Monday, 10 February 2014

Yoga: Can it be redeemed?

Reginald Rivett over at Christian Thought Sandbox posted a great blog today titled, "Can this be redeemed too?" In the blog, Reggie aptly draws an analogy about the evolution and acceptance of Rock n' Roll music in the church. There was a time when the church had hostility towards the genre of Rock n' Roll. There were many that declared it, "the devils music". There was a change with people like Larry Norman who asked, "Why should the devil have all the good music?" Reggie believes that it's people like Mr. Norman that paved the way for the church to not only have a less hostile attitude towards different genre's; but to redeem it as its own. 

Droff: A guitar player from Hillsong Church
I couldn't agree more. I think church music as a whole has improved with additions of many different musical genres. I must confess to a personal bias: I love rock n roll. A majority of the music in my iTunes library is rock or is in some way related to rock n roll. I also confess to spending considerable time playing electric guitar each week at church! 

Reggie then asks a critical question for which he named his blog post: "Can yoga be redeemed?" It's a great question that deserves some reflection. If rock n' roll can 'get saved', can we say the same about Yoga? This is the question that I am going to spend the remainder of this blog pondering about. 

This is definitely a heated issue for some in the church today. It's an issue that I have no personal investment in, as I have never done Yoga myself, but I do have friends and family that have participated in "Christian Yoga." I have had a few conversations over the years regarding this issue with those who oppose any Christian conception of Yoga. 

I tend to first ask: "Is stretching and physical exercise  wrong?", to which everyone has responded, "No".  

The next question I ask: Is prayerful meditation wrong?" The answer that I receive is "No". 

Then of course my counter question is, "Can I combine prayer and a variety exercises that include positions that are similar to Yoga?". You would think that the answer should logically be "Yes, you can", but I almost never receive that reply. 

What is fascinating to me is that the underlying issues that are brought up to tell me why I am or others are prevented from prayerful meditation and stretching. The biggest objection I have come across: Yoga originates from the East as a form of worship in Buddhism and Hinduism and is therefore inherently irredeemable. Pastor Mark Driscoll summarizes this objection, "Yoga is a religious philosophy that is in direct opposition to Christianity. Thus, in its true form, yoga cannot be simply received by any Christian in good conscious."[1]

Here is where I agree with Pastor Mark. If by Yoga, you mean blindly embrace all tenants of Hinduism, then of course that is antithetical to Christian practice. But from what I can tell those who practice "Christian Yoga" are not trying to promote an idolatrous  synergism. A Christian approach to Yoga is not Yoga "in its true form". It's also likely that your common Yoga class at the community centre is likely not Yoga in "its true form". Doireann Fristoe explains, 
Most Yoga currently practiced in [Western culture] only slightly resembles the original practice. In fact, most of what we call yoga in the West is not truly yoga at all—it is only asana, the physical postures, and pranayama, the breathing exercises. There are myriad schools of thought in modern yoga and to sum all of them up in a few paragraphs would do them no justice. Hinduism involves yoga; all yoga is not Hinduism.[2] 
Can we incorporate asana and pranayama into the Christian's practices of prayer, contemplation and meditation? Here even Driscoll gives us middle ground at the end of long article denouncing Yoga, "feel free in Christian liberty to stretch however you’d like, participate in exercise, calm your nerves through breathing, and even contemplate the Scriptures in silence. But do so in a way that does not identify with yoga and non-Christian mysticism."[3] It appears to me that the issue behind the issue is the inherent 'foreignness' of the term "yoga", which literally translates as 'yoke'. Call it "prayer & stretching" and everyone is okay with it. Call it 'Christian Yoga' or 'Holy Yoga' and there is a visceral gut reaction to the 'otherness' of the term despite the disassociation from any cultic practices and world views. 

 The second issue I have encountered: "Yoga's physical positions allow for the influence of the demonic." I am told that assuming the physical poses can allow demonic influence in your life. Objectors suggest that when you participate in Yoga, even Yoga that is based in Christian prayer and worship, you are unknowing worshiping demons and idols. 

I am critical of the claim that a Christians can unknowingly worship a demon (idol or 'god'). It seems like a bit of stretch too me. (excuse the pun) I don't think the Apostle Paul buys this claim either as evidenced in the first letter to the Corinthians. When asked about eating meat sacrificed to idols Paul says:
"So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live." -1 Corinthians 8:4-6 
Paul does not think eating meat that has been offered to an idol somehow defiles the Christian by consuming that meat. Paul believes this to be true because through Christ all things came and through Christ we live. (v6) God is Creator of the meat, not the idol god. So it appears that by thinking the meat is defiled might be giving credit where credit is not due. How is this connected to the Yoga discussion? Let me suggest that because our bodies came from God, and thereby any physical actions necessitated with having a body (i.e. eating, stretching, sitting, laying), I am in no danger of worshiping an idol. (I am of course not including actions done with the body, such as adultery or gluttony, within this category of normal human physicality.) A Christian who does a Yoga pose (like the downward facing dog) is no more in danger of worshiping an idol (demon/god) than a non-Christian is of worshiping YHWH by raising their hands upward in a yawn or of giving a gift at Christmas time. 

To sum up my answer: If I can eat meat (a physical action) that is sacrificed to idols and still be faithful to Christ; cannot I not also assume a yoga position (a physical action) in prayer and worship to Jesus without worry of unknowingly worshiping an idol? To say "No" seems to suggest a frightening perspective that Christ is NOT "through whom all things came"(v6). Worse, it seems to suggest the equivalent of 'spiritual cooties'- the idea that I might catch evil through accidental encounter. "Mere possession of idols or consumption of food sacrificed to them cannot be detrimental unless one adds acts of religious devotion to the mix." [4] So my answer is: Yes, we can redeem Yoga, the asana: the physical postures, and pranayama: the breathing exercises, and direct our worship, prayer, and meditation to the Triune God. 

BUT...(and this is important).
"Not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled."- 1 Corinthians 8:7
Paul understands that there are those who are weak in conscience. They are what Paul describes as those who are "weak in faith" in Romans 14-15. What is our reaction to those who do not agree with our assessment that Yoga can be redeemed? Paul goes on to tell us:
"Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall." 1 Corinthians 8:9-13
Paul teaches us that we need to: 

1. Be careful in the exercise our freedom. (v9) 
2. We should not encourage others to violate their conscience by our actions. (v10) 
3. Wounding and damaging someone's weak conscience is a sin against Christ. (v12)
4. We should be prepared to deny ourselves our freedoms in order to prevent a brother or sister from falling into sin. (v13)

So does this mean that we should jettison the idea of a "Christian Yoga" in order to risk offending others? Not quite.What Paul isn't saying is to watch out against offending people. Paul is telling us not to put a stumbling block in the path of the weak in faith. The question we need to ask is: Who are the weaker brothers and sisters? 

 "The key issue in applying verses 7-13 involves recognizing those who truly have weak consciences. Nothing in the context justifies an association of 'weaker brothers/sisters' with those who are merely offended by a particular practice, notwithstanding the misleading translation of verse 13 in the KJV ("if meat make my brother to offend"). Even less justified is the application of theses principals to the "professional weaker brother"- the Christians legalist eager to forbid morally neutral activities even though he or she would never personally indulge in those activities. Rather, the weaker brother or sister is the Christian who is likely to imitate a stronger believer in some morally neutral practice but feel guilty about doing so or, worse still, be led into that which is inherently sinful or destructive. The strong believer's freedom thus actually has damaging consequences for the spiritual growth and maturation of the weaker sibling. Jack Kuhatschek points out that an adequate analogy to 1 Corinthians 8 must have three elements: (a) a threat to Christian freedom; (b) a potential stumbling block; and (c) a Christian brother or sister who might actually be led into sin. 
 Application of verses 7-13 must also leave room for 10:25-30, in which Paul will stress the freedom of the "strong" more pointedly than he does here. If the strong should not hurt the weak, neither should the weak accuse the strong of sin. Romans 14:1-15:13, Paul's other major teaching passage on the topic, carefully balances these two commands. "[5]
To wrap this up: I think it is totally possible to redeem 'yoga'- the asana and pranayama -within a Christian spirituality and worldview. I also acknowledge that this is a "meat topic" - a morally neutral issue. There are those who by their consciences could never participate with any activity, even if 'redeemed' , that associates itself with the term 'yoga'. I get that and would never think of less of someone who holds that position. It might be better, as Driscoll suggests, for Christians to ditch the word "Yoga" altogether to avoid any confusion and controversy. As with all things in Christian ethics, our approach should be grounded in love for other above ourselves. I am with the Apostle Paul when he says:
 Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.- 1 Corinthians 10:32-33

The last words I will give to Bruxy Cavey:

 Works Cited
4.Blomburg, Craig. The NIV Application Commentary: 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, Location 3540 (e-version)
5. ibid 


  1. Great post! Was just in a conversation with someone in our church about this concern. Pretty much relayed the same idea to her. To be honest I think you said it much better then I did. ;)

    I will be sharing this post with them and I plan on doing a post myself on that conversation and I'll be ref this post. I'll post the link to you once that is done.

  2. I often struggled with this conflict as well. And I like your analogy to Rock n’ Roll music and the church which makes me laugh because I see the same thing occurring these days with rap music and the extremely talented Christian rap artists in the music scene.

    But I do think what is often overlooked with Christians who do yoga is that this IS NOT an “art form” like a musical genre (i.e. rock n’roll, rap) that is being redeemed for Christ. Instead, this is ANOTHER religions’s “spiritual practice” that we are trying to redeem for Christ. For what it’s worth, Yoga has and always will be a “Hindu spiritual practice” with a unique and powerful system/sequence of physical poses, breathing exercises and meditation that allow us to “unite” or yoke with our God-consciousness (or as some say the Hindu god , Brahman). This is what yoga was originally intended for and as someone who used to do it regularly, it’s very powerful in creating a state of “relaxation” or better yet, an altered state of consciousness. That its purpose which isn’t completely aligned with how the bible tells us to meditate and “connect” with Him.

    Some Christians have tried to redeem this and say “Well I can pray/focus on God while doing yoga, etc” or “I can just do the stretching” which is true. But at the same time, I would rather see it called something else like “Christian stretching and meditation” rather than Christian Yoga. When you call something yoga, it IS yoga and has the power to confuse people. If you’re praying to God while doing yoga, than really you’re just stretching, breathing and meditating on Him…you’re NOT doing yoga so call it something else :)

    I don’t need to yoga to get to an altered state of consciousness to connect more fully with my God, which is why I no longer do it. I no longer participate in yoga-like practices that call for passively “emptying my mind” but instead focus on actively “renewing my mind”. Again, the system of yoga traditionally goes against our Christian beliefs but I don’t believe stretching, breathing and meditating are in and of themselves bad. If we want to redeem the postures and breathing, I’m all for it but it shouldn’t use the same name or systems of movements as yoga since again we’re just creating confusion and “stealing” from another religion’s way of worshiping their god. Just my thoughts ;)

    1. Rock n' Roll, or any musical genre, is more than an art form. As a guitarist myself, I can tell you that there is a huge physicality to playing music. I ring out the same chords, bend the same notes, and sing in the same keys as many other musicians. This can all have the appearance that I'm in a rock band, but I can assure you that appearances are deceiving!

      Judging by your comment, it appears you just have an issue with the name; which I all in favour of calling it something else. But I might suggest that you start calling the days of the week something else as well. For example tomorrow is Thursday. The English word Thursday is named after the Norse god of thunder, Thor. Thursday literally means “Thor's day” in Old English. Thor is represented riding a chariot drawn by goats and wielding the hammer. Now, are you worshiping Thor by using the term Thursday? Just a thought.;)

      In your last paragraph you mention "systems of movement". I am curious what you mean by this? If you mean for instance, a Christian can't do a 'downward dog' type motion, then I think this is problematic. I believe God created the human body, not satan. I should be able to stretch in any way that God designed my body to stretch. Telling a person to 'avoid the appearance' of a certain movement, I believe, is to give too much credit to satan. An example of this is my wife. She has scoliosis and has to regularly stretch to manage the constant back pain. Her doctors have given her a booklet of stretches and excises to help her mobility. One of those exercises looked EXACTLY like the common yoga position downward facing dog. Should my wife tell her doctor she can't form that position because satan has corrupted it forever? Or can she stretch her body in the way God created her too?

    2. Hey Paul, thanks for the response. I think you may have misunderstood me slightly. I agree, we have the freedom to stretch in any way we like without fear of condemnation. For example, I stretch everyday and do plenty of downward dogs and upward facing dogs positions. I'm not doing yoga, I'm just stretching :)

      So it's not what the movement looks like but rather the intent behind it. However, if I willingly join a yoga class, then I'm not just "stretching" anymore but rather participating in the practice of something that has a different purpose and intent. The series and sequences of movements of a yoga class (from start to finish) are meant to get you to a level of complete relaxation and a deep state of meditation for the purpose of "yoking" with your God-consciousness (as I mentioned before). That's where the Hindus nailed it. They created a "series" of movements in conjunction with breathing techniques and meditative cues that will lead people in this practice of self-submission,clearing your mind and body and mentally "checking out". My problem with that remains if you're "checking out" then who or what is "checking in"? That's the power of yoga and the spiritual danger behind it. So again Christians can try to redeem that and pray to God instead (which I have no issue with if they're doing it with a clear heart and conscience), but overall it can be confusing and problematic for believers who don't have a strong relationship with Christ. If you haven't done yoga then I can understand where this point can be missed but I will definitely defend yoga as a powerful way to "clear out your mind" and "check out". However, unfortunately those practices just don't line up with God's word for how we are supposed to use our bodies and connect with him so why are we taking from another religion and using it for our own purposes?

      And you're absolutely right, even though I call tomorrow Thursday, it doesn't mean I'm worshiping Thor. And if I do something that "looks" like yoga, it doesn't mean I'm worshiping a Hindu god. But if I willingly choose to participate in the yoga practice, then I'm doing yoga as it was originally intended by the Hindus ...there's no way around it.. I can't call something yoga and instead do pilates or foam rolling. So that's where my suggestion would be. If you want to use movements that look like yoga and breathing exercises, there's no problem there. But if you're calling it yoga, it's always (at least in my opinion) going to be confused with the original Hindu practice which was never meant and STILL doesn't glorify our God. Like your post mentioned, we have to be mindful of those "weaker in the faith" and that's where I was going with not calling something "yoga" or associating the name with it. As Christians who do yoga-like stretching we're not worshiping a Hindu god so why not call it something else (or come up with something Christian based like the creator of WholyFit?). Anyway, I hope that's clearer!

      I think about it this way -- if I stick my middle finger up at you, it has a bad meaning right? But what if I try to change it's meaning and say "No, no, please don't misunderstand. When I stick my middle finger up at you, it's my way of saying I love you and Hello!"...I think no matter how hard you try, each time I stuck my middle finger up at you, you would be confused LOL...That's how I see things when Christians try to do yoga exactly like the Hindus and just change the names or words to be more Christian friendly. I understand the intention and by no means am I passing judgement...but I do feel it just creates confusion because yoga IS a Hindu spiritual practice in eyes of many people. It's even confusing to me (as a a believer and former yoga practitioner) to call something Holy or Christian yoga. As always, I welcome your thoughts :)

    3. Thanks Daniella for your thoughtful and courteous reply!

      I have a funny story about the about the middle finger thing. When I was living in England I gave a friend of mine a causal "peace sign"(or what I thought was) one day as a parting expression. He didn't think I meant peace, but rather all the implications of the middle finger. I discovered that day that the middle finger also included the index finger as well in English culture. I could try to convince my friend that I meant "peace" but they suggested that I don't keep up that action while living in England. Now back here in Canada, I can give people the peace sign all I want. ;)

      Perhaps that is a good metaphor for our discussion? We need to be sensitive to the culture. I am all for creating and calling 'yoga' something different to help clear up confusion. I think that is wise on your part to suggest that. I just want to be sensitive to those who "live in Canada" and have no problem calling retaining the word yoga. (i.e. Christian Yoga, Holy Yoga) While it may be confusing for us "in England", we need to practice cultural sensitivity to those who choose to label it as so.

    4. That’s a very good point about culture sensitivity! As we come across people of different cultures and mindsets, it’s important to keep in mind how we can win people to Christ above all. In that case we may need to change our behavior occasionally for the sake of others as Paul brought up in 1 Corinthians 8:9-13 (and as you experienced in England lol)… In the end, if we strive to glorify God in all we do, we’ll be in good “shape” lol ;)