By David Jones
How would you feel personally if someone told you something you did for your health was actually really bad for you?
That was the message a pastor at an Assembly of God church had for members of his congregation who attended a local yoga class. Only the dangers posed weren’t about pulled muscles or joint pain; they were spiritual dangers from demons.
As one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I gave talks against things we considered spiritual perils, especially “hidden” ones. So I understand: when you shepherd sheep you want to watch for threats beyond the obvious wolves.
On October 28, 2018, pastor John Lindell gave a sermon about the dangers of the paranormal just days before Halloween. Interestingly, he included a section on yoga. That part got the media’s attention, and several articles came out with similar headlines: Pastor Declares Yoga to be Demonic.
It was just a small portion of a 53 minute sermon aimed solely at certain members of his congregation who attended a nearby yoga class, but once the video reached beyond the church’s walls it affected far more folks.
The resources listed as further reading for the sermon were from 2010, much of which centered around a book which came out in June 2010 titled, The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America. Author Stefanie Syman—herself a practitioner—wanted to publish a comprehensive study of the rise and embrace of yoga in America, particularly considering its Hindu origins.
What he read in his research convinced him of certain things he felt he needed to tell his congregation:
Yoga originated in Hinduism.
Yoga positions have meanings based on beliefs in Hindu gods (who are really demons in disguise) and ritualistic sex.
You can’t separate yoga from its Hindu religious origins.
Conclusion: to practice yoga is to yoke yourself to false gods, to practice false worship, to be connected to false religion—something detestable to God. Therefore, yoga is demonic.
But the real catalyst for his sermon was clearly a Pew Research poll published in September 2018.
The folks at Pew wanted a new way to look at categorizing faith groups instead of just base religions. This time it put respondents in groups based on what they said they actually believe and do rather than on the basic tenets of a denomination.
Lindell’s sermon pretty much opens with the poll’s shocking report: 40% of Christians believe in psychics. 29% believe in reincarnation. 26% believe in astrology. These and other paranormal things are embraced by all of American culture—including its churches! That really shook him.
Man. Imagine if the Pew questionnaire had asked about belief in Karma.
But the 16 question Pew questionnaires weren’t sent to churches, they went out to 4,729 Americans in Pew’s American Trends Panel. Most of those respondents just said they were Christians and included individuals Lindell’s church wouldn’t accept as Christians, including Jehovah’s Witnesses and other groups.
Obviously Lindell simply saw statistics and took them at face value, just as he accepted the conclusions made in anti-yoga articles he looked up.
Beyond his audience the sermon impacted the income of small yoga classes. Further, it scared yoga instructors in nearby Missouri towns. A shooting at a yoga studio in Florida November 2, 2018 still had the yoga community upset, and it’s not hard to find recent news reports of people shooting or harming those they considered “evil” or “wicked” simply based on religious, social or political stances.
A sermon to a congregation of 10,000 declaring that yoga is demonic could initiate another shooting of innocent Americans.
I listened to the sermon and researched his resources, and honestly? I was angry.
As a Christian, I recognized the arguments and conclusions, and I felt the sincerity of a pastor who worried that some of his congregation were dabbling in things which could impact their faith (not to the point of demon possession or damnation like he suggested, but I understood the references).
But his understanding of the Bible is far distant from mine. I wanted to write him a letter pointing out where I felt his interpretations were wrong. I fantasized about debating him, what I could say to discredit his position and undermine his influence. A Christian can separate a thing from its origins. It’s why I can refer to the month August without worrying I’m giving reverence to Augustus Caesar.
Although I don’t practice yoga, I felt attacked and wanted to retaliate.
That’s when I recognized the trap: this was just one man’s words and I had attached myself to them. Rather than let them slide past me as mere words, I grabbed hold of them out of offense. In my mind he became my enemy.
I sat and prayed about it, then meditated a little (I didn’t “empty my mind,” another misunderstanding he derived from his research). I recalled a quote by Thich Nhat Hanh: “When you look deeply into your anger, you will see that the person you call your enemy is also suffering. As soon as you see that, the capacity of accepting and having compassion for them is there.”
Jesus is recorded as saying “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:43-45)
That’s the way to combat misunderstandings like these: counter them and their effects by reaching people with loving compassion and not anger.
Should Christians practice yoga? Seriously, it’s up to them. Yoga isn’t for everyone. But if you truly don’t attach your practice to worshiping Hindu gods, then how is it different from the meat sacrificed to an idol as Paul discussed in 1 Corinthians 10:18-33?
If you know that practicing yoga is going to harm you or your neighbor, then don’t do it.
As the Apostle Paul concluded, our freedom—just like our faith and beliefs—should never be an excuse for harming others. As for the sermon? Don’t attach to it. If you don’t believe in the four cardinal beliefs of the Assembly of God church to begin with, then what value is there in anything else they teach?
Let us be agents of love and peace, not of anger and fear.
David Jones has a 30-year career with the United States government. He encountered mindfulness in therapy for his endangered marriage (which had led to anxiety-based depression and dissociative disorder symptoms), and writes about the experience in his blog as well as articles in various publications. He started writing articles about mindfulness for Yahoo Voices under the brand: A Mindful Guy.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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