The Yoga Wars

On Facebook, someone asked me: “What do YOU think of the Yoga Wars?”

Here’s my response:

Well, I don’t think Mohler’s wrong.

To some degree, it seems to me like an issue of semantics. It’s possible, obviously, to do the various Yoga moves as physical exercises and nothing else, and that can be beneficial. But, I would just call those stretches. If others want to call them yoga, I guess that’s fine, but it’s kind of like calling dressing up as a harry potter on Halloween “sorcery” and then getting mad that someone thinks sorcery’s wrong.

On the other hand, an embracing of Yoga as we know it more commonly, including various ways to attain spiritual enrichment outside of the biblically prescribed ways seems misguided at best. Scripture has told us how to be closer to God, how to have a relationship with Jesus Christ, and how to grow spiritually and in righteousness. Yoga just isn’t a part of that plan, and is founded on a worldview that is actually in contradiction with that of scripture.

What do YOU think of the Yoga wars?

About Richard Clark

Richard H. Clark is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture. He has a Master of Arts in Theology and the Arts from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He lives in Louisville, Ky. He is also the managing editor of Gamechurch and a freelance writer for Unwinnable, Paste, and other outlets.
E-mail: clarkrichardh [at] gmail [dot] com.
Twitter: @deadyetliving

  • http://ohbuoyancy.net Reese

    I think I’m kind of on the same page as you. I do yoga poses for exercise, there is nothing spiritual about it, it’s exercise. I think people can make any type of exercise or even any activity be something “spiritual.” It just depends on how you perceive it and react to it and how much control you give to it, if that makes sense.
    This argument is similar to the arguments over watching R-rated (or even PG-13) movies or playing violent video games. Some people are effected by it in different ways than others.
    I don’t think the yoga wars have just now begun, I think this is an old argument that has just been given new steam. I remember people talking about yoga being wrong for Christians when I was a kid, of course it wasn’t nearly as popular then as it is now.

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

    Yeah, it’s definitely an old issue.

    I do think yoga has a little more spiritual baggage than movies or video games, since it’s founded within the context of an alternate religion. That makes it a bit more of a spiritual minefield in my opinion.

  • http://spoonfulofhahne.com Seth T. Hahne

    Your analogy is somewhat lacking. I don’t think it really comes off so analogous as you’d like. A closer analogy would be something like this:

    If you don’t celebrate Saturnalia, don’t call it celebrating Christmas. If you’re not celebrating pagan fertility rites, then you shouldn’t say you’re celebrating Easter.

    Because that would be a silly requirement (to say that someone wasn’t actually celebrating those holidays because they abandoned the pagan aspects to the holidays), I would argue its also silly to say that someone wasn’t practicing yoga simply because they’ve abandoned a portion of what was originally intended by the term.

    That’s the great thing about language. It evolves to fit usage.

    I’ll be honest that I didn’t think much of Mohler’s article there. He’s a smug old curmudgeon, just because he wasn’t satisfied with any of the responses he’s gotten so far. Oh yeah, and he frames the question so that he can dismiss anyone who might offer a thoughtful rebuttal to his argument by saying what you’ve said: that they’re using the term incorrectly. Colour me less than impressed.

  • Ben

    Whether you’re impressed with the response or not is sorta beside the point. The reason parsing terms carefully in this context is that there’s a clear separation between the practice of yoga spirituality and the practice of yoga stretches.

    I actually think Mohler sorta nails it… the church is packed with people who call themselves Christians, but buy into the pseudo-moralistic therapeutic deism practiced by the culture at large. When they are making yoga -in its original, spiritual sense- the center of their faith practice, they are essentially on the wrong track.

    Nobody’s saying practicing yoga invalidates or overcomes salvation by grace through faith, but the strength of a person’s salvation before God doesn’t invalidate their responsibility to worship him alone in the way that he demands.

    Refusal to worship God in the way he wants, and insistance on “worshiping” using explicitly pagan methods (again, not counting the “exercisors”), is a rejection of his authority over all of life and is a form of direct rebellion. Again I wouldn’t say it invalidates salvation, but it is certainly an unhealthy and unwise practice.

  • Alan Noble

    Mohler, I believe, makes a few common, but dangerous mistakes here.

    First, he makes a moral/spiritual judgement on an extremely broad social phenomenon as if it was a single phenomenon, while acknowledging that there are variations. Instead of making the untenable and reactionary claim that Christians should not practice Yoga, he ought to have warned against Christians practicing Yoga as a religion, against the specific teachings of Yoga. He seems to condemn both the spiritual practice of Yoga and the practice in general.

    Second, he acknowledges that the physical movements and breathing techniques are not opposed to Christianity, but he proceeds to contradict himself:

    “There is nothing wrong with physical exercise, and yoga positions in themselves are not the main issue. But these positions are teaching postures with a spiritual purpose. Consider this — if you have to meditate intensely in order to achieve or to maintain a physical posture, it is no longer merely a physical posture.”

    So, do these poses have an innate, pagan meaning or not? Mohler says “no”–which is in line with Scripture, Col 2:20-23 for one example-but then he says “yes,” they “teach postures with a spiritual purpose.”

    If they are just physical poses, how to they teach something spiritual? And what would the content of that be? And, if there were no such thing as Eastern Religions, and I happened to invent what we now call Yoga poses, would I be teaching myself a posture with a spiritual purpose?

    This line of thinking–that there is something innately pagan about certain positions of your body or exercises–seem dangerously close to gnosticism, or at the very least a superstitious view of the Natural world.

    It is also an example of the genetic fallacy.

    Third, he seems to view emptying the mind and meditating as also inherently anti-Christian. But as the Psalmist says, (46:10) “Be still and know that I am God.” There can be a great value in stilling our minds, relaxing, emptying our thoughts. If this act can be seen by those practicing Eastern Religions as a way of connecting to the “divine,” it could just as reasonable be used as a way to surrender our anxieties and fears to God, being still before Him. Again, you cannot make a Scriptural case that stilling your mind is idolatry or wrong.

    Fourth, I do not think Mohler properly understands our freedom to eat meat sacrificed to idols:

    “When Christians practice yoga, they must either deny the reality of what yoga represents or fail to see the contradictions between their Christian commitments and their embrace of yoga. The contradictions are not few, nor are they peripheral. The bare fact is that yoga is a spiritual discipline by which the adherent is trained to use the body as a vehicle for achieving consciousness of the divine.”

    Similarly, if we were to eat meat sacrificed to idols, we would have to either deny the “reality” (see point #2) of what that meat represents or fail to see that we cannot worship idols and God. I agree with him here. But Paul, and therefore Christ, gives us an answer: deny its significance, because it has no objective reality. By practicing Yoga and denying the spiritual significance some have falsely placed on it, we are acting in line with the Truth–that God is Lord and has given us a true way to commune with Him through His Sacraments.

    All that said, I certainly agree that if you a practice Yoga as a form of connecting with God through mantras and physical poses and telling yourself that you are part of the divine, there is a serious problem.

  • Ben

    Those are all good points, Alan. I really struggle with this question of the right way for high-profile Christian leaders to “lead” the many people who take their advice almost without questiosn, because often their followers are not good at handling nuanced positions… unfortunate, but true.

    I know that even when I was, say, counseling a camp cabin of 12 guys, I was constantly burdened by the ability of the youngest or least mature to understand. Upgrade that to a national radio and internet audience, and I’m sure Mohler carries a terrible burden in terms of how to helpfully communicate with those for whom nuance is difficult.

    That doesn’t REMOVE his responsibility to be clear and nuanced, but it does help explain why he tries to paint in broad brushstrokes… hence defining Yoga in its original, religious sense and “not counting” those who exercise and call it yoga but aren’t into the spiritual aspects.

    It’s a tough area because I often dislike the results of this approach to mass communication and unhelpfully blatent language. But in this case, I feel like it’s a pretty fair and helpful approach to what really is a widespread prolem in the church.

  • Chase Livingston

    And that Ben is why we have the local church.

  • Ben

    No argument from me, Chase. But the fact that the ideal is Christians looking to their local leaders for wisdom, the reality is that many Christians don’t and many local leaders don’t have it. There’s still a place for the Al Mohlers of the world, and I think he did quite well in this instance with that trust.

  • brittany

    I practice Yoga. I’d like to mention a couple of things:

    1. Yoga is not just stretching. If you have done Yoga, you would know that. :-)

    2. I know a Yoga instructor that lets her class have a spiritual component that is Christian. At the end of the class instead of the usual “Namaste”, she says “May the peace of Christ be with you.”

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

    Brittany, could you enlighten us about your first point? What are the essential components of “Yoga”?

  • Alan Noble

    “enlighten”? Brittany, he’s trying to trap you into using Eastern religious language.

  • http://www.pofgblog.com Joseph

    The problem with Mohler’s article is that he sets out a very narrow definition of what yoga is. And I don’t think that even his definition of yoga is necessarily anti-Christian. He says,

    “I have heard from a myriad of Christians who insist that their practice of yoga involves absolutely no meditation, no spiritual direction, no inward concentration, and no thought element.”

    Isn’t there supposed to be a thought element in Christianity? Shouldn’t it involve some spiritual direction? Should I not meditate on scripture? Am I supposed to be a mindless, blind follower of what preachers like Mohler tell me, or should I use my God-given intellect to seek answers for myself?

    As for your question to Brittany, Richard, here is what I know from my own experience. (I took a yoga class during my last semester of college. I wanted an easy ‘A’…) The essentials of yoga, as I was taught, are focusing completely on what you’re doing (being fully present both mentally and physically), and breathing. Focusing your attention on the task at hand is incredibly useful in a variety of areas, and is in absolutely no way anti-Christian. The breath is important because it sets the rhythm for the whole body and is sort of the primary component in the cardio health aspect of yoga. What I mean is, instead of improving cardio health by running or swimming long distances, the yoga practitioner improves cardio health by controlling their breathing through isometric exercises (the poses). You could argue that the breath is a spiritual component (in fact, the guy who wrote the book we used, Baron Baptiste, makes this assertion), but I didn’t find any problem maintaining my faith and allegiance to Jesus through my yoga class.

    When done properly, the results can be pretty dramatic – I lost 25 pounds between February and May of that year.

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew

    @Joseph–your quote is not Mohler’s definition of yoga … he simply says such stretching/exercise is not really yoga as he defines it. Further, he no where encourages Christians not to think, nor do I think he is promoting a mindless following of himself. Also he is not a preacher–he is a Seminary president. I think he wants believers to think and ask questions about yoga. What you are are describing, Mohler would not define as Yoga and would probably be fine with it, excepting that he might say, “don’t call it yoga.”

    @Alan–I agree with you that Mohler seems to contradict himself. If there is nothing wrong with the stretches/poses but if you have to concentrate/meditate to make them they are “no longer merely a physical posture.” That was the portion of the article in which I scratched my head and thought–if one of my soccer players has to concentrate really hard before taking a penalty kick, has he entered the sphere of dangerous spiritual practice?

    That said, I do think what Mohler is talking about generally is different than what you are suggesting that we shouldn’t be concerned about–mere physical exercise and concentrated stretching.

    What I understand of meditation in Yoga, though certainly people will say they don’t practice it this way, is that it is a complete emptying of the mind, quite different from mere “relaxing.” The Bible encourages being still “and know[ing] that [He] is God.” It encourages being patient and “waiting for Him”–these passages encourage still quiet trust in God–not an emptying of all thought which would include emptying thoughts of God.

    That is a small quibble, I like John Mark Reynolds response–I think its fair to Mohler while giving a reasoned response. I am fine with people doing Yoga stretches, what I appreciate about Mohler’s addressing of this issue is his warning against a syncing the spiritual aspects of Yoga with Biblical Christianity. Certainly everything we do is spiritual on some level–I am not arguing against that, what I would say is that a couple of points in Mohler’s latest article on this issue are telling:

    “I have received hundreds of emails and comments against my article from those identifying as Christians. Not one–not a single one–has addressed the theological and biblical issues. There is not even a single protest communication offering a theological argument.”

    “I have heard from a myriad of Christians who insist that their practice of yoga involves absolutely no meditation, no spiritual direction, no inward concentration, and no thought element. Well, if so, you are simply not practicing yoga. You may be twisting yourselves into pretzels or grasshoppers, but if there is no meditation or direction of consciousness, you are not practicing yoga, you are simply performing a physical exercise. Don’t call it yoga.”

    I don’t want to get into the semantics discussion, I bring up these two quotes for another reason: they tell us something about how difficult it is to have reasoned, thoughtful, and charitable discussion. I appreciate CAPC in this regard–I think the discussion we are having on this issue fair and relatively free from slander or arguments that are purely emotional appeals.

  • Alan Noble

    I think its also worth noting that at the core of this debate is the secularization of yoga, which is what leads us to the semantic confusion.

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    Right. That is the issue. Mohler is referring to historical yoga, which is certainly connected to a host of practices that I think Christians ought not embrace. That is why he says if that is not the kind of yoga you are doing, “don’t call it yoga.” Which actually makes sense to me.

    I don’t get how concentrated body postures that require meditation would be harmful. That said, I think, even if this is just a semantic issue for most Christians who practice “yoga,” Mohler’s warning is a valid one. When you do those exercises and call it yoga, whether you know it or not you are connecting yourself to a practice that has a long history of seeking “god” or “transcendence” etc. in ways that are unbiblical.

    Thus I think Mohler would say, if you are into these poses for the sake of exercise/relaxation–great, just don’t call it yoga because Yoga by its definition is a spiritual exercise. Perhaps that is changing–perhaps Yoga in the US is largely secularized, but from the little that I have read, I think it is still considered a “spiritual” exercise by most.


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