Was Jesus A Yogi Who Taught Yoga?

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By Mike Shreve|

Some non-Christians, especially those committed to a New Age or Far Eastern worldview, might respond to this question by explaining, “The word ‘yoga’ means yoke or union and Jesus taught that we should be yoked with God (in union with God), so yes, He must have taught yoga.” That may sound like a plausible conclusion, however, we need to inspect the terms more closely before making a final decision. In Hinduism, it is believed that union with God can be achieved through different schools of yoga, such as:

Hatha Yoga—the path of physical disciplines (asanas) and breath control (pranayama)
Karma Yoga—the path of action: good works or selfless service
Mantra Yoga—the path of chanting mantras
Bhakti Yoga—the path of devotion to God, a god or an individual guru or avatar
Jnana Yoga—the path of transcendental knowledge
Raja Yoga—the royal path of meditation and mind control
Tantric Yoga—the use of esoteric methods to obtain supernatural experiences, sometimes the harnessing of power through a sexual union with multiple partners
Kundalini Yoga—a blend of many kinds of yoga, with the primary aim of awakening the “kundalini”—something defined as a latent, divine power coiled like a serpent at the base of the spine.

Various branches of yoga often incorporate several of the above types into one composite yogic system. Though each branch may promote a slightly different approach, the ultimate goal of all yoga practices is enlightenment, oneness with the Divine, the awakening of the higher Self, the attainment of God-consciousness.

To those who are not familiar with the contrast between Hindu, New Age and Christian beliefs, these terms may sound attractive and completely interchangeable. It may appear that yoga and Christianity are striving toward the same goal. However, that is definitely not the case. Keep reading, and you will understand why.

MY SPIRITUAL RESUME’

I was a teacher of Kundalini Yoga at four universities in Florida, so I am very aware of the various yogic practices designed to carry devotees to higher levels of consciousness. I am now a follower of Jesus, a believer in the biblical worldview. So, I have experienced both sides: theoretically, theologically and experientially. As a yoga teacher, I often proposed to my students that Jesus was just another yogi—for He taught men and women how to be “yoked with God,” and how to experience “union with God.” I even tried to reinforce this claim by quoting Jesus’ famous invitation:

“Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke on you and learn of Me, for I am meek and lowly in heart: and you shall find rest to your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30 MKJV)

When Jesus said, “Take My yoke on you” in essence, He was saying, “Come into union with Me—learn to think, feel, act and react just as I would.” He also prayed in John 17 that His disciples would be one with the Father, just as He was. So, oneness of heart, union with the Almighty, was an emphasis in Jesus’ preaching and ministry. This is the primary goal of yoga too—so what’s the difference?

Oneness with God within philosophical Hinduism is based on pantheism (All is God) and ultimately involves a realization we are Divine; we are God in manifestation. It means embracing the idea that Atman (the soul) and Brahman (the Oversoul) are actually one and the same. There is no difference. Any separation we feel, according to that worldview, results from delusion. So, the goal of yoga is overcoming that delusion by experiencing undifferentiated union with God.

This is not the goal of Christianity. Believers are called to yield to God and surrender to His Lordship. His Spirit enters our hearts and blends with our spirits. But we never—I repeat—never actually become God. Does the cream become the tea when the two are mixed together? No. So also, when human beings come into true union with God, do they actually become God—the answer again is “No.” A husband and wife become one in marriage, but they still maintain their own personal identities—and so it is with the heavenly Bridegroom and His earthly bride (the church).

The philosophy behind true Christianity and the philosophy behind the practice of yoga are oceans apart. There may be common terms used in both worldviews, but the definitions are much different. The internal awareness, though described with similar words, is also something totally different. When closely inspected, you will see that the teachings of Jesus do not fit at all within the framework of the various yoga schools already mentioned:

Hatha Yoga—Jesus never taught the practice of physical exercises and breathing disciplines in order to open up the chakras (spiritual energy centers) and achieve a state of inner harmony. Most teachers of New Age ideas or far eastern religions would readily label Jesus an Avatar (a manifestation of God on earth).

If He did fill this role (of course, Christianity teaches that He was the “only” incarnation of God) and if Hatha Yoga is a valid methodology, why did He neglect such an important subject? Of course, the logical answer is that He did not consider such methods necessary to man’s spiritual development. Many years ago (around 1970), I spent many hours doing yoga postures (asanas) and breathing exercises (pranayama). 

Now I am convinced, they do not aid anyone in obtaining true experiences of the transcendent state. God is a personal God who is approached in a personal way, not by such structured, mechanical methods. The belief in Hinduism is that prana is the basic life-essence that permeates everything in the universe including the air we breathe, and it contains divine life. So, breathing in a controlled way can enhance our level of consciousness. My response to this idea is an acrostic using the letters that spell YOGA:

You Only Get Air

Karma Yoga—This yogic system is based on the idea that every action causes either good or bad karma. Furthermore, the soul of a person remains locked in a series or rebirths (reincarnations) until all karmic debt is paid off. So, the object of Karma Yoga is to live such a perfect life that there is no karmic indebtedness. At that time, release (moksha) from physical existence is achieved.

Jesus did not teach this. He taught one life and then a resurrection, not karma and reincarnation. However, He did teach a certain concept of cause and effect. He warned that if we judge others, we will be judged; if we are merciful, we will obtain mercy; and the measure we deal out to others will also be dealt back to us. (See Matthew 5:7; 7:2.) Later on, Paul, the apostle, restated this concept with the words, “Whatever a man sows, that will he also reap.” (Galatians 6:7)

These statements describe a general truth that is somewhat predictable concerning life and relationships in this world. For instance, if we show hatred toward others, they will normally respond with hatred toward us. If we express love toward others, they will usually react with love toward us. If we bless others selflessly, they will often bless us in return—and God Himself will often reward us with outpoured blessings for our generosity. Those who drink excessively or do drugs end up destroying their bodies and minds.

Those who rebel against God’s laws often reap negative consequences. That’s just the way things work in life. However, neither Jesus nor Paul intended to convey the karmic concept that every action must result in an exactly matched counter-action. Neither did they teach that souls get ‘locked’ into samsara (the cycle of rebirths) because of karmic debt. Believing this doctrine leaves no room for forgiveness coming from God, which is a major emphasis in Jesus’ teachings.

If the law of karma is true, then human beings must work out their own destiny by making the right choices until perfection is achieved. If the biblical view is right, we will definitely reap from all of our actions and attitudes in this life, but if “payment” doesn’t come in this life, it will overflow into the next stage of our existence—after we stand before the Lord and receive from Him the decree of our eternal destiny. Also, if a wicked person repents and submits to God, past errors can be blotted out in His sight.

Mantra Yoga—Jesus never taught the use of mantras. Quite the opposite, he warned against this method, describing the practice as “vain repetitions.” (See Matthew 6:7.) The Bible does encourage us to confess the promises of God’s Word. It also urges us to use certain words and phrases in prayer that can sometimes get somewhat repetitive (like “Praise the Lord” or “Hallelujah”).

However, it never instructs Christians to chant these words, or some magical phrases, over and over in a monotone way to manipulate some kind of inner cosmic power. God is a personal God to be approached in a personal way, and these biblical praise words are a means of worshipful celebration for those who have already established a relationship with Him. To approach God with hours or repeated phrases is an insult to His intelligence. We would never communicate with a fellow human being that way.

Bhakti Yoga—Jesus taught that the greatest commandment is to love God with all the heart, mind, soul and strength. (See Matthew 22:32-40, Mark 12:28-34.) However, to do this, a person must know and correctly define both the name and the nature of the true God. Not all names and personalities ascribed to God are correct. Bhakti Yoga suggests that devotion to any deity is legitimate.

In Hinduism there are supposedly 330 million. However, these deities are the product of human imagination. If a person expresses love and devotion to gods that are non-existent, there is no value to the soul. Imaginary deities cannot deliver their devotees from sin and deception, for the very worship of those deities is itself sinful and deceptive. Biblically, this is a transgression of the first commandment (“I am the Lord your God…you shall have no other gods before Me”—Deuteronomy 5:6-7).

Jnana Yoga—Bible believers are encouraged to grow in the knowledge of God, and we are taught that in Jesus are hidden “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3). Gaining greater knowledge of God through prayer (revelation knowledge) and through the study of God’s Word (inspirational knowledge) does heighten one’s awareness of God and increase intimacy with the Almighty. And Jesus did explain to His disciples, “This is life eternal, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” (John 17:3) So, knowledge is important—though knowing God is far more important than knowing about Him.

The difference is this. Much of what is promoted in Jnana Yoga as the “Path of Knowledge” would not be in harmony with what Jesus taught. Just learning theories and ideas about God is not enough; we must learn the truth for it to be effective in our lives. Truth is not subjective; it is objective—the same for all. Just experiencing the supernatural is not enough; we must have encounter the true Spirit of God. Reading the Scriptures of all world religions will lead seekers down a path of theological error (I did this as a yoga teacher).

We must study only what is truly inspired of God, and only the Bible fits this description. “Knowing” God in eastern religions involves an experience of Ultimate Reality as an impersonal force; “knowing” God in Christianity means entering a relationship with a personal God who is triune in nature (the Father, Son and Holy Spirit). Only in Christianity is this “knowledge” of the nature of God discovered. So, all paths do not lead to the same place.

Raja Yoga—This group emphasizes meditation. Christians are taught to “meditate” on God and on His Word. Biblically, the word “meditation” simply means a private and focused time of devotion, which often involves prayerful study of God’s Word and listening for God’s Spirit to speak subtly to our hearts. Many of the meditation practices encouraged in Raja Yoga are much different that the methods Christians would employ.

Often, yogic meditation is geared toward emptying the mind to have mystical experiences that open up to higher levels of consciousness. The Bible never advocates “emptying” the mind, nor seeking supernatural, mystical experiences. These may come at the will of God, but we do not use any secret or magical means to make us more receptive. Not only is that unnecessary; it sets a person up for deception.

On the contrary, we are commanded to fill our minds with thoughts of praise and worship toward God. If supernatural experiences come, that is God’s decision. We don’t “conjure” them up with some mechanical or esoteric method to which only privileged initiates are privy. These are never a part of the true biblical approach to God.  The Bible teaches that a spiritual regeneration is necessary in order to know God: “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit.” (Titus 3:5)

Tantric Yoga—No true Christian would ever be involved in the pursuit of enlightenment through sexual practices. Quite the contrary, the Bible teaches against fornication, adultery, incest, homosexuality, lesbianism, bestiality, and any other aberrant sexual behavior. (See 1 Corinthians 6:9-11.) Sexual expression is only allowed within the confines of marriage and is never projected as being a means of obtaining enlightenment. Any supernatural experience coming from this method involving partners other than someone’s spouse is sin and an open door to demonic possession.

Kundalini Yoga—The kundalini is supposedly an internal, latent energy, coiled like a serpent at the base of the spine. When it is “awakened” through yoga and meditation, it travels up the spine to the crown chakra (supposedly, an energy center in the spiritual body). At that moment, enlightenment comes, a conscious awareness of oneness with an impersonal God. Jesus never taught that this was the spiritual makeup of human beings, neither did He portray God as an impersonal force or level of consciousness that permeates all things.

He rather taught an external, transcendent God who is personal and accessible only through the atoning death of the Son of God. Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father but by Me.” (John 14:6 NKJV) In order to enter a relationship with God, the heart must first be cleansed by the blood of Jesus. This takes place when a seeker asks Jesus to come into his heart and be Lord of his life. (See Ephesians 3:17, Romans 10:8-10.) The Holy Spirit will then indwell that heart, effecting a spiritual regeneration.

This is the experience Jesus referred to as being “born again,” something far different than any experience provided through yogic disciplines. (See John 3:1-6.) Jesus clearly revealed this experience is necessary to enter the kingdom of God. Because God does not dwell in all human beings, any attempt to awaken some divine presence within is in vain. God is external prior to salvation. Besides, a serpent is a symbol of evil biblically, so who do you supposed the “kundalini” (the serpent power) comes from?

SO, LET ME ECHO THE ORIGINAL QUESTION: DID JESUS TEACH HIS DISCIPLES YOGA?

He did not. Furthermore, what He taught never has and never will integrate with all the yogic methods, practices and beliefs taught by the groups listed above. However, Jesus did teach us the correct revelation of how to come into union with God and what that really means. Irrefutably, that is the most important discovery to be made in this life. Seek it with all your heart and you will find a treasure that will enrich you forever. As you journey through this world, it would be essentially important to adhere to the following advice:

“Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness?  And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever?  And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people.”  Therefore “Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you. “I will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.” (2 Corinthians 6:14-18)

The article was originally featured on The True Light and was republished with permission.

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Mike Shreve was a teacher of Kundalini Yoga at four Florida universities (University of South Florida, University of Tampa, New College, and Florida Presbyterian). He also ran a yoga ashram in Tampa. About 300 students were following his teachings. Then in 1970, an encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ changed his heart, his life, and his worldview. The next year, along with another brother in the Lord, he began hitchhiking across America (during the Jesus Movement Era) preaching on college campuses and in downtown areas. Eventually he began ministering in churches, Bible schools, and open air gatherings overseas as well. He has written 15 books (3 of which have been #1 on Amazon in their genre). One of his greatest joys is helping other Christian writers become published authors through the publishing company he runs called Deeper Revelation Books. He has an earned Bachelor of Theology degree and an honorary doctorate, given to him by Faith Theological Seminary because of his extensive work in the area of comparative religion. His website is www.thetruelight.net