Is Yoga Safe for Christians?

October 13, 2010

One of the exercises I have begun to cherish is yoga. After sitting at a desk all day, my back or shoulders may be tight, and the stretches I learned in middle school gym class don’t really cut it. So, when we bought a Wii Fit I started doing the yoga to stretch several times a week and it has helped tremendously with my sore and tight spots, as well as getting me more in tune with how my body is connected.

This unfortunately, in the eyes of Al Mohler, makes me a wishy-washy Christian on a road to pagan-Christian syncretism:

“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. Should any Christian willingly risk that?” (The Subtle Body: Should Christians Practice Yoga?

Mohler is saying yoga is unsafe for a Christian’s spirituality, which I find off base for my own yoga exercises, which consist of a video game and a balance board. No chanting. No meditation or emptying of the mind. Just stretching that works better than simply touching your toes and rolling my neck around like I did in gym class.  However, Mohler reminds me that this view of the physicality of yoga is wrong: “There is nothing wrong with physical exercise, and yoga positions in themselves are not the main issue. But these positions are teaching postures with a spiritual purpose.” Mohler, is pointing out that the physical exercise in yoga is spiritual, even when I am just exercising. This point I simply don’t understand. Exercise can be harmful or helpful to our spiritual life, depending on our relationship to our body image and eating habits, but using yoga for exercise in and of itself is not sinful.

There is a gymnasium on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary campus, where Mohler is president. It consists of various weight machines and benches, as well as saunas, treadmills, free weights and other exercise machines.  This is not a Christian method of exercising. We got all those saunas and free weights from the Greeks and Romans. You know, those pagans who worshiped multiple deities and burned Christians on the stake. Those people. So how can we accept one pagan method of exercise over another? We can’t, and we shouldn’t, for this is exercise. Just as when I lift weights I am not buying into Greco-Roman mystery religions or gnosticism, I am not participating in Hindu religious practice when I do yoga. I am just exercising.

Now some Christian adherents to yoga should take heed to the warning that Mohler gives concerning the spiritual components that may be included in yoga classes. Just as we don’t exercise to purge the body in a gnostic fashion, we should not participate in another religion’s spiritual practices. But, we should not stray from the physical as Mohler suggests. Mohler argues “Christians are not called…to see the human body as a means of connecting to and coming to know the divine.” What Mohler is saying is not Christian Instead, his view of the physical is leaning towards gnosticism. A Christian understanding of the body is that it is the image of God. God formed humanity out of the dust of the earth: very physical stuff. We are connected to God through the combination of our spirituality and physicality—the two cannot be separated. Jesus himself connected to God and knew God through his physical body, and his act of redemption for us was death and resurrection in the flesh. And when Jesus comes again, the kingdom and the resurrection will be both a physical and spiritual reality.

So is yoga safe for Christians? If it is treated as exercise, certainly so. But like anything, if it becomes something that leads us away from the kingdom of God, then it is not good. Turning anything other than Christ’s gospel into a religion is to go astray, and that applies to exercise as well as to shopping, gardening, sex, or work. In reality, what is truly unsafe for the Christian is the dichotomy between physical and spiritual that Mohler espouses, to not allow our physical bodies to participate in the worship of God. Let us pray every day that God not only renews our minds, but that he also establishes the works of our hands, the physical work we accomplish each day with our physical bodies as an act of worship before God, as we look to him who came in the flesh for us.

Thomas

Thomas

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Thomas Turner has been blogging on Everyday Liturgy for the past six years. He enjoys reading, writing, cooking and gardening.

4 responses to Is Yoga Safe for Christians?

  1. I’d like to reinforce the idea that the western mind likes to place a great divide between the physical and spiritual. The truth is that this great divide is platonic at best, and pagan. Biblical philosophy sees physical and spiritual as two parts of the same thing, one inside the other — one visible, one invisible. As western christians, we like to take the Matrix view of physical vs. spiritual — that physical is not “real” but spiritual is.

    Physical is just as real as spiritual, and is as much a part of us as our spiritual selves. (note: I speak of Physical as our bodies, as distinct from what scripture calls the “Flesh” — which is our natural [sinful] tendancy/desire).

    All of that said, I think I agree with you about Yoga, Thomas. I’m not convinced that engaging in Yoga stretches necessarily involves a NEGATIVE or DANGEROUS spiritual impact. By Mohler’s logic, most martial arts and sex positions are wrong, too. Perhaps the spiritual significance of our otherwise “neutral” physical actions are determined by our relationship with God?

    This is an interesting topic — because it begs some practical questions, such as: “At which point IS Yoga wrong?” “How do I know if any other activity that might be linkable to paganism is wrong?”

  2. The practice of yoga poses has brought increased flexibility and strength to my physical body which in turn allows me to better engage in and give of myself to the lives of others around me.

    I wonder if the gymnasium at SBTS has mirrors all around like every other weight room in the Western world? The Greeks loved to overemphasize (worship) the physical body. Could it be that the practice of yoga which can create a space for our hearts and souls to be reflected out actually help bring balance to our overemphasis on the physical body?

    Good response, Thomas.

  3. I think it is safe when practiced in the manner you mention. My church actually started hosting a “Christian” yoga class this fall-intended to encourage physical health & also help break down some of the physical/spiritual dichotomy. Yet I still hear some concern about this from a few in my wider church community-even though this class practices yoga from a Christian perspective. The word “yoga” itself seems to be an obstacle for some.

    I also appreciate how you bring out the Greco-Roman roots of popular exercises-I never hear the yoga detractors mention that (maybe if it’s “Western” it’s ok?). Thanks for this post.

  4. Chris has a good point — our American mind is inheritor to “western” philosophy in so many ways. Our language is concept-based, not action based (as is Hebrew), which shapes so much of how we read scripture (even the Greek scripture, which was written by Hebrew minds). We inherit such philosophies as the strict separation of the visible and invisible, if we understand something we can surpass/ignore/control it, and mental assent is equal to or a replacement for action/behavior.

    These are all dangerous Greek ways of thinking which we have inherited by tradition of culture — yet most Christians don’t think twice about them since they are basically pre-programmed into us. However, I think Chris is right that we are naturally more suspicious about Eastern concepts, as they are unfamiliar, and our “old-fashioned” (Greek) Church upbringing has taught us that Eastern stuff is necessarily bad.

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