Yoga: a biblical response (Part 4 of 4)

In Part 1 of this series, I explained why I’d decided to write about the proper response a Christian should have to yoga. Then, in Part 2, we examined 1 Corinthians 8–10 to find three principles that govern how a Christian should respond to practices that have roots in false religions. These principles are (1) give up your rights, (2) flee from idolatry, and (3) embrace what is good. In Part 3, we considered how to apply this to yoga. I concluded that Western forms of “yoga” in which the goal is physical fitness may be okay, but that we should exercise great caution before participating in them. We should also consider the effect our actions may have on other Christians—we don’t want to encourage them to go against their consciences.

Tonight, I’ll be concluding the series by taking what we’ve learned and applying it to my own life situation. Not everything here will be appropriate for all believers, since we are all different people with different strengths and weaknesses whom God has placed in different communities and churches. I encourage you to use this not as a law to adhere to but as a model to emulate.

Here’s how I plan to apply this three principles in practical, concrete ways. I plan on continuing the P90X yoga program, but I’m not going to mindlessly embrace yoga, even in its Western form.

Principle #1: Give up your rights

I will be cautious about communicating to others that I practice “yoga.” This could be easy to misunderstand. Perhaps someone has in mind meditation and liberation from karma. Perhaps others may think that I approve of yoga in any form. Unless it’s the sort of conversation where I have time to briefly explain my concerns about yoga, it would be better not to bring it up at all.

If, while discussing the issue, I find that the other believer thinks that I am wrong to practice yoga, the first thing I will do is listen to his or her reasons. Perhaps I am in the wrong and need to be corrected. If I believe the other person’s arguments are unbiblical and unconvincing, I will explain why my conscience doesn’t bother me as I continue to participate in yoga exercises. I will also explain that I don’t want to force the other believer to go against his or her conscience in this matter.

Principle #2: Flee from idolatry

If I’m given the opportunity to follow another yoga video, I will be extremely cautious about proceeding. I will watch the video entirely first to make sure that it doesn’t ask me to do anything against my conscience (or whether I can skip those sections of the video if they do come up).

I would be even more careful about yoga classes because of the greater peer pressure; I could feel pressured into doing something that violates my conscience. If I were considering joining a class, I would first speak to the instructor to learn his or her perspective on yoga. If possible, I would observe a session first before signing up. I would communicate to the instructor my viewpoint on yoga and make sure that we come to an understanding before beginning.

If a brother or sister in Christ mentions that he or she is participating in a yoga video or class, I will ask a few questions (without badgering) to find out whether this video or class is appropriate or not. Many believers accept yoga uncritically, but it’s our responsibility to care for one another to ensure that we don’t fall into temptation.

Principle #3: Embrace what is good

As I said, I plan to continue following the P90X yoga video. I will make an effort to be more thankful to God for the opportunity this gives me to improve my strength and flexibility (including the fact that I can now touch my toes for the first time in…well, ever, I think!). If a fellow Christian believes that yoga in all forms are bad, I will attempt to convince him or her otherwise, since I believe that our consciences should be properly trained to rejoice in what is good as well as reject what is evil.

So how do you plan on putting these principles into practice in your life situation? How will you respond to opportunities to practice yoga? How will you respond if fellow Christians either seem too eager to accept it or too eager to condemn it? Where will you turn in God’s Word to develop your viewpoint? No matter what your conclusions are, I’d be excited to hear that you’re thinking through these issues so that you may glorify God to the utmost.

Yoga: a biblical response (Part 3 of 4)

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.

Yoga: a biblical response (Part 2 of 4)

(Read Part 1 to see why I’m writing about yoga.)

If we’re going to understand how a Christian should respond to yoga, we’re going to have to turn to the Bible. Of course, yoga isn’t mentioned in the Bible; there’s no command that says “thou shalt not practice yoga.” So we need to construct a biblical framework on which we can build a wise response to the practice of yoga in Western culture.

When we’re dealing with how Christians should interact with popular practices derived from another religion, an appropriate place to go would be 1 Corinthians 8–10. These three chapters teach us three principles that will help us respond to yoga.

The church at Corinth has written the apostle Paul a letter, in which they’ve asked him to settle a number of disputes within the church. One of these disputes is about whether or not a Christian can eat food that has been sacrificed to idols. Now, here in the West, we never have to face this issue, but it was a real problem for the Corinthians (and for many present-day believers in other cultures!). Corinth was a diverse and pluralistic city, filled with people from a smorgasbord of religions. Their social life often revolved around the worship of idols stationed in the temples of the city. A pagan Corinthian would bring an animal to be sacrificed at the altar of an idol. After being roasted on the altar, the meat would be eaten by the man and his friends and family at a party which he would throw in the temple. Any leftovers would be sold in the marketplace. If a Christian were to join the Jews of the city in avoiding any kind of idol meat, they would be cut off from the social life of their friends and family, and they could only buy meat from a Jewish kosher butcher. And beyond Corinth, any Christians living in a small town without a kosher butcher would be out of luck.

Principle #1: Give up your rights

Now, in 1 Corinthians 8, Paul responds to the theological arguments of the Christians in Corinth who believed it was okay to eat idol meat. They basically argued that since “there is no God but one” (v 4), idols were nothing more than empty statues. And there’s no danger in eating food offered to beings that don’t even exist. So they just roll their eyes at all the spiritual mumbo-jumbo spoken at the idol feasts, and with a clear conscience they eat the meat which their friends offer to them.

Paul agrees with their logic—or more accurately, he saves his major caveat for chapter 10. Right now, he wants to address the attitude of these self-styled theologians. Even though their theology is sound, not all of their fellow Christians are buying into it just yet. God has saved many of them out of idol-worshiping backgrounds; they can’t help but attach great spiritual significance to stone and metal images. When they watch these “stronger” Christians going to idol temples and eating meat at idol feasts, they are tempted to join in themselves. And so they are tempted to worship idols by eating sacrificial meat. Paul declares that in this way, the “stronger” Christians are sinning against their brothers by introducing this temptation; and in so doing, they’re sinning against Christ himself. So Paul concludes, “If food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (v 13). He’s willing to give up his right to eat meat if it will tempt other Christians to sin.

In chapter 9, Paul expands on this teaching, explaining how he has given up his rights as an apostle to be supported financially and to bring a wife along with him on his journeys. He even adapts himself to the culture of the people to whom he is preaching the gospel. Paul is willing to give up his rights for the sake of the gospel, so that unbelievers will see Christ and believers will remain in Christ.

Principle #2: Flee from idolatry

As we reach chapter 10, Paul turns back to the “stronger” Christians and begins to warn them about the road they’re walking down. They’re very willing to associate with idol worship—and they’re playing with fire. Paul reminds them that the Israelites made the same mistake. They succumbed to idol worship, and the Corinthians are no better than they were. So Paul warns them, “Flee from idolatry” (v 14).

Here’s where he turns the tables on the Corinthian theologians. They aren’t totally correct in saying that an idol is an empty statue. It’s true that gods like Zeus and Apollos don’t exist, but the fact is that demons are lurking behind the images of these false gods. The pagans at these temples don’t realize it, but they are worshiping evil spirits. So when these Corinthians sit down at the idol feasts, they are participating in a sort of “communion service” with demons. “Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy?” Paul asks them (v 22).

All the Corinthian believers agreed that offering sacrifices to idols is sin. Paul is telling them that participating in these idol feasts is sin as well. Christians should not connect themselves to idolatry but rather flee from it. They must not join unbelievers in the improper worship of anyone or anything other than God.

Principle #3: Embrace what is good

Now Paul turns to the issue of meat found in the marketplace. Usually, a buyer would have no way of knowing whether the meat had been sacrificed. Based on Principle #2, we might expect Paul to say that Christians should avoid buying any meat. But he doesn’t! Instead, he reminds us that “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof” (v 26). God made these animals to serve as food, and no pagan perversions will be able to change the goodness of this food. Outside of the context of idol feasts, this meat is perfectly good to eat. Only if it bothers another Christian’s conscience should a believer abstain from eating (Principle #1). Otherwise, Paul urges Christians not only to eat the meat, but to enjoy it and give thanks to God for it! He doesn’t want the “weaker” Christians to remain weak forever. He wants them to embrace what God has created as good.

So, those are the three principles that we will use to construct a Christian’s response to yoga. Tune in tomorrow when we apply them to this issue!

Yoga: a biblical response (Part 1 of 4)

Al Mohler, the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is a man whose biblical wisdom I respect. So it attracted my attention today when he wrote an analysis of yoga with this conclusion:

When Christians practice yoga, they must either deny the reality of what yoga represents or fail to see the contradictions between their Christian commitments and their embrace of yoga. […] Christians who practice yoga are embracing, or at minimum flirting with, a spiritual practice that threatens to transform their own spiritual lives into a “post-Christian, spiritually polyglot” reality.

Now, the reason that Mohler’s article caught my attention is because I’m about a month into the popular P90X workout program. Of the twelve workout DVDs, one of them is titled “Yoga X”, which trainer Tony Horton advocates because “it gives you strength, flexibility, coordination, and balance, plus calmness of mind.” If Mohler’s conclusions are sound, I could not continue to do this workout. I’m okay with that; in fact, I was suspicious of it when I started P90X because of yoga’s origins in Eastern religions that would lead me away from Jesus Christ and a Christian worldview.

But even though I share Mohler’s concern about yoga, I can’t agree with his conclusions. The main weakness in Mohler’s approach to yoga is that he doesn’t turn to the Bible to see how God says we should respond to practices that may be “borrowed” from other religions. Like Zach Nielsen and others whom I see responding to Mohler’s article, I believe that a Christian should approach yoga with more nuance than “don’t do it.”

So here’s the (tentative!) plan: tomorrow we’ll take a look at 1 Corinthians 8–10, in which Paul talks the church in Corinth through a similar controversy. The next day, we’ll see how the principles we learned from Paul’s letter are significant to a Christian’s approach to yoga. Finally, I’ll end with an example—how I plan to respond to this teaching in my own life situation.

I’d love to read your comments on this series if you have insights into the Eastern and Western approaches to yoga or if you have thoughts on how the Bible addresses this important issue. And if you want to insult me for my yoga/yogurt pun, that’s fair too.