Pat Robertson, the notorious and influential television evangelist and founder of the Christian Coalition of America, is not new to the yogaphobic maelstrom that has been brewing for as long as Western Europeans and North Americans have been familiar with yoga. In the last couple of decades, largely in response to the widespread popularization of yoga, yogaphobia has shot to mainstream attention as socially conservative, high-profile Protestant evangelicals and Catholics have voiced unnerving warnings to Christians about how yoga threatens their religious commitments and could even lead to Satanism.
Robertson’s yogaphobia has gone hand-in-hand with his Hinduphobia. In his apocalyptic novel, The End of the Age (1995), Robertson wrote about a devotee of the Hindu god Shiva who joins forces with the Antichrist to murder the President of the United States. And, in a 2007 episode of his popular program, The 700 Club, Robertson homed in on yoga, describing some aspects as “really spooky.”
Robertson has taken his yogaphobia to a whole new level in a recent 700 Club episode in response to the following question from one of the show’s viewers:
My family recently moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico because of my husband’s work. There are a lot of people interested in New Age spirituality in our new neighborhood—dream catchers, yoga, veganism, that sort of thing. My concern is that my teenage daughter is now interested in taking yoga classes with one of her friends. She says it is healthy and will help her flexibility. I worry because it is not based in Christian faith; it is a Hindu practice. Should I worry? Do you think it is okay for Christians to practice yoga?
Robertson replied that, although stretching exercises are terrific, yoga amounts to a Hindu trap:
But along with yoga, they have a mantra. And the mantra you say is in Hindu. You don’t know what the Hindu says, but actually it’s a prayer to a Hindu deity, and so it sounds like gibberish, and so you’re saying, you know, ‘Kali, Kali, Kali,’ whatever, but you’re praying to a Hindu deity. You don’t want your daughter in that. Stretching exercise is cool, praying to a Hindu deity is not too cool.
Yogaphobic moments like this rely on a homogenizing, ahistorical, and fear-inciting vision of yoga as well as identity politics meant to prevent social, political, and religious boundary crossing. Historians have shown that the countless interreligious and intercultural exchanges—between Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Christian, and other religious traditions, as well as between South Asian yoga advocates and the Western European and North American physical culture movement—throughout the history of yoga all problematize the identification of yoga as Hindu.
One can only come to understand the various meanings of yoga, furthermore, through careful and responsible consideration of each of the many individual contexts in which it takes unique forms.
Yet, just as modern religious fundamentalism developed as a response to increasing religious pluralism (in addition to challenges to religious orthodoxy such as the historical-critical study of religions and Darwin’s theory of evolution), so contemporary yogaphobia flourishes in direct proportion to yoga’s increasing popularization.
In other words, as yoga becomes more and more a part of the norm in places, such as the United States, where it only underwent popularization in the last few decades, the social and religious conservatives will voice their opposition more frequently and in increasingly ominous ways.
Be afraid, they will warn, for the yogis will have you speaking Hindu in no time.