Have you ever wondered if it is appropriate for Christians to do Yoga? It is commonly known that Yoga is a religious practice rooted within the worldview of Hinduism. Yet much of it practiced in the West today is postured as plain exercise. This makes the waters murky. I have heard of a class called “Yoga and Wine.” I have also seen an advertisement for “Yoga for pets.” In this mix of things, what should Christians do about Yoga? Should we practice or abstain from it, and for that matter, should we allow our pets to do it?
The truth is there is no simple yes or no answer. That is, Christians do not have religious restrictions when engaging in exercise, but Christians should be aware of the religious forms of Yoga and, to this end, be ready to abstain from Yoga if it causes another believer to struggle. So let’s jump in and look at some of the variety of Yoga practice available today and whether there are any legitimate ways for a Christian to engage in them.
What is Yoga?
Yoga originated as a branch of Hinduism and was an entirely spiritual activity. It involved several practices, such as meditation (akin to focusing the mind on one thing or experience), Yoga poses, and breathing exercises, which were all part of the pathway to realizing enlightenment.
There are at least two views of enlightenment. The earlier view involves realizing that you are not your body but a spiritual being, one that cannot be defined. The later view involves realizing that you are one with the impersonal divine substance, otherwise known as Brahman.
The result of enlightenment in either case is to escape from the physical world, from the endless wheel of death and rebirth (Samsara).
The result of enlightenment in either case is to escape from the physical world, from the endless wheel of death and rebirth (Samsara). There are also many intermediary steps between the initial practices and the result of spiritual enlightenment. This contradicts many tenets of the Christian worldview such as God as the good creator distinct from his creation, creation as good, humanity as fallen, humanity as created in the image of God as physical and spiritual beings, Christ’s redemption of the entire cosmos, and salvation by grace–not by practices.
Yogic spirituality and Christianity cannot be harmonized. But perhaps you are thinking, “the Yoga classes I have seen have been about exercise and stretching, not so much spirituality.”
Yoga in the West (American Yoga)
It is true that Yoga has been largely de-spiritualized in the West. I would therefore classify Yoga into three categories:
- Religious Yoga
- Non-religious Yoga
- Quasi-religious Yoga.
Religious Yoga. It is obvious to most Christians that an overtly religious Yoga should be avoided. The Bible teaches very plainly that worship of other gods or participation in other religious systems is off limits (Exodus 20: 3; 1 Cor. 10:14-22). Religious Yoga would involve an explicit emphasis on pursuing spiritual enlightenment through the practices and levels of ancient Yoga. This is a little rarer today, but it does exist. Christians should avoid participating in this.
Non-religious Yoga. Non-religious Yoga explicitly teaches Yoga as exercise. There is no reference to spiritual realities or the practices having spiritual value. If someone wants to participate in Yoga, then this kind would seem to be permissible, just as the early Christians were permitted to eat meat sacrificed to idols (1 Cor. 10:25-33).
Christians believe that “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1, 1 Cor. 10:26). Yet, if someone thinks you are practicing the spirituality of Yoga, you may need to abstain around that person until you can clarify your position on it. Let me explain. Paul envisions a scenario where a non-believer asks you to a feast but then tells you that the meat was offered in sacrifice (1 Cor. 10:28-29). Back then most of the meats available were offered in sacrifice to a god. Paul says that Corinthians should abstain in this environment because the other person is confused, thinking actual worship to gods is involved. Likewise, non-religious Yoga is permissible, but sensitivity is needed.
Quasi-religious Yoga. This is where Yoga is postured mostly as an exercise habit that is good for the body and mind. Many times, however, the instructor also believes in parts of the Yogic worldview and thinks that their instruction is encouraging people to move towards enlightenment. They pepper their classes with just a little bit of Yogic spirituality. This is where the gray area lies. The class may not be about a religious experience, but under the surface the instructor believes it is. In this scenario, you will have to rely on wisdom, prayer, the counsel of others, and so on. Earlier I mentioned that if someone thinks you are participating in a spiritual activity, you ought to abstain for that person’s sake, not your own (1 Cor. 10:27-30). This may be one of those scenarios. It might make more sense to either find another class that is completely non-spiritual or consider other ways to exercise that, like Yoga, involve physical stretching, growing in strength, learning to breathe, and focusing your mind. There are many other ways to exercise that incorporate these things such as Pilates, non-spiritual martial arts, or even cycling.
Freedom does not imply the ability to do whatever we want but should lead us to live in love.
This last scenario does present some problems, but we must remember that we have been saved by the grace of Jesus to be free. Freedom, though, does not imply the ability to do whatever we want but should lead us to live in love. “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal 5:6).
 See Eliade, Mircea. Yoga: Immortality and Freedom. 2nd Ed. Trans. by Willard R. Trask. New York: Princeton University Press, 1969.