Nothing about anti-yoga sermon surprises me

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Longtime yoga teacher Loa Freeman, who founded the first yoga studio in Springfield in 1993, has heard it all before.

The claim that yoga has “demonic roots” is based on ignorance and misinformation, she says.

Freeman was surprised and disappointed when the Rev. John Lindell, pastor of James River Church, in October preached from the pulpit that yoga has “demonic roots” because Hinduism has “demonic roots.”

Lindell’s 52-minute sermon is on YouTube.

Some 20 years ago, Freeman tells me, she deliberately called her Monday night yoga class in Bolivar a “sewing class” in an attempt to avoid hostile attacks that yoga is unholy or not Christian.

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Nevertheless, the Bolivar newspaper found out about her secret yoga class and Freeman agreed to a story. It was published and she discovered her concerns were justified.

“I received several anonymous calls threatening to burn crosses on my front lawn,” she says.

That never happened, she tells me.

Freeman has taught yoga at both hospital networks in Springfield — St. John’s, before it became Mercy, and CoxHealth.

She worked with legendary basketball coach Charlie Spoonhour, who coached the Missouri State University men’s team from 1983 to 1992.

“I helped them with things like body alignment when shooting free throws,” she says.

Freeman felt yoga had advanced to where it was more accepted and better understood.

 “I had hoped that we had moved beyond prejudices and the lumping of the science of yoga with mysticism,” she says.

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Sermon addresses all the later criticisms

I watched Lindell’s sermon, and there was little he said that surprised me. 

Also, there isn’t a criticism that’s been lodged against him since my colleague Alissa Zhu’s story ran this week that he did not already address in the sermon.

I have practiced yoga off and on for years. I do it for a very focused reason. I believe it helps me become more flexible, which makes me a better runner, one less likely to be injured.

After watching the video, I don’t believe Lindell is either misinformed or ignorant. Clearly, he put much research into his sermon.

What you have to understand is that Lindell approaches yoga through a literal, Assemblies of God interpretation of the Bible.

In the sermon, he addresses practitioners just like me. He understands that people do yoga for the physical benefits without once thinking about Hinduism.

More: Assemblies of God pastor says yoga has ‘demonic roots.’ Yogis respond: That’s ‘ludicrous.’

He acknowledges that yoga has become pervasive in our culture and for many, it is little more than a routine of stretching and exercising.

“Yoga, it seems is everywhere. For example, if you go to the local Y and you go on their website and you click on the healthy living link, you will find no less than 31 references to yoga: advanced yoga, beginning yoga, chair yoga, gentle yoga, hot yoga, prenatal yoga, restorative yoga, sona yoga, vinyasa yoga, yin yoga and yoga.

“My point in mentioning the Y is not to pick a fight with the Y. The Y does some very admirable things in the community. Simply, though, I am using the Y as an example of the prevalence and acceptance of yoga in our culture and the overwhelming embrace it has received from an organization whose roots are decidedly Christian.”

Lindell uses “demonic” to describe anything that prevents or hinders a connection between a person and God — with “God” being what he and many evangelicals consider the one true God of the Christian faith.

Hindus and Buddhists will not go to heaven and will spend eternity in hell, they believe. 

There is no disputing, he says, that yoga is rooted in Hinduism, and, therefore, in his view, it is “demonic.”

The sun salutation, for example, is a form of worship of the Hindu sun god, Surya, he says.

Have I ever once thought that while performing the sun salutation that I was worshiping Surya? 

Never. Instead, I’m typically thinking: Why am I so sore?  

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God is jealous and gets angry a lot

Lindell wants his congregation to at least consider that they just might be worshiping a false idol.

Why?

Because of the Bible’s first commandment: “I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt have no other Gods before me.”

Have you read the Hebrew scriptures lately? God is jealous and gets angry a lot.

In the sermon, he first talked about the dangers of dabbling in the paranormal and occult, including fortune-telling, psychics, Ouija boards, horoscopes, tarot cards, Wicca, communicating with the dead and entertainment that focuses on zombies, ghouls and haunted houses. 

 “Walking Dead” fans, he’s talking to you.

He saved yoga for last and seemed to know it would be the toughest sell to his congregation.

“How did we make the leap to yoga?” he asks.

“I don’t do it to make anybody mad. If I made you mad, that is unfortunate. But I have a responsibility before God as a shepherd of souls to say, ‘I told you the truth.’”

If you use yoga for flexibility and core strength, Lindell preaches, have at it.

But don’t call it “yoga,” because the word “yoga” brings you right back to Hinduism and, in his view, worship of another God.

As for me, I’m going to keep calling it “yoga” and continue to call myself a “Christian” — and hopefully, become a better runner.

Unlike the Reverend Lindell, I do not believe all Hindus, including, let’s say, that ne’er-do-well Mahatma Gandhi — and all people of all other faiths — will burn in hell for eternity.

But I see no harm in his sermon —  other than some God-fearing fair-weather yoga practitioners might briefly stop taking classes. 

To me, that’s like readers who read one news story or one column that they don’t like and cancel their subscription. Odds are, they will be back.

But here is where I do see harm.

It’s when the reverend preaches — as he has done in the past —  about the sinfulness of homosexuality. From the pulpit, he instructed congregants in 2015 to vote against a measure that offered protections in housing, employment and public accommodations. The measure was rejected.

Some of his followers now say he is being persecuted for his views on yoga.

I don’t think so. His preaching on homosexuality hurts real people who love God. In my opinion, that’s a real persecution that history will not view kindly.

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These are the views of News-Leader columnist Steve Pokin, who has been at the paper 6½  years, and over his career has covered everything from courts and cops to features and fitness. He can be reached at 417-836-1253, spokin@gannett.com, on Twitter @stevepokinNL or by mail at 651 N. Boonville, Springfield, MO 65806.

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