A reader writes:
My daughter is taking a yoga class. I have avoided this practice for some time, including invitations from my friends who ask me to join their “Christian” yoga classes. I continue to wonder if this form of exercise is good or not. I have read many viewpoints on both sides. I know for centuries Catholics have taken pagan customs, holidays, practices, and “purified” them with Christian understanding. Is that even possible with yoga. Thanks in advance for your insight.
I don’t see why not. Yoga as physical exercise is simply that. It can be wedded to various mental exercises that come out of Hinduism and involve the worship of Hindu deities. But it need not be and the mere physical exercises can also be linked to Christian prayer and meditation, just as the pagan tradition of prayer beads was adapted to use in the Rosary. The Church, as you observe, has a long tradition of doing exactly that.
Your difficulty seem to me to be remarkably analogous to the troubled consciences of certain Jewish Christians in the early Church. In those days, you could not get meat at market that had not been slaughtered in sacrifices at pagan temples. So the fear among Jewish Christians of tender conscience was that, by eating the meat, you were participating in the offering to the pagan deity. Paul tells the Corinthians (1 Cor 8):
Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” “Knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. If any one imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if one loves God, one is known by him. Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth–as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”– yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through being hitherto accustomed to idols, eat food as really offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. Only take care lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if any one sees you, a man of knowledge, at table in an idol’s temple, might he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak man is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of my brother’s falling, I will never eat meat, lest I cause my brother to fall.
The Corinthians rightly understood that they were free to eat whatever they liked without incurring sin. However, they used their freedom to run roughshod over Jewish Christians of tender conscience. Paul affirms that, indeed, there is no harm in eating meat bought at market even when offered in pagan temples and that if we give thanks to God for it, we incur no harm at all. Only we can’t eat it if we tempt people of weak conscience to sin by doing something they subjectively believe to be wrong, even when we know that objectively it is not wrong. In short, Paul knows that food (or yoga) offered to God with thanksgiving won’t hurt you a bit and will not involve you in pagan worship. His only caveat is that we not use our freedom in knowing this should it tempt people with troubled conscience to do what they subjectively believe to be wrong. So, for instance, I’m perfectly at home with the fact that Harry Potter books are a fun, harmless read. But I must not use my freedom to disturb the conscience of a kid who parents have told him he cannot read those books. If, for him, it is sin I cannot present them to him as forbidden fruit. Paul also addresses the same issue in Romans 14:
As for the man who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not for disputes over opinions. One believes he may eat anything, while the weak man eats only vegetables. Let not him who eats despise him who abstains, and let not him who abstains pass judgment on him who eats; for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Master is able to make him stand. One man esteems one day as better than another, while another man esteems all days alike. Let every one be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. He also who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God; while he who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lords. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” So each of us shall give account of himself to God. Then let us no more pass judgment on one another, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for any one who thinks it unclean. If your brother is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died. So do not let your good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit; he who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for any one to make others fall by what he eats; it is right not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother stumble. The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God; happy is he who has no reason to judge himself for what he approves. But he who has doubts is condemned, if he eats, because he does not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.
So: yoga exercises, detached from Hinduism and offered to God through our Lord Jesus Christ, are just exercises and another occasion to “offer your body a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1-2). You can make this form of exercise another sort of prayer posture and reclaim for the Creator another piece of the creation, just as the Christian tradition has done with gobs of other symbols, practices, ideas, and images from paganism ranging from haloes, to Christmas trees, to mistletoe, to Easter eggs.
As a possible follow-up, see my piece “On Giving Scandal“. It may help too.