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Is it Okay for Christians to Practice Yoga?

  • Compiled & Edited by Crosswalk Editorial Staff
Is it Okay for Christians to Practice Yoga?

Yoga has been a controversial practice among Western Christians for a while now – mostly what to do about those pants in public :-). But recently, a Catholic church in India released a statement, rejecting the idea that Christianity and yoga are compatible at all. This question about Christians engaging in yoga is a complex one because people practice yoga in different ways and different cultural contexts. What does yoga mean for Hindus, Christians in the U.S., and Christians in India? And what does the word yoga even mean?

We will dive into these questions, consulting experts along the way.

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Here is a quick overview of the Christianity and Yoga controversy:

Here is a quick overview of the Christianity and Yoga controversy:

The Syro-Malabar Church, a Catholic church in India, said, “Even though yoga brings positive benefits, it cannot unite a person in a closer relationship with God,” FaithWire.com reports.

“There is danger in interpreting the results obtained through yoga practice as spiritual benefits. Hindu leaders also do not agree in presenting yoga as separate from Hindu religion,” the report stated.

“The Syro-Malabar Church commission, in Kerala, India, said some of the main traits of yoga are conflicting with Christian beliefs. The experience of yoga is that the practitioner, nature, and God become one, but according to Christianity, nature and God cannot become one,” the report said.

The practice of yoga has become confusing and controversial to faith groups around the world, beyond the United States and yoga’s birthplace, India.

Crosswalk.com reported in 2014 that “an elementary school in Austria will no longer teach yoga in gym classes after a parent complained.”

“Ingrid Karner taught children yoga once per month in gym, which had previously been approved by school administrators. Karner will no longer teach students yoga poses after a parent contacted the school, saying that she did not wish to have her child exposed to the form of exercise for religious reasons,” Crosswalk reported.

That same Crosswalk.com article said that parents in San Diego, who viewed yoga as a distinctly Hindu religious practice, sued their school district because elementary schools were teaching children yoga as exercise. They lost their lawsuit in 2013 and the appeal in 2015.

Communities all over the world are divided on the subject.

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What does yoga mean to those following Eastern religions?

What does yoga mean to those following Eastern religions?

The practice of yoga is taught in ancient Indian texts, and three major religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism) stemmed from those texts. From a Hindu perspective, yoga is an important part of achieving their ultimate goal, moksha, which is unity with God and freedom from the cycle of birth and death.

The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) explains, using ancient Hindu texts, that yoga consists of four types, translated to: devotion, knowledge, action, or concentration. These types of yoga act as paths to the goal, moksha.

“Of the four, the description of [concentration] yoga has the most in common with yoga as it is largely understood today,” HAF reports in their article, Yoga Beyond Asana: Hindu Thought in Practice.”

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Why is concentration yoga so important to the Hindu faith?

Why is concentration yoga so important to the Hindu faith?

“Because concentration, or being present, allows us [Hindus] to focus inwards on our Divine self…We can focus on making our every thought, word, and action selfless and thus, worthy offerings to the Divine that resides in us all. But therein lies what I see as the fundamental disconnect with the teachings of yoga and [Christianity],” Sheetal Shah, Senior Director at HAF, said in a beliefnet.com article, “Is Asana Religious?”

Shah notices this “fundamental disconnect” between Christianity and the Eastern religions when the complete, physical and spiritual, practices of yoga are followed. The Bible teaches God’s people to meditate, but to meditate on God’s Word.

This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it…,” Joshua 1:8 (ESV). “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things,” Colossians 3:2.

And the Bible teaches God’s people to offer their whole selves in worship, but the offering should be only to God, not themselves.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship,” Romans 12:1.

The Bible also teaches the need for focus and renewal of the human mind, but it is to be renewed to know God better, personally.

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will,” Romans 12:2.

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What does yoga mean to Christians in the West?

What does yoga mean to Christians in the West?

I imagine that most believers who are asking the question, "Is it right for Christians to practice yoga?" already affirm that it is wrong to “focus on making [their] every thought, word, and action selfless and thus, worthy offerings to the Divine that resides in us all,” as Shah said.

Most Christians just enjoy the unique stretches. Some Christians even meditate on God’s Word or His holiness while stretching. HAF explains that this practice, which is most common in the United States, is not truly yoga; it is asana.

A more recently written, but still ancient, Hindu text explains yoga as consisting of six parts or “limbs,” one of which is called asana, which refers to the poses involved with yoga.

“Today, yoga is largely misunderstood to be and is practiced primarily as asana, or physical posture. Asana practice alone is shown to have a myriad of health benefits. And while practicing asana for improved health is perfectly acceptable, it is not the goal or purpose of yoga,” HAF clarifies in their article, Yoga Beyond Asana: Hindu Thought in Practice.”

The HAF goes on to affirm the importance of asana because it is the most common avenue for Western people to take further steps and adopt Eastern beliefs. But they say, “without insight, wisdom, and proper guidance [from a guru], modern day “yoga” is asana without understanding, faith, or intention, and therefore, merely remains at the level of physical exercise.”

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If Christians don’t adopt Eastern beliefs, what’s wrong with physical exercise?

If Christians don’t adopt Eastern beliefs, what’s wrong with physical exercise?

Albert Mohler addressed this question in his article, “The Subtle Body — Should Christians Practice Yoga?”

“Americans have turned yoga into an exercise ritual, a means of focusing attention, and an avenue to longer life and greater health. Many Americans attempt to deny or minimize the spiritual aspects of yoga — to the great consternation of many in India. 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,” Mohler said.

But he recognized the question’s complexity when he said that, “There is nothing wrong with physical exercise, and yoga positions in themselves are not the main issue.”

The issue is indeed complex. While some Christians don’t worry much about it, other Christians care deeply on both sides of the fence. Mohler saw the passion of those Christians after writing his “The Subtle Body” article. He responded after the public’s reaction, which you can read here: “Yahoo, Yoga, and Yours Truly.”

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How do Christians typically practice yoga?

How do Christians typically practice yoga?

For some Western Christians, the religious history and significance of yoga isn’t something that prevents them from practicing it themselves. Practicing yoga, or asana, either has no religious meaning to them, or it actually enhances their Christian faith. Finding a yoga class on a Christian college campus, workplace, or church is becoming increasingly common.

Especially in a culture that is incredibly busy, noisy, and fast-paced; slowing down to practice yoga (asana) can offer a time of restoration and reflection that is often welcome for many over-stressed and burdened people. Like Psalm 46:10 says to “Be still, and know that I am God,” yoga can provide the time, space, and structure for Christians to be still and focus our attention on God’s presence with us.

Many Christians use their yoga time to meditate on a passage of Scripture (like Joshua 1:8 suggests) or to focus on a simple prayer.

This physical aspect is something that tends to be missing in Western Christianity, especially for those of us who neglect fasting and find it difficult to raise our hands in worship.

The National Center for Law & Policy (NCLP) is the Christian organization that handled the San Diego appeal mentioned earlier in this article. The BBC reported, “The reason many people in the West think yoga is non-religious, is that it falls into a theological blind-spot, Dean Broyles, the organization’s president and chief counsel says. He said that Protestant Christianity tends to focus on beliefs and words, rather than any physical practice or experience.

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Can yoga be just physical?

Can yoga be just physical?

David Powlison talks about Christians engaging in physical activities that are traditionally accompanied by a non-Christian philosophy in his video on Crosswalk.com.

He said practices like reflexology are based in Eastern philosophies, but asks: is touching my feet wrong?

“Yoga is a pursuit of being one with God, but is stretching wrong? And karate lessons. There’s a whole worldview imparted in that. Is it wrong to learn techniques of self-defense? You’re going to want to think through and make sure you’re not drinking in philosophical assumptions through the door of something that may be purely a physical activity in its own right,” Powlison said. 

There are many places throughout Scripture that call Christians to be mindful and attentive to our bodies (find 17 examples here!). 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 says that, as Christians, our bodies are not our own but are temples of the Holy Spirit. We are reminded that we should take gentle care of the physical bodies we have been given.

Christians can use this method of exercise and meditation to glorify God. Taking time to stretch, move, strengthen, and notice our bodies can be a way that we worship the Lord and honor the Holy Spirit within us. More than most other exercise methods, yoga offers and encourages mindfulness, intention, and focus. When directed toward the Lord, all of those can be worshipful and beautiful.

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What does yoga mean to Christians in India?

What does yoga mean to Christians in India?

Christians living in India are also conflicted about this ancient practice. In a culture where yoga is both spiritually and physically embraced, Christians are naturally more cautious about practicing yoga in their cultural context. 

Some Christians engage in yoga with their Hindu neighbors as a way to introduce the gospel, but The Syro-Malabar Church says that approach is confusing Indian Hindus.

“Many Hindus view the love of Christians towards yoga as part of a covert attempt to convert people and as an unnecessary infringement on Hindu customs,” according to The Syro-Malabar Church in the Faithwire.com article.

According to the 2011 census, 79.8% of the population of India practices Hinduism and 2.3% identify as Christians. In an environment like this, is the urging for Christians to avoid yoga a legalistic rule? Or is it simply a way for Christians to love their neighbor. While Christians in America may be at liberty to stretch freely in yoga poses, Christians in India may be right to consider a more culturally sensitive approach with their Hindu neighbors.

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What is the spiritual significance of common yoga poses?

What is the spiritual significance of common yoga poses?

If you practice yoga (asana), you may recognize some of these common poses from yoga class. Though helpful stretches in Western culture, they also have a spiritual significance in Eastern religion. William Kremer writes, “To those in the know, for example, the yogic asanas, or positions, retain elements of their earlier spiritual meanings.”

1. Sun Salutation

This series of poses is done as a warm up or cool down in yoga. It gets the blood flowing and warms the body. The benefit of a sun salutation is to stretch the whole body and prepare you for more challenging poses if done as a warm up. As a cool down, its aim is to calm and focus you, preparing your mind to face the rest of the day.

In Hinduism, the Sun Salutation or “the Surya namaskar is a series of positions designed to greet Surya, the Hindu Sun God.”

2. Cobra Pose

This part of the Sun Salutation stretches the torso, as you look upward and arch your back with hands planted firmly below shoulders on the mat with toes gently resting behind.

The alternate meaning behind this pose also called Bhujangasana is the Hindu idea “the spirit-snake power (kundalini) that is activated and elevated in the body by means of yoga; also associated with Patanjali, the sage who wrote the Yoga Sutras, who is depicted as a hybrid man-snake.”

3. Warrior Poses

Warrior One, Warrior Two, and Warrior Three are poses that require balance as you stretch arms upward or out and twist the body and lunge. As with other yoga poses, this requires focus and calm breathing. These poses aim to “elongate” the body, increasing flexibility in the limbs.

These poses have an alternate meaning in Hinduism. The poses, Warrior One, Two and Three, are also known as Virabhadrasana and depict a myth that is about a bloody “family feud,” the central character being the deity Virabhadra, an incarnation of Shiva.

4. Half Spinal Twist

This Half Spinal Twist pose in yoga is more intermediate. It is a seated pose, with one leg folded, the other bent, you lean the opposite arm against the thigh and stretch the spine and torso, twisting the shoulders and focusing your gaze behind. This stretch is often a cool down in yoga when the body is already warm, to maximize this deep stretch.

Half Spinal Twist, also known as Lord of Fish or Matsyendrasana is named for the Hindu “guru and medieval co-founder of hatha yoga who learned the secrets of Tantric yoga and occult arts while in a fish’s belly.”

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What does the Bible say about controversies like yoga?

What does the Bible say about controversies like yoga?

Christians have struggled to determine what is right or wrong for them to do for centuries. The Corinthian church lived in a sinful city full of pagan practices, and Paul encouraged them to be wise about their choices in 1 Corinthians 10:23:

’I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but not everything is constructive.”

There is indeed a lot of freedom in the Christian faith because our God has always been the God who looks at the heart.

“…The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart,” 1 Samuel 16:7.

But Paul reminds us that our freedom in Christ is not a wild freedom to do whatever we want. Loving our neighbors is a hallmark of a mature Christian.

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’” Galatians 5:13-14.

Christians have an extremely helpful resource in the Holy Spirit to guide them. Seek the Holy Spirit as you face choices to either practice yoga (as asana) or refrain from it, or judge those who do or don’t practice.

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak,” 1 Corinthians 8:9.

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