Should Christians Do Yoga? (Part 1)

Is yoga simply a relaxing form of exercise, or a spiritual practice rooted in Hinduism?

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My son came home from school telling me about the Star Wars yoga class he did in PE. Though I was well aware of the Christian controversy about yoga, it had not personally affected me until now. I believe God can protect Connor through the activity, and that he has the freedom to do any stretch he wants, but was he was vulnerable to the spiritually ambiguous messages taught during the process? Connor told me the Star Wars yoga video told them to “open the door and let the force in.” I guarantee you they weren’t directing the children to let in the power of Jesus Christ, so what force are they referring to? I am pretty sure ancient yoga didn’t have a millennium falcon pose, so is this just innocent fun, or is Satan targeting our children by appealing to their interests and making Hindu and New Age practices relevant? Is this one way he comes “disguised as an angel of light?”

Yoga appears to be one of the fastest growing trends in the health and exercise industry, practiced even in many Christian circles. Touted as therapy for both body and mind, people of all ages and backgrounds are trying it out. Many public schools are including yoga in their classroom routines, and Medicare is even reimbursing cardiac rehab programs that include yoga. So what’s the problem? If the stretches and relaxation techniques are good for our health, why are some Christians concerned?

There are two camps of Christian thought regarding yoga. Because yoga originated from Hinduism, some Christians adamantly oppose it, believing it to be an idolatrous practice that can unknowingly open spiritual doors to evil. The other camp believes that yoga is not a religious experience, but simply a method of exercise and stress-relief. Some of these Christians even use the time to pray and focus on Jesus, believing they can redeem the practice for God’s glory. Because of this, there are many who do not equate the activity with something evil or forbidden. My intent is to present both sides of this argument, so readers can prayerfully come to their own conclusions. Instead of alienating or offending either side, I hope to simply invite readers into the discussion for a deeper look.

Let’s start by examining the history of yoga. To quote from a yoga website, “If you want to know where something is going, it is good to know where it came from.” Yoga is an ancient form of divination that originated in India from Hinduism. It is the practice of transforming human consciousness to connect with Brahman, Hindu’s highest god. The goal of yoga is to obtain oneness with the universe, which is also known as enlightenment. The word yoga actually means “union” or “yoke,” and is understood to be the Hindu word for salvation. Through mantric yoga chanting and asanas (the different yoga positions), the practice of yoga was meant to gradually disconnect one’s thoughts and sensory perceptions from one’s sense of self and identity. Hindus believe there is an energy that dwells within each of us, and yoga uses pranayama breathing to manipulate that life force (similar to chi in some martial arts). Through these techniques, the individual can enter a trance state where the mind is silenced, and then emptied.

There is Hindu significance to every yoga position and mantra. For example, the word "Namaste" means "I bow to the divine god within you,” and the sound "om" is chanted to bring students into a trance so they can join with the universal mind. While chanting “om,” they often put their middle finger together with the thumb, which is a symbol for Brahman to unite with the soul. The mantras are words that represent different Hindu gods, and the mudras (hand postures) are a replication of the same hand postures in the statues of Hindu gods. Finally, the asanas (different yoga poses) are worship poses to the different Hindu deities - they are designed to open up the chakra energies and produce a psychic interaction. For example, the "salute to the sun" posture, used at the beginning of most classes, pays homage to the Hindu sun god, while the cobra asani was meant to awaken the kundalini cobra chakra. Hindus believe the kundalini spirit is a serpent force that helps people yoke to Hindu gods. They believe this serpent spirit dwells at the base of one’s spine, and when aroused through yoga practice, it travels up the spine through chakras to merge with her lover Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction and “lord of yoga.” This process supposedly leads the participant to divine enlightenment through union with Brahman.

Though yoga clearly originated from Hinduism, many public schools and churches assume yoga has no religious connection. Some are ignorant about the history of yoga, but others are fully aware, and simply view their yoga experiences differently. Many people choose to downplay the spiritual aspects of yoga and focus more on the health benefits of the stretches and deep breathing. However, Pattabhi Jois, one of the most influential yoga gurus of our time, says “Using yoga for physical practice is no good, of no use - just a lot of sweating, pushing, and heavy breathing for nothing. The spiritual aspect, which is beyond the physical, is the purpose of yoga. When the nervous system is purified, when your mind rests in the atman [the Self], then you can experience the true greatness of yoga.” Another yoga guru, BKS Iygenar, said “Asanas are not meant for physical fitness, but for conquering the elements, energy, and so on . . . to balance the energy in the body.”

In spite of yoga’s Hindu roots, some Christians believe they can alter the physical and spiritual elements of the practice into a Christian form. However, Laurette Willis, the personal trainer, speaker, and author that was involved in New Age and yoga practices for 22 years before coming to Christ, believes Christian yoga is an oxymoron. Of course there is nothing wrong with stretching and calming down one's breathing, but Laurette claims yoga is the missionary arm of Hinduism and the New Age movement. Similarly, Sannyasin Arumugaswami, the managing editor of Hinduism Today, said that Hinduism is the soul of yoga (since it is based on Hindu Scripture and developed by Hindu sages). He went on to say, “Yoga opens up new and more refined states of mind, and to understand them one needs to believe in and understand the Hindu way of looking at God . . . A Christian trying to adapt these practices will likely disrupt their own Christian beliefs.

Laurette expounds on the contradictions between yoga and Christianity; “Yoga wants to get students to the point of complete numbness in their minds. God, on the other hand, wants you to be transformed by the renewing of your mind through His Word.” For Laurette, yoga functioned as the gateway experience that led her to embrace other New Age thoughts and practices. Because of this possible progression into deeper Hindu and New Ages practices, some have referred to yoga as “the embrace that smothers.”

The Christians that align themselves with Laurette’s thinking believe we can’t siphon out the occult influence from yoga. Since scripture says we are to flee idolatry, not repackage it, these individuals believe that dabbling with “milder forms of yoga” could make people more vulnerable to deception, placing them dangerously close to a line we shouldn’t cross. They believe that any degree of spiritual contamination is detrimental, similar to what Watchman Nee once wrote . . .

In order to see if a thing is right or wrong, one only need magnify it to a hundred degrees, that is, have whatever it is drawn to the extreme. The guiding principle is that if it is wrong at the hundredth degree a person knows it is also wrong at the first or second degree. It is very difficult to judge by the first or second degree alone; the error is bound to be too minute to be discerned. But by lengthening or enlarging the situation or circumstance, everything will become most distinct. A Chinese proverb runs like this: Missing by a hundredth or a thousandth of an inch will end up in a distance of a thousand miles.

However, there is another Christian viewpoint worth examining. Some Christians have gladly incorporated yoga into their lifestyle, choosing simply to meditate on Jesus and God’s Word through the process. Even though the asanas are postures with a specific spiritual purpose, the Hindus do not “own” these positions. There are Christians who do not believe the enemy has some magical power over us just because we have stretched in a similar way. These individuals believe that if they choose to honor Jesus in everything they do, and make Him the focus, that this negates any idolatrous meaning. They believe there is a way to practice yoga without worshiping the false idols of Hinduism and eastern pantheism . . . and that God can redeem the practice of yoga for His glory.

Holy Yoga is one of the growing organizations that claim they can Christianize the practice. Pastor Suozzo, a Christian missionary who lived in India, agrees with their approach. Since yoga is central to the religious culture in India, Suozzo found that adapting yoga to a Christian form helped the Hindus understand and embrace the message of Christ. He found that Christian yoga actually drew people into a real experience with Jesus, one they were not previously open to. In scripture, Paul wrote he would become “All things to all people, in order to win them to Christ.” (1 Corinthians 9:19-23) Suozzo claims this is what they did in India . . . but does Christian yoga bear the same spiritual fruit in our Western culture? Is Christian yoga drawing more people with Hindu and New Age beliefs to Christ, or is it drawing more Christians into Hindu and New Age practices?

WholyFit, a Christian alternative to yoga, takes a different approach. The creator of WholyFit writes about her initial experiences leading Christian yoga, and how some of the individuals taking her classes loved it so much that they started attending yoga classes all over town. This opened her eyes to the potential dangers of associating with yoga, and how it could cause others to stumble in their Faith. She did not want her classes to confuse or mislead others spiritually, so she intentionally removed any aspect of yoga from her program. For similar reasons, Laurette Willis created Praise Moves, a different program of stretching and Christian meditation that completely separates itself from any association with yoga.

In 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 and Romans 14:1-23, we read about the controversy surrounding eating meat that was sacrificed to idols. We are not given a clear “yes” or “no” directive, but rather an “it depends.” Scripture clearly states they had freedom to eat the meat, “because an idol is nothing,” but they were also directed not to participate in any part of the ritual connected to the sacrifice of this meat because that would indicate acceptance of (and participation in) idolatry. Secondly, they were directed not to eat the meat if it was going to cause a brother to stumble. Some “weaker” believers thought eating this meat was a sin. Since they did not have the faith to embrace their freedom to partake of it, watching other believers eat the meat would distress them. In a similar way, we can apply this teaching to the practice of Christian yoga. When making such decisions, we should examine the cultural meaning it holds, the context and application of the practice, and the interpretation (or possible misinterpretation of it) by others around us.

There are many examples of cultural context affecting the meaning of something. For example, I have complete freedom to put a rectangular rainbow sticker on my car. God has spoken several times to me through rainbows, and as the Bible teaches, they have always represented His promise to me. However, if I do this, others could interpret the sticker to mean my acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle, or endorsement of their agenda, and it could cause others to stumble in their beliefs.

Or, I could exert my freedom to hang a confederate flag at my house because I am proud of my Southern heritage . . . but in doing so, I would certainly alienate and hurt other believers for whom Christ died. Even if unintentional, many would interpret this as a message of hate and discrimination. So, it isn’t just a matter of our freedom and personal beliefs that is at stake; it is also a matter of cultural meaning and application. We should first ask how our decision affects our relationship with God, and second ask how it will affect others around us.

Most who practice yoga (Christian or not) are spiritually hungry people who are searching for peace, love, health, and wholeness in their lives. As God does with us, we should seek to look at people’s heart, not just their behavior. No matter what side of the argument we land, scripture instructs us not to pass judgment on one another, but rather pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. I am hoping we can at least all agree on that.

Read Part 2 of this article

Carey McNamara

I am a wife to Bob, a mom to Connor, and a physician assistant who is passionate about beating heart disease. As a devoted lover of Jesus, I am on an unending quest for more truth, love, and wholeness through Him. I have come to a place in my life where I realize God is not afraid of my questions, and I have learned the joy of pursuing Him until I discover His heart. As a result, I created a blog to encourage others in their own journey towards Life, Liberty, and Love in Christ. I am passionate about doing life authentically in community, and am thrilled to share a bit of that with you here.

*Please comment respectfully. I welcome honesty as you share your thoughts and feelings. However, since many of these subjects are controversial, I ask that you take care to honor others in the process. I reserve the right to delete any inappropriate comments.