GOP Candidate: Yoga Opens You to Satanic Possession

Virginia lieutenant gubernatorial contender E.W. Jackson in 2008 took a stance that's apparently common among Christian conservatives.

John Chapman, 1809. Collection of the New York Public Library.

Maybe it's the crow poses.

National Review's Betsy Woodruff looked into controversial Virginia lieutenant gubernatorial candidate and pastor E.W. Jackson's 2008 book Ten Commandments To An Extraordinary Life for a deeper understanding of his views on the human spirit, society, and, uh, yoga. Yes, yoga.

According to Jackson:

When one hears the word meditation, it conjures an image of Maharishi Yoga talking about finding a mantra and striving for nirvana. . . . The purpose of such meditation is to empty oneself. . . . [Satan] is happy to invade the empty vacuum of your soul and possess it. That is why people serve Satan without ever knowing it or deciding to, but no one can be a child of God without making a decision to surrender to him. Beware of systems of spirituality which tell you to empty yourself. You will end up filled with something you probably do not want.

Yoga has become so normalized in American life that this seems an extreme position (no pun intended). And yet Jackson's warning about on the spiritual dangers of yoga are not uncommon among Christian conservatives representing a variety of denominations.

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, sparked a passionate discussion on the topic of Christians and yoga in 2010, when he wrote in a book review:

To a remarkable degree, the growing acceptance of yoga points to the retreat of biblical Christianity in the culture. Yoga begins and ends with an understanding of the body that is, to say the very least, at odds with the Christian understanding. Christians are not called to empty the mind or to see the human body as a means of connecting to and coming to know the divine. Believers are called to meditate upon the Word of God -- an external Word that comes to us by divine revelation -- not to meditate by means of incomprehensible syllables....

The bare fact is that yoga is a spiritual discipline by which the adherent is trained to use the body as a vehicle for achieving consciousness of the divine. Christians are called to look to Christ for all that we need and to obey Christ through obeying his Word. We are not called to escape the consciousness of this world by achieving an elevated state of consciousness, but to follow Christ in the way of faithfulness.

There is nothing wrong with physical exercise, and yoga positions in themselves are not the main issue. But these positions are teaching postures with a spiritual purpose.... Christians who practice yoga are embracing, or at minimum flirting with, a spiritual practice that threatens to transform their own spiritual lives into a "post-Christian, spiritually polyglot" reality.

That prompted other pastors to come out against the ancient practice.

"Should Christians stay away from yoga because of its demonic roots?" asked megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Washington state. "Totally. Yoga is demonic. If you just sign up for a little yoga class, you're signing up for a little demon class."

The former Vatican chief exorcist agreed. "Practicing yoga is Satanic, it leads to evil just like reading Harry Potter," Father Gabriele Amorth said in 2011. His objection: Yoga derives from Hinduism, a heathen religion that says there is reincarnation. Pope John Paul II in 1989 also warned against the dangers of yoga as a seduction of spiritual seekers that "can degenerate into a cult of the body."

Anyone who has experience with what I think of as the American yoga-industrial complex knows that the pope's warning gets at an underlying tension in the way yoga is taught in the West. Either it's presented as an ancient spiritual practice conducted through the body -- and as such one that can conflict with the religious tenets of other faiths, especially their fundamentalist strains -- or it is assimilated into the competitive athletic cult of the body, shorn of its spiritual underpinnings and significance and turned into something like Indian pilates.

All of which is just to say, sometimes it turns out that statements that look on the surface like crazy talk -- yoga is Satanic? -- actually reveal a lot about tensions faced by the the faithful in a mutlicultural, religiously diverse society as they seek to be modern and also true to their own ancient monotheistic religion. Most people tend to ignore these questions, but it is the job of religious leaders to explore them.

The question for Virginia voters is whether they want such philosophical explorations to come from a political leader in Richmond.

Update: I am reliably informed that some conservatives who like to stretch and are looking for an out to their religious conundrum have developed an exercise regimen called PraiseMoves, "the Christian alternative to yoga."