I attended my first yoga class on Thursday. It was enjoyable. Most of the exercises were physically intensive, but at the end of the class, the instructor asked us to lie on our backs and try to get in touch with the "energy in everything" and "experience it as joy." Eventually, he said, we would learn to channel and "radiate" that joy to the people around us.
I'm a good sport, so I gave it a shot. For five minutes or so, I lay on my mat, not thinking too much, just breathing and feeling. As soon as the class was over, though, the analytical side of my mind kicked back into gear. The first thing I thought was, "what the hell??"
I don't know much about the philosophy behind yoga (or Eastern religion in general), but it seems to me that the notion of a "spirit" or "energy" inhabiting all physical things has attained much of its current popularity in the West as a response to the challenge that science poses to religion. The fundamental problem is this: the more we understand about the workings of the universe, the more it appears to be a causally closed system. Thoughtful people who believe in an active, independent God must imagine Him to be increasingly limited, not a direct force behind the weather, or the growth of plants, or the birth of babies, but a remote force, lurking behind some distant, primordial event that scientists have yet to fully explain. It is difficult to imagine such a God being truly relevant to our daily existence, even if, as some assert, He planned the entire course of history from the outset.
An alternative to this approach is to expand God rather than contracting Him, imagining a divine spirit inhabiting all that exists. But what does it mean for God to be part and parcel of a causally closed system? Can one pray to a god who is indistinguishable from a fruit fly, or the force of gravity? Can such a deity command ethical behavior?* I'm all for feeling at one with the universe and radiating joy to the rest of humanity, but why get in touch with God when I could accomplish the same thing by eating a bowl of ice cream? Can this sort of theology provide an adequate substitute for theism in the modern world? Many liberal Jews and Christians seem to think so. But I have my doubts.
* I realize that classical yoga includes prayer and ethical conduct. It also usually includes theism (I think). But I'm not really talking about classical yoga, which I clearly don't know much about . . .