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Christians & Yoga

Yoga Dog
Q: It seems in recent years, Yoga has come to our country and spread like wildfire. We can now get Christian Yoga Dvd's, and Zondervan's National Pastor's Conference has included Yoga. Churches are also having Yoga nights as a form of exercise/relaxation. I have many strong Christian friends who participate in Yoga. They claim they only do the stretching and do not add any of the spiritual elements. When we really look at what Yoga is, can we separate the stretching from the spiritual elements?

In the past, Christians began participating in Martial Arts and removed the so-called spiritual parts. We have also taken pagan holidays, removed the pagan ideas, and turned them into Christian Holidays. Again, I am wondering can this also be done with Yoga?


A: This is a really great question. It's one that genuinely professing Christians hold very different opinions and positions on. Some have fully embraced "Christian Yoga" while other Christian leaders like Mark Driscoll and Albert Mohler and even some practicing Hindu's have spoken out against the attempts to Christianize this particular pagan spiritual practice.

I certainly won't claim that I'll be able to "settle the matter" in this post. But I do believe that the Bible gives us pretty clear spiritual principles that should guide our practice and conclusions on the matter of Christians and Yoga.

If I understand the Questioner correctly, the point of the question really rests on the nature of Yoga itself. Yoga is a form of eastern spirituality. It is deeply rooted in false religion. Simply put, Yoga may be practiced by many people today as simply a form of physical exercise. But that's not what it was intended to be. So, should Christians practice a form of spiritual pagan worship as physical exercise?

Trust the brand?
When put that way, the immediately obvious answer seems like it should be "No." However, some have attempted to Christianize Yoga and sell products with the Christian stamp prominently displayed. This eases many peoples concerns. This is exactly the same type of practice that led to us decorating trees in our homes and a glorification of materialism and covetousness to celebrate the birth of Jesus on a day He almost certainly wasn't born for Christmas or to dye eggs different colors and hide them while simultaneously eating jelly beans to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The combination of the label "Christian" with pagan practices (such as Yoga and the worship of another false god, Saturnalia) often results in bizarre and absurd contradictions that are accepted easily enough by most professing Christians.

Some followers of Christ reject Halloween, Christmas, and Easter for the same reasons that they object to Christians practicing Yoga. These practices, they say, are inherently associated with pagan worship of false gods. They should therefore be rejected by the Church.

For me, it's not that simple. The influence of pagan practices -- both spiritual and otherwise -- has much more influence than we may initially think. The names of the days of our week for example (i.e. Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, etc.) find their origin in pagan gods and astrology. These practices are condemned by biblical Christianity. Our system for keeping time (i.e. 24-hour days) is not based on the Creation account (evening and morning = a day) or the Jewish system. It is linked to pagan systems.

Lights shining in the darkness
In order to eliminate all of these pagan influences we would need to completely remove ourselves from the world. Or, convert to Judaism as delivered to Moses on Mount Sinai. God was creating a people who were separated from the surrounding cultures in the Old Covenant. Yet, Christians are explicitly commanded not to go back to Judaism and "law keeping." Instead, we are called to remain "unstained by the world" (James 1:27) while also living in the midst of this crooked and perverse generation (Philippians 2:15). To be lights shining in the darkness.

As a result of this tension - in the world, but not of the world - come questions like this one about Christians and Yoga. Is it permissible (1 Corinthians 6:12)? Is it beneficial (1 Corinthians 10:23)?

While I value the insights and perspectives of my Christian brothers and sisters who claim that Yoga cannot be separated from its origins, I simply disagree with this logic. In the above link, Mark Driscoll cited an expert on Yoga who claimed the physical exercise tenets were never designed to be separated from the spiritual worship aspects. But it does not logically follow that they cannot be separated anyway.

Plenty of things that aren't designed to be separated still can be. Sometimes separating the parts destroys the whole. Other times the results are less catastrophic.

Quite frankly, I reject the idea that Christians cannot participate in some of these pagan practices without being influenced by the entirety of the practices original intentions. More importantly than my opinion, it seems the Apostle Paul agrees with me!

In Paul's first letter to the believers in Corinth, he addressed a question these Christians had regarding eating meat sacrificed to idols. This particular question, although not exactly the same, is asking something very similar to the Questioner above. The meat sacrificed to idols was directly part of pagan worship of false gods. Here's Paul's answer:

Therefore concerning the eating of things sacrificed to idols, we know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and many lords, yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him. (1 Corinthians 8:4-6, NASB)

Paul didn't have any problem separating one thing from its original intended purpose. The meat was directly offered to pagan gods. To Paul, since all other gods are false, Paul says it's just meat. He doesn't care that it was associated with worship of false gods. Those gods aren't real. The meat, however, is real.

To me, this is as direct of a comparison that can be made.

Meat (real), offered to false gods (not real), is okay for the Christian to eat because it's just meat.

Stretching (real), offered to false gods (not real), is okay for Christians to practice because it's just stretching.

Rubber Stamp Approval
So, case closed?

Paul doesn't stop there. He continues with the following qualifier:

However not all men have this knowledge; but some, being accustomed to the idol until now, eat food as if it were sacrificed to an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled. But food will not commend us to God; we are neither the worse if we do not eat, nor the better if we do eat. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone sees you, who have knowledge, dining in an idol's temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols? For through your knowledge he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died. And so, by sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause my brother to stumble. (1 Corinthians 8:7-13, NASB)

Paul is careful to mention that our freedom in Christ should not be used to cause stumbling blocks to others. The goal of all of our conduct should be to glorify God!

Since the present question is referring specifically to Yoga, we must soberly ask ourselves, if it's just stretching, is it worth causing my brother or sister to stumble? The answer is clearly, "No."

Rubber Stamp Rejected
Another question we must ask is, does participating in Yoga as a Christian (I do tend to agree that "Christian Yoga" is an oxymoron) cause a stumbling block to those we know and influence who are not followers of Christ?

Put another way, could my practice of this exercise regimen lead someone else to participate in worship of false gods because they don't know any better? If the answer to this is yes, then we should once again exercise our freedom in Christ and "never do Yoga again" (cf. 1 Corinthians 8:13)!

As someone who converted to Christianity from a form of Buddhism, I can tell you that I have no personal qualms about stretching or doing some of the well known Yoga poses. I experience no temptation to go back to those false worship practices. I find it extremely easy to think of Yoga as simply stretching. In fact, when I've participated in the past, I couldn't possibly have emptied my mind if I tried. I was too busy trying to not fall down. I couldn't stop thinking about how uncomfortable I was!

For me personally, I have a much harder time participating in the celebrations of Christmas, Easter, and Halloween. The first two of these explicitly claim to be done in worship to God. But these worship activities are foreign to the Scriptures. The third, Halloween, seems so clearly a celebration of wickedness and worship of evil. I just can't do it. Especially when I can just buy candy and eat it whenever I want. It's one of the perks of being a grown-up.

I have to follow my own convictions.

Even though I would be comfortable stretching in some of these positions for purely physical benefit, I would never join a Yoga class or participate in Yoga in a group. The potential dangers for misunderstanding or division amongst the brethren are too important. To me, it's simply not worth the risk.

Danger - Stumbling Blocks!
This is the same reason I no longer drink alcohol or have it regularly in my home. I do not struggle with drunkenness (which is clearly a sin in the Scriptures; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10). I also do not believe that someone who has a glass of wine with dinner is committing sin. I enjoy drinking alcohol in moderation. But I exercise my freedom in Christ because I know that there are many who do struggle with alcohol. Many struggle privately (recovering alcoholics, for example). I would never want to put a cause for stumbling in someone's life simply because "that's their problem, not mine." Heaven forbid I throw a stumbling block before my brother or sister in Christ!

Paul wrote to Timothy saying, For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. (1 Timothy 4:8, NIV)

Our questions about "can we?" should also lead us to ask "should we?"

Can Christians participate in Yoga and enjoy the purely physical benefits of the exercise without also worshipping false gods and engaging in idolatry? I think the biblical answer is yes. The mature believer who knows that there is only one God and we have access to Him only through Jesus Christ can do this the same way the Corinthian believers could eat meat sacrificed to idols without worshipping false gods that were merely figments of the imaginations of others.

Should Christians participate in Yoga, and if so, to what extent? It seems to me that this is a question you must answer for yourself. With the understanding that you are accountable to Jesus, not to me.

I don't think you destroy the original intention of Paul if you replace his remarks about "eating and drinking" and "observation of days" with "stretching through yoga" in his comments recorded in Romans 14:1-23. I won't include that entire passage here. You can (should?) read it prayerfully on your own. Just one verse from that section will suffice for now:
The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves.
(Romans 14:22 NASB)

If you are practicing Yoga stretching techniques in order to glorify God in your body and to be a good steward of your physical health, then I don't believe the Bible condemns your practice. If you are engaging in Yoga because it is fashionable and popular, or for the sake of vanity, then you are likely in sin. That's worldliness and you should abstain from these things so as not to persist in rebellion and sin against the Lord.

The genuine Christian should take these questions seriously. The stakes are high. God already knows our hearts and intentions. We must also remember that it is not our job to judge each other on disputable matters. We must be fully convinced in our own minds because to our own Master we stand or fall.

I hope this helps!

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