The Debate: Christians and Yoga

The debate comes up for me about once a year and each time it does I take it very seriously.  I’ve written about this topic before but as with everything, I’m also on a journey and  with new information my mind can be changed.

But it never has been on this one.

The debate is whether, as a christian, I can practice yoga.

To that, I would answer – no.  I can not.  Because yoga, at its roots is deeply tied to the Hindhu religion and the entire practice of yoga is a deeply spiritual one connecting your mind, body, soul and spirit.

As a Christian I do not believe I should partake in this, opening my mind and spirit up to another religion.    But I do take a ‘yoga’ class.  So what gives?

Well, as with anything, us westerners like to find things and make them our own.  We’ve done so with holiday celebrations, with beer making, with juggling.  (For the record, my son has devil sticks that he juggles with and I believe he is in NO WAY worshiping the devil as he tries to flip them about unsuccessfully.)  As I’m sure you can agree with me, we also tend to butcher these things as we make them our own.  So Christmas, in the Western World, has become about gaudy decorations and buying more, more and more.  Not what Christmas was started as or meant to be.  We try to make beer but we end up with  Molson Canadian.  Enough said.  We also try to practice yoga here but guess what?  We don’t.

In our busy culture none of us have the time or energy (or want?!) to engage in the discipline of actual yoga.  A practice which requires hours upon hours of study, day upon day of meditation and connectivity, year after year of training the body and the mind and the spirit into this discipline.  Instead, western society has taken this practice and watered it down into a 90 minute workout and put the yoga label on it.  Bikram Choudhury said it himself in his book Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class, “Americans are very inventive, even if what they invent is wrong.  They are inventing posture after posture, making up names for them.  Then they sell their wares to innocent, uninitiated people who do not know that they are getting ripped off……There are more flavours of Hatha Yoga in the West than Ice Cream.  Americans think that’s wonderful.  I tell you it is disastrous.  Most of these so-called yoga systems are not yoga at all.  Giving them a Sanskrit or Bengali name doesn’t make them yoga.”

And to Bikram I say, thank you!  Because he said it himself.  As a Canadian living in a suburb I am not practicing yoga.  I am twisting my body into pretzel like shapes for the purpose of health and fitness.  I am not developing a spiritual practice.  I am not opening my heart or my mind to anything, nor is this even talked about in the studio I attend.

I will say that recently there were new owners in the studio I attend and I wondered if it might change things.  But it hasn’t.  Same no talk of anything spiritual or meditative and still just body twisting while talking about the medical benefits of each.

Of course, I would never recommend yoga to anyone as I don’t know what your studio practices, what your teachers look like or how they guide you.  But for me, I’m sure if you came you would agree, having the label of yoga on it actually seems demeaning to those actual pracitioners of yoga.

Now, is it still wrong for me to attend this class based on the fact that yoga’s original roots were founded in spiritual practice?  The answer for me is no.  It’s not wrong and this is where I’ll lay out why.

First of all, in any and everything we do we need to ask our self what the motivating factor is behind why we’re doing it.  Are we buying that dress to impress someone?  Are we eating a certain way because it makes us feel superior to others?  Are we practicing yoga to worship a hindu god?  Our hearts are little idol factories always searching for something to worship and so, like with anything and everything I do, how I exercise needs to be checked.  Am I going to the gym to show off to the beefcakes lifting weights, hoping they’ll sneak a glance at me (in my 36 year old glory!  ha!)  Am I out for a run so that those who pass me will notice just how dedicated I am?  Am I at Bikram yoga because it’s the new trendy thing to do and I feel hip when I’m there or because I’m looking to dabble in foreign religions?  All of these would be reason enough to stop the gym, quit running and never step foot in yoga again.

But what if these aren’t the case?  What if I value the body that Christ has given me and I take seriously the way I care for it.  What if I believe that because I am made in his image and likeness I should pay attention to the way I am treating my body and what I’m putting into it.   To that I say, get your workout on!

But the true question is, does the origin of something make it wrong?  Does having a Christmas tree symbolize tree worship?  In fact, many of the holidays that we ‘celebrate’ today were in direct counter to pagan holidays where we took the day and created something different and made it our own.  I won’t even get into the fact that christians everywhere are dressing up for Halloween…

What I’m saying is that the roots aren’t the end factor.  Just because an artist is an atheist doesn’t mean I can’t hang his painting in my home.  Though I have no idea how he created it or what he may have ‘prayed’ over the piece.

I realize these may seem like a stretch to you but I don’t believe they are because as a Christian I am given freedom as a person in Christ.  I’m given freedom to listen to rock music and appreciate it with the heart of one who loves Jesus.  I’m given the freedom to have a mojito on the porch with my husband as one who is not condemned.  I’m given the freedom  to use money to purchase things that I may want or need and I’m given the freedom to stretch my body any which way it bends without it invoking some sort of religious practice in me.

In all of these things, my mode of operation is as a follower of Christ.  In all of these things I must think about what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.  I must check my heart and my conscience.  If I were to do anything in my life without thinking it through, be it running or smoking or going to work, it would be both unwise and senseless.  I think all things through and I do all that I do to the glory of God.  Nothing prohibited.  Nothing outside of His grasp.  Not eating or drinking or exercise.

But because I am a follower of Christ I have freedom to operate in this world with and for Him.  Not freedom to do anything and everything I want.  But freedom to make decisions based on what I know, freedom to make decisions through prayer and supplication and freedom to do things differently than others based on who we are, where we live, the culture surrounding us, those we come in contact with and so much more.

Read Romans 14:

As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. 2 One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. 3 Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

5 One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.6 The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.7 For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. 8 For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. 9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.

10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God;11 for it is written,

“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,

and every tongue shall confess to God.”

12 So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.

I wholeheartedly believe that context is important.  If I were in India where they ACTUALLY practice yoga my take would likely be different.  But I’m not.  If I were in a studio that boasted statuettes or mind opening meditation my take would be different.  But I’m not.  If I were friends with someone and it was a harm to their growth as a christian or even to my witness to them of the life I live my take would be different.  But at this point, it’s not.

It’s important for us not to make rash judgements of others or call black what isn’t.  Doing westernized yoga for me is not an issue of salvation.  It does not go against anything I read in the bible about what I may or may not do.  In fact, 1 Corinthians 8 states very clearly that we are not to let false gods get in our way.  By saying that my doing yoga is worship to a god is actually saying that said god exists.

Instead, I’d rather be clear and state that I am free to partake in yoga because the “god” that is being worshipped holds no power over me.  The Hindhu gods are not real to me and they can not control what I do or do not do.  1 Corinthians 8 says that eating meat that is sacrificed to idols is actually not a big deal because they are false idols.  Not eating the meat is like saying that the idol may actually hold some power to make the meat inedible.    In the same way that it states that food does not bring us close to God and we are no better or no worse if we do, so does stretching not bring me close to God and it doesn’t matter if I do or don’t.

What does matter is that I am not worshipping any sort of hindhu god by stretching my body.  Maybe you are?  But I’ll leave that between you and God.

As an aside, I’m so thankful for the people that challenge me on this.  It causes me to dig deeper, to keep questioning and to read more and pray more and consider what God has for me.  At this point in my life, this is where I stand.  Yoga in Abbotsford is neither here nor there in terms of religious offerings to a god I don’t believe exists and I will continue to stretch my body in ways that heal it, challenge it and leave me nearly unable to walk the following day.  But I hold no judgement on you for not going.  As with so many things it comes down to personal conviction and I will honour yours and ask that you honour mine as well, always challenging, always learning and always seeking God of all, our Creator and Sustainer, together.

**our church does an ‘extra’ podcast where they talk about random things that people ask.  For the record, our two pastors disagree on the topic of yoga one saying freedom and the other saying no way.  I thought it was an interesting example of how we, as brothers and sisters in Christ, ought to operate.  These are two pastors of the same church disagreeing on a subject matter but willing to talk it out nonetheless.  If you feel like listening you can find it here. Yoga Fight?

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7 thoughts on “The Debate: Christians and Yoga

  1. This is my subject… right here. But it’s not my fight. I don’t fight people on this subject – that’s not what I want to be known for… I want to be known for what I’m for, not for what I’m against… and I’m not against people.

    I’ve done so much research on the subject of yoga, being here in India I have it all at my fingertips. When I started researching it, I had to stop. All I can say is – it grieves my soul that so many Christians defend what is so against what the Bible teaches us how to live. HOWEVER… with that said… most of western yoga is NOT yoga at all, and I agree that they are calling it that because it’s the new catch phrase in exercise. If your instructor doesn’t bring any spiritual aspects, then I believe you are in a class that’s teaching stretching and that’s good for our bodies, our minds and our spirits.

    You quoted a yogi, and I will quote another who said that they’re thrilled that so many yoga studios have popped up in the western world, and all the westerners who are learning to be yoga instructors are like Hindu Missionaries to the western world. Spirit grieved.

    You’re right – we can not judge each other because it’s what’s in our hearts that’s MOST important. In fact that’s all that matters. But it is our job to share what we know when we have been given a revelation about something.

    Yoga actually means “to yoke” and the purpose of meditation is to empty your mind and to release your full personality so that Brahma can come in. Each pose is designed to be in worship to a certain god (whether it be the sun or the dog… all are worshipped here) and all gods come from Brahma.

    I know that we are body soul and spirit and you can not separate any part. What’s good for the spirit is good for the soul is good for the body. You can. not. separate. I recently had a post on FB (maybe this is where your blog idea is from?) that stated “If you wouldn’t display the beautifully carved Idol of another Religions Deity as ‘just art’. Then you can’t sell Yoga as ‘just exercise’ ”

    In (real) yoga, you are literally becoming the idol of another religion. Your body is being formed into an idol of worship. Whether you believe in it or not, that’s what you’re doing. Do these gods have any power over us? No… but as someone who lives in the midst of these VERY REAL powers of darkness that have been named here, even though they don’t have power OVER us, they very tangibly (sometimes) fight against us.

    I could REALLY go on and on about this… someone commented on my post “Lets agree to disagree and focus on what we agree on. Everyone needs their own revelation on their personal christianity.”

    But the fact is, every single decision we make in life effects other people. Sometimes even the people we don’t know. And as I said to a girlfriend who defended her choice to do yoga, it may not be harming YOUR spirit and it may be giving YOU time to pray in silence… but is it actually pointing people to Jesus?

    Our whole purpose in life is to introduce people to Jesus. And personally, I feel that if I’m doing something that I need to defend over and over again, maybe I should just find something different to do. All things are permissible but not all things are beneficial. (1 Corinthians 10:23) That doesn’t necessarily mean of benefit to us – we must always be thinking of others.

    If I told people that I did yoga, here in India, my testimony of Christ would be ruined. They would think I was a Hindu and Jesus was just “another god” to worship. Truth is – Indians are taking over the world, and they are everywhere. There are more Indians on this earth than any other people group… and only 2% of them know Christ. You may think you’re not called to reach the Indians in (insert your nation here) but we are called to reach all people groups, therefore, we must soberly judge ourselves and guard our testimony.

    PLEASE hear my heart here. I know you Rhonda, and I know your heart. I, also, do not live under the law and enjoy the freedom I have found in Christ. I truly believe that the west has been duped into believing yoga is harmless, but personally, I know better, and I believe it’s my responsibility to share in LOVE what I have learned.

    I don’t want to start a debate here with your readers. I’m not saying anyone’s gonna go to hell because they do yoga. As with you, there is no changing my heart or my mind on this. My information is not based on opinion but on facts I have learned about real yoga. There has been much prayer about this and I’ve backed away almost every other time this has come up with my western friends because it is SUCH a sore spot and SUCH a topic of defence.

    I know this is a safe place to speak and I thank you for that.

    Wish we could sit and have a coffee to discuss.

    Much much much love.

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  2. Sher. I love you!

    This post was sparked in part by your facebook post the other week but it was already stewing in me before that. But I didn’t want to get into it on Facebook – a place not exactly the best for debate and not known for solving problems so much.

    I was hoping you would feel that this was a safe place and speak here about what you know and you did! Thank you!

    I know you and I know your heart and I value every single word that you said here. Completely and totally!

    While I think we can agree that what we’re calling yoga in our cultures is very different you did raise a point that is interesting to me and that is, by doing yoga am I pointing people to Jesus.

    I can’t (and won’t) answer that straight off the top of my head but it is something that I want to think and pray about.

    You mentioned that while everything is permissible, not everything is beneficial and I wholeheartedly agree. I don’t think smoking a cigarette will land you in the throes of hell but I also know its of no benefit to your body. Is yoga the same? While it is of benefit to my body, more importantly, is it a benefit to my witness?

    We have a high contingent of Indians living where we do and many of them attend yoga alongside me. It’s caused relationships to form where they haven’t before. The lady who stretches beside me, I see in town, and we chat. I can only wonder now if she’s thrilled with me that I’m practicing her religion! It will lead to conversations for sure.

    The reason I wrote this is because I am in no way opposed to being challenged. I know many people get defensive about what they can and can’t do and I think you knew that I wouldn’t be. Dialogue is so important and I want to be able to discuss these important things here.

    I know that Satan is always on the attack and he isn’t called the deceiver for nothing. Are we christians in the west being deceived into thinking what we’re doing is fine? I don’t know. But it’s given me more to think about, more to pray about and will only bring me and my motivations to Jesus again.

    Thank you for your challenge, Sher. I know this is a topic close to your heart and I’m so glad you posted here! I love you and know your heart and know you only want Jesus to be made much of!

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  3. Rhonda… I am so proud of you and SO incredibly impressed with your response. If only we could ALL have such humility and such a teachable, hungry spirit. I was SO worried that I would offend, but I guess when you do things in love and the relationship is deep enough that the love is felt, then the defensive goes down and the love is accepted. I am going to post this on my facebook page so everyone can see the example you have shown and the spiritual maturity that you have demonstrated… and I pray that we can all live a life such as the one you are inspiring us to all live. Love you too much.

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  4. I’m an Indian. In India. Yoga that involves just the body is ok. The next level involves breath control. And the highest level involves emptying your mind. Quite a few yoga moves are like pilates. So as a Christian, choosing to keep ur body fit is a good idea.
    Hindus have a lot of practices that we deem as Hindu culture. Like, they HAVE to have a neem tree within their compound walls or an aloe Vera plant at the least. If you look it up, these two plants have amazing antibiotic property. And can be used even to cure skin infections. Faithful, unquestioning Hindus will say those plants ward off evil spirits. But I know those plants in my house dont make me Hindu in anyway. I use them scientifically. That being said, the powers they worship are very real. I wouldn’t have any of their idols in my home cos that has nothing but spirituality and religion assigned to it. Only wise and cautious people can draw the line at the right place. Not many people know where that line should be. And if one feels that yoga shouldn’t be practiced even as an exercise, then he shouldn’t. But if we think its ok then we better be prepared to answer questioning christians :).I personally think its an excellent form of exercise minus the mind controlling bit.

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  5. Thanks for what you said, Hannah. I appreciate your thoughts as someone who is surrounded by the culture that yoga stems from. I especially like your analogy to the plants. You’re right, having them in your home does not make you Hindu in any way! But I also appreciate that you know that you need to be prepared to answer for them.
    Love it! Thanks for popping by!

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