The practice of yoga as a fitness regime has become increasingly popular in recent years. Boasting physical benefits such as increased strength and flexibility, improved circulation and lower stress levels, yoga undoubtedly has much to offer.
But yoga is more than just a physical exercise; in fact, the physical aspect of yoga is designed to bring the mind into a state for meditation. The word “yoga” indicates a joining or yoking together of body and mind, and the purpose of yoga’s physical poses is to bring the spirit and body into such a unity. Because of yoga’s spiritual roots, Christians should approach it with awareness and discernment—as we should with all our decisions. Below are some facts to consider before beginning a yoga practice.
All information below was researched via secular websites by professional yogis and yoginis.
What is the philosophy of yoga?
Yoga is not a religion; it doesn’t center around a god figure, which makes it palatable to people of many different belief systems. However, yoga’s spiritual philosophy depends on the supremacy of the individual. Self-knowledge guides the practice of bringing the body and mind into oneness. Some yoga teachers emphasize a oneness with the earth in addition to unity within oneself.
For serious yogis, yoga isn’t just a bunch of fun poses to do on the beach. Yoga has a goal. This is called moshka.
Moshka is finding freedom from earthly suffering and samsara (the cycle of birth and death through reincarnation): “…in all schools of yoga, the goal of the practitioner is the attainment of perfect tranquility and spiritual insight while meditating on Brahman (the Hindu concept of divinity).” (Source) Though yoga is not a Hindu-specific exercise, there are multiple spiritual connections between yoga’s spiritual practice and Hindu, Buddhist and New Age worldviews.
Can the spiritual and physical aspects of yoga be separated?
The spiritual roots of yoga—or anything else we practice on a regular basis—are important because our spiritual allegiance is to Christ alone. Christians recoil at the idea of worshipping in a temple to a secular god, but don’t always make the connection between “harmless” hobbies that boast a spiritual viewpoint contrary to the Christian faith. Whether we like it or not, a spiritual war is being fought in our world. We are called to take seriously the faith we hold and live it out in every part of our lives.
That said, can the spiritual part of yoga be ignored and only the physical part practiced? In some cases, this may be so. While the poses have significance when used in the context of a yoga class or serious practice, many of the poses themselves cross over into nonspiritual exercise regimes like Pilates.
Some Christians have set out to adapt yoga by creating a Christian version of it. Sites like Holy Yoga, WholyFit and Christians Practicing Yoga seek to create an alternative to the secular yoga practice that integrates true worship and gospel truth into the exercise. Rather than using yoga to enter into secular meditation, they use passages of Scripture, worship music and prayer in conjunction with the poses.
The real answer to the question of whether the spiritual and physical aspects of yoga can be separated lies in 1 Corinthians 8. In this passage, Paul discusses the morality of meat sacrificed to idols, which was a pressing issue for the Corinthian church:
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. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do. (v. 7-8)
Paul is saying that food, in and of itself, does us no harm—even if its spiritual connection is a secular one. However, he adds an important caveat:
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? (v. 9-10)
The concern with practicing yoga as a Christian is not so much how it affects us as how it affects our witness. There are weaker Christians and seekers who don’t understand the spiritual aspect of yoga, believing that the Christian faith can coincide with Hindu and Buddhist philosophies. As Christians we need to be aware and discerning about whether our habits—even healthy ones like exercise—reveal that we are dedicated to Christ alone. As we dedicate ourselves to pursuing Him in every area, His Spirit will guide us into a lifestyle that proclaims the gospel and will assure us of the right path.