Every so often I hear the argument that the asanas from yoga are inherently sinful/satanic and that those who use yoga* for exercise are opening themselves up to demonic possession/influence. Now, if someone is incorporating Hindu philosophy in their practice of yoga, even without the overt worship of Hindu gods and goddesses, I could see that being true. The question, then, is whether simply doing the motions as a part of stretching is de facto participation in Hindu philosophy. I would contend that it’s entirely possible, and that the majority of those in the west who practice yoga are simply exercising.
Objection 1: specific motions absolutely mean specific things.
This is the first thing I often I hear. It’s the idea that, even if someone has no knowledge or intention of worshipping a Hindu god, putting yourself into a certain position is de facto worship of that god and will open you up to demonic influence (since pagan gods are demonic).
This objection has always puzzled me because, as Catholics, we are often at the receiving end of similar objections from some Protestants. Certain Protestants insist that we Catholics worship Mary and statues. Their proof is that we bow and kneel before images. Since bowing and kneeling are used in worship, the argument goes that a Catholic bowing or kneeling before a statue is therefore worshipping the statue (or what the statue represents). Catholics (rightly) counter that bowing or kneeling alone is not sufficient to be worship, but that intent matters. After all, we say, bowing to your partner in square dancing doesn’t mean you’re worshipping that other person. Therefore, bowing alone doesn’t mean we’re worshipping, and so that argument is invalid.
Similarly, I’d say that our intent with yoga matters. If I’m doing the sun salutation to worship the sun, that’s a problem. If I’m doing it to stretch out my back, that isn’t.
Objection 2: the asanas were developed specifically to worship Hindu deities
That leads me to the second objection, which states that the asanas were developed specifically for the purpose of worshipping Hindu deities. This line has been often repeated, and so I decided to do a bit of detective work to see if this was true. What I found surprised me. As it turns out, most of the asanas are modern inventions and are actually the result of British influence! British calisthenics were combined with native practices to create these asanas. So the motions are not inherently tied to Hindu gods, but are, I would contend, a perversion of good stretches.
Objection 3: more on objection 1
In Objection 1 I dealt with consciously doing certain postures, but for the purpose of exercise, not worship. There’s another side to that objection, though, which is: what happens if someone unintentionally performs a yoga posture? For example, if someone is standing up, is he automatically in mountain pose? If a person squats down in a wide squat, is she in goddess pose? Can one do yoga unintentionally? If my child gets a cut on his finger and comes to show me, with just his middle finger extended, is he making a rude gesture?
I think the answer to all of those is no. Again, intent matters. There’s nothing inherently rude about a middle finger – saying there is is a perversion of my good body. There’s nothing inherently wrong with squats and stretches and the like, whatever it is called. If someone is seeking solely to exercise and stretch, I fail to see the problem.
Objection 4: Namaste is pagan
This objection is somewhat tangential, though not completely. One of the objections I sometimes hear about yoga is that the word Namaste, often used in yoga, is a pagan word and should not be said. The problem with that is that Namaste is actually the way you greet someone in the Hindi language. A Catholic priest from India greeting someone in his native tongue would say “Namaste.” Just as “good-bye” originally was a contraction of “God by ye” but now holds no such connotation, so “Namaste” no longer is tied to Hindu religious beliefs. Now, if a person is saying it with the intention of making a statement of Hindu belief, that is different, but simply saying it is no different than saying hello, really.
If a person truly believes that yoga is pagan and satanic and yet does it anyway, that is a problem. But if a person is simply trying to exercise and stretch, with no other thoughts in mind, I see no problem with it.
*When I speak of yoga (lower case y), I am speaking of stretches, not the Hindu practice, which I denote as Yoga with a capital Y. Whether the stretches should still be called yoga if no Hindu practice is involved is another matter. Some are ok with the motions if called something different, like Pilates, and some contend that even that is wrong. For now, I continue to use the word yoga.