When I was in Middle and High School, I ran track. You wouldn’t know it to look at me now, but we’ll come back to that. Before every practice the entire team would gather to stretch out â€” Runners Stretch, Upward Arch, Downward Arch, Side Bends, etc. The coach would have the team count to ten aloud for each exercise, then we’d go run in circles.
Fifteen years and 50 pounds later, I ordered an exercise DVD I saw on TV. Part of the process included what they referred to as “Yoga.” As it turns out, many of the moves were my track stretches but with different names. Upward Arch was Downward Dog and Side Bend was Warrior One. I assumed Yoga included eastern meditation and emptying my mind, so I was prepared to ignore these components. However, the instructor never instructed me to do so. It was very much like my track workouts. Apparently I was doing a form of Yoga and didn’t know it.
Last year my wife wanted to become a Holy Yoga instructor. As a pastor I wondered how one could make Yoga “Holy.” I was concerned about Yoga’s connections to Hinduism and mystical meditation. More than that, it just freaked me out. It felt wrong but I couldn’t point to anything specific. At this point I remembered one of my favorite Bible teacher’s fondness for quoting Saint Augustine’s statement regarding the finding of truth; one of the obstacles in finding it is the assumption that one has already found it1. I dropped my presuppositions, recognized that I had never really looked into the facts of the case for myself, and did my homework as well as some soul-searching. It turns out that the way one makes Yoga “holy” is the same way one makes anything “holy;” by stripping out the old and making it new2.
By examining the history of the physical postures and breathing exercises of what is commonly known as the spiritual practice of Yoga, and the relevant scriptural examples of contextualization, we can conclude that the postures and breathing exercises can be contextualized as a tool to communicate the gospel and can become Biblically appropriate practices.
How can this be done? The broader question that needs to be asked and answered first is this; are there some situations where a physical thing, action, or process, can be separated from the spiritual meaning that is superimposed upon it, and can that physical action be done without internal or external condemnation, even done in such a way that it is glorifying to God? The Biblical answer is yes, there are such situations.
To eat, or not to eat
In Romans 14 Paul addresses the situation of the eating of meat from an animal that was sacrificed to an idol. Such meat was sold in the marketplace which is where one went grocery shopping. In Rome there were those Christians that concluded that a believer could not make the separation of physical from spiritual. To eat that meat was to participate in the worship of the idol. Toward the middle of the teaching, Paul says, “I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean.”3 In other words, the reality is that eating is just eating, and that the meat is just meat. Yet if someone considers the meat in question unclean, to that person it is unclean and they should not eat it. However, neither the act of eating, nor the meat, is inherently unclean. They can be separated.
Physical action; eating meat. Spiritual action and superimposition; idol worship.
We see here a principle; the eating of meat can be a non-spiritual experience, or one can give thanks for it and make it God-honoring experience. The physical action has been redeemed.
What’s in a name, er, word?
What about Yoga? Can the physical elements of stretching and breathing be separated from the various spiritual elements superimposed upon them? As with the situation in Romans 14, the answer is yes. The single largest obstacle in this discussion, regardless of which side one is on, is semantics. The word “Yoga” has a wide semantic range and usage. Most literally it simply means “yoke” as in “take my yoke upon you.” Today, it can refer to any and all of the varieties of spiritual practices of Yoga, Hindu and otherwise. (Did you know there are forms of Yoga that are a part of eastern and mystical religions outside of Hinduism?) It can also refer to the physical aspects only. As described in the introduction, the physical elements can be given different names, they can even be given the same names, be taught and performed without the spiritual elements, and still be called Yoga.
Are there kinds of Yoga in which Christians should not participate? Absolutely. But not all kinds of Yoga teach the same things or in the same way. That is, in fact, the point; there are different kinds of Yoga.
- According to one secular Yoga instructor, “Nobody owns yoga. Yoga is not a religion. It is a way of life, a method of becoming. We were taught that the roots of yoga go back further than Hinduism itself.”4
- Another Yoga instructor, who is himself a practicing Hindu originally from India, wrote, “The roots of yoga can be traced all the way back to the deep rooted Vedic culture. The main debate is whether these roots can be termed Hindu or not. To me it is basically a question of defining what Hinduism is and how it is commonly understood by most people. Both Shukla and Chopra agree that the terms Hindu and Hinduism are very recent in origin (no more than a few hundred years old).”5
- The American Yoga Association claims, “No one knows exactly when Yoga began, but it certainly predates written history. Stone carvings depicting figures in Yoga positions have been found in archeological sites in the Indus Valley dating back 5,000 years or more. There is a common misconception that Yoga is rooted in Hinduism; on the contrary, Hinduism’s religious structures evolved much later and incorporated some of the practices of Yoga. (Other religions throughout the world have also incorporated practices and ideas related to Yoga.)”6
Putting the principle into practice
Since the physical elements have been superimposed with a variety of meanings by a variety of spiritual systems over the millennia, they have no single inherent spiritual meaning, power, purpose, or expression. They can mean whatever one wants them to mean, or nothing at all, much like the eating of meat. It’s a “chicken and egg” problem. Did the physical forms come first, or the spiritual concepts? There is no way to know. Even if we did, using Romans 14 as a framework, it doesn’t matter.
Physical action; stretching and breathing. Spiritual actions and superimpositions; various.
They can be separated for those who desire to do so. In fact, one can stretch and breath while memorizing scripture and praying. Many believers already run, lift weights, or ride an exercise bike (to nowhere) while doing the same thing. Some find these enjoyable and beneficial things. I’m not one of them, but my doctor says I should be.
The Laws of Libery and Love
With no formal body recognized as the universal authority on what is or isn’t Yoga, everything from poses combined with mystical meditation to getting a good stretch in the same pose, falls under the label of “Yoga.” Paul says, “Do you have faith? Have it to yourself before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves.”7 Since scripture gives us room to approve, and in fact, redeem things like Yoga, we have the liberty to pursue taking care of our bodies with these tools.
If there is a Biblically balanced approach to physical postures, stretching, breathing exercises, combined with scripture meditation and memorization, and there is no authoritative definition of what is or is not Yoga, then Christians should have the liberty to participate in it, or not, regardless of what they call it. If these conclusions are not correct, then all that needs to be done is modify the poses a bit and come up with a different name, at least for those who object to the terms. The scriptural freedom still remains per Romans 14.
I believe that we need a new understanding and point of view. Christians should not practice forms of Yoga that include mystical meditation or other spiritual components that are incompatible with scripture. They should have the freedom to strip the spiritual components from the physical components as Paul demonstrates in Romans 14, and practice them in a redemptive way. As Paul commands in Romans 14, Christians who do participate should not condemn those who do not, nor should they be condemned by those who do not. It should be practiced, or not, in love.
This article was originally submitted as a homework assignment for an online class from an online Christian educational program run by a ministry that I greatly respect. But I failed this class because of this paper. It’s an example of the ever-widening division within Christianity between those who react to those on the other side of the left/right divide by going even further to the left/right. A part of the class is an evaluation from those further along in the program. I’d like to respond to their feedback in the form of a Q&A section below the footnotes.
- Augustine, Saint, and Peter King. Against the Academicians: AND The Teacher. 1st ed. United States: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1995. Print. â†©
- 2 Corinthians 5:17 NKJV “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” â†©
- Romans 14:14 NKJV â†©
- VITELLO, PAUL. â€˜Hindu Group Stirs Debate in Fight for Soul of Yoga’. New York Times 27 Nov. 2010. Web. 17 Mar. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/28/nyregion/28yoga.html?pagewanted=1>. â†©
- Subhash. â€˜Is Yoga Hindu? (Origins of Yoga)’. Yoga with Subhash. N.p., 3 Dec. 2010. Web. 17 Mar. 2015. <http://yogawithsubhash.com/2010/12/03/origins-of-yoga-is-yoga-hindu/>. â†©
- American Yoga Association. â€˜General Yoga Information’. American Yoga Association. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Mar. 2015. <http://www.americanyogaassociation.org/general.html#HistoryofYoga>. â†©
- Romans 14:22 NKJV â†©
Objections to use of scripture, general and specific.
1) “I don’t think your 2 Corinthians 5:17 passage applies to your point.” “â€¨Romans 14 is talking about food and I don’t think you can apply this to something like yoga.” “All Scripture was taken out of context which resulted in inaccurate analysis.” “Scripture used was kind of a ‘stretch’ of context.” “The scriptures were mis-applied.”
2) “Romans 14:14 when taken in context is talking about observing certain days as special and anything that we eat or drink. These were things in the law that we are now free from. We have the freedom to honor the Sabbath, or not, to eat a certain food, or not. Neither is sinful. Then right after this verse, verse 15, Paul states “But if thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not charitably. Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died. Let not then your good be evil spoken of.”â€¨â€¨ Another passage similar to this is in 1 Cor. 8 where we are to not let our freedom to eat food submitted to an idol be a stumbling block for our brother or sister who has weaker faith. Again, only speaking of food.”
These particular people who are making these observations are not being consistent with the training they, and this writer, have been taught. If their own assignments were evaluated with this kind of interpretive model they would also be failed. Sadly, they are guilty of doing the very thing of which they themselves are being critical.
The Bible doesn’t say anything about dating. It doesn’t say anything about driving a car. It doesn’t say anything about voting. It doesn’t say a lot about a lot of things. This is why we need to look at the entirety of Holy Scripture and look for patterns. Patterns lead us to principles. These principles are what we then use to process life and make decisions based on the conviction of the Holy Spirit motivated by love.
How many times have we heard or read Romans 14 used regarding the drinking of alcohol? The principle we are taught is that we shouldn’t drink around those who have a problem with (a) alcohol itself or (b) don’t think Christians should drink at all. I’m mostly sure that these evaluators would make this application of this principle from these passages. But according to their own words, we can only apply them to food? I don’t think so. We see a principle that we can then extend into other areas of our lives, so long as the item in question doesn’t inherently go against scripture. Otherwise, no one could do anything ever because everything is offensive to someone somewhere.
As for the 2 Corinthians 5:17 passage, this is also a “principle” application of the passage. Yes, we are brand new creations in Christ. But we are also being made brand new. This includes seeing the world in a new way, living in it in a new way, redeeming the seemingly unredeemable.
3) “Romans 14:22 is also taken out of context, the verse right before it says “It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak.” Again, it is talking about what you consume, but it also indicates that it is good not to do it if it causes your brother to stumble. So, even if it CAN be done, doesn’t mean it should be done.”
It also says, “16 Therefore do not let your good be spoken of as evil; 17 for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 For he who serves Christ in these things [is] acceptable to God and approved by men. … 22 Do you have faith? Have [it] to yourself before God. Happy [is] he who does not condemn himself in what he approves.” [Rom 14:16-18, 22 NKJV] This person is almost making my point for me. The Apostle Paul isn’t saying that one can never do the things being written about. He is saying that we shouldn’t do them in such a way that it messes with other people’s current place with the Lord. In other words, Paul is saying that one has the freedom to eat or drink, but that they shouldn’t do it in such a way that it throws other believers off the rails. Also overlooked in this conversation is that the one who has a problem with the thing is the “weaker brother” implying that the person is in the process of growing up in maturity in the Lord. It doesn’t make those who feel free in their liberties superior, nor should they lord it over others. The understanding is that the weaker ones will, for lack of a less-harsh sounding phrase, “grow up” in this area.
In this specific situation regarding the practice of non-Eastern yoga, a person who believes it is OK to practice it in such a way that is Jesus-honoring should do so in a way that is similar to consuming alcohol around those who take offense. Don’t flaunt it, but don’t be ashamed of it either. Don’t hide it and make it secret, but don’t shove it in other’s faces. There are always going to be those who condemn and abstain. There will also always be those who think or say, “Suck it. I’m going to do it anyway.” It’s simply Biblically inappropriate to have either attitude.
3) Another verse that needs to be considered here is 1 Thess. 5:22 “Abstain from all appearance of evil.” Calling it “Holy” Yoga, or “Christian” Yoga, is the very definition of the appearance of evil as evidenced by the response of any believer and even some nonbelievers.
This is grossly taken out of context. If one were to “abstain from all appearances of evil” then one could never drink Coke or Pepsi because one or the other (or both) are owned by the Mormons. One could never watch any kind of entertainment. I mean, let’s be real, those Left Behind movies were just evil to my movie loving senses. (For the record, I do believe in the pre-trib rapture of the church, those movies just stunk.) 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22 are all a part of one thought. In context, Paul is exhorting the brand new baby Christian Thessalonians to stay away from false expressions of spiritual gifts. “[1Th 5:19-22 NKJV] 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise prophecies. 21 Test all things; hold fast what is good. 22 Abstain from every form of evil.