In Part 1 of this series, I explained that I would be writing about a Christian’s response to yoga because of a recent article by Al Mohler in which he condemned yoga in any form. Yesterday, in Part 2, my goal was to construct a biblical framework on which we can build a wise response to the practice of yoga in Western culture. We turned to 1 Corinthians 8–10 and drew three principles from this passage: (1) give up your rights, (2) flee from idolatry, and (3) embrace what is good.
Now, let’s take these three principles and see how they help us understand how to engage with the cultural phenomenon of yoga.
First, we need to understand what yoga is and where it comes from. We don’t have the time or space (or in my case, the expertise) to delve into the intricacies of Hindu worldviews and the enormous chasm between them and a Christian worldview. Suffice it to say that in a Hindu worldview, the self is considered a manifestation of the brahman, the life force which underlies everything that exists. Yoga is a broad term for a system of spiritual disciplines which allow the self to recognize that it is brahman—that it is one with all of nature and that in a sense it is God. One branch of yoga, known as hatha yoga, involves using a variety of breathing techniques and physically strenuous postures to prepare one’s body for intense meditation which will reveal one’s identity with brahman.
What we call yoga in the West is in fact a bastardized form of hatha yoga. Instead of using these postures to prepare oneself for meditation, a Western “yoga” class will use them to aid in physical fitness. This “yoga” is usually touted as a means to gain strength, flexibility, and relaxation. Depending on the class (or video), breathing techniques may play a more or less prominent role. What’s important to note is that the goal has changed from seeking “liberation” to seeking physical fitness. For this reason, it’s a misnomer to refer to this as “yoga” at all, yet the label has stuck.
Now, I believe that there are several parallels to controversy over meat sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians 8–10. Remember that the Corinthian Christians weren’t sacrificing meat to an idol themselves, just as a Christian should never seek the sort of “liberation” that is the goal of Eastern yoga. But the Corinthians faced the question of whether it was possible to divorce the eating of sacrificed meat from the practice of idolatry itself. In the same way, the question for us in the West is whether it’s possible to divorce the postures and perhaps some of the breathing techniques from their Hindu origins. Let’s consider the three principles taught in 1 Corinthians through the apostle Paul by the Holy Spirit.
Principle #1: Give up your rights
Regardless of whether Western “yoga” is okay or not, we must keep in mind the rights of fellow believers. You may be able to perform “yoga” postures in good conscience, with no intentions beyond your own physical health. But not everyone is able to dissociate these postures from Hinduism like you can, especially if they have a background in Hinduism. If they see you performing these postures, perhaps they will be emboldened to do the same, even if their consciences are bothering them (peer pressure tends to work that way!). If they go against their conscience in this area, they’re sinning, and God will hold you responsible. So be careful about publicizing your participation in yoga. It’s not worth causing your brother or sister in Christ to stumble. It’s better never to place yourself in another yoga posture again than to tempt a fellow Christian for whom our Savior died.
Also, be careful not to look down on those whose consciences are still “weak” in this area. Just because you can perform these postures with a clear conscience doesn’t mean you can pat yourself on the back for your superior knowledge. The principle here is love—show love for your fellow believers by being willing to give up your rights.
Principle #2: Flee from idolatry
Be very careful about Western yoga. Sure, it’s been heavily secularized, and most of the Hindu theology has been drained from it. But watch out! That yoga class you want to join or that yoga video that you want to watch may encourage you to engage in Hindu “meditation” or invite you to accept a wrong worldview. Don’t ever believe that you are too smart and too godly to be seduced by false teaching. It’s ridiculously easy to drift away from Jesus Christ. I would encourage an attitude of suspicion toward yoga classes and videos, particularly those which emphasize breathing techniques. It would be a good idea not to participate unless you have had a chance to observe first—especially in the case of yoga classes. If in doubt, don’t do it! “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).
As an aside, Hinduism is not the only danger you should watch out for. Physical fitness can be an idol in Western culture. It’s one I struggle with, too. Watch out that you are not finding your identity in your physical appearance or your health.
Principle #3: Embrace what is good
God created your body to be strong, flexible, and fit. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with placing it in a posture that will help it develop strength and flexibility. It’s only when we load such postures with the false worldview of Hinduism that it becomes sinful. Health is a good thing, and Western “yoga” may be one way to pursue it. Just make sure that you carry it out with an attitude of thankfulness toward God. If you can’t do it “to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31), don’t do it at all. There are plenty of other exercise techniques that you can enjoy (or suffer through!).
Perhaps you may object that it’s not possible to divorce these postures from their Hindu origins. But I would submit to you that there’s a lot of precedent for this sort of thing in Christianity. Have you ever put up a Christmas tree? Have you ever celebrated Easter? These are traditions that have been successfully uprooted from their pagan origins. It’s only according to the Hindu worldview that “yoga” postures cannot be separated from the practice of “liberation.” From a Christian perspective, we can redirect them and glorify God by using them in a way that honors him.
Tomorrow, I’ll close out this series by explaining how I plan to put these principles into practice in my own life situation. Everyone is in a little different situation, so what is best for me may not always be best for you. My goal is simply to give an example of how this might play out in real life to help you think through your own response.