Thinking In Public

May 20, 2020

The Battle Over Yoga: History, Theology, and Popular Culture in a Conversation with Historian Alistair Shearer

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Albert Mohler:

This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about front line theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I'm Albert Mohler, your host and president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Alistair Shearer is a cultural historian specializing in India, especially Indian art and architecture, as well as the religious history of Buddhism. He studied literature at Cambridge University, did postgraduate work in Sanskrit at the University of Lancaster, in addition to several published books and articles, he served as a lecturer in Asian art at a British Museum.

His latest book, The Story of Yoga: From Ancient India to the Modern West chronicles the development of religious discipline into what he describes as a global multi-billion-dollar industry. That book is the topic of our conversation today. Alistair Shearer, welcome to Thinking in Public. Mr. Shearer, given your own biography, how did you come to have this interest yourself in yoga? What was the origin of an interest that would produce a book of this magnitude?

Alistair Shearer:

I learned Transcendental Meditation just before leaving University, which was many moons ago, back in the late 60s. I'd always been interested in India, I think, probably because I had relatives out there. I have been brought up by people who had memories of India and Indian culture, and households were full of objects that people have brought back from India, so I had that general interest. And I took to meditation and enjoyed it and felt it was beneficial and useful. That was the starting point for it. It started with that experience rather than any theory. And then after a few years, or as time went by, I just started to examine the whole field more deeply and learn Sanskrit, and so I could access some of the texts. And it kind of grew from that really.

Albert Mohler:

Well, this massive book that you have undertaken and now released the Story of Yoga: From Ancient India to the Modern West, it is in my view—and I've been following these issues closely for about 30 years—it is the most interesting single volume yet to come out on yoga. You enter into controversy, really, from the very beginning. When you suggest that the historic roots of yoga in India really aren't all that clear.

Alistair Shearer:

That's right. It's commonly said, as I say in the book that yoga is a 5000 years old, virtually perennial spiritual teaching. That statement is taken on board by most people because they're not experts in early Indian history. Why would they be? But it really isn't backed up by the texts or by whatever historical evidence we have. The early references to postural yoga to physical yoga, which is what many people limit yoga to, date from perhaps the eighth or ninth century AD. Scholars are continually turning up newer and older texts, but at the moment that seems to be the beginning of postural yoga. There was a mental yoga—what I call mind yoga, rather than body yoga—that does stretch back to the Upanishads, which are very early Indian sacred texts that go back perhaps to six or 800 BC about the same time as the Old Testament, I guess.

Alistair Shearer:

But there's no mention of physical work in those. It's purely a meditative or contemplative discipline that is meant by the word yoga. Yoga is the union or the yoking the joining of the individual with the divine—however, one thinks of the divine as the cosmic energy or God if one likes that word. It's a difficult word to use in this context, but that's the gist of early yoga. All the postural teaching which predominates these days accrued over perhaps another thousand or 1500 years from a variety of sources. This is controversial, I guess, but it does seem to be backed up by the evidence as we have it at the moment.

Albert Mohler:

Before leaving the historical issues, I want to look at a bit of the heat in the controversy. Hindu nationalists don't like your book. Those who hold to a claim on behalf of yoga and on behalf of Hinduism and Indian culture, that even what the West now calls yoga or body yoga really is a part of thousands of years of Indian tradition, but they are particularly irritated by your argument that when you have a statement such as, “yoga has a 5000 year history in India,” you make the argument that's not making the same historical claim that someone might say, in a more Western frame of historical mind, date something to a specific date, medieval, ancient, modern.

Alistair Shearer:

That's right. Traditionally, Indian history has been quite a patchy affair, simply because we don't have the records. We don't have detailed records stretching continuously or even relatively continuously from the earliest times. I think also Indians, in a sense, look to a greater truth, or perhaps what they would think is a greater truth, which is embodied in their ethics, and in their great works like the Mahabharata and Ramayana, which in our way of looking at things I've said, the western way of looking at things, our ethics and the myths that are not historical. Now the current government in India certainly the BJP wing of it looks to many of these early texts as history. The events that they recorded seem to be historical and factual and correct, which is rather like us, I suppose, Westerners looking back to the ancient Greek stories of the gods and goddesses and seeing them as historical records.

Alistair Shearer:

I'm not criticizing the Indian perspective, as such, I'm merely saying that it's different from the western perspective. If an Indian-based and originated discipline comes to the west with this sort of justification, I think we should be aware of this difference. But I don't mean to denigrate that approach, it's a different approach, it's a traditional approach, and I think it has much richness in it. Actually, if we want sustenance for the human spirit, I think we can go to our myths and our ethics just as much as our historical records. But it is a different perspective seems to me.

Albert Mohler:

As you begin the book, you raise the enormous question, “How come a time-honored road to enlightenment has turned into a $25 billion a year wellness industry?” It is an unpredictable path. It's hard to draw any direct line from a yogi in ancient India to a suburban housewife in Houston, but they're claiming to be about the same thing. Are they actually about the same thing? Or is this the evolution of a movement or a tradition? What are we witnessing here?

Alistair Shearer:

It's a good question. That's really what the book is trying to answer. I don't have a very clear or simple answer on that. It depends why one does yoga. If people want to take yoga as a set of physical exercises that make them feel better, a wellness therapy, that's absolutely fine by me. It doesn't worry me at all. But it's like stopping a dinner with a starter, it seems to me. If you want the full meal, all the courses, you have to go deeper than the physical. You can use the physical, and that's certainly part of yoga, but I think one has to move into the mental and even at a deeper level to spiritual to really get the full nourishment from yoga. I think that the stress level in modern society, especially urban society, the lack of good health, any number of factors of modern life have encouraged this bias towards taking yoga as purely a physical remedy, to wellness remedy.

Alistair Shearer:

If it serves the purpose, as I say, that's fine, but there is more to it than that. I think that's selling yoga short. To think it is just a means to relieve stress and then get back to living life exactly the way one was living it before one took up the practice. It's a transformative practice it's meant to develop persons in different ways rather than just relieve our stress and our attention.

Albert Mohler:

Well, there's also a conflict here with the traditional Western and specifically Christian understanding of the relationship of the mind and the body. In this sense, the ancient Indian tradition of yoga, which you document as thoroughly as anyone I've seen, it's deeply rooted in Hinduism. It's deeply rooted in a worldview that is quite different than that of, even you might say, the more secularized Houston suburban housewife or a woman who's using yoga. I think there are just millions and millions of Americans who think that they are doing yoga when what they're doing is an appropriation of yoga that still has, even in the names of its postures, but more importantly in the physiological and let's say psychological spiritual understanding of what yoga is, it was always understood to be a unity, not something that can be broken apart.

Alistair Shearer:

Yes. That's right. Certainly, the question about the different Christians specifically the Christian perspective, is a very interesting one and a very deep one, we could talk for hours about this, of course. In the last chapter of the book, or towards the end of the book, I talk about religion and spirituality, and yoga and how they fit or don't fit together. I make quite a bit of reference to the earlier or earliest teachings that we know of, of Christianity, by which I mean the Desert Fathers, the communities that were scattered across the ancient Levant practicing various sorts of ascetic lifestyles as far as we can tell. This was before Christianity coalesced into a very well formulated church. Certainly, if we go back to those days, and some of the mystical traditions and the monastic traditions that look to those roots themselves, I think there are many affinities with yoga. Of course, there's a difference. You mentioned Sanskrit, there's a difference between ancient Aramaic, and Sanskrit, for example.

Alistair Shearer:

But even in the Christian tradition, those of us who speak English and read our Bibles in English and understand them, might be surprised at some of the variations that have come from Latin, from Greek, from Hebrew, from Aramaic, in terms of translating particular words or particular concepts. Because when you and I talk about Christianity as 21st century people, we are the crest of a very long and rich historical way, which you know better than I do. But during that time, that historical period, I think Christianity has had many expressions and many exponents, whose teachings and whose understandings whose perceptions are not that far from yoga.

Albert Mohler:

Well, there are a lot of mystical figures and certainly in the early church, you do have the Ascetics, the Desert Fathers, someone like Simeon Stylites, who was actually sitting on a pillar for many years. There was a tradition of the renunciation of the body that didn't last long. In other words, that was never part of what became mainstream Christianity. All three major branches of Christianity in the east and the two traditions in the West really sidelined that. But we do see it as a temptation. That's actually a part of—Christian theologians throughout the centuries have always been aware of the fact there is a body temptation. But there was very little confidence that health could come—not physical health, spiritual health—could come by some kind of bodily movement tradition patterning, and so that's why it's been a very small tradition in the long history of Christianity.

Albert Mohler:

Christianity also makes just very clear cognitive claims that appear to be very different. But at that level—because you really do know the intersection of the origins of yoga and Hinduism and later influences as the Indian subcontinent came into contact with Islam and with other traditions—the theological essence—just speak of it that way—or the spiritual essence of yoga, starts from the idea of achieving a kind of union with the divine by means of this spiritual practice. That appears to be rather central to the project.

Alistair Shearer:

Well, I think that's right. That's central to what we might call real yoga or food yoga, which is mind yoga as well as body yoga. In fact, predominantly mind yoga. You're right. You use the word mainstream, and certainly that idea and the attitude to the body is not part of mainstream Christianity. But let's not forget, for example, Catholic priests are enjoined not to marry. They're enjoined to be celibate. Now that, one could say, is a parallel or similar territory to the advice in yoga, traditional yoga—one should be celibate, or one should conserve one's energies and so on. Again, the mystics perhaps have had more influence in Eastern Orthodoxy, Christian Eastern Orthodoxy, than in the Protestant churches. The Protestant churches have been more this world may let's say apart from their own mistakes, but in terms of the general teaching that you and I might encounter in downtown Houston to use your example.

Alistair Shearer:

But the mystics I think of, or the mystical idea of the transcendent otherness, I think is probably stronger in the Eastern Orthodox churches, the Russian Orthodox, the Coptic church. If one looks at their rituals and their ceremonies, their services, there's a great play on the mysterious. There was a great debate in Catholicism, of course, whether Latin mass, which is incomprehensible to people these days, should be used or whether it should be in the vernacular. The importance of the Latin mass, I suspect, from the traditionalist point of view, is that it cannot be understood. Therefore, there's a kind of, what we could almost say, a mantric power to it because if one hears these sounds that the priest is reciting that, in some way, are meant to transport one to a higher level or a different level of appreciation or reality, then one could see parallels there. So, I think Christianity is such a broad church. There are so many different aspects of it. If we compare, as I say, the Coptic church to the Wee Free in Scotland, which is where I come from. They're on different planets in their understanding of that practice.

Albert Mohler:

No argument there. As you think about yoga though, if we could focus on the story of yoga and the encounter with the West. This is where the story historically gets really interesting, at least to me. It seems to pick up a lot of energy, and I'm tempted to fast forward to 1893, but I'm not going to do that yet. But in the early age of exploration, and in the age of empire, what did the British establishment think of yoga and engage with yoga when you first had the encounter between, let's just say the English speaking world and the world of India?

Alistair Shearer:

I think there was probably mutual fascination, a mutual bemusement in equal measure. Because don't forget India had long been the symbol of exoticism. The exotic orient—is cliché—was a very ancient thing in European culture. One can see references to it in Shakespeare, and onwards from the early travelers—17th, 18th centuries—even earlier. All the reports that came back from those early travelers were that India was a land of marvels. India was also incidentally a land of extraordinary richness, which with our Oxfam vision of India, we tend to forget that India was once a very rich, from all accounts, materially rich, culture and country. So, there was this tradition of strangeness, exoticism. I think in some ways yoga would have confirmed that, and yoga would have fitted into that viewpoint because Yogis' did have, and still do have, these extraordinary physical abilities in the sense they can, their flexibility, their contortions, their ability to go without food and drink and all these things which are really side issues, it seems to me, but nonetheless, that was certainly an important part of the yoga that the West came across.

Alistair Shearer:

On the other hand, by the time there was any substantial contact between the two, yoga had from what we can tell degenerated largely into a magical and rather degenerate worldview in the sense that supernormal powers were often the aim of yogic practice. Now if we read the texts, the classical authors actually warned against this, and if we read the Yoga Sutras, which is the main text from very early times, this warns very clearly about being seduced by the temptation to have supernormal powers, as indeed do Christian mystical texts as well—that one shouldn't succumb to flattery by various ethereal beings and all this sort of stuff. But in practice, it seems to be that certainly the public face of yoga, the showmanship yoga on the streets of 18th century India, for example, does seem to have been of this degenerate sort. I've no doubt that at the same time, there were genuine Yogis, but they would have been in the hills, in the forests, in the caves. They weren't asking for arms on street corners in the towns and cities. I think we'd have to make the division there between decadent practice and more authentic practice.

Alistair Shearer:

There was initially this interest and bemusement and I would think in some cases, revulsions certainly from some of the religious people who went out to India. Some of the British Raj and missionaries and so on disallied with the Hindu temple worship with images and so on, would have created that critical attitude to yoga. But then when we come into the 19th century or even earlier, the end of the 18th century, we get the scholars from the west becoming interested in yoga—the academics, the orientalist, as they were called. They looked beyond the current state of yoga, whatever that may have been to the sources, and the sources were the Sanskrit texts. They initiated a vast program of translation and dissemination through the European world—through the English speaking world, initially through the Germans, German translations and then into French and English and the major European languages— and this displayed a different side, a purer side, a classical side of yoga, as we find in the Yoga Sutras and the Upanishads, as I've mentioned before.

Alistair Shearer:

Now these, of course, were a different perspective as you've rightly said from the conventional or typical Christian viewpoints. They were strange and they may or may not have been acceptable because of their strangeness. But it at least began to show that there was something authentic there and something that was not just a degenerate or magical practice which has no nobility to it. No higher purpose to it.

Albert Mohler:

It would seem that the average Westerner, appropriating yoga is probably thinking about a program down at the Y or something similar, not thinking about centuries upon centuries of Indian practice that would have a very different understanding of everything from spirituality and sexuality to mindfulness and yes, physical posturing. This has become a very commodified and commercialized industry. But how it got there is actually a fascinating part of the story. How Western culture so influenced by Christianity could become so absorbed in yoga, well that really is a fascinating tale. A part of the story that you tell will be helpfully clarified for me. I do have my own interest in the orientalist who really reshaped much of higher education in the United Kingdom, as a matter of fact. He had different universities developing different areas of expertise, Edinburgh, in particular with its Arabic studies, still famed until today, and that orientalist tradition came over, especially in diplomacy between the Foreign Office in Great Britain and the Department of State in the United States, even in the 20th century.

Albert Mohler:

It was well known that there were those known as the Brahmins, the elite of the US State Department who were also orientalist and tended to read the world through a Western understanding of the East. This fascination gets right into the heart of the 20th century. How did that really shape, say in the English-speaking world, this appropriation of yoga because the whole critique of Orientalism comes down to cultural appropriation and to a push-pull of an attraction and a revulsion? How does that all come together?

Alistair Shearer:

That's certainly an interesting question, isn't it? Because certainly the Hindu nationalist argument or the various Hindu groups, especially in America, have criticized the widespread adoption of yoga as being cultural appropriation. I wonder about this because the word appropriation as I understand it means taking something, stealing something, from somebody who rightfully owns it. I wondered if this can apply to culture. You and I have been born, and everybody is born into a particular culture, and we're shaped by it. That's quite involuntary. There's nothing we can do about that. We adapt it, and we may add to it in our own little way. We may rebel against it. We may have different attitudes to it. But I wonder if we actually own our culture, and whether culture is something that can really be stolen or be appropriated from someone else.

Alistair Shearer:

I think one can take something from another culture and treat it with greater or lesser respect, but whether there is actually something that we can call cultural appropriation, I'm not sure. Do we own our culture? Do you own American culture as an American citizen born and bred? Do I own British culture? I love British culture, and you love American culture, I'm sure. But do we own it? That's another question. I'm not so sure about that. I think the general Orientalism critique was against the excessive romanticism of the Western view of the East, and that somehow it was all exotic and mysterious and hidden truths and beautiful women and all this sort of thing was the critique of Orientalism as it was perhaps understood or practiced in the late 19th century onwards from the middle of the 19th century onwards.

Alistair Shearer:

I'm all for international cooperation. I think we learn from each other. If you just look at our cuisine, for example, every culture is eating foods and growing flowers and trees that originated somewhere else, and that adds to the great richness of our individual countries and cultures. So, I'm not sure about this. It's a fascinating question with many branches to it.

Albert Mohler:

Well, and ironies because you have the ardent activist that gets cultural appropriation on the American College campus, who sees cultural appropriation as a form of a Marxist analysis and an oppressor oppressed format, and participates in a protest against cultural appropriation, and then quickly goes home to change to get ready for her yoga class. That's a just one of the ironies you see in the midst of all this. I realize in both cases I've used the feminine, but as you indicate in your book, in the United States, well over 90% of those who are active in a yoga movement or program are women. That's something to which I hope we can turn later in our conversation. I want to take you to what to me is the crucial turning point in all of this, which is the late 19th century. In particular, the World Congress of Religions, held in Chicago in 1893.

Albert Mohler:

Because as a Christian theologian, I have to tell you, this is where it gets really interesting to me and, I think, to many other Christians. You have the appearance at the World Congress of Religions, which was itself a part of the entire New World Religions field of interest to Westerners. You had one particular individual show up and, as you demonstrate in your book, he came from India, and his message rather stole the show in Chicago.

Alistair Shearer:

They did indeed. This was Swami Vivekananda, who was a young monk. He was an ordained monk. He was the pupil, the disciple, of a very charismatic, unlettered temple priest in Calcutta. A man called Swami Ramakrishna. And Vivekananda was initially concerned with uplifting his own people. He spent his earliest years of his ordination traveling around India and just taking the pulse of the country—finding out what people needed, what they wanted. He soon came to the conclusion that what was needed was a re-casting of the message of Hinduism and a revival of Hinduism in the direction of material concern—concern for material benefit—downplaying of excessive preoccupation with abstract realms of gods and goddesses and complicated rituals and that whole temple paraphernalia, so he was a reformer. It didn't take him long to feel that the reforms that he wanted to see in India could also spread to the rest of the world, and India would be benefited by the rest of the world learning about what he felt he had rediscovered to be an essence of his in inherited faith. The rest of the world could itself benefit from this.

Alistair Shearer:

He made a vow on Christmas Day in fact. He went down to South India. He spent Christmas Eve in isolation on a tiny island off the South Indian coast and went deep into meditation and a time of solitude, a time of self-searching. And he came out with this vow to bring a mission to the world. He went to America. He saw that America was the dynamic, progressive forward thinking part of the world at that time. He pitched up by a series of accidents almost or a series of misadventures. He lost his way. He ran out of money. He was first barred from speaking at the Congress because he didn't have any academic qualifications. But anyway, he made it to the Chicago podium. He galvanized the meeting. He stood up. He was impressive. He had a yellow turban and a scarlet robe, and he was a physically impressive young man. Very clear. He was a great orator. He had a great power of words, great charisma. The audience just loved him. They gave him a standing ovation after his first few words.

Alistair Shearer:

He started his speech, “Brothers and sisters of America,” and went on to talk about the universality of religion and the fact that the different religions around the world were like spokes on a wheel that united their empty center at the hub of the wheel. Now, for us today, this may not sound so revolutionary because whatever our particular faith may or may not be, we have heard this story for many years now. Some people have been promoting this view, many people oppose it, of course, but at that time, as you rightly say 1893, this was a bombshell. I think his personal magnetism and the novelty of his message, the daring of his message, really took people by storm. He embarked on a highly successful time in America.

Alistair Shearer:

He was taken up by intellectuals. He was taken up by the transcendentalists, people like Emerson and the James'—William James, Henry James, who was probably the leading psychologist at the time. A number of well-placed, wealthy, highly respected intellectuals were fascinated by this idea and promoted him, helped him, introduce him to various people. He was offered posts at Harvard, and another ivy league institution as well, but he diplomatically turned them down. He said that as a monk he couldn't really take up such a position. But he really opened people's eyes to a new way of looking at things, I think, a new way of understanding.

Albert Mohler:

Well, it was an interesting timing because, and I'm speaking here as a Christian theologian with a specialization in historical theology. This is an interesting moment. It was the waning of theological confidence in the West. Indeed, in your book, where you begin to introduce this, you write in the first sentence, “As the 19th century drew to a close, conventional Christian belief was in tatters for many.” You mentioned Darwin, many other things. In Great Britain and in much of continental Europe, you had the breaking up of a Christian culture in Germany and other places in particular. It was the shift to a cultural Christianity that then itself began to break up. You had also the development of history of religion studies in the German universities that filtered over into the English-speaking world in which religion was just treated as an academic discipline.

Albert Mohler:

But at the same time, you have this massive apparatus of organized religion in the West, and those who are trying to free, in their view, humanity from that binding nature of that organized religion, were looking for a way out. The we're also looking for a way out of making the traditional Orthodox Christian claim of exclusivity and particularity. By the way, I've always been fascinated with the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, and the various Congress’, as they call them, that were a part of it. I have before me right now, actually the official papers of the World's Congress of Religions in Chicago. It's a very old book, as you might imagine, but in the publication of the paper by Swami Vivekananda, there's this statement where he says, “Speaking of religion and the Hindu view of religion,” he says that “the same truth merely adapts itself to the different circumstances of different natures.” His next sentence, “It is the same light coming through different colors, and these little variations are necessary for that adaptation.” Now, that became the central metaphor for liberal theologians in the west to say, “See, that's exactly what religion is. It is a common light refracted through different colors.” Even though yoga is the immediate concern of your book, this vast theological turn is very well documented in your work.

Alistair Shearer:

Yes, that's right. Thank you. I think that is probably still the case with yoga in the sense that people feel this may be an Indian practice originally, although, as the book says, it's quite a hybrid practice with Western exercise routines mixed in with it and so on and so forth. But if it takes us to a deeper level, then the fact that this may come from a culture of one color, if it takes us to our own deeper level in our own terms, then that's acceptable. Therefore, I think many Christians who wouldn't accept or be at all interested in the Hindu view of life, as a theory, as a metaphysical system, would find the practicality of yoga useful to access their own inner depths, and as you know well, there's such schools of Christian yoga that, in a way, we interpret yoga in Christian terms and see it as being a valid means, or be it originally from another culture, to access their own faith, their own beliefs, their own deeper levels of being.

Alistair Shearer:

The universality of faith, or the universality of the core of religion was very much part of the Vivekananda's mission. They probably through great support and great opposition at the same time, the historical exclusivity of Jesus is, of course, the absolute bedrock of Christianity. The Indian viewpoint on that has always been that there are many great such teachers of which Jesus was a preeminent one but not the sole exclusive historical manifestation of the divine, and that is probably a perennial sticking point between the two approaches, the two fates or the two practices.

Albert Mohler:

Right, but it's a perennial sticking point that is one way or another not very much a part of the consciousness of the say, evangelical Christian mega church that starts a yoga program and doesn't perhaps even understand the complication. Let's just put it that way there. I've been in this controversy for 20 years within American evangelicalism. There's another part of the story I want to ask you to trace for us, and that's after 1893. You mentioned Swami Vivekananda's encounter with the transcendentalist and others, but there was this new thought tradition, mystical tradition, in the United States. It became very powerful at the time. You also have the Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy phenomena, and all the rest, who are really rejecting a Western understanding of reality in many ways and looking for connections elsewhere.

Albert Mohler:

But then you also, in your book, very helpfully trace how this ends up in a place like Hollywood. You end up with American intellectuals but more recently American celebrity figures, from Jane Fonda to well you name it, who become very much associated with some form of yoga, but you also demonstrate there's been charismatic Yogi's, charismatic figures, who have really driven these waves of appropriation of yoga in the West.

Alistair Shearer:

Yes. That's quite a wide spectrum. The Hollywood yoga acceptance was acceptance of yoga as the body beautiful. I think it's very much a kind of Californian ethos of physicality, California beach culture, if you like, transposed onto the mat into the yoga studio. The main architects of that were two. There was a man called Pattabhi Jois and a woman called Indra Devi. That was the name she took. Both of these were students of a particular teacher in Mysore called Krishnamacharya. He taught yoga very much as a system of physical exercises. He didn't talk about meditation. He didn't talk about breath control very much—the slightly more inner aspects of yoga. He taught yoga as a physical practice for good health, for flexibility, for physical strength, and so on. That approach to yoga went down very well on the west coast. That I think, is what has been largely picked up today by today's celebrities. Hollywood, of course, has always been a place of celebrity, and Gloria Swanson back in the early days was doing yoga. Now we have Gwyneth Paltrow. As you say, you name it on the yoga scene.

Alistair Shearer:

But they were really stemming from this approach of Krishnamacharya. The other great yogi that he taught—another of his probably his most important and influential disciple—was a man called B.K.S. Iyengar, who taught a tough physical practice, which often use props and often used ropes and different means to help muscular flexibility, physical flexibility. That aligned with the gymnastic approach of yoga and general gymnastic regimes, which were already popular in the West had been since the end of the 19th century, which saw nothing wrong in using some physical aids to strengthen up the body, tone up the body, increase its muscle strength and so on. That was the physical legacy of Krishnamacharya, and then a later wave, a slightly later wave, Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois came across in the 1960s and started teaching from then onwards.

Alistair Shearer:

Indra Devi was earlier. She was in the 20s and 30s. But the next wave of that, we come on to people like Bikram Choudhury, who taught hot yoga, and that again, was taken up by the Hollywood elite. This was an extension of the physical yoga because this was yoga practice in the heat of 40 degrees Celsius, an artificially heated studio. The idea was that you would sweat out your stresses, and you would sweat out your poisons, your toxins, and gain flexibility through subjecting the body not only to rigorous exercise, speedy exercise, but to this increased heat. Now, this of course, has nothing to do with traditional yoga. Choudhury justified it by saying it emulated the typical temperatures in India when one performed yoga, but this was mere salesmanship because yoga is always performed traditionally in India in the early morning before the sun gets too high. So, it's not a high temperature practice at all.

Alistair Shearer:

But Choudhury was a Hollywood gangster figure himself. I say gangster because he liked to dress in a pearl gray fedora and silk suits, and crocodile skin shoes. He was Hollywood. He was a showman. The Hollywood glitterati loved him. He was extremely successful. He rolled out his hot yoga studios, all over the world, made a great deal of money and was riding very high. He eventually had a fall. Dissatisfied students began to gather together, and there were lawsuits against him, and he fled back to India where I think he still is. His trajectory was very fast and very spectacular, but it did crash in the end. But again, this was the physicality of yoga, being allied to body culture, body image, and general preoccupations which aren't intrinsically Western, of course, but I think, in a place like Hollywood, have been developed particularly highly.

Albert Mohler:

Another couple of questions that are really key, I think, to this conversation. One of them has to do with sexuality because one of the issues you raise is asking the question as to whether or not modern devotees, Western devotees of yoga, have any understanding of the fact that many of the exercises, poses, not to mention the spiritual aspects have explicitly to do with one dimension or another of sexuality.

Alistair Shearer:

Yes, we're coming back to the question we touched on earlier of celibacy in the sense that yoga has always taught that the life force, or put it the other way, that sexuality is a limited expression of a greater life force. This life force can be utilized at different levels as it were. It can be sublimated. It can be used to further spiritual development. It doesn't need to be expressed as it normally is in householder life. Again, we can see a connection here between specifically Indian yoga and wider mystical and contemplative traditions on this. The idea that withdrawing from the world, to some extent, or withdrawing one's energies as it were, and sublimating them, using them for a higher purpose, a spiritual purpose, that's a universal concern of contemplatives from different cultures and different traditions. But this idea, when transposed and perhaps not publicly stated and transposed into a culture that is not only relatively relaxed about sexuality—I'm talking about Western culture in general, and certainly urban Western culture in the so-called developed countries, where culture is actually highly sexualized. We live in a very highly sexualized culture with advertising, and the internet, and all the rest of it that we know about.

Alistair Shearer:

India, certainly up until the coming of the internet, was a sexually conservative country. It still is, in many ways. It's a religious country, and traditional religious perspectives on this tend to be sexually conservative. I'm not idealizing India in that way, but this is the case, and this is a very great strength of these cultures, it seems to me. So, when this background is then transplanted into a very different culture, I think the ground is opened up for all sorts of misperceptions, and crossed wires, and misunderstandings, and inappropriate behaviors, both on the part of the students and the teachers. Potentially, that's there. Now obviously a teacher who is well grounded in his or her practice is to some extent at least cognizant of all of these potential pitfalls and will act accordingly and behave accordingly. But as we all know, this is not always the case. It's not always the case with charismatic preachers from other religions as well that they lead exemplary personal or sexual lives.

Alistair Shearer:

But this has certainly hit the headlines in terms of some scandals in the yogic world in America, for example, and also in the Buddhist world, which is an offshoot as it were from the yogic world. I'm using these terms very generally to cover Eastern teachers who come across with various types of sitting practice and contemplative teachings and so on.

Albert Mohler:

One final big question has to do with the category of mindfulness because this is now becoming an issue of controversy in the public schools where elementary school children are being taught mindfulness. Define mindfulness in some meaningful sense as how the term emerged, and what is the content of that concept?

Alistair Shearer:

Yes, this is interesting, isn't it? Mindfulness. Traditionally, mindfulness is one of the entry level meditations of Buddhism. It really proceeds in two stages classically. The first stage is to win the mind of intrusive, or habitual, or repetitive thinking—mental chatter, internal dialogue—and bring it to rest in the present moment. If one sits down and the mind is racing with all things—what I should have done, what I want to do, what's going to happen next Tuesday, and so on and so forth—the mindful approach is, as I say, to bring the attention of these thoughts to a calmer, more stable present platform, a present moment. The second phase of classical mindfulness, and when I say classical mindfulness, I'm talking about what was practiced throughout the Buddhist world, particularly in Thailand and Burma. The second phase was then to enter into various analyses of the mind—the personality—in order to strip away misperceptions about who and what we are and, by extension, who and what the world is.

Alistair Shearer:

These analyses would center around the impermanence of the world, the impermanence of the socially constructed self, and all the pitfalls of self-possession and what we might call egotism. This was the Buddhist endeavor, and the goal of Buddhism Nirvana is to reach and to live in a state which is beyond the restrictions of personalized egotism, selfishness, self-concern, and so on. When the Americans were in Vietnam, many of them took R&R in neighboring Thailand, and sometimes in Burma. They came into contact then with monastic institutions with monasteries with Buddhist monks practicing mindfulness. Some of these soldiers became interested in mindfulness as a way to overcome their stress of being in the conflict and so on. That's understandable enough. When they came back to the States, they brought with them a version of mindfulness as they understood it.

Alistair Shearer:

A particular example of this—I don't think he was out in Vietnam—but the main instigator of mindfulness was a doctor on the east coast of America called Jon Kabat-Zinn. He initiated a mindfulness program initially for cancer patients. It was to let patients and relatives of patients deal with, or at least try to deal with, the stress brought about by their illness, and so on. But very importantly, Kabat-Zinn stripped out the second stage of mindfulness—the analysis of the impermanent limited self, the contingent self, which is the heart of Buddhist practice and understanding. What he presented as mindfulness was just this centering of the attention away from intrusive dissipative thoughts. Well, that was fine. What then began to develop as mindfulness began to split into different schools was the idea that once the mind was calm, and once it could be peaceful—relatively peaceful—nobody should start to deconstruct the illusory self, but that the self could be bolstered by positive affirmations and that in some way, a more effective socially operating self, who could work more effectively in the field of relations and more money, live life in a more satisfying and gratifying way. This sort of an effective, powerful self could be built up through the practice of mindfulness. In a way, it began to evolve in a direction which was exactly opposite to the original intention. The idea became prevalent that one could develop a more socially successful self through the practice of mindfulness.

Albert Mohler:

It is fascinating because you end up with so many of these contradictions. You have a practice that began, I'll just say, in ancient India, which had nothing to do with physical beauty that becomes transformed into Hollywood celebrity-ism. You have the incredible culture of autonomous individualism in the West that all of a sudden seems to accept the authority of the spiritual and yoga figures coming from the east and indeed includes a surrender to that. Then you have the western self, which looms large, giving itself to a yogic practice, which is about dissolving the self. Clearly most people I would argue in the West who are actively engaged in yoga, have just syncretized some form of Western worldview and contemporary consumer culture—the culture of wellness with the body—and put it together in their own formulation. As you indicate in your book, there's a market for just about every brand evidently.

Alistair Shearer:

Absolutely. I think your summary is quite right. The next question or another question perhaps is, does this matter? If people can gain benefit from yoga, is that fine? Whatever their misunderstandings or limitations of understanding may be, or does this traduce yoga? Should we be using the word yoga for some of these new practices? Yoga has become a suffix for anything you want to sell now. You could have any sort of product, and you tack yoga on the end, and it gains a phony respectability or marketability immediately. That, it may not be cultural appropriation, but it's certainly misappropriation. Certainly, I'd agree on that. I don't know what the future will be with it. It could go in many different ways almost at once. It may be that some people become tired of the purely physical and start to look to the deeper levels of yoga—to adopt meditation or contemplation and begin to have a different view of the self, and the world, and perhaps a more elevated or more compassionate way of acting in the world.

Alistair Shearer:

I think the technical use of yoga the way people interact with machines—with apps and with various feedback machines, you have what I call Silicon Valley yoga—I think that will develop for a certain group in society, young people perhaps who started with biofeedback and various other ways of interacting with technology to create benign or pleasurable states, mentally and physically. I think that will develop. I think the commercial aspect of yoga, as long as you can make a buck out of it, that will probably develop in some way or another. It may well be—it will be interesting to see, won't it, after we come through COVID-19, which is going to, I think, cause all of us to have a reevaluation of our lives—the way we live, what our priorities are, what is really important between and amongst people, not only just for ourselves, and I wonder what part yoga may play in this. I think it may help in this. I think people may be thrown back onto themselves in a beneficial way and practice real yoga or genuine yoga perhaps as a means to help them gain strength and insight of the aftermath of what is such a difficult time for all of us at the moment.

Albert Mohler:

Mr. Shearer, it has been a pleasure to have this conversation with you. I want to thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public.

Alistair Shearer:

Thank you very much indeed Albert, it's been great. Thank you.

Albert Mohler:

I enjoyed that conversation with Alistair Shearer, it was an interesting conversation because we really went at the issue of yoga as covered in his book from many different angles and dimensions. All of it, by the way, is at least potentially controversial. I have found myself at repeated moments over the last twenty years, surrounded by reporters and others over the controversy about the Christian engagement with yoga. I was looking up an article about an Indian history book in preparation for this, and when I found the review in The Times Literary Supplement from London, I found myself cited in the first paragraph twice. That's just one of those moments when you recognize that even as most Americans think of yoga as something of a commercialized practice, as something of a physical discipline down at the YMCA, the reality is, it's a lot more than that. As a Christian and theologian, I have to insist it is much more than that. Also, as a theologian, I have to insist it can't be much less than that when yoga is rightly understood.

Albert Mohler:

I'm often asked what about the physical postures? What could be wrong with a physical posture or a form of exercise? I'm not going to answer that comprehensively except to say, you need to understand that those exercises themselves had a theological referent. They were largely involved in making addresses to or approaches to Hindu deities. The conversation with Alistair Shearer was fascinating at many levels. I actually would disagree with him about his understanding of Christian mysticism and many of the ascetics of early Christianity. I don't think what they were doing is really analogous to yoga in India, in any of its phases, but it's also important to note that that particular tradition in Christianity has actually never been mainstream. And furthermore, it's also interesting to note that—speaking as a Protestant theologian—this has been one of the reasons why Protestant Christianity is separated even from what it has seen as contemplative, meditative, and synchronistic elements that are far more welcome in Roman Catholic circles.

Albert Mohler:

In the conversation, we discussed the question of cultural appropriation. That, itself, is a matter of debate. It is interesting, as I said, to think that many of the people who ardently declare themselves the enemies of cultural appropriation interrupt their protest to go down to the Y to make sure they don't miss their class. In reality, most Westerners really don't understand yoga. They don't understand its history. It may well be that they don't want to understand that history, and background, and in particular, the theological roots of yoga.

Albert Mohler:

In his book, Alistair Shearer actually deals with the attempted form to try to syncretize yoga and Christianity with programs that even change some of the names of the poses from a particular practice of yoga. In this case, “the ancient Hindu Cobra Pose becomes the Vine Posture and is associated with John's Gospel.” By the same token, we read “the Bow Pose becomes Peters' Boat Posture to be done together with St. Luke's words, ‘Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a catch.’

Albert Mohler:

“While,” as Shearer writes, “the Balancing Stick Pose is transformed into the Angel Posture and accompanied by the recitation from Psalm 91, ‘For he shall give his angels charge over you to keep you in all your ways,’” end quote. But then when Shearer talks about this rebranding of yoga, he says it's not just in the church, it is in the schools. I quote him again, “In Encinitas in California, children at nine primary schools take part in classes twice a week based on Ashtanga Yoga as part of a life skills curriculum that includes discussions of ethics, nutrition, general wellness, and character development.” He continues quote, “After some parents complained, ‘The US Constitution demands schools be secular,’ the Sanskrit names for the postures were replaced with some child friendly English ones such as Kangaroo Surfer and Washing Machine.”

Albert Mohler:

He continues quote, “Practitioners of the classic Lotus Pose may be surprised to learn that it is now to be called Crisscross Applesauce. One of the other poses, imagined by many to be a connection to the source of all light, life, and intelligence on our planet, now becomes the stunningly prosaic quote, Opening Sequence,” end quote. You might add here, “Only in America.” Christians considering yoga would at least have to honestly understand the roots of yoga in Hinduism and later in Buddhism, and come to understand, again at bare minimum, that the Asian understanding—the Hindu and Buddhist, in particular Buddhist, understanding—of mindfulness isn't really compatible with the biblical understanding of devotion to Christ. One is about emptying the mind. The other is about filling the mind with Scripture and right thoughts about God. But Christians listening to this conversation are reminded of the fact that everything really is theological, and we have to look very carefully at the theology that is coming out of anything. Especially something that is dubbed a spiritual practice.

Albert Mohler:

I have no doubt that among Christians, this is a conversation that will continue, but at the very least, it ought to continue with some real knowledge of what we are discussing.

Many thanks again to my guest, Alistair Shearer, for thinking with me today. If you enjoy today's episode of Thinking in Public, well, you'll find more than a hundred of these conversations at AlbertMohler.com under the tab, “Thinking in Public.” For more information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, go to boycecollege.com.

Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I'm Albert Mohler.

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