Yoga - it’s meaning, expression, purpose, and popularity - has changed radically over thousands of years. Our understanding of what yoga is today (tight clothes, dominated by women, crazy feats of flexibility and strength, 60 minute classes three times a week in a studio playing Madonna hits) looks drastically different than what many of the ancient writers were discussing when they wrote about yoga. Some scholars even argue that yoga as we know it today can’t even be considered a descendent of the yoga of yore.* This is a key point to keep in mind. Yes, yoga’s roots are in ancient Hindu spiritual culture. And the yoga we do today looks almost nothing like it.
I want to be super clear here at the outset that there are certain streams and philosophies of yoga that I would not participate in as a follower of Jesus. But their existence does not exclude me from participating in traditions of yoga that honor and enrich my own life and faith.
One way to think about this is the varied streams within the Christian tradition. Under the umbrella of Christianity, you have Catholics, Evangelicals, Lutherans, 7th Day Adventists, Calvinists, Dutch Reformed, Baptists, Jesuits, Episcopalians, Westboro Baptist Churchgoers, Mormons, Presbyterians, Protestants, Charismatics, Pentecostals, Quakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and my favorite, the nondenominationals (which, like it or not, still tend to hew closely to at least one of these traditions).
Maybe you’re looking at this list and are like “What! No! They’re not Christians!” And you will have proved the point. The same sentiment exists within the yoga world as well.
Nevertheless, there are people who will say Christians should not participate in any yoga because of its roots. I understand the concern – we want to honor and obey God and are afraid of participating in something that would harm that relationship.
My goal here is to explore some Scriptures and bring some Biblical wisdom that can be a starting point for you on your own yoga journey.
Let’s start with my number one reason why I think it’s ok (and good!) for Christians to practice yoga:
1. We infuse the yoga with meaning
Yoga, as many in the modern Western world practice it, is the manipulation of body and breath in the pursuit of a deeper purpose. As a follower of Jesus, that deeper purpose is becoming aware of and surrendering my ego (or sin, or lies I’m entertaining) to make space to hear from and worship God body, heart, and soul.
God is the creator of our bodies and the giver of our breath. No other belief system can ever lay claim to either one of those things. We are made in the image of God. And God himself put on skin and wrestled with ego here on earth as Jesus. We are temples of the Holy Spirit, the expression of God here on earth. Our bodies, breath, awareness, stillness are all infused with the DNA of heaven and are tools of worship.
We see this principle in the Bible with the Eucharist, or communion. At it’s core, the Eucharist is bread and wine. Jesus infused it with meaning. Each time I step on my yoga mat I infuse my movements with meaning and intention.
“The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” - 1 Samuel 16:7b
“If I speak in the tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging symbol. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.”
- 1 Corinthians 13: 1-3
In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul goes so far as to say that you can do all these incredible GOD things (speaking in tongues, prophesying, moving mountains with your faith, martyrdom!) but if you don’t have love, it’s meaningless.
This tells us that God cares about the condition of our hearts – our deep core motivations – more than anything we do. From the standpoint of Christian living, this means even the seemingly “good” things we do are meaningless unless they come from a heart of love. From the standpoint of yoga, the movements we do are meaningless (they hold no higher power or purpose) without a deeper motivation.
We do not have to fear accidentally worshipping some other god if our hearts are earnestly seeking to know and be known by Him. This is true not just in yoga but in every area of our lives (financial, relational, vocational, etc.).
When our yoga practice welcomes the word of God, we can trust its power to search, know, and transform our hearts:
“For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” - Hebrews 4:12
*In his book, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, Mark Singleton writes, “there is little or no evidence that asana [physical yoga poses]...has ever been the primary aspect of any Indian yoga practice tradition – including the medieval, body-oriented hatha yoga – in spite of the self-authenticating claims of many modern yoga schools. The primacy of asana performance in transnational yoga today is a new phenomenon that has no parallel in premodern times...Posture-based yoga as we know it today is the result of a dialogical exchange between para-religious, modern body culture techniques developed in the West and the various discourses of ‘modern’ Hindu yoga that emerged from the time of Vivekananda onward. Although it routinely appeals to the tradition of Indian hatha yoga, contemporary posture-based yoga cannot really be considered a direct successor of this tradition.” [emphasis mine]