Christianity lost much of its alchemical fire centuries and centuries ago. Modern yoga teeters on the brink of suffering a similar fate for very different reasons.
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Much ado has recently been made in religious circles of the potential spiritual hazards of the practice of yoga. Pat Robertson has called it “spooky” and Southern Baptist Leader Albert Mohler has written a sweeping criticism, entitled, “Should Christians Practice Yoga?” Mohler’s view, obviously, is reflective of the Baptist view that Jesus is the only way to reach God. And Jesus, as the son of God, is a distinct entity separate from us. We are not him, and we must go through him to find his father, aka God with a capital G.
On the other side of the spectrum is the phenomenon of modern yoga, which in many ways is at the heart of the culture of western spiritual individualism, in which any pre-requisites — such as finding God through Jesus — fall to the wayside in favor of a self-prescribed spirituality catered to individual tastes. When many Americans speak of being on a spiritual path, they mean that they dabble in a few minutes of meditation every week and go to yoga classes. Such free-thinking individualists of course find Mohler’s words ridiculous, perhaps stating “how can a system like yoga, that makes me feel so good, be bad.” However, while many of the self-styled yogis that Mohler calls out — myself included — are quick to proclaim their practice of the ancient tradition, in reality, many of us have little sense of the historical practice, its pre-requisites, and its ultimate aims.
At the heart of the matter is the reality that every religion on earth has had at one time or another embedded in it a tradition of mystic individual practice in which God is not seen merely as an external creator but is regarded as an all-permeating presence that can be realized and accessed through a specific regimen of practices. In Islam, this concept forms the core of Sufism. In Hinduism, it dominates the Yogic, Tantric, Advaitist and Shaivite traditions, and even some of the dualist Bhakti traditions. It infuses all of Buddhism — though Buddhists wouldn’t use the G word — particularly the Vajrayana Tantras. In Christianity, it had its home in the once-vibrant Gnostic and Alchemical traditions that have influenced everything from the Arthurian legends to Disney movies to the symbolism on the American dollar bill.
All of these traditions, in their own way, view the universe, the anima mundi, in all its aspects — including the human body — as a vehicle for spiritual transformation. The alchemical worldview, present in traditions from East to West, is that mind, body, spirit, universe, and God are inseparably united as one, and for one to be addressed on the path to the divine, all must be addressed.
Christians like Mohler clearly aren’t having it.
“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… see the human body as a means of connecting to and coming to know the divine.”
Historically, this is categorically untrue. Gnostics and Christian alchemists viewed the body as a prime vehicle for the realization of God. The core of alchemy is summarized by the phrase “as above, so below,” or “here on earth as it is in heaven.” The meaning is simple: manifest in the physical universe and in the physical body are all the tools necessary to light the fire, pump the bellows, and transmute the base into the divine. As Rosicrucian scholar and alchemist Paracelsus states: “Heaven is man and man is heaven… We each have a heaven and it lies in each of us in its entire plenitude, undivided and corresponding to each man’s specificity.”
The Bible itself — though not the chapters that Mohler probably chooses to read — is rife with quotes on individual spiritual practice and tales of prophets flaunting what can basically be described as yogic powers. Corinthians, that chapter most-likely-to-be-quoted-at-Catholic-weddings, also weighs in on the issue: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, Who is in you, whom you have received from God? … So use every part of your body to give glory back to God…” Even the taking of the Eucharist is an alchemical ritual, in which the divine body is subsumed into the individual body in order to bring the individual into closer contact with the divine.
Clearly, there is a historic precedent for the body-as-spiritual-vehicle in Christian tradition, and Mohler would do well to acknowledge it. However, his article does ring very true in one sense. How many practitioners of modern yoga do understand the spiritual roots — and pre-requisites — of their tradition? And how much of the real alchemical understanding that formed the basis of historical yogic thought is present in modern yoga?
Christianity lost much of its alchemical fire centuries and centuries ago — first in the post-Constantinian persecution of the Gnostics and other “fringe” Christian groups, later during the inquisition, in which alchemists were forced to hide their physio-spiritual and meditative practices. They accomplished this through coding their practices in the language of physical chemistry — they wrote of mercury and gold and sulfur not merely because they were medieval lab-rats, they also ingeniously understood how the internal processes of the human mind-body complex mimic the macrocosm. However, despite the best preservation efforts of small secret societies over the years, many of the specific practices of spiritual self-transformation in Christianity have been lost over the centuries and even demonized.
Modern yoga — while bringing numerous health and relaxation benefits to millions of people — teeters on the brink of suffering a similar fate for very different reasons. In Christianity, alchemists and Gnostics were persecuted as heretics. In modern yoga, the historic alchemy is lost in favor of an over-exaggerated emphasis on asana — physical practice — and the transferring of modern capitalist and individualistic values to a system that is traditionally concerned mostly with ego-destruction and renunciation.
Historically, yoga is a rigorous process of self-transformation that requires continual practice over decades and decades. In one of the many branches of Tibetan Buddhist yoga historically practiced by the yogins of Ladakh, there were three pre-requisites for initiate yogis to begin on the path:
1) You must be willing to spend many years alone in a cave.
2) You must be willing to spend many years alone in a cave and probably die there.
3) You must be willing to spend many years alone in a cave, probably die there, and have no one remember your name. This certainly is not the feel-good yoga practiced at countless studios and gyms around America. It is an extreme example but it highlights a key point. Yoga as historical practice had a severe starting point, and was certainly not designed to make practitioners feel better about themselves. In fact it was quite often extremely uncomfortable.
Yoga and Christian alchemy in traditional practice contain a process of spiritual and psycho-physiological transformation that quite literally constitutes a trial by fire. The alchemists’ crucible, in which base metals are heated and transformed into gold, represents in all mystic traditions the process by which the individual ego is systematically broken down and purified so that one can be more open to the presence of divinity in all aspects of life. In yogic tradition, tapas, or literally heat, is the practice of discipline and asceticism that brings one in direct contact with the divine — and in many lineages it involved extreme self-denial and even self-mortification.
The “goal” of these traditions is not anything as self-serving as the accumulation of mystic powers or the attainment of a great body or even a feeling of wellbeing. The “goal” is the shattering of the individual ego construct and the complete turning over of the individual to the divine will.
In historic yoga, the individual with a capital I, as we in the West often view ourselves, is nowhere in the picture. The paradox of the systems of both Christian and Hindu alchemical thought is while they both view the individual as a vehicle for realizing God they also innately recognize that the way to realize God involves complete destruction and dismantling of the individual. Which means that yoga, at its core has absolutely nothing to do with individual feelings of fabulousness, or well being, or individual happiness, or satisfaction.
Even in the Patanjali yoga sutras — which interestingly are the least alchemical of the thousands of historic Buddhist and Hindu yogic texts and quite possibly were adopted by modern yoga’s founders precisely because they were the least threatening to Western and Orthodox Hindu palates (see Mark Singleton’s book Yoga Body) — physical posture and breathing are but two aspects of an eightfold path that starts with a very strict moral and ethical code that must be adhered to before any physical practice is undertaken. The first of these is to renounce causing harm of all kinds. I’m quite sure that Patanjali would rather see a hundred million worldwide yoga practitioners not killing animals for food than gaining some sense of self-satisfaction from spending an hour doing sun salutes.
So is modern yoga “dangerous? ” Of course not. Certainly Mohler and his cohorts — and orthodox Hindus for that matter — have nothing to fear from the modern yogis who practice only asana and chant a few words of Sanskrit they don’t understand. And as far as danger goes, I’ll leave it to the yogis themselves to decide whether the practice of advanced Tantras and Kundalini-lifting exercises should be undertaken by those who can’t even sit still for five minutes.
But the “danger,” if there is one, is that yoga in the West could come to be viewed merely as another vehicle for self-fulfillment, and thereby fall into that very American category of spiritual practice, in which the goal of practice — ironically just like the goal of American life — is to get whatever we want whenever we want it.
There dies the fire.
It is impossible, according to all spiritual traditions, to put immediate self-gratification first and still have long-term spiritual progress. Yoga isn’t New Age hokum like The Secret in which all the things we want are promised to us on a silver platter — it is an alchemical boiling point, a crisis we face upon gaining a small taste of a greater freedom and in recognizing that this freedom comes not from what we’ve always been told it does — from the accumulation of material possessions or from those mental constructs that make us comfortable. In fact, it often comes specifically from renouncing those things and turning ourselves over to something greater.
The great alchemical joke, in which there is a pointed lesson for all of us in the west, is that the ‘gold’ that is the ultimate prize of all alchemists, indeed all people, is not found in the ground. The search for gold, that we are all so fervently engaged in, is, in fact a divine search.
If we are doing yoga without that divine search, without the practice of that alchemical transformation, well, in fact, we are not doing yoga at all. We are doing poses. And we might as well just go to the gym.
When we do recognize what the nature of the practice is, the only decision left is if we will dedicate ourselves to it fully, if we will heat the crucible and, over time, extract the precious shining brilliance from its source so that we might merge it with a greater brilliance. We don’t have be extremists and run off to caves and die there unremembered; but there are pre-requisites, and the foremost of these is the basic recognition of the alchemical and transformative nature of yoga itself.
That’s the practice. It is, as they called it in the Christian alchemical texts, “the work.” In yoga, as it is in Christianity, and in life.