Naga Yoga: A Christian Practice
By Dr Visier Sanyü
Christian Yoga is an absurd term, an oxymoron. Yoga is an Indian spiritual practice and a mystic spirituality whereas Christianity is a prophetic religion that believes Jesus is the son of God. The two traditions one from the west and the other from east are so different that to integrate the two practices is an unusual spiritual experiment. But as we begin the 21st century more people in Nigeria go to Church than all the churchgoers in UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand put together. If the political situation changes in China there will be more Christians in China than in the whole of Europe and America. Some Christian groups are predicting the possibility of all the untouchable castes, the Dalits in India, who number 300 millions, converting to Christianity. In this scenario it is pertinent that we find a non-Western practice of Christian theology. The task before us is to ask: Is it possible to have Christological titles from other cultures and traditions? Can a non-European culture and spirituality be a source of theology? I was born in Khonoma, a traditional tribal village in Nagaland at the trijunction of India, China and Burma. My family practised the ancient Naga animistic religion and I was brought up with a strict observance of these beliefs. This religion has strong beliefs in spirits and worship Ukepenuopfü a supreme female deity. They also used to practice headhunting as a religious rituals and my people were much dramatised by anthropologists and missionaries as famous head-hunters. When I was a child, less than 10% of the villagers were Christians. 1 Even then, I noticed that there was something peculiar and attractive about these Christians. They seemed to be happy and their homes were always clean. They could read and write. But at the same time I was disturbed to see that these Christians were trying to be like “foreigners”. They dressed differently and they did not participate in our festivals and dances. Singing traditional songs was forbidden among them. They also felt superior to others. My whole life was shaped by the political upheaval in Nagaland as my family and clan took active part in the Nagaland independence movement. When I was a child the Indian army burnt my village to the ground so we became refugees and lived in the jungle for three years, surviving on jungle products and animals. Our family was not Christian then but in hindsight God looked after us and protected us from many dangers. My father was tortured and arrested many times as the chief of the village. My oldest brother became a captain in the underground army and led a troupe to East Pakistan to obtained arms. On this way back he was arrested and went to prison. Those were terrible years.
Today only about a dozen families follow the native indigenous religion. The villgae has a population of about 5000 people of which 90% are Baptists.
At the age of nine I went to a Baptist school where I was deeply impressed by the quality of my Christian teachers. When I a teenager I became a Christian. This was a time when many of my villagers were becoming Christian specially the educated one. But it was only years later that I experienced a profound spiritual enlightenment when I saw a musical revue of the Initiatives of Change group about forgiveness and healing the wounds of history. The show deeply inspired me to be able to forgive my enemies. After many years of education I became an Associate Professor of History at Nagaland University with an extensive knowledge of Naga history and a desire to preserve our culture but when the nationalists splintered into four factions and fratricide of the worst kind began in Nagaland, Christians started killing Christians. I was deeply traumatized by the fratricide. It was at this juncture that I decided to take a year leave. I came to Australia for year as a Visiting Academic. Three months after I arrived in Australia one of my colleagues was killed in the Nagaland University Campus and a month later one of my friends was assassinated in his house so I decided to stay on. When I decided to stay on in Australia I changed the course of my own history and became a student of theology. My encounter with theology has been both shaping and shattering. This journey has been perplexing, long and winding. The spiritual battle has not been easy but now I look back with a deep sense of gratitude. Studying theology has been an encounter of God showing His love for me. I understand that Christian theology is an attempt to bridge the chasm between the human and divine, between the infinite and the finite. Theology is an exercise to intellectually examine our faith and understand it. It is the transformation of our being into a new creation through Jesus Christ. What is Naga Yoga? Yoga derives from a Sanskrit word which means to bind, join, attach and yoke. It also means union or communion. It is surrendering all the powers of body, mind and soul to God. In Yoga practice one is seeking communion with God. The mythical Nagas were described as a “beautiful chimerical creature; human, divine, and snake-like all in one.”2 These Nagas were perhaps pre-Aryans indigenous to India. Many scholars agree that yoga itself is a preAryan invention. These ancient Nagas are found in ancient Indian historical writings. This could also give explanation to the concept of Kundalini, a Naga that is a serpent residing in the human body as potential force coiled like a serpent at the base of the body‟s vertical axis. The practice of Yoga aims at awakening this overwhelming force of spiritual experience.For this reason some yoga scholars say Naga Yoga is the highest form of Yoga. However, the link between these mythical Nagas and modern Nagas is very slim. There is a vague possibility that the Indian travellers who first came into
Edward Wasburn Hopkins, The Religions of India, London. Ginn and Company 1895. P 539.
contact with the present-day Nagas might have given them this name because of the exotic cultures of the Nagas. But Naga scholars strongly deny any link between the ancient mythical race and the present Nagas of Nagaland and Burma due to paucity of evidence. However, one has to bear in mind that the current occupation of Nagaland by the Indian army has greatly influenced the anti-Indian feelings among the Nagas. As a Naga historian I hold the view that the ancient mythical Nagas and the present day Naga have some connection at least in the christening of the nomenclature. In the 19th century the British colonial and American missionaries recorded Naga culture and history of the time. Ahom was a Tai kingdom in what is now known as Assam in North East India, from 13th to 19th century until it was conquered by the British during the Anglo Burmese wars in 1920s. The Ahom kings wrote chronicles known as Buranjis in which they recorded that Nagas had trade relationship with India. From these sources the evidence is clear that the Nagas are an indigenous people of the land with a distinct culture.
The present day Nagas are 95% Christians of which nearly 90% are Baptists. In the present context, religious, spiritual or cultural forms of Naga practice have Christian connotations. I believe that Naga political, cultural and spiritual life are all interwoven and cannot be separated. Therefore, it is natural that Naga Yoga humbly seeks what is Christ in Yoga and to practice what it means to follow Jesus individually as well as a community. It originates from Naga cultural forms, context and spirituality. Let me tell you the story of the Naga Yogi: It evolved through an ordinary Naga villager in his search for God when he was faced with deep crises in his life .It is often the case that in insurmountable crises that one finds God. It resulted from an experience of loss, the loss of everything; his country, job, position, status, his parents, all his three brothers and two sisters one who died at the age of 31, not to mention seven bothers and sisters who died before he was even born. The would-be Naga Yogi cried out to God, “my God why have you forsaken me?” Deep inside him a voice seemed to whisper; “I am with you always” It was at this juncture of crises in his life that the Naga Baptist took up Yoga as a means of meditation and experienced a profound spiritual experience. Thus the Naga Yoga Institute was founded in Melbourne; Australia in 1999.I was that villager. It was through my practice of Yoga and through this deep daily internalising of my Naganess and Naga spirituality moving in total harmony and synchronisation with the practice of another culture and my daily meditation on words and the life of Christ that led me to a deep experience of indigenisation and contextualization of both yoga and Christianity. This internalisation through body, mind and spirit has given me a deeper understanding of the sufferings of Christ and His love and sacrifice for me. This involves physical acts which are at once both deeply practical and deeply spiritual. Taking yoga as a physical act, an embrace of ancient Indian spiritual
mysticism, it was my Naga body and mind that was involved – thus a mystical synthesis was developed through the physical and spiritual.
Who Can Practice Naga Yoga? Naga Christians who wants to practice yoga in their own cultural and spiritual context. Those Christians who wants to try Yoga but are uncomfortable or fearful because of its origin and it association with eastern mysticism. Those who do not go to a church but nevertheless are searching for a spiritual life can start with Naga yoga.
Over the last ten years thousands of people have attended Naga yoga classes. Christians who come to my class often comment that it was a great relief to find a Christian yoga teacher as they had always wanted to do yoga but either their Christian friends or their church did not approve. But the majority of the students who come to my class are people who would not go to Church, sometimes anti-church, but an alternative spirituality such as yoga meditation appeals to them to start their spiritual journey. Christian Spirituality and Yoga Many Christians hold the view that Christians cannot and should not practice Yoga because it originates from Hindu mystic tradition. However, there are Christians who are finding the love of Christ by practicing Yoga.
When I first met Father Joe Pareira, a catholic priest and the founder of Kripa Foundation in Mumbai, India, I was startled by his remark that, as a Christian Yogi, he recognised Jesus as the supreme yogi. This was because Jesus was fully human and divine, and Yoga is in search of a divine human. Jesus fulfilled this yogic quest. Because Jesus was in perfect union with God he is truly the perfect Yogi Incarnation is the centre of Christian faith. The Word of God becomes flesh in Jesus. In his life and death Jesus fully enters into human condition. According to Thomas Ryan, “What we are doing is discovering in yoga a concrete application of our incarnational faith. The use of bodily postures to open us to God is already a well established in our own practice----Within us is a universe of interwoven space, form, and spirit, grown and pervaded by God’s spirit in Christ. Yoga is an example of a discipline which
reminds us of this larger perspective and reveals to us what a precious, awesome, divine expression we are in our embodiment.”3 Jean-Marie Dechanet, Benedictine monk and the author of Christian Yoga believes that the Christian system of Yoga is re-peopling the earth with Christians who are perfectly human4. Carl Jung is very critical of his own Western people when it comes to Yoga. He wrote, “Western civilisation must first of all be liberated from its narrow barbarism. If we are to succeed in doing this, we shall have to penetrate more deeply into what is properly human in man. This knowledge cannot be acquired by copying, aping other people’s methods, which came to birth in very different psychological conditions. The west will have to create its own Yoga, Yoga built on Christian foundations- and in time it will do so.”5
Though many Christians cannot accept Jesus as the Yogi, more and more Christians are turning to Yoga in search of deeper meanings in life. Naga Yoga investigates whether we can have Christological titles in a cross-cultural context. Naga Yoga is not an alternative to church and bible reading, but a useful aid to help us respect that our body is the temple of the holy spirit and therefore, also needs to be nurtured and totally dedicated to Christ just as much as the mind. Professor Gordon D. Kaufman of Harvard Divinity School opines that “Instead of continuing to fight desperately against the massive pluralism of human cultures and religions in the name of what is believed to be universal Christian truth, we are now beginning to see that each cultural and religious tradition- in its own distinctive way, may have something uniquely significant to contribute to the understanding of Christian faith.”6
Philosophers and historians classify religions into two categories; mystical and prophetic. The prophetic religions are Judaism, Christianity and Islam and the mystical are the religions of Asia such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism. Yoga originates from a mystical religion. Here it raised an interesting and fascinating issue - How can Christians practice yoga? It must be made clear that Christian Yoga is not an attempt to blend Christianity with Hinduism or Buddhism into a kind of higher synthesis. There is no need to adopt the outward trappings of eastern mystics. As the Camaldolese monk Matus rightly puts it, “What is at issue here is the use of yoga as an aid in
Thomas Ryan, Prayer of the Heart and Body: Meditation and Yoga as Christian Spiritual Practice,(New York,Paulist Press, 1995) p 145 4 J.M Dechanet, Yoga in Ten Lessons, (London, Burns and Oates,.1965). p 157
Ibid. p 9 M. Thomas Thangaraj, The Crucified Guru, (Nashville , Abingdon Press, 1994) p14
dedicating one’s whole being to Christ and in fulfilling Christ’s law of loving service to one’s neighbour.7
India, the home of yoga, has a long history of Hindu civilisation, which begins, with the arrival of Aryans from central Asia. But there were civilisations before the Aryans arrived and Yoga represented a non-Aryan element in ancient Indian history. Yogic postures can be seen in the ancient art of the Harrapan civilisation. But Yoga went through a process of Hinduization after the Aryans developed and reformed the ancient practice.8A Hindu sage Patanjali first wrote the first yoga treatise some 2500 years ago. Later the Buddhists transformed it into an entirely different form of practice and ends. For Christians Thomas Matus argues that Yoga “can be made to coincide with the ultimate end of the Christian: loving union with God through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. In this sense, a Christian understanding of Yoga means the perception of the Christian end in all the means employed and experiences had throughout the yogic quest. If this Christian understanding is possible, it is because the many different Hindu and Buddhist understandings were possible and were in fact achieved.”9
Yoga as a skill and an art is much better characterised as wisdom (entechnos sophia) than as science (episteme).10The famous Indian yogi Iyengar said, “Yoga has also been described as wisdom in work or skilful living amongst activities, harmony and moderation.”11
The mission of St.Symeon, the great Medieval Christian mystic was to awaken every Christian to the possibility of seeing the light of Christ in this life and this is precisely the aim of Christians who used Yoga as a vehicle for the fulfilment of their faith. Our faith should give us a different consciousness of ourselves, of the world, of all the creatures and of God. This level of transformation cannot emerge explicitly on the level of words or waking consciousness. In other words we cannot explain what faith does to us. This is the level where we know that we don‟t know; a level higher than the realisation that we don‟t know that we don‟t know. ”Yoga is a systematic approach to attaining the highest level of consciousness of which human person can attain.”12
Mystics are spiritual people who are able to translate their transformation by faith into words which others can understand. For those Christians who
Thomas Matus , Yoga and the Jesus Prayer Tradition, (Ramsey, Paulist Press. 1984) p 9 Ibid p 20 9 Ibid. p 26 10 Ibid. 11 BKS Iyengar, Light On Yoga,London,Unwin Paperbacks, 1976 p20 12 Thomas Ryan, Prayer of the Heart and Body:Meditation and Yoga as Christian Spiritual Practice in (New York, Paulist Press, 1995) p 133
practice Yoga, Christ is the greatest mystic not only because he was able to tell us the absolute truth but also because he was the Son Of God, Light of Light, who indeed became human, without ceasing to be God. . The life of Jesus “opens the way for the idea that God truly can enter into human experience and can suffer.”13 There are different types of Christians who turn to Yoga. There are those who become Christian as a result of their search for God through Yoga. It is quite common for a Westerner without a religious faith to turn to Yoga in her/his quest for the meaning of life and through this journey find Jesus. Many Westerners also turn to Yoga and other forms of meditation because they could not find the answer in their traditional faith and form of worship. Practising Christian faith from such a non-traditional reflection as this, we can see some possibilities and problems. The idea of Jesus as a Yogi is totally a foreign concept, even absurd for some. We symbolise a Yogi as a sage who sits under a tree in lotus position or, more recently, associate yoga with Hollywood actors who take up yoga for physical perfection and as an alternative health system. But the true Yogi is the one who find a communion with God and who is with God while still living. He /she knows that God is within. A Yogi is not trying to be like God but who is willing to surrender to God‟s will.
For Christians, our samadhi, the highest Yogic state, is the assimilation (homoiosis) to Christ‟s total existence, the beginning and the end.14 As the Yogi begins to assimilate to Christ and to have a better understanding of the mind which was in Christ, then he/she too can lay down his/her life for the world. Naga Yoga does not delve into mind-transforming states or encourage people to „leave their bodies‟. It encourages us to lay down our life for Christ and surrender our body to His will. Christian Yoga can cause problems, ironically with some Naga Christians in Nagaland where Christianity is still understood from a 19th century American missionary version. They believe that anything which not from Western culture is not Christian because that is what they understood from the first missionaries. This problem is more prominent especially with the Baptists where anything connected with Hinduism or even with India is viewed very negatively for reasons beyond the scope of this paper. Some Western Christians find yoga extremely disturbing mainly because their faith is interpreted from an ethno-centric point of view. Julia Pope, an Australian Baptist, clearly demonstrates this in her paper, Yoga and Christianity, “Christianity is radically different in doctrine to yoga. Therefore, yoga is not a viable option for Christians to practice. Because all forms of yoga have the ability to arouse occult abilities it is essential to avoid all yoga practices. The public perception of yoga as a safe non13 14
Frank Rees Lec. 5 Faith of the Church: The Classical Christology 2002 Op cit. Matus 152
religious practice is false.”15 She urges that Christians should choose from exercises such as aerobics, swimming or even walking groups but not yoga. To her aerobics and swimming, which came from the west is good for Christians but yoga exercise, which originates from the east, is unchristian. Pope warned by quoting Galatians 1:8 “But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you as gospel contradictory to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed” She warned that those who practice yoga will be eternally condemned. On the other hand fundamentalist Hindus are equally upset by Christian yoga as according to them it dilutes the purity Hindu spirituality. They argue that only a Hindu can obtained the perfect Yogi . Christians who practice yoga will never preach that all Christians should take up Yoga. But some Christian will naturally turn to yoga to express some facets of their spirituality that they find have been under-nourished within the boundaries of their traditional practices. Matus points out that the problem for the West is translation and not transformation. Most people in the West are translating and simply substituting but by transformation one can climb to a higher level. He concludes by confirming that “the one, true Yogi is Jesus. His life, His mysteries, His Person is the Christian’s Yoga.”16
Christianity is interpreted from the Jewish, Greek and Roman worldview. For many centuries Europeans have tried to make Jesus into a respectable middle class European. But for Asians this “white man” Jesus poses a real problem. As stated earlier there are more non-white Christians in the world today. The African and Asian Christians were mainly converted by either American or European missionaries. There is no doubt about the sincerity of these missionaries and some missions were carried out well. But the missionaries could not escape from the attitude of a Western sense of cultural superiority of the time. This often resulted in some confusion with the “natives”. Christianity in many parts of Asia and Africa is only a century old and it is still in the process of shaping a theology that will be relevant to its cultural context. Therefore the concept of Christian Yoga is not incomprehensible and Yogi Christology is not unintelligible, particularly in the East. As one who practises and teaches Naga Yoga, the ultimate focus is Christ Almighty. Like many other Christians who practice yoga, I believe Jesus is the perfect Yogi who is always in perfect unison with God and his will, which is something every Christian strives to achieve. Naga Yoga is a tool for Christians to use to strengthen their spirit, be refreshed by the life of Jesus and reflect on the holiness of God. A physical and spiritual union.
Julia Pope, Yoga and Christianity, Melbourne, May 2000. Pope is Outreach Worker at Blackburn North Baptist Church in Melbourne, Australia and is involved in outreach to people in the New Age. 16 Opcit Matus
BILBLIOGRAPHY Dechanet, J.M, Yoga in Ten Lessons, London, Burns and Oates,.1965 Frank Rees Lecture no. 5 Faith of the Church: The Classical Christology, 2002 Hopkins, Edward Wasburn, The Religions of India, London. Ginn and Company 1895. Iyengar, BKS. Light On Yoga, London, Unwin Paperbacks, 1976 Thomas Ryan, Prayer of the Heart and Body: Meditation and Yoga as Christian Spiritual Practice, New York, Paulist Press, 1995 Thangaraj, M. Thomas, The Crucified Guru, Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1994 Matus, Thomas Yoga and the Jesus Prayer Tradition, Ramsey, Paulist Press.1984 Yogananda, Paramahansa, Autobiography of a Yogi. Los Angeles, SRF Books, 1946
Dr. Visier Sanyü Program Officer Refugee and Displaced People ACT for Peace Victorian Council of Churches Level 4, 306 Little Collins Streets Melbourne 3000 Australia Phone 03-9650 6811 email@example.com Mobile 0405170924 Visier Sanyü is the Program Officer for Refugees and Displaced People, ACT for Peace Victorian Council of Churches He was formerly the Head of History and Archaeology Department at Nagaland University, Nagaland. He obtained a Bachelor of Theology from Whitley College, Melbourne University.