Is yoga Satanic? E.W. Jackson and Al Mohler think so.

An Atlantic Monthly article yesterday took a look at some comments made by one of the candidates in the race for Virginia’s lieutenant governor, Bishop E.W. Jackson, about how yoga makes people susceptible to Satanic possession. Several other prominent evangelicals were quoted, including Al Mohler whose comments are very instructive. My wife does a fair amount of yoga and so far she hasn’t exhibited Satanic behavior (but maybe the next time we have an argument I’ll bring this up). I thought I would share Jackson and Mohler’s comments and add my own thoughts.

Here’s what Jackson had to say about yoga’s Satanic potential:

When one hears the word meditation, it conjures an image of Maharishi Yoga talking about finding a mantra and striving for nirvana. . . . The purpose of such meditation is to empty oneself. . . . [Satan] is happy to invade the empty vacuum of your soul and possess it. That is why people serve Satan without ever knowing it or deciding to, but no one can be a child of God without making a decision to surrender to him. Beware of systems of spirituality which tell you to empty yourself. You will end up filled with something you probably do not want.

Well it’s clear that he’s not a Calvinist. The bishop says that God doesn’t make us His children; we have to “make a decision” to surrender to him. Even though I’m on the Arminian side of the theological divide, I share the Calvinist aversion to the works-righteousness of the widespread heresy of “personal decisionism” that began with Charles Finney and 19th century altar call revivalist culture. I’ve written a lot about how much of a misrepresentation it is in so many ways to call God’s salvation my “decision.”

But what about this question of self-emptying? If I wanted to be malicious, I could just say that clearly Bishop Jackson hasn’t read Philippians 2 (where Christians are told to “empty ourselves” just like Jesus did for us on the cross), but I realize he has a specific meaning in mind that is different from “taking the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:7). To “empty yourself” in a pop spirituality sense means to do something that sets aside the clutter and anxiety inside of you. In secular culture, this is primarily understood and addressed with physical exercise, whether it’s running in the woods, doing the elliptical trainer at the gym, or taking a yoga class.

God has a word for this in His Torah: shabbat or Sabbath as we say in English. I suppose that for fundamentalist Christians like Bishop Jackson, the purpose of Sabbath has nothing to do with rest, but only with demonstrating your loyalty to God by setting aside a day to glorify Him. But Jesus says very plainly, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). In my spiritual journey over the last couple of years, I have come to a place where I see shabbat as the primary goal of prayer: to set aside everything and rest in God. To me, shabbat is the goal behind everything we do in prayer: confession, praise, thanksgiving, and petition.

One of the ways that I pray is with my prayer beads (what Catholics call a rosary except that I don’t talk to Mary when I pray with them): I go through them and alternate between the Jesus prayer and the Lord’s prayer in Greek (because I’m weird that way). Sometimes I substitute lines from psalms that I have learned in Hebrew for the Jesus prayer. There’s something about praying in Hebrew and Greek that empties me more than speaking in English. It’s not asking God for stuff; it’s begging Him to let me be His breath.

So I would say it’s very misguided to say that the problem with yoga is that it calls for people to “empty themselves.” We need to be emptied on a regular basis of the day-to-day concerns that dominate our thinking and drown out God’s voice. That’s why God made the Sabbath. One of God’s greatest concerns is for us to rest in a way that is real rest, rather than throwing ourselves into the furious workaholism of American culture. If you have a theology that seeks to prove itself through its contempt for the legitimate human need for rest that God has been trying to help His people address for thousands of years, then you’re not going to understand Sabbath any more than the Pharisees Jesus argued with.

Now here’s where I would quibble with yoga (in the limited, perhaps insufficient exposure to it that I’ve had). I’m convinced like Augustine that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. I believe that true rest and self-emptying can only be gained in the context of a conscious relationship with God. Now I don’t think that God is such a weak sovereign of the universe that He can’t expropriate a practice like yoga, no matter what its religious origins, as a context in which to commune with people He loves. E.W. Jackson is talking as though Satan is more powerful than God. I only have a problem with yoga insofar as it presents itself as a technique by which we acquire for ourselves the spiritual rest that only God can give us.

The peace of shabbat is something we receive by grace from the Holy Spirit. Even if it seems like we have gained peace as the result of our own efforts, it is always a gift of the Holy Spirit. The reason this is so important to understand is so that we will not evaluate ourselves as successes or failures according to the peace we receive from prayer. The same “technique” will result in different outcomes every time we pray. It is very important in my prayer life to trust in God’s mysterious purpose when I am not given peace or rest from a time of prayer. I generally presume that His “absence” is His means of preparing me for deeper intimacy and revelation. Jonathan Martin talked a lot about this in his recent sermon “Obscurity.”

I haven’t been exposed to a form of yoga which builds itself around a recognized relationship with God. We have a woman at our church who is planning to start offering Praise Moves. Why shouldn’t we be incorporating Christian prayer and worship into our bodily exercise? I think yoga is fine as a means of fitness and even mental focus. But I would still say that for “spiritual but not religious” people who are using yoga as a substitute for having a prayer life, that’s like masturbating instead of having sex. It gets the job done in a biochemical sense, but without the profound intimacy and personal presence that we can only receive from another to whom we have made ourselves absolutely vulnerable. This isn’t to say that Christians shouldn’t do yoga, but that we shouldn’t substitute it for prayer.

All this that I’ve just written about prayer would be a bunch of hogwash to Al Mohler. If you look at what he has to say about yoga, it becomes clear that he is not only opposed to yoga; he is opposed to contemplative prayer as such:

To a remarkable degree, the growing acceptance of yoga points to the retreat of biblical Christianity in the culture. Yoga begins and ends with an understanding of the body that is, to say the very least, at odds with the Christian understanding. 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 — an external Word that comes to us by divine revelation — not to meditate by means of incomprehensible syllables…

I’m assuming that when Al Mohler says “the Word of God,” he’s referring to the Bible and not Jesus Himself, because he presents the external Word of God as a contrast to “connecting to and coming to know the divine” through the human body. What Mohler is expressing here is not so much an opposition to Hindu spiritual practice, but an opposition to a sacramental understanding of reality in general (he is Baptist, God bless him!). You could use the same argument to say that Christians shouldn’t take communion because it will give them the delusion that they can connect to and come to know Jesus through a bodily means instead of mediating their relationship to Christ entirely through the Bible.

Mohler’s words here offer a very instructive illustration of the consequences of having such a high view of scripture. If we cannot connect to and come to know the divine through our bodies but only through the Bible, what this amounts to is a disbelief in the current presence of a living Christ or Holy Spirit in the world. If Jesus and the Holy Spirit only speak through the Bible, then they are only historical figures. This mentality comes from an overly rationalistic form of Christianity which has made itself paranoid about God communicating with people outside of the scriptural text since there’s no way to adjudicate whether it’s really God speaking. The only way to know for sure that God is the one speaking is to limit your conversations with God to reading His book (which itself becomes God instead of the living Creator who breathed into the people who wrote the book).

Contemplative prayer has no meaning to someone like Al Mohler because we cannot put into plain, logically deductive language what Jesus is saying to us when we rest in Him that way. Because it isn’t a what; it’s a who! If I had to put into words what Jesus says to me in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament at the basilica, I couldn’t really give you more than something really trite like “I’m here” or “I love you” or another Hallmark-ism that would be unjust to the mysterious beauty I’ve tasted and even spoken about in utterances that weren’t in any language I knew. He says so much, but it’s not anything that could be plotted into any grammatical system that can be systematized and controlled, which is why modernists like Al Mohler hate the possibility of God speaking in that way.

In any case, Mohler’s dispute is not really with Hinduism; it’s with the sacramental conception of the body in pre-modern Christianity. It’s with the possibility of divine mystery. He’s defending the pseudo-Platonic understanding of bodies and rationality that belongs to modernity, not Christianity. I think the most important evangelism that needs to happen within the body of Christ today is to help people like Al Mohler to stop confusing modernity with Christianity. In the meantime, if you want to stretch your bodies, go ahead and do yoga, but there’s no reason not to talk to Jesus while you’re doing it. Maybe Praise Moves is worth checking out!

37 thoughts on “Is yoga Satanic? E.W. Jackson and Al Mohler think so.

  1. Interesting – I was told that yoga was Satanic, along with a lot of other things as well – acupuncture, homeopathy etc. For years I felt that meditation was somehow bad too. But now it is my daily practice “to seek, through prayer and meditation, to improve my conscious contact with God”, and I do find that emptying my mind helps a lot with this, and certainly doesn’t appear to be inviting Satan in, quite the reverse.

      • It has served me well for nearly 15 years now, and brought me much closer to God, and with a better understanding of Him – most days.

    • However, some things really are just superstitious and belief-based.
      Acupuncture has stood up to some rigorous medical study – no one is sure why it works, but it really does work.
      Homeopathy on the other hand has been shown over and over to be nothing more than placebo – while placebo in and of itself is powerful, I guess my personal feelings on the matter is that it’s not good for Christians to promote superstition and stuff that is just make-believe. I really think homeopathy fits into this category. The ideas behind it are all mumbo-jumbo crazy… There is one homeopathic remedy I know of that has passed some clinical tests, but that is because in ADDITION to the actual homeopathic ingredients, they put zinc in the vial. Zinc was already known to be helpful for cold relief. So why not just take zinc and skip the magical homeopathic stuff?
      I don’t think that using homeopathics are “inviting satan in” but I also don’t think homeopathics should be promoted by Christians because they’re just essentially snake oil. Herbs on the other hand (and a lot of people new to natural stuff don’t know that herbal remedies and homeopathic remedies have next to nothing in common) are very useful and have a lot of science behind them.

      • Heather – I havent used homeopathy, but I do have acupuncture, which works for me as pain relief – I have chronic intractable pain after an accident. The ones I really struggle with are the very new agey things such as crystals and reiki.

  2. Also, on the lighter side- I read your introductory paragraph aloud to my husband because I knew he would get a kick out of your idea about bringing this up in an argument later with your wife. It sounds like something he would say…

  3. When I returned to ballet as an adult (after the requisite childhood fascination with tutus ended), I found the floor work to be profoundly spiritual. When stretching my body in that way, I wanted nothing more than to pray, to sit in God’s presence. I like your idea of “not asking God for stuff; it’s begging Him to let me be His breath.” It was the only method of prayer I could really manage at the time, having just undergone a trauma I couldn’t yet talk about or even really formulate thoughts around. Anytime I tried to formulate prayer with my rational mind, it seemed to fall flat on the floor. I was convinced that I wasn’t heard because I’d been taught that God doesn’t hear prayers from those who are “unrepentant in sin”. But those few minutes of stretching out my muscles and bending in ways that felt unfamiliar and vulnerable, where I didn’t need to be “heard” because I hadn’t said anything- it might be the thing that kept me from losing my faith altogether in those years.

  4. I think it’s important to make a distinction between yoga as it appears in Western New Age versus more traditional yoga. Traditional yoga is about self-discipline and, in many of its forms, does involve a relationship with and a surrender to the Divine (although granting that this Divine is not the same as the Christian God). Yoga as it has been translated into modern Western society is a lot more me-centered: “How can I make myself happy through spirituality or exercise?” The two are different, and the yoga practiced by today’s trendy hipsters is its own, let’s put it this way, “special” thing.

  5. When I first read about Bishop Jackson’s comments on yoga I remembered this poem, written a couple hundred years ago or so

    If Thou Could’st Empty All Thyself Of Self
    Sir Thomas Browne
    If thou could’st empty all thyself of self,
    Like to a shell dishabited,
    Then might He find thee on the ocean shelf,
    And say, “This is not dead,”
    And fill thee with Himself instead.
    But thou are all replete with very thou
    And hast such shrewd activity,
    That when He comes He says, “This is enow
    Unto itself – ’twere better let it be,
    It is so small and full, there is no room for me.”

    I agree with you. We need to periodically empty ourselves to make room for God.

    • What a small world- I was literally about to paste that very poem into a comment here! I first read it in Ring of Endless Light, by Madeleine L’Engle, who probably saved me from my Southern Baptist, apologist, show-me-the-scripture adolescent self. Her God always seemed so much more beautiful and interesting than mine.

  6. Still pondering….
    Yoga also seems sort of “fad-ish.” Is yoga inherently a better exercise than say, ballet training, or acrobatics, or swimming, or spinning, or low-impact aerobics, or just plain old stretching? It’s so much more white-middle-class-trendy though to drink Kombucha and do yoga, than to drink pickle juice and practice trampolining in your backyard. Anyway 🙂

    • Trampolining sounds like a better spiritual practice as long as you do the Jesus prayer every time you jump.

  7. I have no problem with “watered down” non-religious yoga – except that, I don’t like chanting (and some yoga gyms still practice chanting in Sanskrit) and my few experiences with yoga felt extremely, well, sexual – as in, most of the muscle groups being focused on all seemed to end up “down there.” So, I guess I can understand some of the Christian aversion to all this.

    I like the “praise moves” idea though – depending. I like praise dance – I think my praise dance would start to feel creepy if it ended up feeling like a bunch of Kegel exercises in the name of Christ though (which again, was my basic experience with yoga, along with the strange Sanskrit chanting of words I didn’t know if I should repeat or not.)

    I do Christian forms of “chanting” though, like praying in tongues and saying the name of Jesus in various ways towards Him – I am curious Morgan about the prayer bead thing – what makes you want a set number of Jesus prayers counted out by beads interspersed by a set number of Hebrew prayers or whatever? My own somewhat meditative-like prayers are not so regimented, so I am curious as to what that’s like for you.

  8. Yoga 4 times a week and my head hasn’t turned a 360 yet. For the lack of Christian contemplative meditation people are turning to more Eastern methods of meditation. I am reading “The Other Side of Silence” by Kelsy.

  9. Morgan, my United Methodist wife goes to a yoga exercise class. She’s seen Satanic Yoga comments like these before and just rolls her eyes. Makes me want to look up some old Church Lady sketches from Saturday Night Live.

  10. I think you’d find this book “Meditation and Communion with God” by John Jefferson Davis relevant and helpful. I reviewed it here:
    “In this short, but rich essay, Davis argues and provides a theological foundation for a robust practice of contemplating scripture within an orthodox Evangelical framework. Instead of the mind-emptying techniques rooted in Advaita Hinduism, or Zen Buddhism, Davis wants to present a vision of the soul-expanding practice of deeply contemplating the riches of biblical truth in such a way that actually mediates the life of God himself in union with the Son by the power of the Spirit of the Age to Come.”

    It might be exactly the kind of sacramental understanding of Christian Meditation and communion you’re looking for.

    • Good stuff. I think something like that is what I do. My “mantra” when I meditate/pray/walk around with God is usually a line from a psalm like Hochili Elohim (I will hope in the Lord) or Kayal tarog al afike mayim ken nafshi tarog eleha Elohim (Like the deer longs for the water… etc). It “empties” me I suppose in a way, but I think of it more as the poetry of God being engraved into my flesh so that I can be His living poem.

  11. Thank you for this. My parents were “baptized in the Spirit” at a Catholic Bible study and the church I attended for much of my growing up years was a Charismatic Baptist. I have often struggled with meditation/contemplative prayer and yoga because of the fundamental thought. These are things I need to practice in order to improve my health. Because of this I can now, be present with Him as I practice these things. Relinquish the ties that bind and tune into the Shabbat which I need so desperately.

  12. I totally agree with your views and opinions on yoga, i like to exercise using yoga and it seems to use breath as centering and i don’t feel like i am demon possessed. I worship jesus and am seeking God not satan. It seems like he is a stumbling block. Good job on this blog. Peace to you.

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