Can Christians Practice Yoga?

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Q. I think Yoga has great stretching exercises but my Christian friends feel I should not practice them because of the Hindu origin. Is Yoga acceptable for Christians?

A. The answer is not a simple yes or no, as this is not a black or white issue, but grey. On the one hand, some look at yoga’s Hindu origin and want nothing to do with it. On the other hand, some look at its physical benefits and feel that since they are not adopting Hinduism, it should be okay. I believe the answer lies somewhere in between, as I see it as a “meat sacrificed to idols” issue where you really need to know where to draw the line. Let me first provide some background.

The name “yoga” comes from a Sanskrit term meaning “union” or “yoke”, the uniting of the finite self with the infinite Brahmin, the Hindu concept of God. Yoga believes in pantheism, that everything in nature, including man, is divine. Man’s problem is that he does not know this, and needs to be enlightened and reunited with Brahmin. The solution is through personal effort and striving, using the eight-limbed discipline which includes:
1. interpersonal restraint e.g. non-injury, non-falsehood i.e. self-control;
2. internal restraint e.g. personal cleanliness, moral purity, religious observances;
3. postures conducive to meditation;
4. breathing exercises;
5. detachment of one’s senses – sense control;
6. concentration on an object of meditation;
7. deep contemplation; and
8. attaining a trance-like state where the distinction between subject and object disappears i.e. enlightenment.

As you can see, this is diametrically opposite to the biblical teaching that God is creator and man is creature, who fell into sin, and cannot save himself no matter how hard he tries. Now, with this backdrop, let’s look at the how Christians should relate to yoga.

Some see practicing yoga, a pagan religion, as compromising the Lordship of Christ:
2 Co 6:14-17 … what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial ? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. … “Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you.”
To them, the proper stance is separation, since there is no common ground. This, however, seemed very much like what the Pharisees would do, putting “a hedge around the Law”, and separating themselves from anything and everything that may pollute, and borders on phobia.

Opponents to the above view point out that yoga in the West now (hatha yoga) is different from yoga in the East, and that they really don’t worship Brahmin. They only adopt the postures as stretching exercises for flexibility, and breathing to help them reduce stress, calm down, and relax. But as you can observe, these are precisely steps 3 and 4 of the eight-limbed discipline above. Can you really divide these two components from the rest? Hindu practitioners themselves say no, e.g.
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rajiv-malhotra/hindu-view-of-christian-yoga_b_778501.html

Some of the postures e.g. salute to the sun as the class starts, are used to pay homage to the myriad gods in Hinduism. The mantras chanted during class, e.g. “om …” are designed to lull the mind into a trance, or to invoke the names of Hindu gods, while the bowing and saying “namaste” at the end of many classes actually means “I bow to the god or soul within you”. So ignoring the “details” does not work either.

What then? There appears to be a third option between “reject” and “accept”, which is to “redeem” what is of value, as what Christians had done with respect to Christmas and Easter. Both were formerly pagan holidays, which Christians had taken over and transformed by infusing into them Christian meaning. I have never tried yoga myself, but can Christians take the best of the stretching, posture and breathing exercises, strip them of their pagan associations, and replace them with meditations on the word of God. This is possible in principle and had been tried in practice e.g. http://praisemoves.com/

But back to the “meat sacrificed to idols” comparison. Let me borrow from 1 Co 8:
4 So then, about doing yoga exercises: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.”
• 7 But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they do yoga exercises they think of it as worshipping a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled.
• 9 Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.
• 13 Therefore, if what I exercise causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never do yoga exercises again, so that I will not cause them to fall.

That’s why I do not recommend yoga in and of itself, but I would endorse good stretching and breathing exercises with focus on meditating God’s word. Hope that helps.

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