Interestingly, this might be more controversial for conservative Christians than many of the other things I plan on writing about in this series. I intend to show that my criticism of the mainstream Christian culture’s acceptance of yoga is both naïve/dangerous as well as insensitive toward the religion(s)/people groups the practice stems from.
As of 2013, the cultural practice of yoga, or a distilled version of yoga, as a form of exercise or relaxation is extremely popular. The general assumption is that, while it has its roots in some eastern religions, so long as you remove the weird spiritual mumbo jumbo from it, you can do just the physical portions and be ok.
At its origin, the practice of yoga is tied to Hinduism(and Buddhism/Jainism), and is used as a means to ultimately escape the wheel of samsara (reincarnation/karma) and attain moksha(rough equivalent to a form of heaven). Another use of yoga is to get into contact with the divine by means of emptying oneself of everything, and therefore being able to freely contact the divine (Atman is Brahman). Variations on how this is done, whether through certain positions and breathing or through certain chants or states of mind or the use of sexual energy differ throughout the religion.
When Yoga came over to America in the 19th century, most of the spiritual aspects of the discipline were downplayed so that there would be a greater chance of acceptance. Hatha yoga has become probably the most popular branch of yoga, and as such it describes itself as a purely physical discipline. Up to this point, it has gone mainstream and so there are various “Christian yoga” places that you can attend. Is this a good idea? Is doing yoga compatible with Biblical Christianity?
Mark Driscoll gives a helpful grid through which to filter things: receive, redeem, reject. He also provides a lengthy article discussing yoga and why he rejects its practice for Christians.
It seems to me that you can’t separate the spiritual from the physical in yoga and still call it yoga. If you have to meditate in order to achieve certain postures, you’re no longer doing something purely physical. Al Mohler puts it this way “When Christians practice yoga, they must either deny the reality of what yoga represents or fail to see the contradictions between their Christian commitments and their embrace of yoga. The contradictions are not few, nor are they peripheral.”
People more prominent than I receive comments and challenges /accusations regarding yoga that are far more bold than any I would receive. Things like yoga brings them closer to God and enriches their spirituality. I think if these are things you are thinking, then obviously you have jumped the ship, as the goal of Christianity is not the vague “spirituality” that is so popular today, and you cannot prove Biblically that the practice of yoga is anywhere mentioned or even alluded to as being a way to get closer to God.
The far more common thing that I hear is that they’re doing yoga purely for physical exercises and that anything spiritual or related to Hinduism has been removed. For example, there is a “Yoga X” section in the popular home workout program “P90X.” Interestingly, Tony Horton, the founder of P90X claims here that yoga does more than just benefit physically. Granted, the main thrust of his argument involves physical stuff, but he mentions more. It seems to me like claiming to do yoga for the purely physical benefits is like saying you do the Jewish ceremonial temple washings purely to get clean.
Are certain stretches/postures etc. wrong in and of themselves? No. But there are some important questions that practitioners of yoga who claim to follow Christ must answer. If you are doing yoga purely for the physical benefits, and are consciously detaching it form anything spiritual, why are you calling it yoga? Why are you doing yoga instead of, say, pilates? I had a friend who had done the Yoga X portion of the P90X program and then did the Pilates routine that I had substituted and she told me that they worked the same muscle groups as well as worked flexibility. So if there are alternatives that don’t have the spiritual baggage attached, why are you doing it? Would you be able to say that God would approve of what you are doing? Is it edifying to you? If you are attempting to take the spiritual elements of yoga and turn them into Christian elements, remember this, light and darkness cannot coexist. Al Mohler puts it this way “Christians who practice yoga are embracing, or at minimum flirting with, a spiritual practice that threatens to transform their own spiritual lives into a “post-Christian, spiritually polyglot” reality. Should any Christian willingly risk that?” There is something to be said about the fact that if you have to spend a lot of time explaining what you’re not doing, and don’t have any Biblical foundation to back what you are doing, then maybe you shouldn’t be doing it
It seems to me that the only reason Christians are so eager to practice yoga is because yoga is popular. I honestly don’t see any other reason. I don’t know of any physical benefits you can achieve in yoga that you can’t achieve somewhere else. What other reason could there be? I sincerely hope there are better reasons, but I haven’t encountered them. This is not an example of what Paul was doing when he said that he became all things to all men so that by all means he might win some (1 Cor. 9:22). Paul would never abandon the truth and do things contrary to it so that he might somehow bring people to Christ. However, if you’re looking for something he might say that relates to this, I would say that you should turn to what he says in 1 Timothy 4:7-8.
“Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.”
Lastly, I want to say a little about the ultimately less important (though perhaps more weighty, given culture) side of this argument. Our culture prizes tolerance (skewed though we have made that word) and we aim to respect people for what they believe, even if we don’t believe the same way. The example I used above of the Jewish ceremonial washings has force for a few reasons, and one of them is because we realize that if we were to do that, it would be disrespectful/hurtful to the Jews who practice that. Yet due to popularity, we have no problem with disrespecting a huge number of people in various eastern religions who have yoga as an integral and important part of their religion. If you aim to evangelize people by doing yoga as a way to get common ground, what you are really doing is insulting them and then trying to gloss that over by presenting the gospel. Not a good idea.
By all means, take care of your body, for it is the temple of the Lord. But do so in a way that is not entangled in religious systems that are antithetical to the gospel of Christ. Give people no reason to suspect compromise with the world, for we are to be in it but not of it.