163: Yoga and Orthodox Christianity: Are They Compatible?
Kevin Allen · February 3, 2011
Dr. Christine Mangala was raised in India and brought up a devout Hindu. Her family was close to one of India's leading Hindu gurus and teachers. Now an Orthodox Christian writer and teacher, she and Illumined Heart host Kevin Allen speak about whether various aspects of Hindu Yoga are compatible with Christian faith and practice, or whether Yoga should be shunned entirely.
Mr. Allen: Welcome to The Illumined Heart on Ancient Faith Radio. As many of you know, we have spoken often on this program about the influence of eastern, non-Christian, spiritual ideas, metaphysics, and worldviews on our culture. And this is the spiritual background I came out of, one which continues to be a subject of interest to me, and, I hope, for some of you as well.
Recently, my parish in southern California has begun to see a trickle of enquirers coming from various eastern traditions, especially those of Hinduism. So I hope our conversation today—Yoga and Orthodox Christianity: Are They Compatible?—will bring light to the subject. In addition to enquirers from eastern spiritual traditions, many Christian believers also practice yoga asanas, physical postures which have become virtually mainstream in North American and European life, and even some forms of Hindu-influenced meditation. So the question of the compatibility of yoga in its various meditative and especially the physical postures forms with Eastern Orthodox Christianity is one that we’ll attempt to address on the program today.
My guest, whom I’m very very enthused to be speaking with, was born a Hindu, a Brahmin, the highest and priestly caste in India. She was brought up on yoga. Her grandfather, in fact, was a personal friend of one of the expounders of modern yoga and Vedanta philosophy, the well-known Swami Sivananda, who is the founder of the Divine Life Society. And Dr. Christine Mangala became a Christian at age 22, and later converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. She received her doctorate in English literature from Cambridge University, and has authored articles on literature and books of fiction, of which she has written several, as well as various spiritual subjects, including yoga and Christianity. She is married to Dr. David Frost, the director of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge, England—a fine program, by the way—with whom she has four children, and she attends St. Ephraim’s Russian Orthodox Church in Cambridge, UK, England.
Her excellent article, “Yoga and the Christian Faith,” provided the impetus for this program, and I’m speaking with my guest today by telephone in Cambridge, England. Dr. Christine Mangala, welcome to The Illumined Heart on Ancient Faith Radio. It’s great to have you as my guest.
Dr. Mangala: Thank you very much, Kevin. It’s a great pleasure and privilege to be on this program.
Mr. Allen: Thank you so much. It’s good to have you as my guest. I’m going to enjoy this; I can tell already. Let’s begin with this first question, Christine, if I might. Speaking of yoga, not in its modern and popularized context, but in its classic context, as you were probably taught the yogas, is yoga understood as spiritual practice in its native Indian tradition, or is it thought of merely as some form of relaxation or physical exercise or both?
Dr. Mangala: Well, I have to say yoga in its classical context is a manifold discipline. At the core of it is a spiritual goal, and, therefore, it would be very fair to say that [in] the classical context it was understood as a spiritual practice, but by the time the late 19th century reformers got to work, and on, even in the early 20th century, the relaxation aspect of it also had started to dominate. But the Indian teachers of yoga, from Sivananda onwards, always have reiterated that the spiritual goal is the primary aim of yoga, and the postures and exercises and other things are an aid to it. If you read teachers like Ashok Kumar Malhotra, and even the most popular of yoga writers, like B.K.S. Iyengar, emphasize this.
Mr. Allen: Yes, and the point I’m trying to get to is—and we’re going to be talking about this rather continually throughout and building up towards it—is can these yogas be somehow separated from their spiritual context, so that’s why I wanted to start there. Now most of us, Dr. Christine Mangala, in Britain and in Europe and North America, are most familiar with the physical postures yoga, which is called Hatha Yoga, but it’s merely one of several classic yoga disciplines. Could you briefly summarize for our listeners the five—as I know them—classic yogas, the spiritual disciplines of Hinduism?
Dr. Mangala: Yes. In fact, you mentioned five—it’s a bit like the sacraments in the West: some say seven and some say countless, and so on. In fact, if you look at the Bhagavad Gita, every chapter is headed “Yoga of Something-or-other”; it’s a bit confusing, but we’ll stick to the five. And the five are: the Karma Yoga, which is the yoga through work to cultivating detachment and achieving a state of dispassion state, in which you do the work, and there’s a wonderful phrase in the Bhagavad Gita which talks about “work in worklessness” and “worklessness in work” and its paradox is to be realized in our everyday life; that is the Karma Yoga. Now, Jnâna Yoga is the yoga of true knowledge, true discrimination, and this is the exercise of the intellect in various forms, to discriminate truth from falsehood, ignorance from enlightenment, and so on. Now Bhakti Yoga, which is in fact the most popular one in India, I would say, widely practiced, simply recommends simple devotion and love to our chosen deity or to god in general. Then you have Raja Yoga which is a much more advanced form of mental and psychosomatic control. Now, Hatha Yoga, the one that is very popular in the West, focuses on getting fit, really, tuning the body up, if you like; that is to do with all the physical postures.
Mr. Allen: Thank you for that summary; I think it’s an excellent summary. So, Christine, in the context of classic yoga, as we’ve been speaking, how are these physical postures, the asanas, the Hatha Yoga, seen as being related to the other yogas? I mean, are they a spiritual partner, equally; a lower form; a prelude to the others; you know, can one be liberated in the Hindu context exclusively through the use of yoga postures or asanas, etc.?
Dr. Mangala: Yes, well, I would say that in the classical yoga, you can look at it in two ways: one is to see it in terms of a gradual ascent; perhaps that’s a bit misleading. I would see it much more like spokes in a wheel: there are various aspects, and the idea is to get to the center, and the physical postures are to be practiced along with all the other things as well, so that you actually do a simultaneous practice of several aspects of the yoga discipline. It is a manifold discipline, and I think in ancient—definitely in the ancient days, there was no question of achieving liberation—spiritual liberation—through just practicing the postures alone. The idea wouldn’t even have entered the minds of these ancient rishis—the yogis who practiced them—because they were fully aware of the whole range of psychosomatic problems that had to be overcome in any spiritual journey.
And even then, the yogi who just sits under a tree simply impressing people with postures or lying on a bed of nails was always slightly, I would say, regarded as a spectacle, a butt of ridicule. Even now there are people who do this at pilgrim centers, and I call them the “bizarre bazaars,” you know, just like a spectacle. And this definitely was not encouraged at all: just focusing on the physical aspect of the postures to expect somehow for you to take that into any spiritual state often leads into byways and dead ends, like some psychic feats become possible, but it doesn’t necessarily mean spiritual liberation. This is recognized by the Indian teachers in the classical context.
Mr. Allen: Speaking of yoga and its practice, in an organic sense, what is the ultimate goal of yoga, Christine, as defined by Patañjali and his classic Yoga Sutras and other writings like that?
Dr. Mangala: Well, Patañjali, in fact, speaks of Yoga as “eight-limbed” (ashtanga): eight-limbed postures, an eight-limbed discipline, and, in fact, postures—the practicing of postures, asanas—figures third in the list. It actually begins with moral and psychological preparation. And it starts with the five restraints, you know, you have to control your senses.; and five disciplines, this is the obverse side of it: you have to be trained to do the right things. And then you have third is physical postures. And then you go on to regulation of vital force and withdrawing of the sense organs (pratyahara), and then concentration and meditation, and, finally, you have the word “samadhi”—“absorption.” Now this is usually regarded as the ultimate goal: samadhi or absorption.
Now it becomes a tricky question as to what exactly are you absorbing into? And I’m afraid there are different answers to this question given by different schools of Indian/Hindu traditions. Some would say it is absorption into a kind of impersonal Brahman—that’s where the individual becomes identical with the universal; and some would say it’s absorption into a trans-personal, a godhead; and, of course, if you are in the Buddhist tradition, there’s no question of any godhead whatsoever, in the original Buddhist teaching: and so you enter Nirvana, which is blowing out. Absorption or samadhi, this is the key phrase which describes the Yogi Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras.
Mr. Allen: So it would be fair to say that sticking with the classic understanding of the yogic disciplines, the ultimate goal of which would be this samadhi. So I think we need to drill down a bit, then, and talk a little bit about that. And samadhi is often described in terms of saccidananda, pure consciousness, bliss, and so on. How does that compare, and is it compatible with our views within Christianity, of the kingdom of God and so on?
Dr. Mangala: Well, the notion, the concept of saccidananda, which is sort of truth, knowledge, bliss—it’s a tripartite description of this ultimate experience—to my mind it sounds wonderful but it’s a static concept, and it’s also an abstract concept. Now, when Jesus speaks of the spiritual goal of human beings, as the kingdom of God, to me it’s an incredibly rich, exciting, dynamic, inspiring vision. For, it’s not only internal, but also external; it’s not only personal, but it’s also corporate: it involves other human beings. And, besides, the kingdom of God that Jesus speaks of encompasses not only human beings, but all of Creation. We human beings are to be transfigured, but also Creation along with us. What’s more, it’s not a static goal, it is rooted in the Christian notion of Godhead, which is “life-creating Trinity,” we sing in the Liturgy, which means it’s a very dynamic, active force of love and of relationship.
And therefore you have an incredible vision here, a vision of faith, and it’s also, to me, even greater because it doesn’t end; it’s not a goal that you score and that there is an end to it, but it continues. It’s a continuing transformation from glory to glory as St. Paul talks about. I can go on talking about this, but too many words perhaps are not a good idea. But there is one very important reminder about the kingdom of God which I would like to just conclude with: the kingdom of God is achieved only through the cross of Christ, only by following Christ. What that means is suffering alongside with Him.
This is the other thing that excites me as a Hindu, a Hindu convert from Hinduism, one of the reasons I became Christian, was that I found the Hindu answers to evil and suffering extremely inadequate and even pathetic; simply to postpone the problem to karma or some life in the past was not good enough. Whereas, through embracing suffering wholeheartedly, and, conquering it, through love, through faith, we heal our own wounded self, also the wounded world. And now this is concurrent with the kingdom of God. And so all this just to suggest that the Christian idea of the kingdom of God is a far cry from what I would call—I expect I will offend people if I say it, but I will say it anyway—it’s a kind of “do-it-yourself kit” idea of samadhi. And also, samadhi, inevitably, becomes self-centered. Even if people talk about community work and so on, ultimately it does leave the world behind, it leaves the other people behind, and it leaves the Creation behind.
Mr. Allen: Do you think that—I’ve always been confused about this idea of samadhi, especially within the context of Bhakti Yoga which I practice, which, as you pointed out earlier, is devotion to a personal deity—and here is my confusion; maybe you could shed some light on it. And we’re talking about people like Vaishnavites who worship Krishna, and in my case it was Ramakrishna, and there are others that worship Holy Mother and Kali and so on and so forth. My question is: Is samadhi always, Christine, a losing of self? Of course, in Christianity, our personhood in the image of God is key. Is it always a losing of self or is it not always a losing of self or a “blowing out of self” as the Buddhists might say?
Dr. Mangala: Well, I think the “self” that is spoken of in Hindu traditions is not the same as the Christian understanding of a human person; the whole human anthropology is understood differently, and this creates a lot of problems, because when you talk about— when you look at the Bhagavad Gita, it’s one of the classic examples of the way the human being is looked upon as a kind of— the soul indwelling the body. The body-soul division is extremely strong, so what really matters is the soul; the body is just an aggregate of various elements. You have a very similar idea in other Hindu schools of philosophy, even in Buddhism, and Buddhism goes even further by demolishing the very notion of self as well. So when you ask, “What is it that absorbs?” Any illusory sense of self is what most Hindus would say. In other words, there is no sense of the value of a distinctly created human person to start with.
Now this is where I find Christianity so liberating, because we talk about— we have a clear idea and a cogent idea in Christian theology of God is love and God is a creator-God and the lover of mankind. Now, these two things matter immensely when you think about what human beings are, because if human beings are made in the image of God, they also have these personal qualities, if you like. And that is incredibly important, and when you talk about the kingdom of God or theosis and other notions that come with it, because human beings are intrinsically valuable, because they’re made in the image of God. Now, I don’t have anywhere in the Hindu thinking a parallel notion. And so samadhi, naturally, it’s confusing, because there are different ways of defining the human being, but mostly you will find they have a Gnostic undercurrent: the soul becomes important, but the body does not.
Mr. Allen: I’ve spoken though with some in this country who are in the Hare Krishna movement. We have folks that have started to become inquirers into our church—thank God—and they argue that we’re not talking about absorption into an impersonal deity, we’re talking about living forever as a unique being in a “loca” with Krishna, with their deity. So I was confused about whether we’re talking about loss of self in all cases or just in some of the Vedantic schools.
Dr. Mangala: One problem with so many manifestations of Hinduism of late is that it’s rather difficult to track cross-currents that are going on. You would find a lot of Christian terminology taken over and what I call these actually “leavening the lump” from within, meaning that so much of Christian thinking and Christian terminology and Christian notions have been absorbed into Hinduism and regurgitated as Hinduism back to the West. And this idea of living in a loca—it’s a wonderful fantasy. I met a Hare Krishna in the street some years ago, and he was trying to sell me a Bhagavad Gita, and I felt sympathetic and I said to him, “Okay, I’ll buy a copy”—I mean, I was working on translations of the Bhagavad Gita at the time—and I said to him, “You know, all you are dreaming of is a poetic fantasy. What is real is Jesus Christ, who has actually come as a human being. God has actually come at a historical point in time to this, to us, to offer all this that you’re dreaming about.” And that is where I would put the Hare Krishna movement.
Mr. Allen: That is such a brilliant way to put it, because, for myself, Christine, when I was meditating in the ashram and had my experience of Christ, as a prelude to that, I started to come to believe that my projections and my visualizations and my meditations as I was taught by my guru, were, in fact, poetic fantasies; they were my desires for something versus anything actually happening inside of me, if you know what I mean. So that’s a well-done, well-done overview. Did you have anything you wanted to add to that?
Dr. Mangala: I was going to say that I would extend the— you know the word “type” that is used in the Church Fathers and others, they use in their commentaries that there are certain types and images of what we expect, and Christ is the reality. And once you have the reality, the types are no longer needed. And there is a sense in which you do have a lot of types imaged in other religions. Some of them, at best, induce people to look in the right direction; at worst they can be demonic, that’s the difference. There’s no way of telling, and you need the spiritual discernment to find out which is which. Actually, the predictions can be so strong that you can actually hallucinate these images, too. Agehananda Bharati, who is an Austrian convert and a monk in the Hare Krishna order, talks about how he actually saw his goddess, and he’s very clear about what had happened, how it had happened to him, too.
Mr. Allen: Yes, and, of course, Rama Krishna had visions all the time with Kali and so on and so forth in some very, frightening to me, frightening ways and aspects. You wrote in your article on yoga and Christianity, Christine Mangala, that a key problem with yoga is that it encourages people to think that there is a way to wholeness of body and mind through the use of human techniques, that is, yoga, without grace and faith in salvation through Jesus Christ. Yet here’s a kind of a paradox I want to throw at you. The Orthodox, as you probably know, are sometimes accused, especially by Protestant Evangelicals, because of our emphasis on theosis and synergy with God, as advocating some form of the same sorts of things you accuse yoga of, you know, spiritual effort, works of righteousness. So can you help us understand how you make the distinction between yoga as false spiritual effort if you like, and theosis and synergy as appropriate or effective spiritual effort?
Dr. Mangala: I have to admit, first of all, I love the concept, the Orthodox concept of synergy. It’s the most beautiful and inspiring way of recognizing human freedom. Now, Orthodox writers emphasize synergy because they recognize this as part of being made in the image of God, the freedom that we have. God hasn’t stinted anything; He’s given us this freedom. And, of course, the idea of effort is something that can be easily misrepresented. It’s not a case of us pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps, but it’s much more the case of exercising this God-given energy and directing our energies—physical, mental, spiritual—towards God, towards Christ, through the Spirit.
Let me give you an example; it’s not a very brilliant example, but a crude example. Let’s say someone is driving headlong with all his passion and eagerness to achieve something, except he doesn’t know quite where he’s going and perhaps he’s even on the wrong road, maybe the SatNav has let him down. But the moment that he realizes he’s not getting anywhere, he has to turn back. Now, that is what most of us are like, that in our fallen condition we are misled by our sins, by our passions, by the distractions of the world and confusion, and we seek our solace at first in all sorts of things which the world—what the Bible calls “the world” or “the flesh”—offers, but when we realize that none of this is working, we literally turn back, that is, we repent. Now if this action of turning back, the redirection of our energies, towards our proper human goal, which is to seek and find God and worship and glorify Him, once this turning back takes place in all sincerity, we are infused by the Holy Spirit. In other words, God’s energies start to flow into us. This is why I love the word “synergy,” because it recognizes two aspects of the spiritual life. So when we pray, when we struggle, it is the Holy Spirit which is praying through us. This is the answer I would give to the Protestant Evangelical suspicions of this so-called “synergy” being some kind of effort.
I will actually give you another of my favorite examples, which is taken from the saint of our parish, St. Ephraim the Syrian. He has a beautiful image which tells us what kind of effort we are to make. St. Ephraim sees the human person as the “harp of the Spirit,” this lovely musical instrument. To play well the music of the Holy Spirit, we need to be clean: the harp needs to be clean and well-tuned, and its strings neither too tight nor too slack. That is our spiritual effort, the ascesis, all the things that are recommended in the Orthodox Church and the Orthodox tradition of fasting, almsgiving, repentance, thanksgiving, prayer: all these are means to achieve the tuning. That is what I see synergy is: a redirection of energies God-wards so that God’s energies can flow into us and transform us. I hope that answers some of the criticism.
Now, similarly with theosis; it’s a bit of a daring and a frightening word for some people; they feel it’s presuming too much, but it isn’t at all if you look at the Bible, because what are we told there? We are commanded by God, we are told “to be holy even as God is holy.” How can we ignore this command? And it’s not as if He is asking us to do it by ourselves, not at all; He’s pulling us up, if you like. It’s not a military order, but it’s a command of love. God is willing. He is the great Lover. We keep singing “the Lover of mankind” in all our services. We mean what we say: “God is the Lover of mankind.” He is eager to share His life, and He seeks us first. The Parable of the Prodigal Son is a classic instance of telling us how He seeks us first. And when we are still far away, He still comes running to us.
Now all this is very difficult for a modern sensibility to register because they haven’t even begun to think of God as love. They are still trapped in the old-style ideas of God as the punisher, God as the sin-picker, and God as the law, and all these false gods have to be got rid of first. And when you read the Bible and pray, you discover the God of love, which is where you have to start. But what happens when love is offered? Many people these days—and they’ve done it in the past and they do it still—saying, “No, thank you. I am sufficient unto myself.” But the moment you shut, you close the door, God is not going to force himself. So I like to think of theosis as being transfigured by God’s love. The more we open the windows, which is [what] I would call our effort, the more the light of God streams in, and the light of the— we have to remember it’s not a static light, it’s the dynamic light of the Trinity—is allowed to penetrate and illuminate us and transform us. This is what theosis is, in my limited understanding.
And that it is possible in this life, we get a glimpse of in the life of the saints. They have shown us, down the centuries, that this kind of transformation is possible, to become transparent to God in this life is possible right in this life and it will be more fully realized in the life to come.
Mr. Allen: And thank God for that. Absolutely. And that’s one of the reasons I think that Eastern Orthodox Christianity and the Orthodox tradition, and I’m assuming you agree, have so much, you know, when you say “to offer” it somewhat sublimates the great Hindu tradition as well, but we have things in common that we can share, I think. Eastern Orthodox Christianity, of all the forms of Christianity, would be very attractive to Hindus. Do you agree?
Dr. Mangala: I think so, because of the Hindu’s natural sense of the sacrament, of the mysterious and mystical dimension of life. And in Orthodox Christianity they will find a home. I remember I was with my family, my husband, and we were traveling in India, and we were went to Haridwar up in the north and watched the evening lamp-lighting ceremony there. You know, hundreds and hundreds of people were lighting lamps, and at a certain time they were saying prayers and floating them down the River Ganges as the mother of all life and life-giver and so on. And I couldn’t help thinking how easily this could be transformed into a Christian service of thanksgiving, and the Orthodox would be capable of doing it, because, you know, we approach everything in a mystical, in a sacramental way, and the Hindus naturally would find that compatible with what they grew up with.
Mr. Allen: And Hinduism is so physical, even with the duality of soul and body, there are so many physical aspects to it, and, of course, we— the physical aspect within Orthodox Christianity has been sanctified through the Incarnation, so I agree with you. How and when, Christine, did modern postural yoga and modern meditation yoga become, as you wrote in your article, “remolded in the idiom of American schools of self-help and positive thinking and become marketed as a safe and easy pathway to bliss within the grasp of all”? Was this Vivekananda in the 1800s or was it Maharishi before that or after that or who?
Dr. Mangala: Actually, it goes way back, believe it or not, and I don’t want to sound as if I’m putting it all squarely in America, but what happened was in the early 19th century, there were certain literary figures, like Emerson and Thoreau, who were the beginning of this movement. And Emerson, of course, was a total Transcendentalist and a Unitarian, and he found the concept of the Over-soul and he wrote poems on Brahman and so on. But did you know Thoreau, the Boston Brahmin, was the first to practice yoga?
Mr. Allen: No, I did not know that. Really?
Dr. Mangala: Yes, I believe he was. And then these people actually probably were reacting against their excessive Calvinistic Puritanism, I don’t know, but that’s the background. And they reintroduced a more idealistic notion of human beings. I always feel whenever in history, this is the way the Holy Spirit works, whenever in history, something gets forgotten or not recognized sufficiently, someone comes along and it gets overemphasized, you know, and you have to recover the balance somewhere or other. And then the waters get slurred and muddied because of other people coming in and having their input. I mean, there were people who are flirting with Swedenborgian ideas and Madame Blavatsky and her Theosophists and all these people—the details are difficult to go into now, but I have a book to recommend on that, I will do that in a minute—but they created an ethos, this is the important thing; they created an ethos of psychologized psychic religion.
Now, interestingly, when Vivekananda got to his parliament of religion, this was the air he breathed, and he very quickly saw the potential, and it was an extraordinary criss-crossing of the East and West once again. And he changed, he reformulated classical Hindu metaphysics, and he produced something called “practical Vedanta,” which is in fact far from what Shankara, the original Vedantan philosopher, taught. With his “practical Vedanta,” even for Vivekananda it was a bit too abstract, so then he produced his manual on Raja Yoga, and this is what was highly influ— this was a— the language of this manual is incredibly very like [that] of the self-help books and taking charge of oneself. He says bluntly that the whole aim is to take control of oneself and to control nature.
And in his writings there’s sometimes, what I feel is preposterous, and sometimes very brusque promises of instant results, and this appeals to the emerging consumerist mentality. Now after him this kind of approach, of “instant results” and “quick fixes,” if you like, “do it yourself,” all this “here and now” and “in your own home and in your own self, don’t bother going anywhere else,” you know. This developed further with people like Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Rajneesh and whole peoples any number of swamis and matajis and whatever.
I did mention this book, and I think your readers might be interested. It’s called A History of Modern Yoga: Patañjali and Western Esotericism written by Elizabeth [de] Michelis and she has some very useful information about this extraordinary cross-fertilization of Eastern and Western ideas in the late 19th century and how it eventually produced these two forms of yoga: postural yoga and meditative yoga.
Mr. Allen: Give for our listeners again— could you give us the title and the author; spell the author’s last name?
Dr. Mangala: Yes, the author is Elizabeth [de] Michelis: M-I-C-H-E-L-I-S, and her book is called A History of Modern Yoga: Patañjali and Western Esotericism. It was published by Continuum Books in 2004.
Mr. Allen: Carrying along on this line that we’ve been on—we’re starting to descend a bit—is there anything wrong, in your opinion, with using yoga as a form of relaxation or physical exercise? And as a follow-up to that, should Christians be aware of or troubled by any spiritual baggage that often goes along with yoga? And do you think yoga can be a completely non-religious activity?
Dr. Mangala: Paradoxically, the movement which started then and has now resulted in—let’s give an example—the department of health and sports in England recommends yoga for its footballers and athletes. The National Health Service here recommends yoga for people with medical problems and so on. It’s become very much used as a form of physical exercise and relaxation, alongside physiotherapy and other such things. And, in a way, I think this is a good thing because what they have done is to dissociate it, and, definitely, a few stretches or proper breathing does help the posture and realign and calm the mind.
Here there has to be a word of warning. Exercise in moderation is a fine thing, and yoga exercises can be, in moderation, a fine thing. But, I would have also noticed this, is with some people—someone I know, this has happened—is that some of these people get bored with the simple ones and then they go on to the more complex ones, and then it becomes an addiction. When I say “addiction”—because the good hormones it produces , it gives you a high and you become dependent on it—the same way runners get addicted to running, and other such things. And that is the time to stop and consider what exactly is going on, you know, whether you are just relaxing or actually binging on it, if you like. And that’s a danger point.
And the second thing I would say about the spiritual baggage is: Christians definitely—I’m speaking for Christians here—definitely need to be careful what they receive by way of spiritual baggage whether they are reading books or whether they are going to yoga classes. First of all—there are two things to do—first of all, they have to be, Christians have to be fully grounded, and properly grounded in their Christian faith and prayer and worship. Only then we Christians will have the light, the proper light of Christ, to discern the good and take it and leave the bad. Now I have this rather simple image Christ is like— People ask me, “How do you deal with your past, your Hindu past?” I say, “Well, there are some good things in the attic and some rubbish, and Christ is the magnet.” I’m using metaphors here. Christ acts like a magnet. He will attract to himself the good things and the rest will fall away.
Now we need that light, otherwise we will not be able to tell what’s right and wrong. The second thing is to watch out if these yoga teachers, whether they stay with the postures alone or whether, by implicitly or explicitly, they go on to other things which take you into the Hindu spiritual ethos which is alien in its goal of samadhi and self-realization and all those other things, and that is, as I have said, incompatible with Christianity, where we are to look for the kingdom of God. And to go along with those things, I would even say, is a form of apostasy at its worst. And so, and I’m quite clear: there are two things needed. You have to be grounded in good Christian faith and worship and prayer, and also therefore to be able to discern. And also watch out when these exercises are— just stay as exercises or whether they subtly morph into something else.
A friend of mine here, who is doing research, went to these classes to keep fit, and after a while she found that the teacher was giving them mantras, and she started entering into strange mental states— and she was already doing her Ph.D. research which is enough to send anybody into a strange mental state anyway, and that didn’t help—and she got rather alarmed and then retreated very fast, because she is an Orthodox girl and so she knew there was something wrong here, and she stopped. So I’m talking—we do have to exercise discernment, and that’s very important.
Mr. Allen: Yeah, you know, as an aside to that, when I went through the transcendental meditation class, many many many years ago, before I became a Christian, they tried to take it outside of Hindu religious ethos, however, you are told you have to bring a piece of fruit and you have to bring something else, and then when you go there, the American instructor places it before a photograph of Maharishi and his guru, some Sanskrit words are given, and then you are given a Sanskrit mantra to repeat, so this is very much transcendental meditation within the context of Hinduism. So your point’s very well taken. What do you make of the attempts—as we’re coming to a close, Christine—of the attempts to “Christianize” yoga techniques, you’ve written about Déchanet and some of the others. Can there be a true, Christian yoga?
Dr. Mangala: Déchanet is a very interesting case. He’s a very clear-minded writer. Do you know his work?
Mr. Allen: I don’t. I was, frankly, introduced to him through your article, and I’m going to read him now that I’ve learned about him.
Dr. Mangala: He’s very thorough, and he’s very careful also to distinguish the yoga’s spiritual ethos from Christian beliefs and he’s made it very clear that they are incompatible. He’s very clear-headed and very sound. Then in the second part of the book he makes some very specific recommendations about how to use the postures to glorify God and to sing His praises and to express our contrition and so on. It’s a kind of a synchronizing of Christian— phases of Christian prayer and worship with yoga postures.
Now I thought this sounded exciting, so I spent some more time when I was writing this article practicing it, doing what he recommended. Then, after a while, I had this uneasy feeling that I was terribly self-conscious in my prayer. I wasn’t forgetting myself; I became excessively conscious of myself. I didn’t like that at all. I wanted to focus on God, not on how I was performing. And this distracted me too much. So my personal experience was that I would rather simply do the exercise and then pray without thinking about my postures in that sense.
Mr. Allen: Interesting. As we’re coming to a close, if there are listeners that are listening today, Christian or not—but I think I’m going to ask you to really focus on this as we conclude, for the Christian listeners—what have you concluded about the practice of yoga as an Eastern Orthodox Christian? Do it, don’t do it, with limitations, etc., etc., etc.?
Dr. Mangala: Well, I think I— people, provided they know what they’re doing… If, for instance, some of the asanas in the early stages are okay to do them, if you take them as a form of relaxing and as a form of tuning up the body and of learning to breathe properly—most of us don’t know how to breathe properly—but that is as far as I would go. Anything more complicated becomes a challenge anyway because you have to be in a fit medical condition. For instance, if you suffer from high blood pressure, you shouldn’t do the sirsasana pose. You know, that’s bad for you, and you have to know these things.
Mr. Allen: The headstands.
Dr. Mangala: Yes. If you have a thyroid condition, you have to be careful about what asanas you do and not. So you do need more knowledge than most people have who go to these classes. So already the trouble starts there. And then as for meditative practices and chant and mantras and so on, definitely no, because they take you into psychic states and that sometimes can become very dangerous. So I would say a very minimal use. Minimal in the sense in— and one doesn’t even have to think of it as yoga if you like.
Mr. Allen: Well, I just want to add one thing. I knew a woman who was 42 years old, and she took up Hatha Yoga; she became a practitioner, maybe an addict. She did not know she had high blood pressure. She did these headstand postures regularly and during one of them—she’s a very close friend of my mother’s—during one of them she suffered a brain aneurism and died on the spot.
Dr. Mangala: Well, that’s an extreme instance. In fact, one of our more, I would say humorous gurus in India, regards some of these yogic practices— he pokes fun at them, saying these postures actually damage the capillaries of the brain, and people— you suffer from some kind of a mental damage, and they think you enter this state of bliss because you simply no longer know what’s what.
That’s an extreme criticism, but there is a danger, and even doctors, when they recommend, they have to be careful as to what they are recommending people. I hope they do know. Otherwise, I myself find every time I forget, every time I’m stooping in front of the computer too much, if I sit back and breathe a bit, more slowly and so on, I feel better. That’s about as much as it comes to, and, similarly, when the limbs get stiff, you do some of the basic postures and it helps. I’m not a very good practitioner, so I’m not one to talk. I go from doing nothing to doing something. Yes, I’m glad you mentioned that story because the medical condition is an extremely important one when people start doing these things.
Mr. Allen: Yes, as with any physical exercise. Well, my guest on the program today has been Christine Mangala, Ph.D. Christine, thank you so much for being my guest on The Illumined Heart on Ancient Faith Radio. It’s been a lot of fun and very fascinating.
Dr. Mangala: Thank you very much. It’s been a great pleasure talking to you.