From Swami to Christian

I first began to practice yoga at school and within a few years this took me on a path of total commitment to living the life of a yogini and Swami. What followed was thousands of hours of teaching and practice, including representing my organization internationally as a teacher. I left the ashram (yoga hermitage) for the final time at the end of 2014, and I finished teaching yoga in 2015, after 35 years. 

My Early Years

I began to question the meaning of my existence from about the age of six, with the realization that we are all destined to die.  My religious background was mixed. My mother introduced me to Christianity, and I attended church regularly until my teens. My father, a psychiatrist, was more philosophical in outlook and was attracted to Eastern mysticism.

So, I grew up with an influence from two worldviews. I went through a period in my early teens when I remember singing hymns to Jesus in the privacy of my room. I also attended Bible classes and enjoyed discussing the Scriptures. However, despite being exposed to these teachings, I don’t believe I understood the significance of the Gospel.  As an older teenager I was drawn to Eastern mysticism, but I didn’t apprehend the consequences of this choice. The idea that I could embrace and accept different religious views as being equally valuable was probably affirmed through my education in a Quaker school which was very liberal theologically, and interfaith in outlook.  

Because of this varied spiritual diet, I believed that all religions shared core truths and led to the same destination:  a fallacy of which I have only more recently become aware. I realize now that all religions are only superficially similar.  All religions are not the same, and all religions do not point to God.

The Seed Was Planted

At the age of seventeen, I enrolled in my first yoga class at school. I enjoyed it and remembered thinking that the peaceful composure the teacher portrayed was what I was seeking.  Later, in my early twenties, I sought what I believed to be authentic yoga taught by a Swami in a local ashram. I was twenty-two and soon to become enmeshed in all things “New Age.”

Yoga at this time appealed primarily as an integrated system for the wellbeing of body and mind – and this is how it is usually promoted. I enjoyed the feeling of stretching my body and I also needed techniques to help me deal with a high level of anxiety with which I had been afflicted since childhood. Yoga – at least initially – gave me the tools for attaining a degree of relaxation and mental control. At that time, my introduction to yoga was simply about feeling better. I suspect many people seek out yoga for this reason and are relatively oblivious to the spiritual dimensions of the practice.  

As I explored the philosophy and practices of yoga further, I came away for the most part feeling relaxed and energised.  However, there were also some very disturbing experiences. For example, when relaxing or meditating, there were times when I felt as if I was spinning or that my body was expanding or floating. On the psychological level, I had become more introverted, and had a growing sense of disconnection with the world, as well as an escalating distrust of my own mind.  I recall a particularly distressing experience on my first visit to the main headquarters when I was practicing yoga nidra (relaxation) .  I felt as if my body was paralysed, which was terrifying.  From the depths of my being I cried for help, but there was no sound and I couldn’t move. I believe now that it was spiritual in nature. The spiritual dimension of our world is usually unseen, but it is very real. As the apostle Paul writes: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph 6:12). None of these experiences deterred me, although they were red flags.

In these early days, one of my favourite books was Autobiography of a Yogi, written by Paramahansa Yogananda (an early Hindu evangelist to America), and lauded as “one of the 100 best spiritual books of the twentieth century.” I was persuaded by reading this book that the path of yoga shared many similarities with Christianity, as corresponding concepts reinforced by scriptural passages were cleverly interwoven throughout – passages which I now view as scripture taken out of context. It was these attempts to harmonise two exceedingly different spiritual paths that gave me a false assurance in my pursuit of yoga and had me convinced that Jesus was simply one of the great “masters”:  no different to the yoga masters.   I believed I was on a valid path to know God.

The Decision to Become a Teacher

I decided that I wanted to become a yoga teacher. So, at 23 I went to stay at the main headquarters in Australia and undertook one of the first teacher training courses run by this organization: an immersion in an authentic and austere style of training. We were not in Bali – or any other 5-star destination – and we were certainly not in comfort!  Our days consisted of:  4 am starts; cold showers; 2 hours of yoga practice on bare wooden floors before breakfast; observing silence while eating; working in various departments, then more yoga practice; lunch in silence; more yoga and lectures; dinner in silence;  and ending our day with Satsang (gathering together to hear “the truth”).  No smart phones, no distractions.

It was the generation when many in the West were turning to Eastern mysticism. This movement began much earlier, in 1893, when Swami Vivekananda introduced the Hindu faith at the World Congress on Religions in Chicago. He espoused the essential unity of all things and beings – that is, Indian pantheism. It was a tactic that appealed to the syncretists, as it implied that all approaches to God were acceptable and equally truthful.  This was followed almost a century later by the Hippie movement of the 60s and 70s, which led many to sojourn to India, and then later again by a wave of Indian gurus reciprocating by coming to the West.

Initiation:  Becoming a Swami

Following the teacher training, I took initiation and became a Swami – and so, at the age of 25 I committed to a spiritual path with absolute sincerity and a belief that it would be lifelong.

I stayed in the ashram for the next three years – living the yogic lifestyle and contributing to teaching and other ashram duties as allocated. An aspect of this initiation was that I was given a new name and a new identity. We submitted to our guru in the spiritual practices we did, what we ate, what we wore, and the allocation of our duties – in fact, in almost every dimension of our lives. As a Swami, I was expected to renounce possessions, shave my head, and wear robes. It is hard to convey what this was like, but as my belief and my dedication was so strong, it seemed natural to me. All of this was considered a demonstration of sincere discipleship and was in part a training for reducing our egoic desires and simplifying our lives. For me the lure of spiritual enlightenment and liberation from continual reincarnation was enough motivation. 

I came to know many years later that reincarnation is a false view, for “it is appointed unto men once to die, [and] after this the judgment” (Heb 9:27).  In the same vein, I shared the belief that those in Eastern traditions believe about the role of a guru – where they are elevated to a supreme status, a Godman.  Later, I learnt from my own experience and from the testimonies of others, that I was under a great deception.  As we are warned in the Bible “false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect” (Mark 13:22).

1986, as a teacher in Sydney

Ashram Austerity

While living in this community, there were many positives in my life. However, alongside this there was also much austerity and deprivation. As I believed I was privileged to be on this path, I was unswerving in my readiness to undergo these trials. I worked incredibly hard as I trusted that my salvation was dependent on works (great effort).  I now know that this is in direct opposition to the Biblical truth stated in Ephesians 2:8-9 “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast.”

The Dark Side of Yoga

Yoga is not just exercise (asana), controlled breathing (pranayama), relaxation (yoga nidra), or meditation. This is a westernised view of yoga, and these are the tools only.  These tools, as well as the many branches of yoga are designed to “awaken and expand the consciousness” leading to the goal of yoga, which is described as the merging of the human spirit with “the divine.” Yoga is derived from the Sanskrit word “yuj” which literally means to yoke or join.  In the language of yoga, the aim is for the individual soul (atman) to join with what the yogis call “absolute reality” (Brahman). The result is the realization of “divine consciousness” through a loss of identity of one’s individual consciousness: a metaphor being the drop becoming the ocean. This expansion of consciousness occurs via the awakening of an alleged spiritual energy called the kundalini or “serpent power.” According to the yogis, this “supernatural force” resides in the body and lies dormant until aroused through yogic practice.

Here I would like to draw a distinction between the manifestations of kundalini energy and the gifts and fruit of the Holy Spirit. Nowhere in the Bible is there a warning about the risks involved in receiving the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and the fruits are clearly beneficial for all. On the other hand, yogi texts are full of warnings concerning the awakening of the kundalini energy.

In stark contrast, the apostle Paul describes the gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 and the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23 as “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Furthermore, in Romans 12:6-8, other spiritual gifts are described by Paul as qualities such as faith, service, teaching, encouragement, giving, leadership, and showing mercy.

Note that these gifts are for the common good, for sharing with others – not for “self-realization” or any other self-oriented end.  The practices of yoga, in contrast to biblical teachings, can lead to some unsafe psychospiritual experiences.

Leaving to Marry / Returning to Teach

Towards the end of this three-year period at the ashram – I left, as I had met the man who would become my husband, and committed relationships were not sanctioned in the ashram.

For the next twelve years I experienced a relatively stable period. However, even though I was no longer living in the ashram, my dedication to yoga and to my perceived path did not waver. I continued to teach yoga in the community, and we made a life together – however, the desire to dedicate myself to pursuing God “consciousness” never left, and I felt compromised. I made decisions, such as not to have children, which have had a lasting impact on my life because I foresaw that one day I would return to that lifestyle.

Thus, in the year 2000, my husband and I returned to the Australian ashram and spent the next fifteen years there. We worked full time, creating the first Australian government accredited Diploma of Yoga Teaching and were, for a season, fruitfully engaged in that work.

Doubt and Disillusionment

Towards the end of this second period of ashram life, I began to feel increasingly unhappy and oppressed.  After all the years of yoga and more than half a lifetime of effort – I had become disillusioned.

Questions arose. What had I learned? Had I really been transformed? Had any of those around me? I could not honestly say that after pursuing the yogic path with dedication for thirty-five years that I had achieved any lasting sense of peace. Yes, there were some positive experiences, and yes, I felt that I had contributed wholeheartedly to a movement I believed in, but no – the promises of a greater mastery of self and of an increasing capacity to sustain equanimity and inner peace were fleeting at best. Paul speaks of the peace available to those who are in Christ; he describes it as “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Phil.4:6-7). I had never experienced this depth of peace whilst practicing yoga.

Additionally, I had no surety that “enlightenment” really existed, whether it was an objective and measurable state, or where I stood on any supposed continuum of enlightenment.  If it was real, I certainly didn’t know whether I was living my final lifetime or one of thousands to come!  There were now too many doubts.

As a result of my increasing disillusionment, I began to contemplate leaving the ashram. At that stage my husband didn’t share my disillusionment, nor did he want to leave, and so we stayed.

The Final Straw

The final straw for me was the revelations that came to light in 2014, via the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.  Following this our eyes were finally opened to a very dark history, and my faith was completely shattered.   

It is important to state here that my former idea of what a guru represents is very different to my idea of what a Christian pastor or priest represents.  I state this because people have often brought up the argument that Christian leaders also sin in this way.  Since I believed that my guru was a perfected being, a living master and someone who could lead me to know God, when he fell, my beliefs about yoga were also deconstructed.

We decided that we could no longer serve the institution. So, at the end of 2014 we packed our bags, left the ashram, and headed back to my hometown. I arrived to spend a few months with my father before he died. It was a season of profound grief. I was grieving my father, the death of my belief system, and the end of the purpose and career I had dedicated most of my life to.

Even though the experiences of the ashram and the revelations of 2014 shattered my faith in “gurus” and in Eastern spirituality, I still had faith in God (although my understanding of God was not biblical). My belief that all religions are the same was one of the greatest deceptions of my life. Truth is not relative or subjective – it is absolute and exclusive. Jesus did not say that He is one of several alternatives, nor one of many truths! He claimed in John 14:6, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”—an exclusive claim indeed!

Reconnecting to My Spiritual Purpose

It took me two years of being in survival mode, before I realised that I needed to re-connect to my spiritual purpose. During that period, I tried to teach yoga again, but could not – not only were the possible avenues for teaching closed to me every time I tried, but something had been extinguished which I needed to acknowledge.  However, the quest to know God had never departed.  So, I decided to attend a local church, as my childhood memories were very positive.

During this time, as part of my healing process, I commenced a conscious cleansing of my past – I burnt many of my personal “yoga” items and threw out occult objects (statues of deities and so on). I felt the need to purge my life of all the practices and artefacts that are contrary to biblical teachings.  These were not just symbolic acts:  many former occultic practitioners testify that in the spirit realm such objects can attract demonic activity. 

Scripture is clear about these things. God’s Word prohibits our engaging with idols, false religions, or the occult.

 “Let no one be found among you … who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD” (Deut. 18:9-12). 

 “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said … “Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you” (2 Cor 6: 14-17).

Consequently, I would advise Christians not to practise yoga.

The Dawning of My Understanding

My conversion to Christianity has been a process. There was no single revelatory moment, but rather a gradual dawning of understanding, supported by a steady flow of grace. Truth has been unveiled to me as I have committed myself to the regular study of God’s Word. I have been determined to study the Bible diligently – as I am not willing to be deceived again – and have consequently spent many hours poring over Scripture. In this process, numerous things that didn’t make sense about my life, now do – there have been some wonderful epiphanies!

A sincere believer should never fear separation from God’s love. As Paul stated:

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? … I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom.8:35-39).

Where did this grace over my life, and my faith, come from? I believe it is a gift from God as Paul writes in Ephesians 2:8 “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God”

I don’t deserve this gift. Conversion to Christianity involves this recognition of our fallen nature. This is without doubt a countercultural concept, as we are conditioned to think well of ourselves, be self-reliant, self-promoting, and “wise in our own eyes”. As the Bible states in Proverbs 3:5-8 we are well advised to shift this paradigm:

“Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD and shun evil.”

There is so much I am still learning, but I am grateful every day; and the joy of life is returning. Despite the trials and brokenness of recent years, I can say that I am beginning to experience the “soul rest” promised by Jesus for those who come to Him. Our Lord said these heart-healing words:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

And so, I did.

– Ruth Burgess