By Dr. Amanda Brees, EdD RMT RYT; Pastoral Counselor & Meditation Researcher
Where did Yoga Originate?
“Furthermore, the interreligious and intercultural exchanges–primarily between Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain traditions–throughout the history of yoga in South Asia problematize the identification of yoga as Hindu” (Jain, 2014, p. 451).
Alternative medicine encompasses a complex synthesis of cultural and religious practices from around the world. Yoga, meditation, reiki, and herbalism have various cultural and religious intertwining roots and lineages and evolutions to be acknowledged. Yoga was originally a shamanic/meditative practice that came from India that later introduced postures as it migrated to the West via the mass marketing of about 30 well-known yoga gurus. Reiki is a shamanic/meditative practice of laying on hands that came from Japan. Herbalism is a shamanic spiritual practice that has roots in many parts of the world including Ayurveda in India, plant ceremonies in South America, and native herbalism of the Americas.
Medicine was historically an office of the priesthood before the Cartesian split of modern history. It is only recently that society has divided medicine, spirit, and ministry. This is what makes the conversation around Christian-adapting complementary therapies so delicate. On the one hand, there is a conversation to avoid cultural appropriation facing white culture in the West that absolutely needs to be acknowledged. On the other hand, there’s a reality that these practices have been marketed to American Judeo-Christian culture as adaptable by persons of any faith.
“Though hatha yoga is traditionally believed to be the ur-system of modern postural yoga, equating them does not account for the historical sources. Posture only became prominent in modern yoga in the early twentieth century as the result of the dialogical exchanges between Indian reformers and Americans and Europeans interested in health and fitness. Postural yoga’s sources include British military calisthenics, modern medicine, and the physical culture of European gymnasts, body builders, martial experts, and contortionists” (Jain, 2012, p. 7).
Christian Healing & Spirituality
Yet, the Bible makes a myriad of references to these various practices: new moons, crystals, meditations, incense, herbs, laying on of hands, and essential oils. Jesus walked in dunamis (subtle energy) and laid on hands long before reiki. Plant remedies are mentioned many times in the Bible. Meditation is referenced again and again. Christians have rich cultural and religious ties to all things spiritual. Jesus was a shamanic healer in his own right.
What the Research Said
The study findings concluded that the underlying mechanism of action from these various cultural practices is meditation and the healing of subtle energy. Meditation and life force do not inherently belong to any culture or religion-they are the intellectual property of the public domain. All humans have eyes; they are neither Christian nor Jewish. The study findings found that the essential nature of yoga and reiki are meditation and laying on of hands-both practices which lack adherence to a specific worldview. This is why they can be spiritual but not religious.
“The paradigmatic turn, however, toward neurotheology and the revolutionary discovery of neuroplasticity will necessitate a reordering of pastoral and clinical priorities, for it reveals rather precisely that through the daily spiritual practice of contemplative prayer and mindfulness meditation we can begin to literally ‘resculpt’ the neural pathways of the brain” (Bingaman, 2013, p. 554).
Yoga Needs to be Religiously Accommodated: Just like Prayer
Christian adaption of these practices involves acknowledging the cultural roots of the practices as needed; then moving on to the issues of religious accommodation. Christians have a rich history of meditation to glean from. Yet, Christians have adapted other alternative medicine spiritual tools (yoga, reiki, and herbalism) as they claimed to be practiced by persons of any faith. These dynamics are easier to acknowledge in the third and fourth waves of behavioral therapy which have a rich research base of empirically validating and secularizing meditation for persons of all world-views. The 35 experts on Christian meditation agreed: the purpose of Christian meditation is to awaken the self to the union of being made in the image of God as children of God.
Prayer differs from one religion to the next because its purpose varies; likewise with meditation. One adapts prayer and meditation to various religions precisely because they themselves are not religions. The cultural issue surrounding the use of meditation as a spiritual tool by different religions is delicate because all religions pray and meditate. Furthermore, divergent purposes for meditation exist in each respective religion because meditation is a spiritual tool; religions are a worldview. Hindus believe the Self to be God, and that is enlightenment. Buddhists believe there is no self, and that is enlightenment. Jainism was a huge influence in the development of Yoga, especially with Patanjali; as was the influence of the Secularism worldview that culture (state) should not touch religion. All of these world-views have influenced, shaped, and molded what constitutes the linguistic words one uses to refer to yoga today.
Beware of Bait & Switch
“Doctrinal interpretations of religion notwithstanding, few Christian commentators argue that yoga is a purely physical practice. What they disagree over is whether yoga spirituality is antagonistic or complementary to Christianity” (Brown, 2018, p. 666).
What’s vital to understand is what yoga says about itself. It claims to be spiritual, but not religious, and adaptable by persons of any worldview or religion. Same with reiki. This distinction is vital when deciding whether Christian yoga and reiki are therefore cultural appropriations or not. According to the claims of yoga, reiki, and herbalism; they are essentially spiritual tools and not religions. That’s why they claim to be adaptable unlike ‘Jain-atheism’, ‘Christian-Paganism’ or ‘Jewish-Hinduism’. If yoga or reiki were essentially Hindu or Buddhist, they would self-identify as such. Although they have cultural roots acknowledged by westerners to avoid cultural appropriation, the idea that Christian-adapting these practices is cultural appropriation is a logical fallacy. Either they are self-proclaim spiritual tools or they are religions. They cannot be spiritual tools adaptable to all religions except conservative Christians-then they are a religion.
Christian can Adapt Yoga without Remorse
What society refers to when it speaks of yoga is often asana-or physical postures. These are a modern development of advanced meditative science. For clarity’s sake, I used these proper terms. That said, I am a Christian meditation teacher first and foremost. Although I seek to honor these various practices by using their common terms, my sole allegiance is to teaching Christian meditation. The research concluded that meditation is the essence that all of these transpersonal practices share.
The research suggested that the Desert Fathers did not invent meditation any more than the Hindus, Jews, Jains, Atheists, or Buddhists did. They were the first Christian adapters of pointing the tool of Christian meditation to Jesus. Pastors should be advised that what proponents of the ‘Christian yoga is appropriation’ conversation mean is that Christians must accept the religious multiplicity of liberalism or be ‘called out’ as appropriating. This is an illogical fallacy.
Then, there are the Christians who claim that demons are used to heal in practices such as yoga and reiki. The Pharisees had the same concerns of Jesus when he performed miracles in His day. Matthew 12:22-28 (NIV) says:
"22 Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. 23 All the people were astonished and said, “Could this be the Son of David?” 24 But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.” 25 Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. 26 If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? 27 And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. 28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you."
In summary, Christian fundamentalist and Hindu nationalists have long agreed that Christians should not practice Yoga. Yet, the research suggests that meditation and laying on of hands are spiritual tools that claim to be adaptable to any religion or worldview. This author is holding yoga self-proclaimed ‘feet’ to the theological ‘fire’ of Christian integrity. The study results concluded that Christian-adapting alternative medicine is a religious accommodation irrelevant to the ongoing conversation regarding cultural appropriation as evidenced by the mechanism of action and the spiritual practice’s self-made claims to welcome adherents from all faiths, world-views, and cultures.
Brees, Amanda Lynne, “The New Age of Christian Healing Ministry and Spirituality: A Meta-Synthesis Exploring the Efficacy of Christian-Adapted Complementary Therapies for Adult Survivors of Familial Trauma” (2021). Doctoral Dissertations and Projects. 3168.