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Originally published October 8, 2010 at 9:55 PM | Page modified October 11, 2010 at 1:02 PM

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Yoga 'demonic'? Critics call ministers' warning a stretch

The question of whether Christians should practice yoga is making the rounds once again even as yoga has become one of the most mainstream forms of exercise and stress relief in the United States.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Is the downward-facing dog somehow ... demonic?

A recent essay by the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., warned Christians that yoga is contradictory to Christianity. And local megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church went even further, saying earlier this year that yoga is "absolute paganism."

"Should Christians stay away from yoga because of its demonic roots? Totally. Yoga is demonic," Driscoll said. "If you just sign up for a little yoga class, you're signing up for a little demon class."

Even as yoga has become a mainstream form of exercise and stress relief in the United States, the question of whether Christians should practice it is making the rounds once again, raising a stir among some Christians and yoga practitioners alike.

"Here we go again with fear-based, black-and-white thinking," said Jennifer Norling, of Seattle, a 42-year-old mainline Protestant who has been practicing yoga for many years. "It's not fair to say yoga is demonic. In fact, I find it insulting. There are many ways to grow spiritually."

Nationwide, an estimated 15.8 million people practice yoga, with Seattle ranking among the country's top yoga cities. Numerous yoga classes are taught daily in gyms and community centers — largely removed from any religious context — while stores such as Walmart stock yoga mats and videos.

It's not that Driscoll and R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, are anti-exercise. Rather, they believe the physical aspects of yoga can't be separated from its historical roots in Hinduism and other Eastern religions.

"Yoga begins and ends with an understanding of the body that is, to say the very least, at odds with the Christian understanding," Mohler wrote in an online essay last month. "Christians are not called to empty the mind or to see the human body as a means of connecting to and coming to know the divine. Believers are called to meditate upon the Word of God."

The Associated Press reported this week that Mohler has received plenty of pushback from yoga enthusiasts, including Christians.

Driscoll, in a Q&A session with church members in February, issued a similar warning, calling yoga a form of pantheism. "There's not creator and creation," he said. "All is collapsed into what we call oneism. The result is that you don't go out to God, you go into self. It's not about connecting to God through the mediatorship of Jesus. It's about connecting to the universe through meditation. It's absolute paganism."

A Mars Hill Church spokesman this week declined to say what sort of feedback Driscoll has received on his stance.

Mohler and Driscoll are not alone in believing that there are dangers in mixing Eastern practices and Christianity.

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The Catholic Church weighed in on the issue when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, before he became Pope Benedict XVI, warned Catholic bishops in 1989 that attempts to harmonize Christian meditation with Eastern techniques needed to be looked at closely to avoid the danger of blending different religious beliefs.

Karma tradition

Yoga — a Sanskrit word that means to harness one's control — encompasses physical and mental practices, some dating back thousands of years, that seek to control and quiet the mind and to channel energy.

The underlying objective of yoga is related to a theology that says one can cleanse oneself of karma — the fruits of a person's actions in a lifetime — and stop the cycle of rebirth so one's spirit merges with the absolute, said Christian Lee Novetzke, University of Washington associate professor of comparative religion and South Asian studies, who specializes in Hinduism.

Yoga gained momentum in the United States in the 1960s when yoga teacher B.K.S. Iyengar emphasized its health benefits rather than its religious components, Novetzke said.

These days, how religious or spiritual a yoga class is depends on the teacher.

Anne Phyfe Palmer, owner of 8 Limbs Yoga Centers in Seattle, said her understanding of yoga is not based on religion but "on a science of practices that enhance an individual's ability to connect to whatever spiritual practice they choose."

"Many people practice yoga for the amazing physical and mental benefits it offers," she said. "Others choose to link it to faith."

Roy DeLeon is among those who incorporate yoga movements into a spiritual practice. DeLeon, a lifelong Catholic, leads Blessed Movement prayer sessions at a local Catholic church and a United Methodist church.

He doesn't use the word "yoga," instead calling it praying with the body. If the weekly Gospel lesson is about opening one's heart, DeLeon leads the class in poses that open the chest area or spread the arms as if welcoming someone wholeheartedly.

"I'm using yoga movements but not necessarily yoga philosophy," he said.

Gary Chamberlain, professor emeritus of Christian ethics at Seattle University, said in many ways, yoga is similar to Christian forms of meditation.

"In fact, the only way in which Christians can know the divine is through the body," he said. For instance, sounds — such a when people recite the rosary — produce a meditative state. "The whole body becomes receptive to the divine," he said.

"I can do both"

Debi Raines, an evangelical Christian who lives in Redmond, said that for years, she loved taking yoga classes at her gym. But she became uncomfortable one day when an instructor had the class repeat phrases in Sanskrit.

"It made me feel like I was a hypocrite to Jesus, to God."

She quit yoga for several months, then came across a book about a Christian yoga movement called Holy Yoga.

She called the author "and cried through the whole conversation," said Raines. "I felt God was leading me to this: that I have a love for yoga and a love for God and I can do both."

She now teaches Holy Yoga classes at the evangelical Washington Cathedral in Redmond. Each class includes a Scripture reading, talk about how it relates to the lives of participants and yoga poses with Christian music playing in the background.

"We empty ourselves to be filled by God," she said.

Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report. Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com

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