Yoga is a practice that I have recently taken up. It started as a discipline for Lent this year and has shaped my life in ways that I did not expect. When a friend and former roommate of mine started practicing yoga intently several years ago, I held back from the practice for a number of reasons: the possible spiritual implications of doing yoga was a major one. I grew up in a very conservative Christian background and the main voices that I was hearing cautioned us against the dangers of yoga. So I decided to listen where appropriate and to approach the practice with caution. Over time we sat and thought a lot about yoga and it’s benefits, how to integrate it with Christianity and I’ve come round to the other side. After seven trips to India, considerable time spent thinking about Hinduism and having friends think with me on the issue of Christianity and yoga, here is where I am at:
Yoga is something that I believe the Christian cannot afford to do thoughtlessly. When we practice yoga, there are many opportunities for it to turn into something that is harmful spiritually for us. Therefore, mindfulness and submitting the practice to God is of the utmost importance for the Christian. Anything we do without the express purpose of glorifying God can be harmful to us, but that does not make the thing intrinsically bad. Even Christianity itself can become an idol if we do not attend to our posture in it before the Lord, in keeping good priorities, in living by Grace and not Law, etc. I must keep my priorities straight if I do not want to wander into error.
Christianity is a profoundly embodied religion. God gave us bodies, and he himself took on flesh in order to redeem us. We know from scripture that we will have physical bodies when we get to heaven, so it is something that we should care for well and that it is important to be fully embodied, not emphasizing spirit or mind to the detriment of the body. Jesus commanded his followers to love him with all their heart, soul, mind and strength (Mt 22:37, Mk 12:30, Lk 10:27, Dt 6:5). This to me says that integration of mind, soul, body and heart is critical to the Christian life. Part of that is caring for our bodies well and I have found that yoga does that best for me. Why? Because not only does it make my body stronger, it helps me to focus and center myself in the present moment and to leave behind whatever is stressing me at a particular moment. The breathing, the stretches all of that serves to help me better put aside the expectations of man, to put aside the self-serving tendencies and stresses that I put on myself, and to just find space to be quiet and be still and remember that God is God, that He sustains me, that He gave me my body and that He is pleased with me coming to the mat and offering up the time to Him.
Yoga is a whole system of discipline, meditation and spirituality. It is a profoundly integrated system of exercise with the purpose of furthering the participant’s spiritual walk. Now, I have found that there is nothing inherent in Yoga that demands being paired with Hinduism. In fact, I argue that when paired with the Christian faith rather than the Hindu religion that it gets a lot more right than wrong: exercise that is deeply rooted in Christian practice and faith. Yoga is a beautiful practice that demonstrates the power of holistic integration of body, mind and spirit. If its something that can lead me toward that for myself, especially baptized into the context of Christianity then that is what I want to pursue.
The practice of meditation has been shown by scientists to profoundly heal the mind and to relieve stress. In fact, psychologists and doctors now routinely prescribe breathing exercises and meditation as a way of dealing with a number of mental health issues. As someone who struggles with depression and stress, I’ve seen first hand how yoga has huge stabilizing effects for my mind and spirit, and it has nothing to do with the religious aspects and has everything to do with exercise, breathing exercises and meditation. But the question is what do I think about during that time? If I’m trying to reach out to the universe and become “one with it” or a number of other things that are likewise connected with Hinduism and Buddhism, than yes, there is a profound problem with that. But Scripture tells us to meditate on the word of God, on the person of God himself, to raise prayers to God, to offer ourselves up to God for pointing out sin and repentance, etc. And I think that doing so on the mat is a perfect way to glorify God through my yoga practice. Even if I am doing nothing other than coming to the mat and offering my body, my time my self up to God, I think that is a perfectly appropriate use of meditation. Christians do not have a problem with meditation in ANY other context, why does it suddenly become bad when associated with exercise?
We then must turn to the question of if there is anything inherently Hindu in the motions themselves. No, there is not. Or if there is then we should call for the banning of all stretching and motions that strengthen our body because most of them are replicated in yoga. In fact, nearly every yoga pose I have learned in other contexts, such as strengthening and stretching in Physical Education, Basketball, swimming, etc. It would be absurd to say that a particular body posture is inherently sinful (for one thing we see nothing of the sort in Scripture) and I therefore think that we can say that the motion, posture and exercise can be separated from the religious practice.
What about the names of the poses? Aren’t they given Hindu names and are therefore in some sense inherently Hindu? The names that are given poses are Hindi, and they are named after the animals or shapes the poses imitate, the names contain no spiritual element to them (In fact, in the US, frequently the English names are given instead of the original Hindi). We certainly wouldn’t argue that Hindi (the language) itself is unregenerate and therefore should never be spoken, nor that it is a profoundly Hindu language. After all, if that were the case, then all of the Muslims, Christians, Bhuddists, etc. that speak Hindi are rendered Hindu worshippers simply by speaking the language. We can say with accuracy that Hindi is a beautiful, rich language and that is good as a thing itself, regardless of the fact that it was shaped in a Hindu context. Therefore, there is nothing profoundly Hindu about the names of the poses.
We now to the issue that it is used in pagan practice and therefore is unusable for the Christian. I would first like to examine 1 Timothy 4:4-5, which tells us that “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.” This is in the context of those who would ban people from eating of the meat of idols or force upon them the Jewish law in order to fulfill a certain outward spirituality. And I believe that this applies to more than just food, it applies to thought, movement and daily practice. Moreover, Paul in 1 Corinthians 8 helpfully points out that the idols that were being sacrificed to were not gods, in fact they didn’t even exist. The Christian knows that and is therefore free to participate in food that has been offered to idols because they know that this holds no particular spiritual value. With yoga, does that free us to offer our minds up to idols in the midst of the practice? Certainly not! But it does give us the freedom to “plunder the Egyptians” and dedicate our practice to God.
In the latter half of the passage, we do have the point about not causing a weaker brother to stumble because of our freedom in Christ, and I think that this is important not to gloss over. Here in the US, among my friends, there is almost no chance that I will cause someone to stumble by promoting my yoga practice. Yoga is a secular practice in the US and even if my friends do not actively choose to bring Christ into it, there is still benefit to the practice of yoga as a form of exercise. Would I promote it when I am ministering in India? Certainly not!! There are enough former Hindus that may have practiced yoga at one time that could be led back into error. Their practice of it was spiritually damaging and I would not want to encourage that for them. But my choosing to not talk about that in the context of former Hindus in India so that they do not stumble does not therefore mean that I cannot practice it privately. Christians are free to breathe air that was once offered to idols.
Finally, God is a redeeming God. He redeems situations and circumstances (Jeremiah 29:11). He redeems systems and governments (Isaiah 45). And I believe that practices can also be redeemed. There is merit and in fact benefit from learning from those who I ultimately disagree with, because all truth is God’s truth. Again, returning to 1 Timothy 4:4-5: “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.” I do not shy away from reading and understanding philosophy, literature and even religious texts that I disagree with. Why? So that I may understand some one else’s perspective, find the truth that is there, to think intelligently about what is not truth, why it is not truth and how then I ought to respond to it. I can choose to reject what is not Truth in any other sphere, so likewise, I choose to take from Yoga the things that are good and wholesome and apply them to Christianity and as long as they do not contradict the Gospel or Scripture, I have no problem accepting them. Yoga gives us opportunity to find a profound sense of integrity between our bodies, spirit, heart and mind, so instead of shying away from it, I suggest that we seize what the pagans have dedicated to their idols and baptize into use for the Lord.