None of us have to look long and far to find a yoga class. Billboards, social media ads, and signs all point us to nearby yoga classes at gyms, recreation centers, and schools. And there seems to be no shortage of variants, as we can opt for hot yoga, goat yoga, or even Christian yoga.
Christian yoga? Is that even possible? Are Christians permitted to practice yoga, and if so, which forms of yoga are safe?
Christians are not permitted to practice yoga. Yoga, in all its forms, contains spiritual and physiological elements that dishonor God’s desire for our lives and for our bodies. Even varieties of yoga that contain no obvious spiritual practices can introduce harmful effects.
Proceeding with Grace
Before proceeding, we must understand that this is a deeply debated topic in the modern church. Many well-meaning and sincere Christians practice some form of (despiritualized) yoga without having given much thought to the spiritual implications of doing so.
And so we must remember that we are all under grace and that we are to bear patiently with one another in love and let the Holy Spirit do the work of conviction, which takes time. The points addressed in this article are not meant to be used to tear down Christians, but to lead those who are seeking the truth in God’s wisdom, as revealed in His word.
What Is Yoga
Yoga is a spiritual practice that is closely associated with Eastern religions, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism, and dates as far back as the ninth century BC. The word yoga means ‘yoke’ or ‘union’ and refers to the uniting of the practitioner with the spiritual realm, including the pantheon of Hindu gods and the collective consciousness of all practitioners.
In yoga, this union is achieved by using a combination of poses, chants, meditations, and breathing exercises. The components of yoga work in tandem to separate the practitioner’s mind from their body in order to still the senses in order to achieve an elevated consciousness.
In some of the dozen-or-so schools of yoga that are practiced today, other elements common to eastern religions are also incorporated, including focusing on an idol or burning incense.
Just from this brief description, several aspects of yoga emerge that clearly contradict the teachings of the Bible and the character of God.
Yoga and the Bible
In Deuteronomy 18:9-13, the Lord instructs Israel not to adopt the spiritual practices of surrounding nations, including divination and Spiritism. By using yoga to unite with the spiritual world, the practitioner is accessing spirits in a manner that is not permitted to Christians. Christ is our direct mediator to the Father, and as believers, we have been given the Holy Spirit.
Though not practiced universally across all varieties of yoga, the use of idols presents a clear and obvious problem for Christians. The second commandment plainly states that God forbids the crafting and worship of idols (Exodus 20:4-5).
The Lord rebuked the Israelites for fashioning a golden calf (Exodus 32), for the Israelites had fallen into the practices that they had witnessed during their time as slaves in Egypt. King Hezekiah smashed the bronze snake that had been made by Moses as an object of healing (Numbers 21:4-9) because the people had worshipped it as an idol (2 Kings 18:1-4).
God and Man
The pantheistic origins of yoga and the concept of all persons sharing a consciousness contradict what the Bible teaches about the nature of God and the nature of humans. There is one God, existing in the co-equal Trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit. God is eternal, meaning He has no beginning and no end. And man was made in God’s image to glorify God.
After creation, man rebelled against God through sin, causing a separation between God and man. In Jesus, Christians are reconciled to God and restored to a right relationship with Him. And Jesus plainly states that there is no other means by which we can come to God (John 14:6).
Our Bodies and Gnosticism
The yoga practitioner understands our physical senses as an obstacle or hindrance to be overcome. The practices of yoga are designed to minimize sensory input and exert greater control over the senses as a means of reducing reliance on such things as desire and pain.
This is similar to the first-century heresy of Gnosticism, which teaches that the physical is inherently corrupt and that God can only be reached through special esoteric knowledge (gnosis).
However, the Bible teaches that our bodies are God’s temple, so we are to use them to honor God (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). We are all fearfully and wonderfully made by God, and His desire is that we not only care for our bodies but that through our bodies we honor Him as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1).
What If We Just Exercise?
The most common justification that Christians use for practicing yoga is that they are using it as a means of stretching or exercise, and not as a spiritual practice. The rationale that supports this thinking is that by removing the meditation, the focus objects, and to some degree the controlled breathing, yoga simply becomes a physical activity that benefits the body. But there are several problems with this justification.
Can You Still Call it Yoga?
First, as any devout practitioner of yoga would note, one cannot remove the meditative elements and spiritual objectives of yoga and still be left with something that could be called ‘yoga’. Remember, the word ‘yoga’ means ‘union’.
The breathing and meditation work in conjunction with the poses to achieve a holistic objective across body, mind, and spirit. Simply stretching and relaxing your muscles is not the same as doing yoga, just like simply going to church does not make a person a Christian.
Yoga’s Effect on the Body
And this leads directly to the second problem. Because the poses, breathing, and meditation are designed to work together to achieve a mental and spiritual outcome, it is impossible to practice yoga moves and positions in a way that avoids their non-physical effects. Yoga poses are designed to alter sensory input and manipulate normal body rhythms.
Yoga poses affect our vestibular (balance) sense, as well as input from our hearing, sight, and touch receptors. Similarly, yoga poses alter our breathing and circulation, affecting the distribution of oxygen throughout the body, including to the brain. Combined, these have the long-term effect of altering how our brains receive, process, store, and recall information, which is the ultimate objective of yoga.
Added together, these two problems show that using yoga as a means of exercise is a self-contradiction. Exercise is the practice of maintaining the health and functionality of our physical bodies. Yoga teaches, however, that the body in general and the senses, in particular, are obstacles to be overcome. Practicing yoga ultimately leads to a distorted perspective and incomplete care for our bodies.
Fortunately, for Christians who are seeking good self-care and exercise habits (and ideally, that should be all of us), there are other disciplines that we can turn to. Chiropractors and personal trainers, for example, are knowledgeable in human physiology and can provide sound guidance on how to stretch, strengthen, and exercise our muscles in a way that maximizes their function and longevity.
As with many things in our broken world, we must be ever prayerful and watchful so that we can discern what things are of God, and which are not. Even the most sanitized and ‘Christianized’ forms of yoga have deep roots in ungodly spiritual practices that cannot be completely severed. So Christians are wise to avoid yoga in all its forms, so as not to inadvertently cut ourselves off from a vibrant walk with our God.