Can Yoga Ever Be Practiced by Christians?
Would it surprise you to know that according to at least one study, 20.4 million Americans practice yoga?[i] Can Christians do yoga? Should Christians do yoga? When my wife approached me with an interest in considering practicing Holy Yoga (Christian yoga) I admit my default position was skepticism. For me, it smacked of the Oprah Winfrey-ization of contemporary American Christianity. I expected it to be seeped in self-help-ism and having the thinnest of Christian veneers.
Others have even stronger objectives: how can yoga, a practice developed first by Hindus, be able to be used by Christians? Isn’t that akin to Christians sacrificing on pagan altars? Stronger still: doesn’t yoga open Christians up to the presence of demonic presences?
Yoga means “to yoke.” In a Hindu context, it is understood that the goal of yoga is to free oneself from attachments to yoke together mind, spirit, and body with the Divine. For Hindus this is accomplished by emptying oneself to become part of the Supreme Consciousness.
Hindu yoga practice believes that the postures in yoga pay homage to open oneself up to spiritual energies (chakra theory). Some believe that Ishvara, who is mentioned in the Yoga Sutras, is a personal god (others argue Ishvara refers to a “special self” or “spiritual self”.[ii] Some argue that the often-repeated “Om” breath in traditional yoga refers to Ishvara.[iii] It is argued is not a “religiously neutral practice that Christianity can be plugged into.”
Some argue that yoga predates its relationship with Hinduism,[iv] but whether or not that is true, it is clear that Hinduism was the ground that yoga grew up in and was propagated. Furthermore, there is no doubt that yoga, as traditionally practiced, is not religiously neutral.
It is also true that God doesn’t mess around with paganism or idol worship. As Christians, we don’t believe false religions are something to be toyed around with and we believe that the forces of evil are real and present.
Furthermore, yoga, even as practiced in your local gym, almost always has as one of its core elements Eastern meditation practices. Even “non-religious” yoga practices emptying one’s mind and opening oneself up. In Christianity, meditation means filling one’s mind with thoughts of God, not emptying one’s mind.
As Christians, this hardly seems like fertile ground for healthy spiritual practices, that we can all agree on. And yet, without Christ, I am hardly fertile ground for the work of God. Just like yoga, none of us are spiritually neutral without God. Outside the work of the Spirit, all of us are enemies of God, we are not fertile ground awaiting his work. And two pagan festivals hardly seem fertile ground for the celebration of Christ’s birth and resurrection.
In the same way, I believe God can even use something with as sketchy a past as yoga for his purposes. To be sure, one needs to be thoughtful and intentional to do so, but I believe that when yoga is thoroughly transformed by Christ it can be a powerful tool. I know that I have experienced it in this way.
How does one transform yoga, then? How is it possible that a practice grounded in the worship of false gods can be used for Christianity?
1) God is the Lord of all
While some Hindus might believe that certain postures give praise to certain gods or that certain postures open us up to spiritual forces, the reality is that there is only one God who created us. Our God created our physical bodies and called them good! Our God will one day give us new physical bodies that will be good! No matter the origin (good, bad, pagan, or otherwise) of any physical exercise (baseball, golf, karate, running, swimming, Pilates, etc) it can be done for the flesh or for the glory of God.
One of the passages that clarifies this truth is Paul’s consideration of whether meat sacrificed to idols was tainted or not (see 1 Corinthians 8). If anything was going to be tainted by pagan worship, certainly meat sacrificed to idols should it. It was, after all, considered to be food that was offered up to and consumed by gods. Paul is clear that while one shouldn’t eat the meat if your conscience is weak, the meat itself is completely fine to eat. Why? Because false gods are not stronger than the true God! The meat is God’s, not the idols! The same can be said about yoga. Nothing is beyond the grasp of God’s redemption.
2) Stretching is good
I couldn’t touch my toes when I started yoga. Like many men, I was very inflexible. I didn’t give much time or attention to stretching even when I was in good rhythms of exercise. While some of the benefits of stretching have been overblown, the medical community still largely agrees that stretching improves “range of motion, alignment of bones and joints; and strengthening of connective tissues.”[v] I’ve seen a significant increase in flexibility and have found yoga to be a wonderful complement to my workout routine at the gym.
3) Meditation is good
Throughout scripture, we are told to meditate. The book of Joshua begins with the call to meditate on God’s Word.[vi] The book of Psalms tells us that a righteous person meditates on “the law of the Lord.”[vii] The book of Psalms as a whole invites us to meditate on God both in prayer, in song, and in his Word. We are told that the Psalmist meditates on God “in the watches of the night,”[viii] that he meditates in song,[ix] that he meditates on God’s “mighty deeds,”[x] and on God’s precepts and ways.[xi] In fact, in Psalm 119, a doxology to God’s word, the Psalmist mentions meditation no less than eight times.
Now, to be clear, biblical meditation is not emptying one’s mind for the sake of openness. That is deeply problematic. But we can all agree that in our fast-paced, never-stopping world, meditation is a challenge for all of us. How often am I truly still and reflecting on who God is (Psalm 46:10)? I have found in the practice of Holy Yoga a wonderful space to meditate on God’s Word, his works, and his character in ways that are very healthy for my relationship with God.
To quote my wife, Angel, who instructs Holy Yoga, “The practice of biblical meditation helps me to claim that inheritance so that he may dwell in me and “being rooted and grounded in love, we may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that we may be filled with all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:17b-19).”[xii]
In this way, Christian yoga can do a 180-degree turn from classic yoga practices and create a beautiful space to seek God.[xiii] It is with this understanding, Christian yoga practice can say that it reclaims the idea of yoking oneself on biblical grounds. In Holy Yoga, we reject the yoke of slavery to oneself and false beliefs (Galatians 5:1) and take up the call of Jesus to take his yoke upon us (Matthew 11:28-30). Just like Christmas and Easter (and you and me!), yoga can claim what once was of the kingdom of darkness and transform it into a vessel of light.
One final question remains: but what about those who hear about Christian yoga and it makes them stumble? Shouldn’t we call Holy Yoga by another name because of the origins which might mislead and confuse young Christians?
That is the strongest argument there is. I take Paul’s admonition to care for the weaker brother and sister in 1 Corinthians 8 very seriously. And, if those who were bringing critique against the practice of Holy Yoga were young Christians, I would want to pause and consider whether a name change might be in order. My own experience is that the couple of people who have expressed concern about my wife’s Holy Yoga practice have been seasoned Christians. Meanwhile, many who are benefiting from her practice are young Christians. And I’ve never once heard someone who has actually come to the practice say that they believe that it is any anyway anything other than thoroughly God-honoring and Christ-exalting.
I don’t think Holy Yoga is for everyone any more than I think softball or basketball is for everyone. But if you’ve had reservations, I hope this has helped to clarify the biblical grounds for the practice.
[i] https://www.yogauonline.com/yoga-news/yoga-journal-study-20-million-americans-practice-yoga ; this study (https://www.thegoodbody.com/yoga-statistics/_ has that number at 36 million, while this study (https://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2016/sports-and-exercise-among-americans.htm) pegs the number quite a bit lower at 2% of the population or about 6.5 million.
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