I do yoga. I am a Christian.
This doesn’t bother me or seem like a contradiction. I avoid yoga teachers that give me “the creeps,” I’m so much healthier than I was before I started yoga (physically and in terms of dealing with anxiety), and far as I can tell it hasn’t had any sort of negative effect on my walk with God. But it bothers other Christians, so I don’t post about yoga on Facebook and rarely talk about it except with friends who I know also practice yoga.
Last week, a friend posted a link to this article: New Age, Occultism, and Our Children in Public Schools, which is an excerpt about yoga and meditation from the book How to Protect Your Child From the New Age and Spiritual Deception by Berit Kjos. In general, I tend to think writers like this are over-reacting in how they talk about yoga. Proponents of natural healing don’t refuse to use a medicinal herb because it was once linked with a religious healing ritual, so why should I worry that the asanas (physical movements of yoga) have roots in Eastern religions?
And yet, my research on the background of yoga has been cursory until very recently. I knew there were aspects of yoga that I was comfortable with (e.g. the movements and focused breathing) and aspects I was not (e.g. transcendental mediation), but I hadn’t done much study of the history and all the practices involved if you fully embrace all levels of yoga. Before I really responded to my fellow, genuinely concerned, Christians, I had to know more.
Brief History of Yoga
The history of yoga is long, pre-dating written records. My own research so far is limited to what I’ve found online, rather than seeking out history of yoga books (which would be more reliable, but I’m not sure I want to deepen my understanding quite that much). This “History of Yoga” article by Timothy Burgin seems to provide a concise overview that agrees with other sources I’ve come across.
Yoga went through several phases, but what we think of as modern yoga really started with Patanjali’s Yoga-Sûtras, outlining the 8 limbs of yoga. After that, yoga started to get farther away from a single religion and became more of a lifestyle focused on connecting mind, body, and spirit. The movements that most Westerns think of as yoga also emerged around this time, and is now called Hatha Yoga.
- Update Dec. 2020: I recently learned of scholarship which indicates the physical movements now called “yoga” in the Western world arose separately from “spiritual yoga” that’s more closely associated with eastern religion. Postural yoga most likely comes from a 19th-century Scandinavian practice called “primitive gymnastics.” You can read more about that here: “The Ancient & Modern Roots of Yoga” by Mark Singleton, Feb. 4, 2011.
The Sûtras, or limbs, of Classical Yoga are still highly influential to modern yoga practices, and studying them is where I started to clarify what aspects of yoga I’m okay with and which ones I’m not. Click here to read an article with a detailed description of each, or stay here for a quick overview:
- Yama — focuses on how we conduct ourselves and holds the practitioner to an ethical standard of nonviolence, truthfulness, not stealing, self-control and noncovetousness.
- Niyama — has to do with self-discipline and spirituality. It involves cleanliness, contentment, the study of sacred scriptures, knowing oneself, and surrender to the divine.
- Asana — the postures and movements that come to mind when most people talk about “yoga.”
- Pranayama — uses breath control to rejuvenate and connect breath, mind, and emotions. Literally translates as “life force extension.”
- Pratyahara — withdrawal or “sensory transcendence” designed to detach from the outward senses and draw awareness inward. Used to recognize things in the self that are unhealthy or holding one back.
- Dharana — concentration on a “single mental object” to slow down the thinking process. It moves beyond being aware of the self to removing distractions inside the mind.
- Dhyana — meditation as an “uninterrupted flow of concentration.” It involves awareness without focus.
- Samadhi — described by Patanjali as “a state of ecstasy” where “the meditator merges with his or her point of focus and transcends the Self altogether.”
I’m on-board with the first 4 limbs, but I’m more suspicious of the final 4. It’s pretty hard to argue against 1 and 2 as general rules for conduct, there’s nothing wrong with exercise, and the tools of breath control are useful for things like reducing anxiety, singing, and focus. The last four, though, seem more focused on cultivating a spiritual experience that’s not entirely compatible with Christianity.
If we’re thinking of meditation in a non-spiritual sense, numerous studies show that there are definite health benefits to developing tools that help you focus, contemplate, and think. So there is measurable good connected with “meditation” in the sense of learning how to focus your mind and calm your thoughts.
However, many Eastern meditation practices focus on emptying the mind and disconnecting from the body to transcend self and get in touch with the spiritual. This is in stark contrast to Christianity, which has never advocated a practice of disconnecting spirit from the physical body. Though we teach that what makes you “you” is the spirit inside rather than the fleshly temple you reside in, there is no Biblical evidence that Christians should try to separate the two or transcend the body while here on earth.
As Christians, we must learn to live “in the spirit” so our fleshly desires are ruled by our spirits as guided by God’s Spirit, but what we do with our bodies is still important (Gal.5:16-17). The key is “as guided by God’s Spirit.” Our spirits communicate with His and we’re ultimately accountable for exercising self-control and obedience to Him in all aspects of our lives. We must “cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1).
Another way Eastern mediation practices clash with Christianity is that it looks somewhere other than God for answers. Whether it’s getting in touch with the Self or becoming one with the universe, the goal of that sort of meditation is something outside God. Jesus Himself said, “I can of mine own self do nothing” (John 5:30), so what makes us think that we could find answers within our own selves?
There is something called “meditation” in the Bible that Christians should definitely practice. I think that if Satan can’t draw Christians toward something evil, he’ll try to find a way to push them away from something good. We need to be careful that fear of Eastern meditation and New Age spirituality doesn’t keep us from practicing the right kind of meditation.
“Christian meditation opens the mind to the purposes of God by reflection upon Scripture, simply resting in his presence, and dwelling with him in the goodness of his creation. We grow as loving, holy, faithful beings by dwelling in the presence of God. Christian meditation, thus, attempts to fill the mind with the Person, attributes, and purposes of God. Eastern meditation, on the other hand, attempts to empty the mind.” — Gailyn Van Rheenen, “Christian Prayer and Eastern Meditation“
We have plenty of examples of meditation in the Bible. Isaac first met Rebekah on his way to meditate alone in the field at evening (Gen. 24:63), David meditated in his heart about the works and precepts of God (Ps. 49:3; 77:12; 119:15, 23, 97), and Paul counsels Timothy to meditate on things having to do with God’s word, love, the Spirit, faith, exhortation, and doctrine (1 Tim. 4:12-16). Christian meditation doesn’t involve emptying your mind — it involves filling it with God’s word in search of deeper understanding and a closer relationship with Him.
My Final Thoughts
So can Christian’s practice yoga? I’ve been doing so since around 2011 and I’ve seen nothing but good fruits from this mind-body-spirit tool. Yes it’s connected with spirituality, but mostly in the sense that it’s designed to support you in your own spiritual tradition. That’s one reason it’s so important to find a teacher who you’re comfortable with ideologically (I like Yoga With Adriene on YouTube).
However, we could still call yoga a “gray area” because, while it’s not forbidden, some Christians still believe it is wrong. In this case, I think Romans 14:22-23 applies. If you feel convicted that yoga is wrong, then don’t do it. If you can practice yoga exercises while staying strong in the faith, go for it. Whether or not you do yoga is personal choice based on your own convictions.
What about meditation? Some Christians practice a form of mindful meditation that they use to help themselves focus and relax, and I don’t see anything wrong with that. But I don’t think transcendental meditation is compatible with Christianity. Its goals are not in line with drawing nearer to God and it is connected with a different model of religious spirituality.
I guess the basic principle I’m talking about in this conclusion is that “the Lord looks on the heart.” He knows your motivations for meditating, practicing yoga, or whatever else it is you’re doing. Just make sure your beliefs line up with His word.
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