Should Christians practice yoga and are some forms of yoga better than others?
The word yoga comes from Sanskrit and means “to join”. In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with that. The key question for Christians should be, “to join with what and for what purpose?”
Yoga is said to be a science or a practice that teaches the individual soul to join with the eternal soul (God in the case of Christians). Again, nothing wrong with that, right? Isn’t that really the goal of all Christians, to be more like Christ, to be in tune with what he wants us to do and to commune with him in our daily lives, not just during prayers at church?
The problem is when you go beyond wanting to become like Christ and wanting to become Christ or thinking you can become a better Christian just by chanting, and centering on the energy centers in your body. This is when yoga can get a bit creepy and cultish.
As an exercise, taking yoga is great. It teaches you to control the muscles of your body. Shows you how to focus your mind on a goal and achieve it when you thought it was not possible.
Yoga makes you stronger, physically and mentally and makes you appreciate the body God designed for you rather than despise it. All those things are good, but there is a difference between taking a yoga class and practicing yoga as a form of spiritual enlightenment.
Some yoga instructors teach that you can merge your individual will to the cosmic will and state that yoga is man’s way of communing with God. Yoga is said to be the life force of man and by practicing yoga we can become perfect, in harmony with nature and man; peaceful, perfect beings who can achieve lasting happiness and eternal bliss and, here is the kicker, as they state, “Yoga can show you the way, unites you with God and makes you perfect and immortal….”
If that just sent a chill down your spine, now you know why so many Christians are leery of getting too deeply involved in yoga.
As an exercise it is great for coordination, strength, flexibility, lengthening out tight and imbalanced muscles and can help you to de-stress if not detox. It can also teach you how to relax and keep calm when you feel like panicking. It definitely has its uses, but it should come with a warning label to Christians…”beware of getting caught up in the spiritual hype and thinking that yoga supersedes Christ as the way, the truth and the life.
Standing on top of a mountain, looking out over an ocean, listening to the sounds of nature and soaking in the sun on a sandy beach with a warm wind blowing, can all bring you closer to Christ, but they are things given to us by the father, not things that take the place of the father. So the short answer of whether it is okay to practice yoga is, “yes, with precautions”.
As a Christian, you will probably know when a yoga instructor, aka, yogi, has stepped over the line.
If something they say makes you feel uncomfortable, it is not a bad idea to speak with them after the class and let them know that you appreciate the class, but not the religious implications of it. This can be done very politely, especially if they are teaching in a Christian run organization like the YMCA or Jewish run organization like the JEA.
Yoga arrived from Hindu practices. The Hindus include a lot of different religious beliefs in their practice, but on a whole tend to believe in multiple gods and levels, like a ladder, that you travel up to get closer to godhood yourself. Yoga is a practice that allows you to obtain god-like status, so is it okay for Christians to practice yoga?
If you say no, ask yourself this: Do you put up a Christmas tree each December? Do you celebrate Easter with an egg hunt? Do you attend sunrise services at Easter? Do you carve out pumpkins at Halloween and put lights inside of them and pass out treats to children? If so, then you are practicing pagan traditions, not Christian traditions. We have just modified them to fit Christian practices and the same can be done with yoga with no real damage to our eternal souls as long as our focus is on Christ and not the rituals we practice to become closer to him.
Yoga, in it’s purest form claims that man’s primary problem that separates him from God is not sin (willful disobedience to God’s laws), but ignorance (not knowing any better). Christianity encourages us to stop sinning and follow God’s will rather than follow our own within reason. One of the reasons why Christ came to earth was because we were not capable of keeping God’s laws in their entirety, so Christ absolved us from being judged entirely by the law and provided us with grace and forgiveness, though encouraged us to keep striving to rid our lives of sin and love others so that we would be compelled to do good and be good. Still a tall order, but we were not called to be perfect, so much as to do all things in love, while honoring the commands of God, even if we can’t always keep them.
Some yogis believe that our ignorance is not that we are unaware of how sin infiltrates our lives and makes us selfish and judgmental, but that we are not aware of our own power to become one with God. Now, if we become one with God by loving God and following his commands and believing that Christ was sent to save us, that is one thing, but if we believe that we can reach deep within us to find the god we can become, then we go a bit off the deep end.
Remember the first creature to convince Adam and Eve that they had the power to be like God, was Satan. This is considered the first lie in the Bible, that if we gain knowledge we can become like God and even be gods ourselves, and this is what yoga teaches, so you can see where some people see practicing yoga as satanic in origin.
Again, if you have a Christmas tree in your home you are not worshiping the tree or trusting it will bring you eternal life, so you can still do yoga poses and center yourself and not be worshiping a false god, but just because you don’t fall for all the mumbo-jumbo of chakras and inner eyes, doesn’t mean that someone less grounded in their Christian faith might not fall for it and see you doing it and think that meant you believed the same way they did.
Keep in mind that you do not earn salvation by your own works, it is a gift freely given to all who will accept it, but you cannot accept it if you refuse to accept Christ into your life for it is only Christ who gives salvation so to deny Christ is to deny his saving grace. That is why it is said that you can only find salvation in Christ.
Thinking you could be saved by your own perfection would be a little like saying you could find your heart in your foot or your ear in your shoulder. Your heart resides in its own special place and you can only find it there, nowhere else on your body. There may be rare cases where this is not so, but in general, a toe is found on the foot, not on your knee cap and as much as you would like to think you can find your toe any place other than on your foot, that is where it is located, just as salvation is located with Christ and no other. It’s not a judgmental, self righteous kind of thing. It is just the way it is.
If you don’t want salvation or don’t think you need saving, then you won’t look for it, but if you want it, there is only one place you will find it.
Christians worship a personal God. Yoga encourages the union of the self with an impersonal, universal consciousness, so if you want to take yoga, but are not into the religious or anti-religious nature of it, here are some things to look for (remember not all yoga instructors are created equal, so to speak):
Breathing is a big thing for yogis. It is okay to be mindful of your breath as a means of regulating your heart beat and bringing in the amount of oxygen you need to perform the task at hand. Rapid breathing tends to increase the heart rate even if you are not exercising, while controlled deep breathing at a steady pace can help “center” you and make you mindful of stress and tension, so deep breathing to remove tension from your body is a good thing.
However, when you start practicing different breaths to expel toxins or create a psychic energy to allow your dead loved ones to enter into your being, then you are walking on the dark side of science and religion.
It is easy to imagine things. You can imagine your heart beat slowing down. You can imagine feeling the presence of others around you. If you chant in unison you can imagine the vibrations traveling through your body and uniting you with everything around you. The mind or imagination is a powerful tool that can easily fool anyone, no matter what their religious affiliation or education level. This is not altogether bad as long as you control it and it does not control you, but it is better not to even try it if you think you will be overcome by it (think playing with Tarot cards or Ouija boards here or reading your horoscope) .
Yoga teaches that mans true nature is divine. Christianity teaches that mans true nature is sinful. We’d all like to think we were good at heart. You can test this theory out on yourself or your kids to see if they are divine by nature, or sinful.
You have one dollar and are starving. You walk into a store and a homeless man asks if you can spare change? Do you selflessly give him your dollar and go hungry, even though you feel like passing out? Do you buy the two for $1 crackers hoping there will be spare pennies at the register to pay the tax and share a pack of crackers with the homeless man, or do you buy him what you can for $1 and then offer to drive him to a local shelter where they will provide food, a shower, job training skills and shelter until he is able to get back on his feet and live on his own?
If you are willing to help the homeless man and are patting yourself on the back that you are truly a divine and good person, now look at what a truly divine person did for us… he gave up his life. He was convicted of a crime he did not commit. He forgave those who wanted him dead when he offered them everything he had to offer? How divine are you feeling now? Would you be willing to give up your life to save someone you do not know? If not, then join the crowd of sinners that is us.
We all have good in us. We all have a spark of the divine, but we are also self preservationists by nature. Even science would concur that we are designed to protect and prosper ourselves first and foremost. This is the design of all creatures. This is the survival instinct. It does not necessarily make us bad, but it certainly prevents us from being as good as we could be. Sin is simply putting yourself above others and making yourself into a god is certainly putting yourself above others, so it is a sin plain and simple.
If you are practicing yoga to find your god-self then you are practicing it for the wrong reasons. If you take yoga to help improve an imbalance in your spine and muscles, if you view it as a form of exercise that makes you feel physically and spiritually stronger (holding a pose when you hurt and want to drop it, or balancing on one foot and focusing far out in the distance so you can keep tight muscles and not fall over are all good things that can lead you closer to Christ
If you find yourself going into Zen mode – tuning out everything around you and becoming so focused that the room seems to disappear, this can be a very mind and body altering experience, but be careful with it.
Being filled with the Holy Spirit can lead you to do wonderful things for Christ in Christ’s name and motivate you to be the Christian you were designed to be, but relying on those inner feelings of feeling god-like can lead to a pulling away from Christ and the belief that you are the one who has control over life and not God. It is a tricky place to be, so use caution if you are being led down this path with only a yogi to guide you as it can do more to draw you away from Christ than draw you to him.
Lastly, if there is a lot of chanting and bowing, staring into candles, listening to hypnotic music and mention of gods outside the one true God, you probably need to roll up your mat and head to the door.
There are a lot of yoga classes that stick more to the movements, poses and stretches and less on the philosophy and religious nature of the practice and these classes are probably okay if you are well grounded in the Christian faith and see yourself as thankful to God when doing movements rather than becoming one with the universe and letting go of yourself to some great cosmic force outside of God.
From personal experience I can attest that some yoga classes are just too creepy/preachy and focus too much on Hindu worship, but some classes focus on yoga as a flexibility, balance and strength routine and these classes are the bomb.
I have been in a class where we all come in groaning in pain and can barely touch our toes and by the time we are through we are out of pain and standing with our fingers under our toes and knees straight.
In one particular pose where you bend at the knees, flatten your back and turn your hands skyward as you follow your hand with your gaze, not one, but three people’s spines popped like a Ziplock bag sealing back into place, one pop right after another as the spinal column corrected its own imbalance, so I cannot say that yoga is an evil exercise from the devil anymore than I can say that the Easter Bunny is going to drag the souls of our children to hell, but again, you do need to be cautious on both counts.
We often teach our Christian children to follow fantasies and fairy tales as if they were true and think nothing of what it does to their minds. We are in effect lying to them, so when we finally come clean and admit there is no Santa, no tooth fairy, no Easter Bunny, often their next question is, “Is there no Christ?”
Yoga is a great exercise, but as a practice you will walk a greased pole over a deep cavern and it is easy to fall off.
It is much more enticing to think that you can find the god within by breathing and looking inward and aligning your body so that the energy flows through you without blockage. It is hard to walk the walk and talk the talk of the Christian, deal with persecution and ridicule, fight temptation, study the Bible daily, preach the gospel to people who don’t want to hear it and fight your own inner selfish desires that tell you that it is just not worth the effort it takes when you only seem to fall further into sin and pull further away from the glory and peace of God.
Also, yoga is physical and I think Christians need a physical challenge in their lives, not just a spiritual one. When we are challenged physically and can see muscles getting bigger, stronger, faster, we are encouraged to keep trying, but often with a spiritual life, you cannot see progress. You might feel it, but there is something tangible missing.
Yoga combines the physical with the spiritual and so can be a very powerful allure to those who want to see effective change in their lives.
As Christians, we are not called to be physically perfect, but we are encouraged to keep our bodies clean and pure and physical fitness helps us to do that to a degree.
While yoga often asks us to empty our minds, Christianity calls us to renew our minds not by focusing on a drop of water, but by reading the words of God and practicing the Christians lifestyle; loving others as ourselves. There are some huge contrasts with the Hindu philosophy as well as some overlapping of ideas… remember the Hindus took many different religious ideas to form their own and many atheists claim that the Christians took some of the Hindu philosophies and made them their own as well.
Bottom line, is that it is okay to take yoga, to do the poses for the purpose of stretching and balancing and becoming more aware of the weaker parts of your body.
If you can easily reach back and grab your left foot with your right hand and bend it up to your waist, but struggle to do the same on the opposite side; that is a pretty good indicator that your body is out of balance, not so much that your spirit nature is out of balance!
Most of us are stronger on one side of our body than another, so doing these odd poses, does not mean you are praising the gods, but that you are doing an assessment of your body and its abilities so that you will be in less pain, have more energy, be better balanced and gain strength, while learning that you can push yourself to limits you never thought you could achieve, but with practice and patience, you can achieve.
If you can do a V with your head and shoulders eight inches above the ground and your feet and legs a foot above the ground on the opposite end and hold that position and endure the pain and shaking muscle and not collapse to the floor, you realize there are a lot of other things you can do in life and hold your position firm and stay strong in Christ.
It is in your perception how you view yoga, Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny. If you can incorporate yoga moves without feeling like you are being led to believe in false gods and a false religion where people are saved by their own doing not by the grace of God, then by all means, give it a try, but if you feel it compromises your closeness to Christ, then look to alternatives.
There are many times I have found myself giggling in yoga class and zoning out on the instructor’s voice. When I do warrior pose; I think of fighting for the cause of a righteous God. When I put my hands in praise pose I think of praising Christ and opening up my heart to him. I don’t see myself worshiping a god or goddess, but I can say there have been times in both marital arts and yoga when I did go into a Zen/Holy Spirit mode that is quite overpowering.
When in this state of being you are within your own world. Everything else is tuned out except the moment and what it is you are doing. Your skin tingles all over and your senses increase and you can almost hear your breathing and heartbeat as if they are not yours and you are not really in your body, but in your head, feeling what the body is doing, but strangely not part of your body. It is a bit like watching your body in a movie.
The feeling doesn't last long, but it is a feeling of concentrated awareness and unaltered focus and there is a sense of power, but not an overwhelming, 'I can conquer anything power,' so much as a sense that a greater power is now part of you and is working through you, allowing you to do things you did not think possible. It is very enticing to want to stay in this state, but it generally fades rather quickly, leaving you with a craving to experience it again and feeling somewhat flustered that you can't return to that state no matter how hard you try.
I think these kinds of feelings are possible, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit or in times of crisis or great need, but I also think they were designed to be kept in reserve for when most needed and are unsustainable for the long haul.
If someone experienced this and attributed it to their own inner god-like nature though, it could easily drive them to seek it again and turn away from God and seek their own divine nature through means outside of God’s plan and I think this can be dangerous or at the very least, cause people to reach out for something that they were not meant to reach out for, for the sole purpose of the experience, not for using the experience to do good for others.
In any event, anything you do can be overdone or done for the wrong reasons. We can even use God to attack others and lift ourselves up as better than, rather than to teach others and lift them up with us.
There is no simple answer to the question of whether it is okay to take yoga classes, but there is a simple answer as to whether Christians should practice yoga, and that answer is no. Let the light of God be your guide not the teachings of man.
Yoga is a great way to relieve stress and tension and align your spine when you can’t afford the chiropractor, but it won’t get you to heaven and it won’t save your soul and it could draw you away from a belief in one God if you are weak in the faith, so just be aware of the dogma and don’t let anyone guide you down a path that leads you away from the one true God and all is good.