A mom named Stefanie recently emailed me her curious question:
Hi Pastor Mark,
My husband and I have decided to try public school. My oldest is in her second year (1st grade) and our second daughter is in Kindergarten. Since attending school, they come home doing yoga poses, saying “Namaste”— these behaviors are concerning to me, as the root of yoga is Hinduism and worship of many gods.
Has this been something you have had to deal with? Looking for some wisdom and guidance on how to address the school and or children.
I have been so blessed by ur ministry and pray for you and ur family often.
Thank you for addressing this concern.
Thank you Stefanie for praying for our ministry and family. I’m praying for your family, as well. As the father of five children, I appreciate your concern to be actively involved in the raising of your children. Of course, as parents we want our children to be physically health and get exercise. At the same time, if something is a religious practice we want to be discerning. In a similar way, a Muslim parent would likely be concerned if their child was being baptized at public school, a Jewish parent would likely be concerned if their child was partaking of communion in public school, and an atheistic parent would be concerned if the child was reciting the Lord’s Prayer in public school. Why? Because these are all religious acts for those who practice that particular religion.
Your question is very timely as various estimates say there are roughly 20 million people in the United States alone practicing yoga. This includes workplace and school applications for stress reduction. Some Christians have opted for “Holy Yoga” which has been controversial because of the religious origination of yoga.
Some years ago I had a research team compile a brief on this subject. I will include much of that brief below along with some commentary in hopes that it can be helpful to frame thinking and start a discussion with your child. As a general rule, when it comes to Christian faith and cultural issues I use the categories of “receive, reject, or redeem” for consideration and do so on this issue, as well.
What Is Yoga?
There are many different types of yoga—which we’ll cover below—but it’s important to begin with a general definition of yoga that will provide a basic framework for what the entire realm of the discipline is intending to do. According to Elliot Miller, noted New Age (also called New Spirituality) expert and editor of the Christian Research Journal:
Yoga is derived from the Sanskrit word yug, which means “to yoke.” This is a term [most Christians are] familiar with from the Bible (Phil. 4:2; Matt. 11:9). A yoke is a crossbar that joins two draft animals at the neck so they can work together; the term, therefore, is applied metaphorically to people being joined together or united in a cause. In Hinduism, as in many religions, union is desired with nothing less than God or the Absolute, and yoga is the system that Hindus have developed to achieve that end.
The historic purpose behind yoga, therefore, is to achieve union with the Hindu concept of God. This is the purpose behind virtually all of the Eastern varieties of yoga, including those we encounter in the West. This does not mean it is the purpose of every practitioner of yoga, for many people clearly are not practicing it for spiritual reasons but merely to enhance their physical appearance, ability, or health.(1)
However, it is difficult to faithfully practice yoga and divorce it from its spiritual elements. This is a sentiment that is shared by both some Christians and Hindus. Prominent Hindu academics such as Professor Aseem Shukla, writing for the Hindu American foundations says:
Nearly 20 million people in the United States gather together routinely, fold their hands and utter the Hindu greeting of Namaste — the Divine in me bows to the same Divine in you. Then they close their eyes and focus their minds with chants of “Om,” the Hindu representation of the first and eternal vibration of creation. Arrayed in linear patterns, they stretch, bend, contort and control their respirations as a mentor calls out names of Hindu divinity linked to various postures: Natarajaasana (Lord Shiva) or Hanumanasana (Lord Hanuman) among many others. They chant their assigned “mantra of the month,” taken as they are from lines directly from the Vedas, Hinduism’s holiest scripture. Welcome to the practice of yoga in today’s western world.
Christians, Jews, Muslims, Pagans, agnostics and atheists they may be, but they partake in the spiritual heritage of a faith tradition with a vigor often unmatched by even among the two-and-a half-million Hindu Americans here. The Yoga Journal found that the industry generates more than $6 billion each year and continues on an incredible trajectory of popularity. It would seem that yoga’s mother tradition, Hinduism, would be shining in the brilliant glow of dedicated disciples seeking more from the very font of their passion.
Why is yoga severed in America’s collective consciousness from Hinduism? Yoga, meditation, ayurvedic natural healing, self-realization–they are today’s syntax for New Age, Eastern, mystical, even Buddhist, but nary an appreciation of their Hindu origins…The severance of yoga from Hinduism disenfranchises millions of Hindu Americans from their spiritual heritage and a legacy in which they can take pride.
Hinduism, as a faith tradition, stands at this pass a victim of overt intellectual property theft, absence of trademark protections and the facile complicity of generations of Hindu yogis, gurus, swamis and others that offered up a religion’s spiritual wealth at the altar of crass commercialism.(2)
Sentiments like these have led to some Hindus wanting to take yoga back since they see it as dishonoring of their religious practices. Out of respect, those of us who are not Hindu should consider the fact that for many people yoga is in fact intertwined with Hindu religious practice. As a Christian, it seems reasonable that they have a right to be offended as much as we would be equally offended if they underwent Christian baptism or communion while denying any religious connection and secularizing it or doing it in a Hindu way.
The History of Yoga
According to yoga historian Mark Singleton, “Some scholars have found evidence of early yogic practice in the archaeological artifacts from the Indus Valley civilization in Sind, which developed from about 2500 BCE.”(3)
The posture exercises that most people consider to be yoga today had little or nothing to do with how the practice originally developed:
In spite of the immense popularity of postural yoga worldwide, there is little or no evidence that āsana [posture] (excepting certain seated postures of meditation) has ever been the primary aspect of any Indian yoga practice tradition—including the medieval, body-oriented haṭha yoga—in spite of the self-authenticating claims of many modern yoga schools. The primacy of āsana performance in transnational yoga today is a new phenomenon that has no parallel in premodern times.(4)
Basically, what Singleton is saying is that despite the arguments that yoga is just stretching, there is no historical evidence that this is the case—quite the contrary. The history of yoga is overwhelmingly spiritual in practice and the postures of yoga are only one aspect of yoga, and they are part of a broader system aimed at union with the divine and attaining enlightenment.
It is important to note that the exercise/stretching/posturing element of yoga only represents one of the eight limbs of yoga viewed as a whole. As Elliot Miller describes,
The eight limbs of yoga involve strict moral, physical, and mental disciplines. They are (1) moral restraint, (2) religious observance, (3) postures (asanas), (4) breath control (pranayama), (5) sense withdrawal, (6) concentration, (7) meditative absorption, and (8) enlightenment (samadhi). A consideration of the limbs quickly reveals that yoga is a demanding autosoteric (salvation based on self-effort) system, similar to original Theravada Buddhism with its eightfold path, which historically preceded Patanjali’s yoga system and probably influenced it.(5)
Miller goes on to explain that the two limbs of yoga that exercise the body,asanas and pranayama, were never meant to be separated from the other eight limbs of yoga like they have been in the West.(6) Some forms of yoga even go as far as to not demand extreme stretching positions because they actually get in the way of meditation. As Miller explains, “Patanjali’s expressed concern was for the practitioner to assume ‘steady and easy’ postures that would be conducive to meditation.(7)
Thus, the goal of yoga was “to develop the desired pure state of consciousness [making] it necessary to withdraw from the input of one’s senses and to develop one’s powers of concentration.”(8) Ways in which this was (and is) accomplished include:
• Concentrating on sounds by chanting the names of Hindu gods or the sacred om, which Patanjali said is the voice of God
• Focusing on images, such as the tip of your nose or a religious icon
• Concentrating on one’s own breath
The purpose of these exercises—both physical and mental—was to attain a state of “pure consciousness . . . where the practitioner begins to lose the distinction between subject [self] and object [whatever one is focused on]” in order to feel at one with the universe or God.(9)
The ultimate goal of the entire practice of yoga is samadhi, which is direct and ultimate knowledge. The first seven limbs of yoga were meant to result in the eighth limb—samadhi— “which is defined as direct knowledge, free from the distortions of the imagination,” completely free from the constraints of the material world.(10)
In this way, yoga is a religious practice that advocates Monism (or oneism), which I discuss in a book I coauthored called Doctrine. Monism is a general belief system that claims there is no distinction between the creation and the Creator—and can even be a denial of a Creator altogether. The material form of Monism is atheism, and the spiritual form of Monism is often called New Age, New Spirituality, Integrative Spirituality, or by some simply paganism – all of which are categorically committed to pantheism or panentheism.
According to spiritual Monism, the universe is a living organism with a spiritual force (or energy) present within everything. Thus, everything is interconnected by the life force or the world soul. This life force manifests as spiritual beings (Christians distinguish between angels and demons) that manipulate the course of world events. These spirits can be influenced to serve people by using the ancient magical arts. Humans possess divine power unlimited by any deity. Consciousness can be altered through the practice of rite and ritual. Magic is the manipulation of objects, substances, spirit entities, and minds, including humans and spirit beings (considered demons by Christians), by word (rituals like yoga, incantations like om, curses, spells, etc.) and objects (charms, amulets, crystals, herbs, potions, wands, candles, etc.). Visually, you can think of this in terms of one circle in which everything is contained and interconnected as one. Through various rites and rituals—such as yoga—the reality of the universe and consciousness can be manipulated, connected, and unified together as a whole, it is said.
In the book Doctrine, the summary of this worldview of monism is inconsistent with biblical Christianity in numerous ways. It states that:
1. There is no distinction between Creator who is without beginning or end, and creation that was made by God. Romans 1:25 speaks of this negatively, saying: “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.”
2. There is not a focus on looking out to Jesus Christ for salvation, but rather in to self for enlightenment and peace. In Christianity, the entire concept of repentance is to turn from ourselves and turn to God in Jesus Christ.
3. There is no distinction between good and evil since all is one, which leads to cultural pluralism and the denial of clear distinctions between such things as truth and lies, good and evil, angels and demons, etc. Any attempt to made distinctions is considered primitive and intolerant thinking that should be outgrown for a higher consciousness.
4. There is no distinction between humans and creation since all is one, thereby lessening the value of human life (which was created in the image of God) in comparison to animal and possibly even plant life. This explains why monism often includes radical environmentalism, and animal rights advocacy seeking to legally provide animal rights that are similar to human rights.
5. There is no distinction between religions as all spiritualties are one, resulting in a vague spirituality and people saying such things as, “There are many ways to grow spiritually,” “all religions are the same,” or “I don’t have a religion. I’m just spiritual.” In this regard, the focus is less on what is acceptable in God’s sight, and more on what works for the person practicing the spirituality not unlike a customer shopping for what they want from the spirit world.
Our God, the Lord Jesus Christ, entered human history in a body and would not bow. Matthew 4:9 says that Satan asked one simple thing of Jesus Christ, to “bow down”. But, Jesus refused that one simple act of changing His physical posture because that physical act was an act of “worship” as Satan says. In the example of Jesus, we see that when a movement of our body is an act of worship we are to take it seriously.
Various Types of Yoga
Historically, there are seven types of yoga that have developed, each with their own systems and ways of reaching samadhi, which is not surprising given the pluralistic nature of Eastern religions that generally offer many paths to enlightenment. (Again, this is entirely antithetical to Christianity, which teaches the truth that there is only one way to salvation—through Jesus Christ. Jesus himself said this in John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”)
The following is a quick summary of each and a brief example of how each system of yoga has infiltrated itself into our current Western thinking and way of life. My hope is that you’ll begin to see clearly how yoga at its core is much more than a physical exercise but rather a system of thought that contends against Christianity and subtly finds its way into our thinking, habits, and lifestyles. The research below, as well as some other parts of this blog, were compiled by a research team for me some years ago and although it is a bit technical I hope it is helpful.
Bhakti Yoga: Miller says that this system of yoga seeks salvation through a “devotion to a personal representation of God.”(11) While this echoes Christianity in its focus on a personal God, the way in which salvation is attained is through acts within yoga, not through God’s gift of grace as revealed in the Scriptures. Additionally, Bhakti yoga is based on the belief that we are manifestations of God, blurring the boundary between God and man. In this system, “everything exists within God, but everything is not God. . . . the world and souls are real but they are also part of God’s being, not separate from Him, as in Christianity.”(12)
This is clearly seen in our culture through movies such as Avatar. It is also found in those who believe rocks, trees, water and other parts of creation house an inherent spiritual energy. The idea that there is a vague spirituality manifested through all of creation is a subliminal belief of most young people and this philosophy is reinforced through mass media. This is why many young people prefer to call themselves spiritual rather than identify with a religion. Little do they know that by doing so, they are identifying with a religion—classic paganism, also called monism, pantheism, panentheism, etc.
Hatha Yoga: This system of yoga is based on physical activity and is the type of yoga most commonly practiced in the West. Indeed, most Western people think of yoga as only a physical exercise, but in its roots, Hatha is about much more than just stretching. Rather, the physical activity in Hatha is meant to achieve an altered state of consciousness, as Elliot Miller explains:
First, it is common for literature on hatha yoga originating from Hindu sources to emphasize that the purpose of the postures and breathing exercises is to “free the more subtle spiritual elements of the mind.” In other words, the physical exercises of yoga are intended to facilitate altered states of consciousness. They further are intended to foster “the development of will power, concentration, and self-withdrawal,” all necessary to “help you put your mind in a focused state to prepare for Meditation and, eventually, the search for enlightenment.” Finally, they are designed to “open the energy channels, which in turn allows spiritual energy to flow freely.”(13)
This form of yoga has manifested itself in culture through meditation and breathing exercises. Popular culture is filled with “practical” advice to conquer stress through breathing, meditation, and exercise. While these advice columns don’t cache this information in the framework of a spiritual energy, the advice is derived from such beliefs and then marketed in such a way to be more acceptable to a broader customer base who care about their physical health but do not want to be overtly committed to any religious system. To be clear, these things can be helpful from a physical perspective to help reduce stress and regulate the body toward a relaxed state. The Bible speaks of being in God’s presence and meditating on God’s Word as ways to reduce stress, unburden ourselves, and give our mind and body a much needed rest. Still, the Bible says to be “self-controlled and alert” (1 Pet. 5:8, NIV), which is impossible if we are seeking an altered state of consciousness and opening ourselves up to any and every spiritual influence without discernment.
Jnana Yoga: As Miller puts it, “Jnana yoga could be described as ‘yoga for intellectuals’ or ‘yoga for philosophers.’ It seeks salvation through intellectual knowledge and discrimination.”(14) But this is not the end of Inana but rather just the beginning. The end goal of Inana is “detachment from temporal concerns (but not necessarily withdrawal from them), virtue, and longing for liberation. Some form of meditation is also essential as a means of intuitively and experientially taking possession of the truth that has been logically discerned.”(15)
This form of yoga thinking is taking root in more extreme forms of an aesthetic representation of Christianity that is commonly referred to as poverty theology which is a form of ancient asceticism. At its core, imbalanced poverty theology shuns the material in favor of the spiritual. Knowledge is more prized than the physical. But the Bible is clear that both the physical and the spiritual are God’s creation, and God calls all of his creation “good” in Genesis 1. Furthermore, Jesus is God who took upon himself human flesh during the incarnation, which reveals that God values the physical. The Bible also promises believers will rise from death in a physical body to live in an eternal physical kingdom with God.
Karma Yoga: Many people think in terms of the system of karma even if they don’t practice yoga. Simply put, karma is a system of thought related yoga that is based on salvation through our “good” works and not God’s grace.
Prominent Los Angeles yoga teacher Bikram Choudhury clearly explains the role of karma yoga in attaining salvation:
Generally, a work brings as its effect or fruit either pleasure or pain. Each work adds a link to our bondage of Samsara and brings repeated births. This is the inexorable Law of Karma. But, through the practice of Karma Yoga, the effects of Karmas can be wiped out. Karma becomes barren. The same work, when done with the right mental attitude . . . does not add a link to our bondage. On the contrary, it purifies our heart and helps us to attain salvation through the descent of divine light or dawn of wisdom.(16)
That we casually use the term “good karma” in everyday speech in the Western world is proof of how the philosophies of yoga have infiltrated our culture without most people even realizing it. We use the words and believe without question the philosophy of karma, but many cannot explain how we came to know them other than through cultural osmosis. As Christians, we believe in Christ, not karma. We believe that Christ rules over our lives, not karma. We believe that God gives grace and pays the penalty for our sin so that we do not have to pay for all of our own transgressions.
Kundalini Yoga: According to Miller, “Kundalini yoga deliberately attempts to arouse and raise the kundalini, believed to be Shakti or creative divine energy, which sleeps at the base of the spine like a serpent, coiled in three and one-half circles.”(17) Through control of the respiratory system, Kundalini yoga teaches that people can tap into this energy within and harness it, thereby controlling their entire body. Not surprisingly, this system of yoga is also associated with visualization—the belief that you can manifest reality by imagining what you want.
Kundalini yoga is on the rise in our culture in a materialistic form with such teachings as The Secret, which asserts that you can manifest your desires by simply visualizing them. In this way, people are given almost God-like power to create their own reality and rule sovereignly over their lives and futures.
Raja Yoga: Raja yoga teaches that the mind is the highest part of the body and that by mastering your mind, you can master your body. Think of it as your mind being the driver in the seat and in control of the wheel over all the other systems of your body and soul. In this system of yoga, vigorous exercises are meant to help you discipline your body through the power of your mind with the ultimate goal being a pure state of consciousness.
This system is seen in modified form as self-help gurus who teach that in order to prosper in life you have to master your mind and chase away the little thoughts that whisper you’re not good enough or a failure. By mastering your mind, you can find success. This has resulted in a culture of self-esteem that encourages people to push aside any doubts or negative thoughts about themselves in favor of a solely “positive confession”. Ignored is the fact that our biggest problem is not that we lack control, but rather that we are sinners who manifest our sin nature by wanting to be in control like God. Furthermore, the Bible teaches that we should be under the influence of God the Holy Spirit if there is to be any hope for a godly future and if we controlled our lives we would ruin our lives.
Tantra Yoga: Tantra yoga is based in the belief that engaging in taboo practices results in enlightenment. As such, tantra is associated with normally renounced practices in Hindusim, such as eating meat, drunkenness, and sex. An extreme form of tantra, known as left-handed tantra, “not only involves actual sex, alcohol, and drugs, but also has been known to involve black magic and all kinds of debauchery and criminal acts, including child sacrifice.”(18)
If gluttony, drunkenness, and perversion are the telltale signs of devotion, perhaps no form of yoga is more prevalent in our society than the tantra. Our culture is consumed with the idea that partying and sex will lead to happiness. What’s left, however, is abuse, pain, depression, and sometimes even death.
As stated earlier, there is a growing movement of Christians who are engaging in “Holy Yoga,” claiming that you can practice yoga and be a Christian as long as you divorce the practice of yoga from the teachings of yoga. This is has become a bit of a heated online debate in recent years.
On issues like this, I often use a simple matrix to help Christians discern how to engage culture: receive, reject, or redeem.
Receive: There are things in culture that are part of God’s common grace to all people that a Christian can simply receive. This is why, for example, I am typing on a Mac and am going to post this blog on the Internet without searching for an expressly Christian computer or communication format.
Reject: There are things in culture that are sinful and not beneficial. God Himself made a list of 10 Commandments which forbid such things as worshipping another God, committing adultery, murder, and lying. The Bible is filled with things that a believer is supposed to simply reject as unacceptable beliefs and behaviors.
Redeem: There are things in culture that are not bad in and of themselves, but can be used in a sinful manner and therefore need to be redeemed by God’s people. An example is sexual pleasure. God made our bodies for, among other purposes, sexual pleasure. And, although many have sinned sexually, as Christians we should redeem this great gift and all its joys in the context of heterosexual marriage.
So the question when it comes to yoga is, should it be received, rejected, or redeemed? What do you think?
As a Christian, I want to take good care of both my body and soul and encourage our children to do the same. I want our family to be spending time meditating on God’s Word to renew our mind rather than seeking to empty our mind, praying and worshipping in God’s presence so that we are going out to God and not in to ourselves for enlightenment, and be filled with the Holy Spirit rather than emptied.
Lastly, I am guessing this blog may trigger some other thoughts and perspectives and I look forward to learning from other bloggers as well. Thanks for the question, Stefanie.
1. Elliot Miller, “The Yoga Boom: A Call for Christian Discernment. Part 1: Yoga In Its Original Eastern Context,” Christian Research Journal 31, no. 2 (2008), 2.
3. Mark Singleton, Yoga Body: The Origin of Modern Posture Practice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 25.
3 Singleton, Yoga Body, 3.
4. Singleton, Yoga Body, 3.
5. Miller, “The Yoga Boom, Part 1,” 3.
6. Miller, “The Yoga Boom, Part 1,” 4.
11. Miller, “The Yoga Boom, Part 1,” 5.
12. Miller, “The Yoga Boom, Part 1,” 6.
13. Miller, “The Yoga Boom, Part 1,” 8.
14. Miller, “The Yoga Boom, Part 1,” 6.
17. Miller, “The Yoga Boom, Part 1,” 7.
18. Miller, “The Yoga Boom, Part 1,” 8.