the biblical sense.

Douglas Groothuis is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary and the author of several books, including, Unmasking the New Age and Confronting the New Age.


Kamilla said...

Hi Doug,

I remember quite vividly a brief conversation we had about this when I was your student. I maintain now, as I did then, that you must make a distinction between the exercise and the philosophy.

I thoroughly agree that many Christians are naively opening themselves up to occultic influences by taking yoga classes which include the philosophy and often the music as background. But to simply take the "poses", which include both strengthening and stretching exercises, devoid of the Hindu or Americanized names and claim that also opens the same occultic pathways? I can't agree.

Just so we're clear - are you saying that in order to avoid illegitimately mixing eastern philosophy with Christianity, I have to stop doing the exercises my Chiropractor gave me twenty years ago because someone calls them "dog and cat"? I ask because I seem to recall that conversation was interrupted by class starting and I don't think we ever got back to it.


(you'll notice I finallly broke down and got a blogger account!)

Peter Malik said...

Is the prayer in tongues a propositional prayer as well, then?

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

Tongues are propositional to God, I take it, Peter, but not to us, unless they are interpreted. But this is biblically sanctioned and of the Holy Spirit (if genuine). But you make a good clarification.

Peter Malik said...

yeah, I certainly did not plan to criticize, but maybe (as you wrote)attempted to clarify the issue. I indeed agree with impossibility of distinction between philosophy and exercise in the notion such holistic as yoga indeed is. The purpose, design,intention, and function of the exercise is spiritual; how can anyone make a distinction between the two then? Very good article.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

The purpose of yoga is to awaken the serpent power (kundali) coiled at the base of the spine. Serpent power is obviously not good. In Confronting the New Age, I quote yoga teachers who say that trifling with yoga is spiritually and physically dangerous: one can get literally burned. Now what about Christians trying to domesticate the serpent?!

The postures are not really the issue, but the discipline connected with them: the breathing, the chanting. That is what makes it yoga--although the postures were originally for false worship. One can get physical benefit from other things. Physical benefit was never the purpose of yoga; it was union with the Absolute (Brahman) in most cases. (There are several schools of yoga.)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for addressing this! People (some leaders..yikes) within my church have for years been taking classes and recommending yoga to others. I was disturbed by the sympathy to New Age infiltrating the church, but didn't fully understand how to discuss it. Now I am much more educated on the subject.

Roger said...

Dear Professor Groothuis,
Thanks for your posting about Christians and yoga. I contacted you several years ago about TM and Kundalini awakenings as well as John Coltrane. I sincerely thank you for all your help and understanding in my time of need. I was going through some very difficult times in gaining freedom from my pre-Christian involvement in TM, Hinduism and the New Age. You helped me when many other pastors and ministries turned me away and denied the reality of what I was experiencing.

As part of my recovery out of the influences of Hinduism, I have maintained a website called for several years. I have received some of my harshest comments from Christians. I believe most Christians have a very weak concept of idolatry in both its ancient and modern contexts. My concern is that most Churches are not sponsoring other kinds of exercise such as synchronized swimming, ballroom dancing, bowling or weight-lifting classes in order to achieve relaxation or to "unstress". Given this there is a implicit act of faith in the eastern spiritual worldview that somehow doing "Christianized" Yoga they can somehow become more “spiritual” in addition to getting a little exercise. Additionally, many Christians often say that they have come closer to “God” through yoga than other Christian spiritual disciplines. I would strongly warn the people with these experiences to test the spirits they are encountering. If Christian Yoga is exercise it really should just be exercise and nothing more.

If we need to manipulate our bodies and empty our minds through eastern meditation we are not understanding Paul in Colossians 2. It is our sin that separates us from God and if we are looking to reduce the chatter in our minds we have to get to the root of the chatter and not send it to some other spiritual dimension. It is what I would call auto-idolatry to think that through our own physical and mental manipulations that we can come closer to God. We are focusing on ourselves at this point and not on God and have bought into the eastern deception. You cannot empty your mind while emptying your mind and you cannot focus on God while mentally focusing on achieving severe manipulations of the body through yoga asanas.

The even sadder thing is that so many modern Christians cannot stand the persecution associated with being untrendy or uncool. Many Christians on my website commented that if I had enough faith I could do yoga and TM with out any ill effect. The truth of the matter is very few Christians seem to have enough faith to be obedient just for the sake of being obedient when it comes to Biblical prohibitions they don’t understand. Furthermore, it has been my experience that most Christians that get involved in eastern disciplines slowly but almost universally their belief in the uniqueness and divinity of Jesus begins to degrade.

Many blessings to you,
Roger in Minneapolis

Anonymous said...

Indicentally if any of the modern health nuts would take the time to read some good literature about the human body they would realize that weight training through a full range of motion followed by some stretching would have every possible benefit of yoga physically and it would actually make you stronger.

The reason human muscles stretch is to contract. Practicing the stretching part all the time will probably just cause permanent damage to joints.

Put a yogi and a powerlifter of the same weight, say 135 pounds, in a fight and see which one wins with no combat training. The powerlifter will incidentally be extremely flexible because she exercises through a full range of motion.

Though I doubt most American Christians are mentally disciplined enough practice yoga with a rigor that could harm them, I suppose that even the possibility of being in sin should frighten people. Maybe we should do as Scougal recommends and use the weapons of the flesh against our fleshly desires(the desire to be sucessful by being trendy and pragmatic) and point out that yoga is literally a waste of time from a physiological standpoint.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...


Thank you. May God protect and empower you as you speak the truth.

Jim Pemberton said...

Proper spiritual intent is the key. I wouldn't recommend doing yoga as exercise. I might recommend some other form of exercise depending on the goal of the exercise. This other exercise may have some similarity or equivalent movement to yoga. One can make the argument that movement is only movement and verbalizations are only sound waves. After all, I can say the word "adamant" and included therein are the sounds of a word often used as a curse. I can give someone a can and tell them to "crush it" effectively uttering the sounds of a common vulgarity. The difference is in my intent.

If we want to exercise as Christians, we shouldn't identify it as Hindu exercise. We should develop Christian exercise programs that explicitly glorify the God we know and honor His choice to give us stewardship over our bodies. We certainly shouldn't chant nonsensical words that we know are, or even were, intended to invoke false Gods.

Moth Face said...

Hi. I am a Christian in that I accept Christ as savior and believe in Him. I also practice Transcendental Meditation and do yoga, both of which bring me closer to God. In fact, through TM, I experience ONENESS with God and MERGE with the HOLY SPIRIT. In my twice daily meditation I feel totally surrendered to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. TM is a technique for surrendering to God, and the results are better health, more efficiency in action, and an open, flowing heart. The deep rest of TM releases stress, purifies the nervous system, and unfolds mental potential. “Love the God Thy God with all thy heart, all thy mind, and all thy strength.” If you’re not functioning from your full potential as a human being, you are disobeying this fundamental commandment. If your nervous system is stressed, if your heart is filled with accusations and fears, if your awareness is restricted, you cannot realize the truth of the Bible. You cannot even know when the Holy Spirit is talking to you or not. “Ye shall know them by their fruits.” The fruits of TM are better health, better sleep, more inner happiness and bliss. And my friends, God IS in everything. He DOES permeate the entire creation. He is omniscient, omnipotent, all knowing, and He is not bound to any particular religion. How can you restrict him thus? People interpret the Bible based on their state of consciousness. People interpret the Bible to mean that it is alright to kill others, or that all other believers in God from other cultures are sinners and will burn in Hell. That is a very shallow interpretation, based on restricted mind and heart, a heart UNLIKE Christ’s, who is accepting and ALL LOVING and ALL EMBRACING. He is supportive of all good in what ever form it takes. I know Christ, and His spirit is embodied by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi more than any human being I have ever met. If you would not welcome Maharishi into your church, you would also deny Christ. It is so ironic. This is the truth taught by Christ: “For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you.” Luke 17:20-21. “Be still and know that I am God.” During TM, one becomes still and sits in the presence of almighty God. I pray to Jesus Christ this moment that all the so-called Christians of the world wake up in His true spirit, cease to judge others based on limited understanding, welcome the true spirit of God into their Churches and into their hearts, learn Transcendental Meditation and begin to radiate bliss and harmony all around them, and rise to their full potential as human beings–and stop misinterpreting the Bible and using it to condemn others–while in reality they are condemning themselves, and with every misaligned thought, driving the nails deeper into Jesus’ hands. Am I casting pearls before swine? Can anyone hear me at all? Or are your devil-laden fears and doubts and suspicions already at work, shadowing the truth of these words and classifying them as blasphemy? If so, you are, for all practical purposes, the same people who crucified Christ and are doing it again. By the way, TM has been scientifically proven to work, to save people lives when they have heart conditions or high blood pressure, to lengthen the life span of people with weak cardiovascular systems, to improve self-esteem in students and reduce learning disabilities. How can you deny such power of good in the world? Nothing that supports life can stand between man and God. Nothing that is GOOD can be against God. Only those who try to deprive people of something good (like TM) are going against God. Amen and God bless and Jai Guru Dev.

tomwalabala said...

In response to the post from Mr. Knapp, I checked out the three above mentioned websites of his, and I personally find that his sites seem to lack more than a tinge of objectivity. In fact, it appears that his sites are solely devoted to blatant, wholesale defamation of Transcendental Meditation and the TM organization. My concern regarding meditation is to survey the existent research findings on the various practices and evaluate and compare the range of benefits. It appears obvious that the research on TM verifies (to anyone with a slightly objective mind) that the benefits of Transcendental Meditation are wide ranging. I have been looking into the 600+ research studies on TM, and I am quite impressed not only with the broad range of the research, but also the degree to which these meditation studies have been published in leading peer-reviewed journals, such as the International Journal of Neuroscience, the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine, the AMA's 'Archives' journal, the Journal of Clinical Psychology, and many others. It is also significant that these meditation studies have been conducted at the most prestigious universities and medical schools, such as Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, and Yale. Knapp further claims that TM is a "cult." The National Institutes of Health have awarded $24 million in research grants for scientists to study the effects of TM. I doubt that NIH would grant this much money for scientists to research an ineffectual "cult" practice. Such research grants are highly competitive and very hard to get and the applicant researchers are thoroughly scrutinized by the NIH. I know people who have been practicing TM for many years; I mentioned this "cult" accusation to one of them, and she laughed and replied, "How can something that I do at home, by myself, for my own personal benefit be a cult?" I'm not sure what Knapp's motivations are, or what is the basis of his opinions. I know that some people feel that meditation is a threat to their religion. If the technique benefits people and can be useful even in therapeutic practice, then shouldn't such fears be allayed and shouldn't therapists, psychiatrists, pastors and all Christians evaluate meditation on the more solid basis of empirical research? Knapp's insinuation that people meditating need to "recover," as if from some trama or breakdown, falls flat in the face of the evidence, which shows that the direction of growth that meditators exhibit is toward balance, inner peace and stability. The dedicated meditators I know seem to become happier over time the longer they meditate. I'm actually considering the TM practice for my own personal benefit.

For anyone interested in meditation, I recommend a book edited by Jonathan Shear, "The Experience of Meditation," which features experts of the great traditions of meditation---Zen, TM, Tibetan Buddhism, Sufism, Yoga Meditation, etc.--- all defining their own forms of meditation. The book has an excellent introduction by Ken Wilbur and presents all the main approaches in a fair and erudite format. It also addresses some of Knapp's objections, such as: can meditation lead to negative results, is there significant benefit, and what does/can science say about it.

Becky said...

I worship God doing Yoga- perhaps I'm not doing true Yoga then, just stretching and meditating on God... But when a Yoga teacher tells me to focus on myself, I focus on God- like many experiences in life. And aren't a lot of our "Christian" holidays tied to old pagan rituals?
As long as my concience is clear with God I will continue to stretch and praise him! Thanks for your thoughts though- I like the chance to think about these things.

Roger said...

Yes, it is true that engagement in occult techniques will produce statistically significant changes in perceptual abilities and changes within the autonomic nervous system. However, engaging in these occult techniques, such as the submission to and worship of Hindu deities through chanting mantras as in TM, comes with a very high personal price. In Hindu theology the chanting of a mantra is an action that brings forth the reality of the deity or spirit. I would suggest that you do some research on the Hindu spiritual awakening process known as a "Kundalini Awakening" and learn about the horrible results and damage to peoples lives when these things go awry. You should also read the study done on TM in Germany in the early 1980's to see some of the downsides to TM.

It is very unfortunate that NIH through the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine is funding a very broad range of occult techniques from TM to long distance energy channeling using Reiki. Exclusively Christian approaches to healing seem almost entirely lacking from NCCAM funding. The spiritual worldview of the NCCAM folks is decidedly eastern and I guess since the eastern spiritual worldview embraces everything, we have a merging of religion and state as long as it is pantheistic and universalistic.

The folks that argue against the study of Intelligent Design and funding thereof should be made aware of the implicit spiritual worldview that is being accepted by NIH/NCCAM. I guess we cannot study the hypothesis that life didn’t start by an act of random chance but it is completely acceptable to study how to manipulate a supposedly “universal” life force or energy. This expansion of government into religion is happening under our noses and much of these new age/eastern techniques are being taught with government support at local community colleges, universities and major medical schools. Many of these programs go under the label, “Integrative Medicine” but even more boldly at the University of Minnesota at their NCCAM funded “Center for Spirituality and Healing.” Government funding of NCCAM has doubled during Bush’s presidency to over $120 million a year. It is to the point within the traditional medical community that the acceptance of these techniques and the spiritual worldview that underlies them is not even being questioned.

I would doubt that NCCAM would ever fund research into the psychological and emotional benefits of Christian based deliverance and exorcism. It is also a shame the Church has lost so much faith in Christ’s ability to heal and transform. The Church due to its theological infighting has left a huge spiritual vacuum in our country that has allowed this all to take place. God is not on vacation.


Gary said...

I posted a link to your article on the Monday Morning Insight blog. Todd posted an article Does Your Church “Yoga”?

I thought it would be helpful for his readers to connect to your posting for an informed point-of-view and the comments related to the post.


Damask-rose said...

Yoga means to 'link' in the same way that the word 'religion' is believed to come from Latin words meaning to bind or to re-link with God.

It's a mistake to think that all Hindu traditions are panthestic or believe in an impersonal conception of God - for sure these exist in Hinduism. But some of the major and most ancient Hindu traditions understand God to be a Person and our relationship with Him to be one of love and dependence upon His grace in a very similar way to Christianity.

I belong to the Chaitanya-Vaishnava tradition, which has a very high understanding of pure love of God, without any selfish motivation. This is called bhakti-yoga; the process of re-establishing our lost relationship with God through service in devotion.

We would agree with you that impersonal meditation and the concept of God as -'Oneness' or that we are God, to be the highest form of heresy.

evagrius said...

Have you heard of Hesychasm?

Have you read Gregory Palams, Dionysius the Aeropagite, Gregory of Nyssa, Origen, the Desert Fathers especially Evagrius Ponticus, Symeon the New Theologian, the Philokalia?

Have you read Abhishiktananda, ( Dom Pere Le Saux), Thomas Merton, Basil Pennington, Enymonia La Salle,J.M. Dechanet, William Johnston, to name a few?

You should before making such assertions as you have.

Michelleisbornagain said...

to the last comment posted: All of the names sited such as Gregory of Nyssa, All are based in a Catholic viewpoint. This is directed at Christians is what I am taking away from it. Hindus are upset with Americans for stealing their practice of yoga and have even dedicated a website to it "Taking back Yoga". Does this not tell us something???
You cannot take something from darkness and turn it into light. We are becoming the apostate church The bible warned about, we are the people turning from sound Bible Theology. Yoga is to bring you to a oneness and any true yoga instructor will tell you "We are all going to the top of the moment, we are just getting there from different sides.. This is NOT Biblical. I pracided for three years and if you are paying attention you know the ruth. Find other forms of exercise! There are many!