A few weeks ago, an article in The Atlantic revealed that the Virginia lieutenant gubernatorial candidate and pastor E.W. Jackson has a particular hatred for the trendy practice of yoga. In his 2008 book, Ten Commandments To An Extraordinary Life , Jackson claims that the purpose of meditation practices inherent to yoga is to “empty oneself.” He advises against this, because, “Satan is happy to invade the empty vacuum of your soul and possess it.”
With an estimated 15.8 million Americans practicing yoga, I was surprised to learn that Jackson’s bizarre claims actually reflect a popular stance among particular denominations of the Christian community who deny yoga, seeing it as contradictory to their religion. Mega-church pastor Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, for instance, believes, “If you just sign up for a little yoga class, you are signing up for a little demon class.” Even the former Vatican chief exorcist, Father Gabrielle Amorth put in his two cents, asserting that practicing yoga “leads to evil just like Harry Potter.” What about yoga, which has become an increasingly westernized tradition, is so threatening to these people?
While I still doubt Mr. Jackson’s assertions, I certainly agree that yoga is a powerful practice that has the capacity to change people’s lives. Other than its ties to Satan, here are a few other reasons yoga is so scary.
According to a recent study, practicing yoga for just 20 minutes actually improves your focus and brain function, unlike alternative exercises such as aerobics. The study was conducted at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and its findings were released June 5. It surveyed a group of 30 subjects who participated in a single session of 20-minute hatha yoga. After the yoga session, they were given tests for memory and inhibitory control, which are two measures of the brain function associated with the ability to focus, retain, and use information. Those who participated in yoga finished faster and scored higher than those who spent the same amount of time on a treadmill.
Personally, I am always skeptical of politicians who discourage me from doing activities that are just plain good for me. No matter how you slice it, yoga is just that: good for your health! You have probably read or heard about the obvious benefits to yoga: It betters your posture, strength and flexibility. The practice focuses on lengthening and deepening one’s breath, therefore improving your endurance for strenuous activity. However, perhaps the most widely studied area of yoga is its positive effect on heart disease. Yoga was a key component of the first heart disease program that actually reversed heart disease with lifestyle and diet choices. Because yoga has been proven to lower heart rate, it helps not only those with heart disease, but also with stroke and high blood pressure. In a recent study led by Dr. Debbie Cohen of the University of Pennsylvania, findings concluded that twice weekly yoga sessions can reduce high blood pressure. Other conditions that yoga has been proven to benefit include high cholesterol, arthritis, back pain, and asthma. With numerous studies taking place across the globe, including some on its possible anti-oxidant effects, the list of benefits that yoga has on one’s physical health seems endless.
Because it is such a well studied and longstanding practice, we know that yoga improves one’s mood by sending more oxygen to the brain. Particular poses are even known to lift your spirits in a matter of minutes. Just the simple act of yogic breathing is used and scientifically proven to quell anxieties and help calm you down in just six seconds. Additionally, the philosophic tenants behind yoga that have remained in its appropriation into Western culture promote the self-confidence required when dealing with tough situations inevitable in the human experience. For instance, yoga has been suggested to those fighting postnatal depression or who are unemployed because it teaches impermanence and getting in touch with your true nature, which exists apart from temporary things such as one’s position, salary, and so forth. Even if one chooses to take yoga solely for physical purposes and negate the philosophy behind it, practicing yoga routinely can offer a welcoming, supportive and respectful community, which is often necessary for those enduring tough times.
In my personal experience attending numerous yoga classes on different coasts and studios, I have yet to take a class that does not begin with the disclaimer: Do only what you can. For this reason, yoga increases your body awareness, and demands that yogis are always consciously engaging their breath, linking it to the poses throughout. Similarly, the philosophy behind westernized yoga classes emphasizes living in the moment, focusing on the present, and getting in tune with yourself. Yoga is never meant to hurt, and if it does you are encouraged to stop or retreat into child’s pose at any time during the class. In my experience, this is a stark difference with the screaming instructors that lead the popular “Booty Boot Camps.” In addition, the type of yoga practiced in the United States often uses meditation techniques that are stripped of their religious context and used primarily to “quiet the constant mind chatter.” These techniques help to quiet the mind in any situation on and off the mat. As the last phrase usually uttered at the end of class reveals ("Namaste," meaning “I bow to the god in you”), yoga is about getting in touch with your inner voice, your best “self.” While this notion might seem blasphemous at first, the lesson is important for anyone wanting to think for themselves.
So, why is the practice such a threat to even the most influential of conservative leaders? Perhaps it is because these tenets of yoga teach listening to oneself before listening to large institutions like churches, creating the possibility for dissent or activism. Perhaps the philosophy of trusting and loving oneself cultivates contentment in people, contradicting the cultural paradigms in the United States, which promote constant consumerism and a desire for what we do not have. Maybe yoga’s emphasis on the need to live in the present challenges the archaic concept of the American dream of continuously striving for a better future. Maybe yoga’s 5,000 year life span scares prominent Christians because it provides an alternative worldview free of fear-based rhetoric. Maybe it is a worldview that millennials are beginning to favor over the extremism pervading religious discourse today. Maybe yoga’s continued success in the Western world signifies a slow shift in our consciousness, to a more mindful existence. Or maybe, like Harry Potter, yoga really is demonic.