The Unofficial Religion of American Culture
They meet on Sunday mornings at 11:30 a.m. By 11:25, people begin to gather and meet and hug each other in greeting. Only instead of sitting in a pew or a chair, they roll out their mats.
Once you step onto your mat, the goal is to “set an intention”—to connect to something higher than yourself. You can devote the time to someone you love, someone who needs strength, someone who needs healing… or to your sense of God, or to a feeling like peace.
Then the music begins, but it’s the music of breathing. The point is to breathe for something beyond you. It’s often called the “victorious breath.” You breathe in through your nose and out through your nose, constricting the throat slightly as you exhale to create a rasping, oceanic sound. The goal is to synchronize breath with movement as you build body heat, and when everyone is breathing this way together, the room reverberates with that deep, oceanic sound.
Then comes the message.
As the teacher guides inhales and exhales and transitions the congregation from one posture to the next, a steady stream of messages is offered in order to build a personal sense of strength or ease:
“Share your energy.”
“Remember that you are a gift to this world. So, embrace that.”
“Your way of being is a choice.”
Then there is singing. Only it’s not really singing, but chanting. Every practice begins and ends with three chants of the word “om,” a vibration treated as the “primordial seed” of the universe.
Then comes meditation.
There is no guided prayer, but a guided meditation for 15 minutes following the hour-long practice. Often, the goal of the meditation is to find stillness within yourself in the darkened room; to feel your body relax and observe your thoughts as they pass.
No. It was simply a yoga class. But the author of the article detailing the experience called it “yoga church.” Why? Because that’s what it felt like to her.
And it’s not just embraced through yoga. Meditation-body-mind healing has been popularized through such individuals as Deepak Chopra, a former disciple of Mahesh Yogi (popularly known as Maharishi), who brought transcendental meditation to the West in the ’60s. Today, more than 18 million Americans meditate along these lines, and approximately 21 million adults and nearly 2 million children practice yoga regularly.
But it’s not just Hindu practices that have infiltrated the spiritual marketplace, but also Hindu ideas—largely through film. For example, “The Force” in Star Wars is modeled on the Hindu idea of “Brahman” (the ultimate principle of the universe). The creator of Star Wars, George Lucas, studied under a student of Hindu-Vedanta philosophy. Other films, such as The Matrix trilogy, also draw heavily from Hindu ideas.
Heard of reincarnation?
Talked about karma?
Here’s the briefest of primers: for the Hindu, there is no such thing as one, all-powerful, personal God who created us. Instead, ultimate reality is Brahman, which is an impersonal oneness, something like an impersonal force of existence. That force can manifest itself in the form of many gods—one estimate is that there are 330 million different Hindu gods. The main ones are Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver and Siva the Destroyer. That’s what the mantra “om” (AUM) is all about. It’s actually made up of the three letters – A, U and M – and they symbolically represent Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.
Hindus also believe that our true selves, our Atman, is at one with Brahman. Our essence is the same (identical) as that of Brahman. All is one, and one is all. Or, as you hear many popularizers of Hindu philosophy put it, “God is all and all is god. You are god and I’m god.” Our problem is that we aren’t aware of our divine nature, we aren’t aware that we are a part of – and at one with – Brahman. Yoga is one of the primary ways of getting in touch with it. That’s what the word “yoga” means—union with, or yoking with, something. And for Hindus and yoga, that means union with Brahman.
So why the easy embrace of so many Hindu ideas and practices?
To be sure, practitioners of something like yoga find the stretching and breathing techniques to be extremely positive for their lives, both physically and emotionally. They don’t think of it as a Hindu practice, but as… well… a yoga class. And “yoga” to not mean anything more than a particular kind of workout.
But this is what separates the East from the West, and why so many things from the East are absorbed uncritically by the West. Particularly spiritual things.
In the West, we are “beliefs” people. That’s what faith is about for us—what we believe. Not so much in the East. They are “practice” people. We think our way into spirituality; they tend to act their way into it. And the movements used in yoga are deeply symbolic gestures that express religion and indoctrinate people into a religion, through experience.
This is why yoga is seen as the primary evangelistic tool of Hinduism for the West—introducing people to its ideas, beliefs and worldviews in ways they do not initially suspect. Even the most commonly practiced type of yoga in America, which is “hatha” (pronounced “hot-ta”) yoga is considered a path towards enlightenment. For Hindus, that means a liberation not only into your divinity and to contact with this power of the universe, but also to break you free from the cycle of reincarnation. Even the yoga positions have spiritual meaning. For example, many yoga practices open with a series of positions known as the Surya namaskar. What people don’t often know is that those are a series of positions designed to greet Surya, the Hindu sun god.
So can a yoga class be okay?
Yes, if stripped of its origins, stripped of its Hindu philosophy, and reduced to the stretches and the breathing, then it can be just a physical exercise. There’s nothing demonic about putting your leg over your neck.
(It might hurt like hell, but that doesn’t make it from hell.)
There are even Christian yoga classes where everything from Hinduism is replaced with Christian alternatives. The thinking is that just as a musical scale can be used to make good or bad music, so the various positions of yoga can be put to Christian use.
But if you take a yoga class that is tied to its Hindu roots, with Hindu philosophy littered throughout, including Hindu chants to one of the pagan gods they believed formed the universe,
... if you are being called to make references to a “life force” or “cosmic energy” and end by greeting each other with the word “Namaste” (which is Sanskrit for “I bow to the god within you”),
... if you are encouraged to repeat the sacred Hindu word “om”, which Hindus and Buddhists believe is the primordial sound that brought the universe into being and lifts up the three Hindu gods,
... if you are hearing phrases like, “Breathe in positive energy and breathe out negative energy,” “Focus on the third eye,” or “Get in touch with the divinity within you,”
… then you are engaged in a practice that is aimed at transforming human consciousness to experience an energy tied to Hindu gods. False gods. Which means you are dabbling not simply with a false religion, but the occult.
So while Hinduism may have become the unofficial religion of American culture,
… it has no place in a Christian one.
James Emery White
Vasudha Narayanan, “How Americans Came to Embrace Meditation and, with It, Hinduism,” Religion News Service, February 6, 2018, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.