Yoga is Hindu in origin, there’s no question about that. The question is, what happens to Yoga when it’s appropriated by the West as a form of exercise, stretching, and money making? That is a completely different story.
I’ve known about the origin of Yoga for years, and initially held the opinion that I should stay away from it, until I saw it in the biblical context. The context is Romans 14:1-6; Romans 14:13-17; and 1 Corinthians 8:1-13.
“But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol…” 1 Corinthians 8:7
Sounds like basically every Nigerian, ever, right? Because of our culture, which for thousands of years has been steeped in mysticism, spiritism, and paganism, we tend to see everything through the lens of witches and demons and spirits. I think it’s an unhealthy worldview, and one that injects paganism into Christianity. There is a spiritual aspect to the world of course, and spiritual warfare, but often the biblical interpretation is abandoned in favor of what I call the “village interpretation”, where Nigerian Christians become superstitious and are afraid of their own shadow. I could write a whole book about this…but it’s a big reason I’ve left the Charismatic movement, especially Nigerian Charismatism which takes things much further.
“I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.” Romans 14:14
If we look at the world today, most things either have origins or analogs in paganism. Children often sit in the lotus position. As a child we used to call it sitting “Indian style”. Yet the lotus position has a whole pagan history. I am persuaded, the lotus position is not “unclean in itself.”
If you look at the days of the week, the months of the year, the planets, the constellations… most of them are named after pagan gods.
Monday means “moon day” from the worship of Mani, the personification of the moon.
Tuesday means “Tiw’s day” from Tiw, the norse god of single combat.
Wednesday means “Woden’s day” from Odin, the norse head god (also associated with the Roman god Mercury).
Thursday means “Thor’s day” from Thor, the norse god of Thunder.
Friday means “Frigg’s day” from Frigg, the norse goddess of knowledge and wisdom, Odin’s wife (and associated with the Roman goddess Venus)
Saturday means “Saturn’s day” from Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture and time.
Sunday means “Sun’s day” from Sol, the Roman god of the Sun. In fact December 25th is also a celebration of the Sun, but the Roman Catholic church changed the holiday to Christmas as part of a strategy of wooing pagans into Christianity.
If you do some research, you will find that most of modern society is steeped in paganism. Will you now refuse to say those days of the week, since every time you do, you could be considered to be venerating a pagan god? Will you throw away anything that has those names on it, including every calendar, and in turn every electronic device you own? I think not.
Saying the days of the week is not worshipping those gods, any more than doing yoga stretches is practicing Hinduism.
What Yoga is and isn’t
I’ve taken enough yoga classes to count on one hand. I’d go more, but I lift weights and run (my old football and track workouts), and stretch on my own, and that usually suffices for me. I’m not a fan of yoga. In fact, every time I’ve gone I’ve been a little embarassed, because I look like a wrestler, and yet the class is filled with all these tiny people able to hold all the positions way better (and longer) than I can. They’re all relaxed, and I’m sweating profusely.
Please don’t make us do another downward dog. I did shoulders this morning!
In a yoga class, the teacher will ask you to assume some static and fluid poses that work your muscles in different groups, and build strength and stamina. Sometimes they ask you to lay down and close your eyes and relax. They’ll also play some relaxing rock music in the background, like John Mayer. Usually, in a mainstream class, they’ll ask you to say some words to end your yoga session. Every Christian I know has always opted out of saying those words, because we’re there for stretches, not to be a new-age hippie. On occasion at a mainstream place, one of the instructors will be one of those new age folks, and try to get the class to see Yoga in a more spiritual light. Americans have got no time for that, so they are usually the least popular teachers. I’m speaking from experience of myself, my wife, my friends.
I remember in one specific yoga class, where I and several other Christian friends attended as a group one night, and the teacher tried to get us to say the “namaste” end phrase, and all of us were silent except for some people attending the class that we didn’t know. Afterwards we got food. Someone brought up the somewhat awkward end of the class, “I didn’t say those words at the end, that’s pagan and I don’t participate in that.” Everyone in a fit of religious zeal started to chime in, “Oh me too. I hate that stuff, I’m just there for the stretching!”
Circle jerks1 make me nauseous, so I said, “Yes, yes, I get it! We’re all Christians. It’s obvious that none of us said those words at the end, because we’re not oblivious,” as everyone laughed at the realization that we were trying to pat ourselves on the back over some obvious BS.
As Chris Rock says mockingly, “‘I take care of my kids.’ You’re supposed to take care of your kids, you don’t get some special prize for that!”
Some yoga studios actually cater to new age hippies and Hindu/Buddhist practitioners and dabblers, and they’re usually unpopular because Christian and secular people want nothing to do with that. You can read reviews on Yelp that complain about that type of stuff. People often choose specific studios because they don’t do that stuff.
“Christian yoga” also became a popular alternative to yoga for a few people who want to avoid the new-age genre entirely (for conscience sake), because the stretching is actually great for you, and as much as we love John Mayer, we’d rather listen to Christian worship music as we relax. We’d rather avoid some eccentric hippie instructor trying to get us in tune with our chi, or whatever they want to call it.
Romans 14:1-6; Romans 14:13-17; and 1 Corinthians 8:1-13
As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. Romans 14:1-6
Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Romans 14:13-17
Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God. Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble. 1 Corinthians 8:1-13
There are no gods, except the one God, Jesus Christ. There is no benefit to celebrating a holiday, or abstaining from the celebration of a holiday. So long as you love God, and your conscience isn’t bothered, there isn’t anything wrong with celebrating a holiday, or eating meat that was sacrificed to an idol. But, some of your Christian brothers come from a background of paganism and superstition, and used to worship those very idols, so it will be hard for them to understand that an idol is nothing. They think every idol is a spirit or demon, and though they are Christians, they still hold on to some pagan beliefs.
Therefore, those of you who know better, don’t be hard on those that don’t. For you to be impolite about their convictions is a sin, so be delicate with them. They only abstain in an effort to serve God better. When they hang out with you, as Christians are wont to do, don’t do those things around them as a matter of respect and courtesy. Don’t invite them to do those things with you. It is right for both them and you to follow your conscience on a matter. If you violate one another’s conscientious decisions to follow Christ, you are harming one another, and committing sin. To partake is no sin, to abstain is no sin. To quarrel with one another over this matter is pointless, and to violate the conscience of a brother is a sin.
It’s good to be intentional, and not do things just because everyone else is doing them. For example, I celebrate Christmas, but not Halloween. I know many Christians that do celebrate Halloween, and I don’t think of them as any less Christian, or myself as somehow more Christian. I chose to listen to Paul’s exhortation in Romans and Corinthians. My friends all know not to invite me to Halloween parties, because I won’t go. I don’t see anything particularly edifying about the holiday, so I simply choose to abstain, without rubbing it in people’s faces.
TL;DR: Yes, it’s perfectly ok for Christians to practice yoga. Just don’t be oblivious.
A strong positive-feedback loop that encourages the stroking of one another’s egos, among people that obviously agree with each other on a topic.↩