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 excercise/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, and one that genuinely professing Christians hold very different opinions and positions on! Some have fully embraced "Christian Yoga" while other respected 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, namely that Yoga is a form of eastern spirituality and 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 "exercise"?
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 which 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.
For some followers of Christ, they 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 and 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 -- practices 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, but is also linked to pagan systems.
In order to eliminate all of these pagan influences, we would necessarily need to convert to Judaism as delivered to Moses on Mount Sinai -- as God was creating a people who were separated from the surrounding cultures. 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).
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 ("meat") from its original intended purpose ("sacrificed to idols"/pagan worship of false 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, because 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.
Paul doesn't stop exactly there, however, but 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."
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 doing yoga. I experience no temptation to go back to those false worship practices and 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, as I was too busy trying to not fall down and couldn't stop thinking about how uncomfortable I was!
On the flip side of that same coin, I would never join a yoga class or participate in yoga in a group, because of the potential dangers for misunderstanding or division amongst the brethren. To me, it's simply not worth the risk.
This is the same reason I no longer drink alcohol or have it in my home. I do not struggle with drunkeness (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 alcohol, but exercise my freedom in Christ because I know that there are many who struggle with alcohol that do so privately (recovering alcoholics, for example) and I would never want to put a cause for stumbling in someones life simply because "that's their problem, not mine."
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 recording in Romans 14:
Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions. One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only. The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God. For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself; for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.
But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, "AS I LIVE, SAYS THE LORD, EVERY KNEE SHALL BOW TO ME, AND EVERY TONGUE SHALL GIVE PRAISE TO GOD." So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God.
Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this-- not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother's way. I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean. For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil; for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. For he who in this way serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another. Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are clean, but they are evil for the man who eats and gives offense. It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles. The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves. But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin. (Romans 14:1-23, NAU)
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 because of your worldliness and 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 since the stakes are high and because He already knows our hearts and intentions. We must also remember that it is not our job to judge each other on disputable matters, but instead we must be fully convinced in our own minds, because to our own Master we stand or fall.
I hope this helps!