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Mission creep

Health | Is yoga the latest way to improve mind and body or the newest path to Hindu enlightenment?

Issue: "Daniel of the Year," Dec. 17, 2005

"Relax. Stretch out now, slowly."

On cue, seven limber torsos unknot from their pretzeled poses with synchronized-swimmer exactitude, flattening out and fully occupying thin mats in the dim, mirrored dance studio.

"Now, let your body go. Feel it relax. From your head, down your arms, to your fingertips, slightly curled and light."

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The bodies grow still and stiff, arranged like cadavers atop parallel tables in a morgue.

"Now open your body up. Open up your mind."

Emanating out like a smoke ring ejected by the instructor, the mantra-like phrase fills the air smoothly, dissipating softly on the ears and beckoning openness to a force that has become almost palpable in the room.

Becalmed and meditative, the structure of the class so far is nothing unfamiliar to mainstream yoga students. Except this one is different. Instructor Mary Swan Murphy is clear about that: It's not yoga.

"Now, feel the presence of God," she says, giving the palpable force a name. She talks of being still and knowing that it is the Lord.

Mrs. Murphy, a Christian who began practicing yoga almost 30 years ago, is one of a growing number of people concerned about the U.S. yoga craze creating Hindu culture creep. American yoga practitioners now number 16.5 million, a 43 percent increase since 2002, according to data collected by Harris Interactive and published in Yoga Journal. With such popularity, it's not surprising that some are trying to offer a Christian alternative to a practice that originated as Hindu worship.

Christian instructors like Mrs. Murphy often once practiced yoga themselves or, in her case, even taught full-fledged yoga classes. For some, the movement to empty their yoga studios of what they consider irreconcilable Eastern roots even includes founding competing, God-centered exercise programs. "We're creating another entity here," she says of her class that meets in the small back-alley studio of a strip shopping center in Lago Vista, Texas. "We're bringing into the postures an intention of focusing on God and the Scriptures."

In Sanskrit, the word yoga means "union with god." Hindus teach that hatha yoga, the name for the popular U.S. exercise fad, suits not only the inflexible beginning exerciser but also the spiritual greenhorn. For this reason, Laurette Willis, founder of PraiseMoves, one of the increasingly popular Christian alternatives to yoga, calls hatha "the missionary arm of Hinduism and the New Age," a building block that preps the body for deeper spiritual meditation.

Even the Vatican, in a 1989 document signed by now-Pope Benedict XVI, has agreed that yoga has dangerous qualities and can "degenerate into a cult of the body." Ms. Murphy agrees. She says it's easy to be "sucked in. . . . I later found out that it wasn't very fulfilling, but it's easy to be drawn in by the rituals and the spiritual teachings. Yoga by its very name is going to affect other things."

So how could the two be reconciled at all? Mrs. Murphy differs from those who want strict separation of Christianity from the cultural influences around it. She sees her program, which is overtly Christian for an all-Christian class on Wednesday night, but more subtle for a Tuesday morning class with many non-Christians, as an effective evangelical tool because it physically resembles traditional yoga but shuns the theological meaning.

Matt Ristuccia, senior pastor of Westerly Road Church in Princeton, N.J., a campus town where yoga is fashionable, notes that the ideology of yoga is "contrary" to Christianity, but "what's important is that things like yoga be an incidental part of life." In the case of yoga, he says Christians should pursue yoga only as "just another exercise in stretching" and not one devoted to mind- emptying, which is unbiblical: Christians are transformed by renewing, or filling, their minds, not by emptying them as yogic meditation prescribes.

Mr. Ristuccia notes that cultures ruled by individualism and hungry for an "experience factor" easily accommodate yoga. He urges Christians to "decouple" the physical yoga component from its Hindu roots so that "you are left with half of the coupler waiting to couple with something else," particularly Christianity: "It's like a gravitational field."

Ms. Willis, of PraiseMoves, says Christians have a hard time decoupling because they either don't see the inherent danger in something that may be trivial or aren't willing to cede it to God. "Many Christians think they're surrendering enough," she says. "It's the idea that 'Well, I don't drink, drug, or smoke, so what's the big deal?' Then that thing becomes a stronghold."

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