Ever thought about whether Happy Baby, Half-Moon, Rag Doll, and Gorilla were consistent with your faith? Or even had anything to do with it at all? I happen to be someone who likes how my body feels after Warrior 3 and Plow. I’m also the same person who wrote a letter to my school board expressing concern over some yoga and meditation practices I saw creeping into our public schools. Yoga has many contexts, many types of instructors, and people who practice it for all different reasons.
So I’d say the answer to “can Christians practice yoga?” is ….Yes, But. Only if you’ve actually thought about what you’re doing.
Yoga is most closely associated with Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism. Many who practice it in an Eastern religious context use it with meditation and as part of achieving the spiritual goals of unity with God and nature as well as unity with what is called your “divine self.” Trouble for Christians is, the Bible says we meditate on God’s Word, that we are not divine in ourselves and that God and nature could never be one.
So can we still do Airplane pose?
Some of us just like to align, lengthen, and strengthen our entire body with yoga because the physical benefits of yoga are for real. I know for sure that yoga was the reason my feet actually stopped hurting when I get out of bed in the morning! For years as a runner, I’ve tried to find ways to stretch all the things that tighten up when you run, and boy do I feel better after 10 Down-Dogs and some Pigeon.
Religious leaders that practice yoga as part of Hindu and Eastern religions do typically make separations between “real” yoga guided by a guru for spiritual enlightenment vs. merely physical postures might still give body-health benefits. The religious teachings espoused by these belief systems are definitely in conflict with the teachings of Jesus and the writings of the Bible. Christian faith would never accept the idea that God and nature could ever be one.
There is a Creator and his creation. The creation is not to be worshipped.
Christian scriptures also teach that the physical body of Christ-followers is a temple for the Holy Spirit through faith in Jesus. Only the Holy Spirit is divine (because he’s God!), but humans do not possess their own divinity without Him. Christians also do not believe you need to achieve an extra level of enlightenment to be united to God. We are one with Him because of the presence of his Spirit in us at the point we come to truly believe in the saving power of the death and resurrection of Jesus. That means, if we have faith in Christ, we are one with God in the grocery store and one at work and one while we are sleeping.
Because God is so good, He’s given a whole lot of grace and wisdom to people who will never know, love, or follow him—just to make our lives on earth liveable and good. His knowledge, grace, and help are everywhere in our world for us to find and use to live well. I believe that includes the knowledge of muscles, stretching, and overall health from yoga movements.
Where the Bible is silent (and, if you were wondering, it doesn’t say anything about our modern-day yoga practices), I use my freedom and wisdom from Christ to determine what is consistent with my faith—just like I’m gonna use Extended-Side-Angle to strengthen my core. I personally don’t believe simply putting my body into a Triangle shape means I subscribe to an entire belief system. I just think it stretches my inner thighs really well.
If you want to follow Jesus and do yoga—you can’t stop short of thinking through the implications of what yoga means to you and what you’re actually doing when you practice it.
For some, any yoga practice might be a bad idea if you aren’t standing on a strong foundation of good teaching in your faith. It can be confusing as there are many appealing spiritual ideas presented in most yoga practices. It would be easy to accidentally swallow conflicting beliefs and philosophies to your Christian faith without even knowing it: these can really muddy the waters of trying to follow Jesus.
Good counsel, discernment from the Holy Spirit, and a pretty clear understanding of Jesus are needed if you enter a yoga class as a Christian. Religion would love to replace this discernment process with a hard-and-fast-rules like “never do a bent arm-stretching pose because it looks like Cactus, and that’s bad.” I say no to that.
Here’s how I handle yoga to be consistent with my faith: I make a hard separation between the physical and spiritual practice.
I don’t and wouldn’t accept spiritual leadership from the vast majority of those teach traditional yoga, but I am grateful for their knowledge of the health of my body. I’m sure that drawing this hard line might be offensive to some yogis, but I’m OK with that. I will not follow teachers who try to lead me into meditation and their own spiritual practices while doing yoga. Honestly, this keeps me out of many classes and away from many instructors who embrace the religious philosophies and language underneath true yoga. Even though this is my conviction, I also don’t freak out if I finish a YouTube video, and the instructor says “Namaste,” I can handle it and move on.
There are plenty of people who practice physical yoga poses for the body benefits. I’ve had good luck finding some on YouTube (especially ones with ‘minimal cues.’) I’ve also had luck trying more power-yoga practices for strength-training at the gym. When a big place has a variety of instructors, I can usually find one with a non-spiritual focus. Also, now that I know the poses better, I can make up my own sequences and just do those post-run. It takes a little more legwork, but I decided it was best for me not to be in classes where spiritual leadership is happening.
I have a friend who feels differently: she feels like she can be there and simply not participate in those pieces. She says she talks to Jesus when she’s told to do something else. I have another friend who attends only yoga classes led by Christian instructors. I have yet another friend who completely avoids yoga altogether and advocates that others do the same. I believe yoga is an issue where we are free to reach different decisions alongside others who are following Jesus.
Before your next hot yoga class (I hate those, btw—I feel like my head is going to explode!) or your next Down-Dog, why not consider what you really believe about it? Maybe talk to God. Talk to some trusted friends. Draw some lines. Be someone whose faith actually informs even everyday things like a yoga class. And, at the end of every class, don’t forget to throw in my favorite pose, “Lay on the Floor and Don’t Move.”