What Is the Meaning of Atheist Yoga? Part 3 of My Interview with Anton Drake, Author of the New Book Atheist Yoga

Hollywood, CA -- (ReleaseWire) -- 05/20/2013 --[Q.] Anton, in one of our previous interviews you had a few things to say about Reverend Ed Hird’s article “Yoga, More Than Meets the Eyes.” I have since been in touch with Reverend Hird, and he has sent me a response to what you said, which he felt was unfair and mistaken in various ways.

[A.] Yes.

[Q.] Well, what did you think of Reverend Hird’s rebuttal, or response?

[A.] Well, first of all, I’m not exactly sure how I got into the middle of this. Rev Hird’s main point seems to be that yoga isn’t suitable for Christians. Since I am an atheist and not a Christian, if I’m honest about this I’d have to say that he, as an Anglican priest, probably knows more about what is or is not suitable for Christians than I do. What I had objected to was this idea that a line was being drawn in the sand, so to speak, in regards to yoga, and it was being said that since it came from Asia and had certain cultural associations with Hinduism or Buddhism that it was therefore dangerous or idolatrous for Christians to practice yoga. Again, I’m an atheist so in a sense I stand completely outside this kind of debate, however as an advanced practitioner of yoga I felt that this idea was clearly incorrect and at first blush I also thought it seemed slightly xenophobic .

[Q.] As I recall, you had objected to his characterization of yoga as something explicitly Hindu or Buddhist, which was therefore at odds with Christian values and beliefs.

[A.] Yes. And I mean there are several levels to this... but what struck me initially was the way he dismissed every aspect of yoga out of hand, including the pose and breathing exercises. He seemed to be saying that no matter how innocuous or secular yoga might appear from the outside, because it had its roots in South Asian cultures and practices it therefore had a different kind of cultural DNA—one that was inherently incompatible with Christianity and would be likely to shape a person’s unconscious mind toward Eastern religions and away from Christianity. He seemed to get a bit carried away with this, saying that yoga inevitably leads to “idolatry” and so forth. This seems to me a slightly dangerous precedent, that individuals might carry their mystical beliefs forward to such an extent, that if a particular exercise came from a country that was predominantly non-Christian, then Christians should therefore be proscribed or warned away from practicing those exercises, because the “spirit” or thought of that different culture or religion might somehow permeate the physical movements themselves—even if they should be abstracted into a purely calisthenic form in a secular yoga class. From my point of view, obviously, I understand yoga far differently than Rev Hird; Yoga is of course a very complex subject, but I can in fact tell you as an atheist that I am able to practice yoga completely at a very advanced level, something that I would not be able to do if the practice were inherently spiritual or religious. In fact, my book [ Atheist Yoga ] places a very strong emphasis on atheism; what I had wanted to describe in the book was something like a 50/50 synergy between atheism and yoga. What I mean is that I had wanted to explain how atheism supports yoga and how yoga supports atheism; yoga leading toward atheism and atheism leading, in a way, toward yoga. I’m aware that for me there is probably something like the anthropic principle at work in my understanding of yoga: since I am an atheist and since I evolved into becoming an atheist while pursuing a longtime practice of yoga, it’s inevitable that I will understand and experience yoga in terms of atheism. It doesn’t mean I am right or wrong, but since I do in fact find yoga to be an extremely valuable body of technique and I am at the same time an atheist, the only way that I can honestly understand yoga is in terms of atheism and materialism. Just leaving it off to the side as an exotic treat or diversion leaves open too many unanswered questions or murky areas in my understanding; in order to attain a certain level in yoga I needed to be able to see all the way to the bottom of it clearly. For instance for many years I walked around with a vague understanding of what the chakras were, which was colored by what I would almost call a kind of spiritual gossip or after-yoga watercooler talk about the subject, as well as by many of the spiritual books and lectures I had been exposed to. But when I really looked into the subject carefully I realized that this was a very murky and careless corner of my personal understanding, and that in fact I didn’t really believe in chakras as spinning disks of spiritual light within my body; I could also see that saying a chakra was in the same area as the genitals or the heart wasn’t the same thing at all. Eventually I read Jung’s lectures on the chakras, and I was in time able to understand them on a purely symbolic level—a very fertile field of thought, in my view, that continues to give me new insights all the time. This was a big deal for me, because in my very early years of practicing yoga I was exposed to some excellent teachers and some very powerful forms of Kundalini yoga, something which had a major effect on me at the time; eventually reaching the point where I was able to fully understand and integrate those experiences was an extremely valuable experience for me. And I’m just that type of person, you know? If I don’t understand something about myself I just keep obsessing on it, thinking about it, trying to figure it out; I’m extremely honest with myself and I don’t just sweep things I can’t understand under the carpet.

[Q.] So you don’t think that yoga is a religious activity?

[A.] Well I have no doubt that yoga can be dressed up as a religious activity, but the real roots of the techniques, which lie in concentration, meditation and inner absorption, are purely human in nature and therefore simply cannot be inherently religious. Of course if your worldview is overtly spiritual or religious, then it’s natural that you would understand yoga in spiritual terms—if you think the mind is part of God, then meditating on the mind will be for you essentially meditating on God. Also, many techniques, especially mantra repetition and that sort of thing, can obviously be flavored toward one belief system or another. Part of the controversy I think with the Encinitas lawsuit is that some people probably see the danger, from a Christian religious standpoint, of freeform or secular yoga. They not only have reservations about the origins of yoga practice in ancient Asia and its perceived relation to Eastern mysticism, but also recognize that it is a practice that might eventually lend itself to being bent to their own religious uses as well. There is in fact a discussion going on right now as to whether yoga can rebranded, so to speak, as something explicitly Christian—Christian Yoga, as it is being called—and in my view it clearly can be. Rev Hird obviously disagrees with me on this point, but such a rebranding or conversion is likely to be highly effective, and is probably already being done in various places. In the long run, however, all such attempts to flavor the practice of yoga with religion are antithetical to its proper objective, its true core, which is the discovery and exploration of the self; however even with any of the various different belief systems grafted onto it I still feel that the art will eventually lead sincere practitioners toward a deeper understanding of themselves, and so in that sense it is probably a net positive no matter how you dress it up.

[Q.] What did you think about Reverend Hird’s response to the interview?

[A.] I mean it was understandable. I had called him a xenophobe and what not, and I probably shouldn’t have done that. From my perspective, though, it just seemed somewhat outlandish the way he just assumed that his religion, Christianity, was so absolutely good, true, noble and pure and that yoga and meditation must, therefore, be proportionally impure, idolatrous and dangerous—essentially for no other reason than that they have emerged from Asian cultures and are therefore fundamentally alien to the West. This seems to be exressed in a remarkably visceral way, that can see idolatry and spiritual peril even in a physical yoga posture. That’s why I made the comment that he would probably also regard sushi or Indian curry as also spiritually suspect; that just seemed logical to me. If he thinks I was “vilifying” him then I do apologize, but to me Rev Hird’s article seemed to lack a sense of civility and a general recognition that there are many different people and cultures in the world, and that as we evolve as a species it should be in terms of a gradual process of mutual understanding and a progressive “rising above” of our differences, rather than any form of polarization and protectionism toward one particular religion or culture. Certainly, I have a deep appreciation for Asian culture, but I also have a very deep appreciation for the culture of the ancient Greeks and Romans as well; if anything it is the synthesis of these two strong cultural currents that forms the essence of what we call modern civilization.

[Q.] And of course you are obviously not a believer in God.

[A.] No I’m not. I’m not even agnostic. And really, for me the more interesting distinction is actually between materialism and idealism. I go into this quite a bit in the book. But from my perspective, if you believe in the reality of our material universe—and therefore in the reality of ourselves—then not only is atheism an easily arrived at conclusion, but the entire question of God appears to be nonsensical.

[Q.] Could you explain?

[A.] Sure. What I mean is that the idea of God is often framed in a way that is nonsensical from the standpoint of materialism. For instance, I recently watched a debate that featured Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins, among others, on Youtube. One of the things that struck me was that Francis Collins preemptively announced to the audience that science could have nothing to say about God, because God “exists outside of the physical universe.” This is really the perfect example. You see, what does it mean to say that something “exists” outside of the material universe? Everything that we know of, including our own thoughts, is scientifically explained in terms of matter and energy of one form or another; anything new or heretofore unknown that we discover instantly becomes a part of the known universe, and nothing that we know of exists outside of the universe, because the universe by definition encompasses everything. So, my point here is that the sense in which Francis Collins uses the word “exists” must be wholly undefined; and since the concept of “God” is usually described as being completely unknowable and indescribable, utterly outside the purview of human knowledge or perception, what does it really mean to say that “God exists”? Certainly Mr. Collins is trying to distance himself from the flatly primitive assertion that God is literally a “man in the sky” who cannot be conceptualized as anything other than a physical lord or being; but by trying to do so he underlines in the starkest terms the sheer irrationality of his position. Clearly, if asked to explain how something can “exist” outside of “existence,” so to speak, Mr. Collins would not be able to produce any kind of reasonable answer. Therefore, all of his subsequent assertions regarding his unshakeable faith and his various spiritual imperatives must also lack any kind of rational basis. I mean actually, when Francis Collins sat there and asserted that science cannot say anything about religion because God does not exist in the material universe, I mean leave aside the obvious hypocrisy of that statement from such a transparently partisan fellow who clearly expects religious precepts to carry some weight in our laws and governmental policies, but as soon as he states that God does not exist in the physical universe, then unless he can explain what the “non-physical” universe is or what he means by “non-physical existence,” I feel that Dawkins and Dennett should be entitled to just high-five and walk off the stage, because they’ve clearly won the debate at that point.

[Q.] Thanks for talking with me Anton.

[A.] Thank you.

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