Dr. Win Corduan

The following material consists of four entries in my blog (http://wincorduan.bravejournal.com) in early Octoberl of 2010.  As will become apparent immediately, it basically arose out of someone asking me for my opinion concerning another discussion, of which I never became a part.  I answered the question, but wanted to provide some substantial evidence to back up what I was saying as well.  Please consider the following two paragraphs carefully. I'm not trying to single out anyone or direct my comments at anyone in particular, but I'm trying to do my best to get Christian apologists to see that there is just as much of a need for us to spend time on Eastern thought as on, say, Hume and Kant.

Within the main discussion someone expressed disappointment concerning the lack of sound Christian theology in the argumentation of one side of the debate. I can only lament alongside him. However, there was very little, if any, attempt to confront, let alone understand, Yoga in the context of its Hindu heritage or scriptures either. For the most part the Christians who were consulted were repeating the same old stereotypes that line up everything supposedly Hindu with Advaita Vedanta (pantheistic monism).  As I keep saying, that has got to stop!  If we want to argue against a non-Christian position, we should not let it be against its caricature! Furthermore, we cannot expose the lies of non-Christians if we do not become familiar with their actual belief systems rather than their propaganda, which is often intentionally misleading.

We teach very little theology in the Christian Church today, and we do virtually nothing to learn the truth concerning the beliefs of those who seek to undermine the truth of Christianity, but then we act surprised that Christians either don't know or ignore the difference! What's wrong with this picture?

These entries are basically as I posted them with just a little editing or tweaking, for the most part for the sake of responding to some comments as they were made.  I'm also including one extremely helpful comment from a reader.


"Little children, guard yourself from idols." 1 John 5:21 (HCSB)

So, Bill Roach asked me on Facebook what I thought of Al Mohler's response to Stefanie Syman's recent The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010. Ms. Syman's book celebrates the assimilation "of this spiritual discipline" (her expression) into American culture. Dr. Mohler led his September 20 blog with the assessment,

"When Christians practice yoga, they must either deny the reality of what yoga represents or fail to see the contradictions between their Christian commitments and their embrace of yoga. The contradictions are not few, nor are they peripheral."

I responded to Mr. Roach that I thought that, unfortunately, Dr. Mohler's comment was right on target.

---Why unfortunately? Because clearly there are a lot of Christians who do not understand the nature of Yoga and are accepting the claims that are made for it by its advocates uncritically.

I added my usual comment that practicing Yoga for its health benefits is similar to partaking of communion for the nutritional value of the wafers and grape juice. [My sacramentally oriented readers may substitute wine.] Someone picked up my comment and published it separately (thank you!), and someone else commented on it. and--since I don't want anyone to feel singled out, there's no need to mention any further names.

I must admit that, at first, I had a hard time understanding some of the critical comments that a few people made concerning this analogy.  There were a few immediate comments to the effect that were some significant benefits for one's physical health in Yoga, which really befuddled me since I didn't think that I had questioned that point.  Then it dawned on me that they were totally missing the point of the analogy; it was not about the respective contributions to one's health of the practices, but about turning something considered to be sacred by those who designed it into the All-American quest toward developing strong bodies in twelve ways.  They apparently thought that I was saying that there is virtually no nutritional value in grape juice and wafers, and that I was applying the same lack of contribution to our bodily health to Yoga.  That was hardly the point.  For what it's worth, grape juice, in particular, is really good for you, but when we drink it during communion in church, we are not getting a head start on Sunday lunch.  Instead . . . . [let's see how I can get out of this without getting involved in intra-Christian theological disputes concerning the sacraments or ordinances] . . . . the juice is a rigid designator for the blood of Christ that he spilled on the cross to atone for our sins.  This is the focal point of communion.  It is a thoroughly religious act, which we would presumably perform even if the juice had no nutritional value.  In fact, as Paul points out in 1 Corinthians, to hold communion just because you're hungry is a blasphemy.  

The other side of the analogy is that a very similar thing is true about Yoga. In these entries I'm trying to show that Yoga is an intrinsically religious practice--always has been and always will be, and it really does not matter whether it does or does not help your body feel better. For all that I know, in the Old Testament people may have felt better after they worshiped Baal or Dagon as well; this is not a criterion for measuring what is right--none at all: not a secondary one, not a weak one, not a minor one. You don't evaluate idolatry on whether it makes you feel better or more spiritual.  When you do Yoga, you participate in a form of Hinduism; you are acknowledging a god other than the one who has revealed himself in the Bible, and are, thus, committing idolatry.  

My first instinct in starting this entry was to assert that my interest in writing on this matter is only relevant to Christians, and that it simply comes down to the question of whether Christians are free to participate in Yoga without engaging in a non-Christian religious practice. But then I realized that I would have to take that back. It's also relevant to non-Christians insofar as their representation of Yoga may not correspond to its reality in the past or the present. I'm used to that by now. Some of us older folks may remember how the Guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi told everyone that Transcendental Meditation, TM®, was not religious in nature and was compatible with all religions. I've also heard the same claim made, to mention just two examples, concerning the Buddhist dharma and devotion to Krishna. The person who said this about Krishna needs to be careful; in contrast to other cults of the late sixties and early seventies, ISKCON (The International Society of Krishna Consciousness) won its lawsuits on the basis of its claim that it is a legitimate part of Hinduism (which it is), while the Guru M.'s deceptions got him in trouble. Okay, sorry, I know I'm stacking, but I need to get in one more point before getting back to Yoga. The current rage in gurus, at least in India, is Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (not the sitar player, who does not receive any "Sri's"), and he began his illustrious career as a direct disciple and assistant of the Guru M. --- Enough stacking. Pop!>

Here are some excerpts of what the American Yoga Association tells us:

What is Yoga?
The classical techniques of Yoga date back more than 5,000 years. In ancient times, the desire for greater personal freedom, health and long life, and heightened self-understanding gave birth to this system of physical and mental exercise which has since spread throughout the world. The word Yoga means "to join" or "yoke" together, and it brings the body and mind together into one harmonious experience.
Hatha Yoga: The physical movements and postures, plus breathing techniques. This is what most people associate with Yoga practice.
No one knows exactly when Yoga began, but it certainly predates written history. Stone carvings depicting figures in Yoga positions have been found in archeological sites in the Indus Valley dating back 5,000 years or more. There is a common misconception that Yoga is rooted in Hinduism; on the contrary, Hinduism's religious structures evolved much later and incorporated some of the practices of Yoga. (Other religions throughout the world have also incorporated practices and ideas related to Yoga.)
Yoga is not a religion. It has no creed or fixed set of beliefs, nor is there a prescribed godlike figure to be worshipped in a particular manner. Religions for the most part seem to be based upon the belief in and worship of things (God or godlike figures) that exist outside oneself.


Not all of the above information is incorrect. Some of it is true, and some of it is based on speculations for which we cannot say whether they are true or false. For example, it is true that other religions have made use of practices similar to Yoga (whether they are related or not is a separate question). In ancient Daoism, to pick just one example, certain people worked on breathing techniques that they called "embryonic breathing." The philosophy outran the physiology here, but the idea was that one could return to a trouble-free state of simplicity by learning to breathe in self-consciously slow rhythms, simulating the breathing of the embryo in its womb.

It is amazing to me how much information some people claim to have concerning the Indus Valley civilization that predated the immigration of the Aryans into India. There have been a lot of archaeological excavations exposing the cities that are now known as Harappa and Mohenjo Dara, and they have brought to light illustrations, figurines, and--what may be--seals, depicting person-like beings. The pictures make it crystal clear that these early occupants of the Indus Valley had a keen interest in sex and fertility. However, we cannot decipher their writing, and, thus, identifying these beings as gods, particularly as precursors to Hindu gods, is speculation. And so is the assignment to them of certain activities or their motivations. Take the beginning of the above first sentence, "In ancient times, the desire for greater personal freedom, health and long life, and heightened self- understanding . . . " We don't know any of that. We can't.


Nor can we know that they were practicing anything comparable to Yoga, except maybe Tantric Yoga, the type that culminates in ritual intercourse, since some of the depictions are pretty explicit, but if so, the erotic activity disguises the Yogic intentions. The main piece of evidence for Yoga in the Harappan culture is a purported seal that pictures an early form of the god who would become known as Shiva in Hinduism. Well, actually we don't know that it's Shiva; the figure is not inconsistent with some later characterizations of Shiva, but a positive identification outruns the available data, even just in terms of calculating probabilities. (Several websites shoot themselves in the foot, so to speak. After showing the undeniable overlap in symbols between the Shiva and the Harappan figure, they oversell the significance of their conclusion by stressing that these symbols are world-wide. So, unless there were a universal cult of Shiva--which there isn't--they've given away their case.) Anyway, what supposedly indicates that proto-Shiva is doing Yoga is his posture: the legs in more or less a lotus position and the hands in a rigid mudra, a fact that is eclipsed, however, by the very evident arousal that he is sporting. The other evidence . . . sorry, but there isn't anything better that gives evidence of Yoga. And there probably won't be any until someone decodes the writing, at which points some of the assumptions that people are making are just as likely to be tossed out as reinforced. There are several representations of these overstimulated proto-Shivas; the picture to the left is one that appears to be in the public domain. For another version click here.

I'm beginning to realize that this will need to be a multi-parter because I'm not even close to done with what I started tonight. But you know something: I'm finally having fun with the blog again.

The first actual direct evidence we have of Yoga by the name is from the second half of the first millennium B.C. Then the dam burst, and we have the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, at least a precursor of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Karma Yoga, Jñana Yoga, and various other forms thereof. But by that point we are also a thousand years into the Aryan immigration and the development of the second phase of Hinduism. Anything that we have that is indisputably Yoga is Hindu. I guess the reason why people are claiming that Yoga is pre-Hindu is that they want to take it out of the realm of religion. Ouch! Then why insist that the person pictured in that embarrassing posture is the god Shiva? You can't have it both ways. Either drop the religion-disconnection or drop the identification of Shiva. But please: don't treat us to a non-religious Shiva.

For the last point tonight, let me mention Hatha Yoga. As you can see in the above quotations from the Yoga Association, Yoga-people frequently define Hatha Yoga as purely the physical exercises connected with Yoga: specifically the postures (asanas) and breathing methods (pranayamas). They contrast it with Raja Yoga ("royal Yoga") which makes it easy to establish a distinction between Hatha as physical and Raja as including a spiritual dimension. But that distinction is only hierarchical. Hatha Yoga as purely physical is purely bogus.

Here are the first verses of the first chapter of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika:

Salutation to Adinatha Shiva who expounded the knowledge of Hatha Yoga, which like a staircase leads the aspirant to the high pinnacled Raja Yoga.
Yogin Swatmarama, after saluting first his Guru Srinatha explains Hatha Yoga for the attainment of Raja Yoga.
Owing to the darkness arising from the multiplicity of opinions people are unable to know the RajaYoga. Compassionate Swatmarama composes the Hatha Yoga Pradipika like a torch to dispel it.
Matsyendra, Gorata, etc., knew Hatha Vidya and by their favour Yogi Swatmarama also learnt it from them.
The following Siddhas (masters) are said to have existed in former times: ---[There follows a list of 33 names, beginning with Shiva.]---
These Mahasiddhas [great masters of magic power], breaking the sceptre of death, are roaming in the universe.
Like a house protecting one from the heat of the sun, Hatha Yoga protects its practiser from the burning heat of the three Tapas; and, similarly, it is the supporting tortoise, as it were, for those who are constantly devoted to the practice of Yoga.
A Yogi desirous of success should keep the knowledge of Hatha Yoga secret; for it becomes potent by concealing, and impotent by exposing.

So much, I would think, for the idea of Hatha Yoga not being religious. Its basic text tells us that it was taught by Shiva, and that thirty-three masters have escaped death and are roaming the universe. Now, the practice of Hatha Yoga will lead to Raja Yoga, and in the meantime it provides spiritual benefits.

Tapas has several related meanings. Its root lies in "to burn off" or "singe." Typical uses of the word refer to harsh self-disciplines, disciplines performed as penance, the injurious results of discipline, or the heat of physical passions.

The comment below was added to the next entry, but its content really belongs here. The insight into the Harappan figure is particularly valuable.

Thanks Win for addressing this issue. I am so fatigued with the unknowing assertions of people who say that yoga is only for exercise. . . . I have several times gotten the further, more specific response that Hatha yoga is only for exercise." I have then suggested that they consider the practices (niyamas) necessary for Hatha yoga, four of which are overtly religious: "The ten niyamas mentioned by those proficient in the knowledge of yoga are: Tapa, patience, belief in God, charity, adoration of God, hearing discourses on the principles of religion, shame, intellect, Tapa and Yajña." (Hatha Yoga Pradipika Chapter 1, 18). "Yajna" is the offering of sacrifices.
They are quite persistent in asserting that the yoga they participate in is not religious. I know this is a possibility, yet I am highly doubtful of this. I suspect they often mean by "religious" something formal: not done inside a temple or in front of an idol, etc. This truncated view of "religious" seems to me to be self-serving for those who want to participate in something without being censored by anyone or having to face up to being called to account.
By the way, the figurines at Harappa don't seem to me to be yogic in that their feet are placed together, not in typical yoga position. Rather, it might be tantric (as you suggested) in that the heels are placed under the male organs. It seems to me that to identify these as yogic is a stretch.


As I said, this entry needs to spread over several days. Next time:  Ishvara, the god without whom there would be no school of Yoga.


Before going on with my exposition of Yoga, allow me to reproduce the response I gave to a question earlier today:

Do you think 1 Corinthians 8 offers support for those Christians who see nothing wrong with practicing Yoga?

1 Corinthians 8 is about whether a Christian is allowed to eat food offered to idols, and Paul's answer is a qualified yes--qualified even more later on in the book. The larger part of his answer here concerns looking out for each other's welfare, making sure that your actions do not cause a weaker brother to stumble. In this case, this admonition would translate into taking account of the possibility that someone seeing you freely engage in Yoga starts to emulate you and gets sucked into Eastern mystical religion. I can't assess the likelihood of that happening, but it certainly is a real possibility. I'm purely making an educated guess here, but I would strongly suspect that someone like Marcia Montenegro, who has a lot more real-life state-side experience than me, would put the probability relatively high (my expertise being more on the religions in their classical forms than their New Age distortions).

Paul begins by pointing out that we know that the idols to whom food has been offered are not real. So, if we do not make an issue of the origin of the food, it's okay to eat it. (On a slight tangent, in most contemporary cases abroad today, e.g. in China and India, the origin of the food is always an issue, and there are far too many "weaker brothers," so that, for all practical purposes, today in Asia partaking of food offered to deities is an impossibility for Christians.)

But none of this is really to the point. What is clearly not allowable is for Christians themselves to offer food to idols. Even though it's okay for them under certain circumstances to consume the fall-out of non-Christian rituals, it's never permissible for them to engage in non-Christian forms of worship. (This is a point that for some reason C.S. Lewis put to the side in The Last Battle, while other people have attempted to subvert it by misconstruing the story of Naaman. See last Sunday's blog entry). Biblical religion and idol worship are never compatible.--Thus, for my point to stick, I have to demonstrate that Yoga is, in fact, equivalent to worship of a false god. Unfortunately, that's not very difficult as long as I stick to the classical sources rather than someone's bare opinion.

To summarize last night's entry:

  1. The claim that Yoga is non-religious in origin because it predates the Aryan immigration into the Indus Valley suffers from several serious problems. An emphasis on sex and fertility is clear from the pictures, but since we cannot (yet) decode the writing, we do not have sufficient knowledge of the content of those ancient people's beliefs to know that the activities pictured dovetail with Yoga. Moreover, the claim is self-defeating if it is based on the Harappan depictions of the supposed god Shiva sitting in a lotus position in a state of sexual arousal. If it's Shiva, it's a god. If it's a god, it's religious. Regardless, we cannot infer from a set of pictures of the same figure sitting in a lotus position with a towering erection that Yoga, as anyone understands the term today, was practiced by the people of that society.
  2. Hatha Yoga, as depicted in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika is nothing if not religious. Right from its beginning, this work attributes its teaching to the god Shiva and mentions the names of various masters who have allegedly been liberated by its practice and are now freely roaming the universe. By the way, the term "great masters" in this context (mahasiddha) means just a little more than having attained a certain level of perfection. The siddhis, viz. the things that they have mastered, are the magic powers that come to the yogin at the top of the spiritual ladder.

Moving on, let me now address the most outrageous statement among the ones I quoted from the website of the American Yoga Association:

"Yoga is not a religion. It has no creed or fixed set of beliefs, nor is there a prescribed godlike figure to be worshipped in a particular manner. Religions for the most part seem to be based upon the belief in and worship of things (God or godlike figures) that exist outside oneself."

This assertion from the esteemed folks at the Yoga Association demonstrates a certain amount of strategic ambiguity. This is a rhetorical device by which one makes a statement that is literally true if one interprets it in one particular way. However, the statement is phrased in such a way that there's a good chance that the audience will construe it in a different way, which may not be true. So, at its worst, strategic ambiguity can be a way of communicating a falsehood by stating a literal truth. Such is the case with the above quotation. It places its emphasis on the fact that there appears to be no single creed, nor a fixed set of beliefs, nor one exclusive god-like figure inextricably tied up with Yoga. If you take the second sentence in its most literal sense, it is true, namely if you stick to the idea that there is no single god, creed, or set of beliefs that universally come with Yoga. To use another weird analogy, we could say: "Digestion has nothing to do with food. It is not limited to any one single food or any one single manner of consuming it." But the fallacy here is evident: you cannot have digestion apart from some food or other and some way of eating it, even if people's diets and table manners differ. Similarly, there may not be one single god or way of worship to which all forms of Yoga are tied, but there is always a god. Table 1.1. enumerates the classic sources on Yoga not intimately tied to belief in a divine being.


Table 1.1

I have to tell you that I'm not just talking about something like a deity by implication or abstraction. When I say "god" here I mean one of those infinite beings who are omnipresent, omnipotent, and so forth, though whether they are personal (viz. have personhood) or impersonal can go either way. As I shall mention a little bit more later, Yoga can focus on Shiva, Krishna, Ishvara, Atman-Brahman, Kali, Shiva-Durga, and so forth. The inclusion of Atman-Brahman in this list highlights the fact that there are some forms of Yoga where the god is not outside of yourself. Most of my readers know that there is a form of Hinduism (though just one among many) called Advaita Vedanta, whose most famous exponent was Shankara, according to which at the deepest level of your own "Self" (Atman) you can find your identity with Brahman, the infinite world soul and only true reality. Thus the strategic ambiguity continues. In this school of thought, you might not look "outside" to find a god, but you find Atman-Brahman on your inside. If that's the version of Yoga to which one subscribes, that doesn't make it any less religious.

It is true that not all schools of Hinduism prescribe belief in a god. There are atheistic schools of Hinduism, the most prominent one being the dualistic school of Samkhya. (I'm sorry, but if you find the idea of an atheistic school in a religion befuddling, I can only issue you a rain check for the moment.) In fact, the philosophical school of Yoga has a close affinity to the metaphysics of Samkhya, but there is one crucial difference. Yoga's view of the world includes one item that is not a part of Samkhya, namely a god. In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali the god goes by the generic term, Ishvara, which can be translated as "the Lord." (Sometimes also as "the Creator," though probably not in this context). Ishvara, as described in the Yoga Sutra is a god who is completely at rest.

I need to branch out a little more in order to explain the Yogic understanding of Ishvara. There is a basic assumption that is shared by virtually all Indian schools of religion. It appears prominently in Buddhism as the first of the Four Noble Truth, "To live is to suffer," and it shows up very clearly in the first aphorism of the Samkhya Sutra: "Well, the complete cessation of pain [which is] of three kinds is the complete end of man." Life entails suffering. The suffering is exacerbated by the seemingly unending cycles of reincarnation (samsara ). What distinguishes the schools, at least in part, is the cause to which the suffering is attributed. In Buddhism, suffering is caused by attachment to an impermanent world. In Vedantic Hinduism it is caused by ignorance of the Atman-Brahman identity. In the philosophical school of Yoga, it is motion or change that besets us and causes us grief. It is the fact that we live in a physical world (prakriti) in which change is a constant factor that our souls (purusha) cannot find release. But how do we escape from the constant flux? This is where in the Yoga Sutras the god, Ishvara, comes into play. He serves as the object of our meditation because he is immovable and immutable. This is how Patanjali describes him:





Translation by BonGiovanni
Yoga Sutra 1:24

kleshakarmavipākā- shayairapararmashtah
purushavishova Ishvara

Ishvara is a particular, widespread soul that is immune to hindrances, karma, and undesirable results.

God is a particular yet universal indweller, untouched by afflictions, actions, impressions and their results

BonGiovanni, "The Threads of Union: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. This is a popular translation, which can be found in many places on the internet, but unfortunately none of them come with any further bibliographic data.http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/yogasutr.html. The Internet Sacred Text Archive also has another alleged translation of the Yoga Sutra, but that one is distorted by the translator's imagination. He actually attempts to squeeze the Yoga Sutra into the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta. That's like turning Hegel into a logical positivist. There is a form of Yoga connected to Advaita Vedanta, as I mentioned above, but that one is not expressed in the Yoga Sutra.  This practice of making serious revisions in the process of presenting South-Asian texts as "translations" is rather widespread, which is why it is important to have some knowledge of Sanskrit when dealing with them so that one can sort out what is real, what may be an error, what has all the signs of a deliberate revision, and what could just be a supposedly well-meant deception.

So, what the yogin attempts to do in this context is to become like the god whom he worships.  He needs to focus his thoughts so that they become steady and imperturbable.  And he needs to steady his body.  Why does Yoga entail assuming certain postures (asanas) and then holding them? It's not for the isometric exercise value because the muscles are not put up against an external resistance. Nor is it for any isotonic value because you are not moving. It's the emulation of the total stillness of Ishvara.  The longer you practice, the longer you can hold the asanas, and, thus, the more adept you become.  Where is the purpose for that?  Physiologically, you don't gain anything after a point. But the spiritual value increases because you are becoming increasingly like Ishvara; the external posture supports the internal (mental, spiritual) balance.

I have some more points to share with you, but it's time to close for tonight with one last comment: In its original context, the word "Yoga" functions like the word "prayer" or "worship." The very words "prayer" and "worship" stipulate that there is a god or "godlike figure" to whom the prayer or worship are directed.  That's what makes prayer actually prayer and worship actually worship. To think of prayer or worship outside of a religious context--at least metaphorically--is unthinkable. And, yes, that's what makes Yoga actually Yoga. But that's not where we, who are Christians, belong. Look at what the Apostle Paul says about us:

He has rescued  us from the domain of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom  of the Son He loves,  in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.  . . . And you were once alienated and hostile in mind because of your evil actions. But now He has reconciled you by His physical body  through His death,  to present you holy, faultless,  and blameless before Him. Colossians 1:13-14, 21-22. (HCSB)




I have told numerous times how, when I was already in my Ph.D. studies, my department chair told me to get educated after I had just said something utterly ignorant with regard to Hinduism (and mercifully I do not remember what it was). So, I read Frank Noss's Man's Religions and took a seminar in Eastern religions.  In the seminar, when it came to dividing up topics for student presentations, I immediately chose Samkhya/Yoga.  You see, at the time, I had gotten myself a popular book on Yoga and was practicing my asanas and pranayamas daily because I thought it would be good for my nervous system.  (At that time Tourette's Syndrome was not yet widely known, and I was trying to take things into my own hands after a number of medical people had recommended to me that I would profit from counseling or group therapy, which I was sure was a crock, at least for that reason.) Thus when I made my presentation and had talked about all the esoteric matters such as  prakriti, purusha, the gunas, and Ishavara, I also described some of the postures and the breathing component.  The latter goes by the name of pranayama, and in the book it was called "alternate nostril breathing." I noticed that, as I was describing some of the techniques, some of my fellow students were trying to emulate in their seats some of the directions I was narrating.

When I got to alternate nostril breathing, I perceived a very obvious sense of confusion in my audience.  In the book I had bought,Yoga for Everyone, the apprentice yogin is instructed to breath air in through his right nostril while counting to eight, hold his breath for a count of sixteen, then exhale it  through his left nostril to a count of eight.  Then you reverse the process.  Repeat five times before moving on to the next exercise. It was a very practical book.   It alluded to the chakras and other attributes of the "subtle body" only occasionally and didn't get to meditation while gazing at a candle until close to the end. Progress in pranayama consists of extending the lengths of time for each part, particularly for the one where you hold in your breath.  As I was narrating this regimen I was having a riot watching my colleagues contorting their noses and ultimately their entire heads attempting to manipulate their nasal muscles so as to control on which side to inhale or exhale air.  In fact, it was so funny to me that I forgot to tell them that one does so simply by alternately closing off one nostril at a time with a finger. There is no special nasal dexterity required.  The emphasis is totally on the regulation of breathing.  

So, how does alternate nostril breathing contribute to your body's flexibility? Obviously it doesn't.  Whatever good it is supposed to do must lie somewhere else.  No doubt getting lots of fresh air is good for you. But pranayama restricts the amount of air you take in.  Okay, there's no need for me to play games.  Breathing regularly is a sign of feeling at rest, and you may also start to feel more at rest if you force yourself to breathe more evenly. If you are trying to calm someone in a panic, you may attempt to get him or her to breathe more slowly. Buddhism encourages people to breathe consciously and regularly, heightening their self awareness (which is ultimately supposed to lead to their non-self awareness).  So, is pranayama merely supposed to calm down and relax people?

Yes, to some extent pranayama contributes to the yogin's relaxation, but that's only the beginning.  Remember last night's discussion on the reason for the asanas--to emulate the immovability of Ishvara.  Mircea Eliade, whose book Yoga: Freedom and Immortality  (Princeton, 1969), is not without issues, but still possibly the best book around on Yoga, likens the efforts of the Yogin to becoming like a plant, which is not a bad analogy as long as you ignore botanical phenomena such as phototropism and the common idea that plants grow better if you talk to them or play Mozart for them.  And yeah, you also have to ignore plant respiration--inhaling CO2 and exhaling O2. The ultimate aim is not to breathe at all.

Here is a statement by Patanjali, author of the Yoga Sutra.  Forgive me for being pedantic about it again, but I feel that it is important that--in contrast to the rewritings by translators who want to tone down words for Western ears--you can (at least theoretically) check it out for yourself.







Yoga Sutras


tiSmnTsit íasàíasyaeRgitivCDed> àa[aym>.

tasmin tsati



That done breathing exercises stop inhaling-exhaling movements.

When that exists, control of incoming and outgoing is next.

Pranayamah is the arrest [viccheda] of the movements of inhalation and exhalation and it is obtained after the asanas have been realized.

Eliade adds some words to clarify his translation since he quotes the verse in the middle of a discussion, but he is more accurate in delivering the precise meaning than BonGiovanni in this case.  The word vicchedas means not just to "control", but to "cease, stop, cut off." You may have heard about yogins being buried underground without air for hours, and like me, you've suspected some way of cheating.  I cannot speak for all such cases or from personal investigation, but apparently after decades of pranayamah exercises; some of these gentleman have altered their physiology sufficiently to be able to get along without drawing a breath for long, long times.  This is the ultimate goal of the breathing exercises, totally in line with the goal of emulating the unchanging Ishvara.

The other day I said to someone that, when they do Yoga, they may engage in non-Christian religious activities without even knowing that they are doing so.  Here's one example, unless you don't consider the emulation of a pagan deity a religious activity.  No, there's nothing wrong with regulating your breathing, but when you do it in the context of Yoga, it's no longer a neutral action.  

We'll let that be it for tonight.  Oh yeah, you might want to know what happened to me and my own foray into Yoga. I hadn't wanted to let you know about my own engagement with it right away, because I wanted you to get comfortable with the idea that I was only giving arm chair reflections (another rhetorical device, though not strategic ambiguity).  Not so; it was even doing me good in some ways (though obviously not with the Tourette's). However, as you may understand, after I had studied it, there was no way I could continue with it. There are other ways of getting exercise. Christians love to talk about being willing to die for their Lord, but they don't seem to be willing to give up any comfort for him. One may promise to place one's "all" on the altar, but not one's Yoga, even though its practice may be dishonoring to the Lord. You don't have to burn incense in a temple to commit idolatry. Don't you think that giving the Lord precedence over whatever non-Christian practice you may think is helpful is worth it?




I'm going to try to bring things to a conclusion tonight.  In more than one sense, this issue has not been my personal cause at this time, even though you may have come to think that I hold to some fairly strong views on the topic; I responded to someone's inquiry concerning another person's assertions, and there was no way that I could simply say why he was right without going into more details than most people have access to.  Hopefully, I will have said all that is necessary for a fairly complete picture after this entry.  Appearances to the contrary, I know, I'm not really intending to counter all of the arguments that people bring up why, given the realities, practicing Yoga may still be acceptable for Christians.  It naively seems to me that the facts ultimately speak for themselves.

If I had been present on the plain outside of Babylon alongside Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed Nego, and if they had decided that, all things considered, it was a much better idea for them to just go ahead and bow down to the image than to get burned up in the oven, what could I have said? All I can do is to state the truth as I know it. I certainly could not have ordered them to defy the king and get killed.  They could have brought up all the usual reasons (rationalizations) why there really was no harm in that little gesture of bowing down so long as they did not really mean it.  As long as they stayed alive, they could continue to have influence for the good at Nebuchadnezzar's court, and the obligation for stewardship of their body outweighed the triviality of doing something meaningless that originated in a false religion.  And, yeah, they surely could avoid a lot of pain by going along with the king's command.  I could not have known that God would rescue them miraculously.  But what else could I have said? There is a limit to the power of rhetoric. All I could have done is to clarify for them that to bow down to the idol was not compatible with the faith they espoused, but beyond that, it was their decision alone, a decision that others have repeated, including Daniel and Paul and Peter and thousands of Christians under the persecution by the Roman Empire, and many of them gave their lives rather than commit idolatry..  

Of course, there is a difference here because  most of us are not even under pressure to participate in these things.  This latter fact, by the way, constitutes a big difference to European countries, where it is likely that your doctor may prescribe yoga-like exercises for you, which might be underwritten by the various national healthcare systems.  Health care providers and their funding organizations do not like it if you don't carry out all your prescribed treatments, as my dad experienced a while back.  But then again, I can tell you that several of us in the my generation of Corduans can look back at our fathers and grandfathers, a number of whom on both sides of our families stood up to the Nazis and experienced God's protection. (Cousin Alfred just a couple of months ago learned that about his maternal grandfather.) Well, I can't take credit for them, and I wouldn't have felt free to tell someone that they're obligated to take the risks involved, but these men of faith certainly give me perspective on whether I can take a chance on living without certain non-Christian derived practices.  To get back to my main point of this paragraph: Yoga is popular today, and in some social circles there even is a lot of pressure to take it up, though they are the exception. But if I can't be a witness for Christ by avoiding participation in a pagan-derived ritual, what makes me think that I could ever stand up to anything like a genuine persecution?

Well, as I said, don't expect any rhetoric or argumentation from me tonight. What you see in the picture above is a representation of the so-called eight limbs of Yoga. These come from the classical school of Yoga, on which I have been focusing for the most part. As you can see, the postures (asanas) and breath control (pranayama, which, as we saw last night actually leads to virtual cessation of breath) are numbers three and four, and they are essential, but they are only a part of the story.  The goal is always far beyond improving your body and having a better attitude towards life.  In the interest of not belaboring things to the point of opacity, let me give you a quick chart of a few forms of Yoga and their intended outcomes.




Hatha Yoga

Hatha Yoga Pradipika

Liberation of all the restraints on your body.

Raja Yoga (or classical Yoga as practiced by the school that actually carries the name of Yoga)

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

Liberation of your soul (purusha) from he restraints of the physical world (prakriti) with the aid of Ishavara.

Jñana Yoga

Upanishads and later writings

Realization of the identity of Atman and Brahman.

Krishna Yoga

Bhagavad Gita

Total devotion to Krishna, elimination of the fruits of karma, and release from samsara

Let's go back to the eight limbs and their significance. I believe the first four are pretty obvious.  True Yoga requires a total commitment and a pure life style.  The fifth limb, "mind control" goes far beyond simply collecting your thoughts.  It is the sublimation of the subject-object difference.  If you have been focusing on a piece of glowing coal, the god Ishvara, or a blade of grass, in your mind you now become one with the coal, the god, or the grass. In one sense, "mind control" means the very opposite of what the words appear to say.  You lose your mind insofar as you lose awareness of  your individuality as a single being in contrast to other individual entities.  (For those for whom this terminology is familiar, you enter a state of non-duality.)

But then you might wonder what could possibly be left.  What could be the difference between "mind-control" and concentration? It is the difference between epistemology and ontology.  Having given up the knowledge of yourself as distinct from, say, the coal, you now actually become the coal. You are the coal, god, the world, and thus they are subject to your control.  This is the most dangerous rung of your spiritual ladder because you now have powers beyond imagination.  The physical world is subject to your magical force.  Last night I mentioned the phenomenon of Yogins being buried alive for hours.  Another favorite example is teleportation.  The Yogin says "namaste" in the sense of "good bye" to his friends in Mumbai, and a few seconds later says "namaste" in the sense of hello to his friends in Kolkata.  Such, at least, are the claims.  But, as I said, acquisition of these siddhis is a liability because of the possibility of enjoying them too much and letting yourself get stuck on this level.  If you allow that to happen, you might be a big hit at parties, but you won't attain liberation of your soul.  Thus, you need to transcend the powers, leave them behind, and continue on with the last two stages.  

Dhyani actually just means "meditation," but this is very different from the previous meditation because now you let go of all objects in your mind: the coal, the god, the blade of grass.  The object of your consciousness is pure consciousness.  

And, once you have attained that level of meditation you enter the last phase, samadhi, which is frequently translated as "trance." Writers often emphasize that you are now in a totally self-contained state of pure nonconscious consciousness. (No I don't have any ideas what, if anything, that means either.) It is enstancy, as opposed to ecstasy, and you have attained moksha (aka release, nirvana, and so forth).  Eliade refers to this stage as catatonic, and that seems to be a clinically accurate label.  

I'm sorry if these desription are causing anyone conscience pangs.  I'm happy to answer any factual questions, which, by the way, means that you ask for further information rather than simply express your disappointment with me. Let's close with another selection from Paul, and please know that he is expressing a thought here that I am claiming as my own thought tonight to you, my readers.

For this reason I bow my knees  before the Father from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named. I pray that He may grant you, according to the riches  of His glory,  to be strengthened with power  through His Spirit in the inner man, and that the Messiah may dwell in your hearts through faith. I pray that you, being rooted and firmly established in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and width, height and depth,  and to know the Messiah's love that surpasses knowledge, so you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Ephesians 3:14-10 (HCSB).