A Question about Christian Yoga

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.

  • Gail Finke

    I like the analogy to the meat sacrificed to idols. The problem is not that yoga is a Hindu practice, which it very often is not here in the USA, but that many times you can’t tell whether it’s a Hindu practice, a completely secular practice, or some kind of in between “spiritual” practice that you can’t figure out in the least. Start looking around at yoga texts, web sites, etc. and you will see all sorts of “spiritual,” New Agey, and Hindu-esque stuff on them. I used to work with a yoga teacher’s association and I assure you it was quite serious about the Hindu spiritual roots of yoga, but that’s not to say that the teachers were Hindus. They seemed to pick and choose what parts of Hinduism and Hindu practices they liked. That would be the danger in yoga, IMHO — one who was well-grounded could probably go to even the most “spiritual” classes without any harm. If you don’t believe there is a “third eye,” people can tell you to open your third eye all they want to. But might you be unwittingly helping to convince others that they have a third eye or that they have a kundalini spirit uncoiling inside them? That’s the question, and it probably depends on the class, the teacher, and the other students.

    • Jen

      I’ve done yoga off an on for 15 years. In all that time, the most ‘spiritual’ it’s been is when some new-agey American yoga instructor puts on a CD of floaty, boring New Age music.

      • Newp Ort

        yeah, I was thinking it isn’t so much spiritual as flakiness mixed with pretty good exercise.

        Bigger danger of yoga is incitement of lust through the ubiquity of yoga pants

      • Beadgirl

        Me too; in fact, I haven’t been able to do yoga in a while, and boy does my body miss it. The most spiritual a class ever got was to have us do a new-agey chant once or twice at the end, and I just kept my mouth shut. It probably helps that I’ve had a lot of dance training, so that it is easy for me to treat yoga as a purely physical form of exercise. It also probably helps that my natural response to new-agey stuff is to roll my eyes.

  • wlinden

    I must point out that you, like the great American public, are committing the opposite of synecdoche by equating “yoga” with “hatha yoga”, which is only one of the eight “limbs”.

    Of course, I would not dream of saying that hatha yoga is better than none.

    • ivan_the_mad

      Terrible…ly funny.

  • Newp Ort

    Jury’s still out on Christian yogurt.

  • kirthigdon

    Good analysis, Mark. I’ve heard some raise religious objections to Asiatic martial arts simply because of the custom of bowing to a picture of whatever sensei founded a particular school when going onto or leaving the mat. I’ve more of a problem with the pledge to the flag.
    Kirt Higdon

  • HornOrSilk

    Just imagine…. 1500 years ago some people were asking if Christians can engage in philosophy…..

  • Rosemarie

    +J.M.J+

    My Mom learned how to do yoga by watching a TV show called “Yoga for Health.” She never got deep into it and never subscribed to any Hindu or New Age beliefs; she was a lifelong Catholic. When I was a child she taught me some postures. I did it a little and although I was aware that it was associated with Hinduism, I didn’t
    learn it in a Hindu milieu and was never attracted to Hinduism because of it.

    In college, I came across a book called “Christian Yoga” by Jean-Marie Déchanet, O.S.B. It presents yoga within a Christian theological setting, explicitly rejecting the monism of Hindu philosophy. I started doing yoga again based on that book and once again, I never felt the overwhelming urge to do puja to Krishna or anything like that.

    I have occasionally returned to the practice at other times since then, but always within a Christian context. And again, it has not given me the urge to embrace Hinduism. So based on my experience, do I think it is safe for Christians to learn yoga? Well, if you learn it from a Christian source within a Christian theological setting, as I did, that should be fine. I never learned from a non-Christian guru or at an ashram or any place like that, so I can’t state that it would be perfectly safe to do that. I imagine that uninformed Christians could be led astray by the constant talk of past lives and such. So I cannot recommend that Christians learn it from a New Age or Hindu source, but a Christian source would most likely be fine.

    An online search will reveal a plethora of Christian-based yoga (or yoga-like)
    methods: Catholics ones like Yoga Prayer (Fr. Thomas Ryan CSP) and Evangelical ones with names like Yahweh Yoga, Holy Yoga, and Christoga (yeah, some of the names may be a little tacky). Other Evangelical fitness programs like Wholyfit and PraiseMoves advertise themselves as “Christian alternatives to yoga” and insist that they are not yoga even though many of the postures are basically the same. There are lots of books and DVDs available if anyone is interested. What it all boils down to, though, is incorporating various bodily postures, controlled breathing and the mental recitation of Christian prayers and/or Scripture verses.

  • Lynn

    I once opened a book of beginner yoga (after having done plenty of intermediate level videos) and discovered to my amusement that every basic gym stretch kids learn in school is technically yoga. That shut up my friends who didn’t believe yoga could be done without the spiritual component.

  • bob

    Is Christian Yoga like Christian Peanut Butter Making? Wow. I remember the rowing coach having us stretch, he had us do something he called “the butt stretcher” which he mentioned was a yoga thing. The “spirituality” escaped me. I think you find it where you want to.

  • Virginia Dz

    Hey Mark: I really appreciate your comments on this. We were having a discussion on this in the Dominican Laity Chapter. I will send your comments along to further the discussion.

  • Laurette Willis

    Coming from one who spent 22 years in yoga and New Age before coming to Christ – I hope this helps: http://praisemoves.com/calt – “Why A Christian ALTERNATIVE to yoga.” In addition, so-called “Christian yoga” is an oxymoron.

    TIME magazine article describes the viewpoint of Pope Benedict XVI when he was Cardinal Ratzinger:
    “Catholics face a more formidable skeptic. In 1989 the Vatican
    issued a document saying the practice of Eastern traditions like yoga
    ‘can degenerate into a cult of the body,’ warning Catholics against
    mistaking yoga’s ‘pleasing sensations’ for ‘spiritual well-being.’ It
    was signed by then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger–now Pope Benedict XVI. In a
    2003 document the Vatican further distances itself from New Age
    practices, including yoga.” – See more at: http://praisemoves.com/about-us/why-a-christian-alternative-to-yoga/#Hindus

    Many Hindus agree:
    Professor Subhas Tiwari of Hindu University of America.
    “The simple, immutable fact is that yoga originated from the Vedic or
    Hindu culture. Its techniques were not adopted by Hinduism, but
    originated from it… The effort to separate yoga from Hinduism
    must be challenged because it runs counter to the fundamental principles
    upon which yoga itself is premised…

    “Efforts to separate yoga from its spiritual center reveal ignorance of the goal of yoga.“ (HinduismToday.com – 9/1-3/09). – See more at: http://praisemoves.com/about-us/why-a-christian-alternative-to-yoga/#Hindus

    Thank you for allowing me to share. May God richly bless you,
    Laurette

  • Carol Weinstock

    Thanks so much for this. I did yoga for a while as a young mother and a very devout Catholic woman told me that our God is a jealous God and that yoga was essentially evil. It didn’t matter to her that I used the meditation time to pray or that it was beneficial to my very high stress level. I have been invited to numerous yoga classes and have hesitated to join for fear of offending God. I have always felt that if done with a mind and heart for God, there shouldn’t be a problem. Now, I feel like perhaps I could rejoin with a clear conscience.

  • Rosemarie

    +J.M.J+

    Hmm. It seems Laurette Willis, the founder of PraiseMoves (which I mentioned in my post below as an Evangelical alternative to yoga) has commented here. I encourage Catholics to read the passage she quotes from a CDF document in context. Here it is:

    “28. Some physical exercises automatically produce a feeling of quiet
    and relaxation, pleasing sensations, perhaps even phenomena of light and
    of warmth, which resemble spiritual well-being. To take such feelings
    for the authentic consolations of the Holy Spirit would be a totally
    erroneous way of conceiving the spiritual life. Giving them a symbolic
    significance typical of the mystical experience, when the moral
    condition of the person concerned does not correspond to such an
    experience, would represent a kind of mental schizophrenia which could
    also lead to psychic disturbance and, at times, to moral deviations.

    “That does not mean that genuine practices of meditation which come
    from the Christian East and from the great non-Christian religions,
    which prove attractive to the man of today who is divided and
    disoriented, cannot constitute a suitable means of helping the person
    who prays to come before God with an interior peace, even in the midst
    of external pressures.”

    The first paragraph does not mention yoga specifically and there are other meditative practices that could cause physical sensations as well. Christians really shouldn’t be seeking such “experiences” anyway; even valid consolations from God can become a hindrance if we start to seek such gifts rather than the Giver. So this is an important caution for everyone.

    Note that the second paragraph actually says that some non-Christian meditation practices can help a Christian “to come before God with an interior peace.” This means they can be used to quiet the mind and help focus on God, so as to prepare for true prayer, which is conversation with God. That would be the purpose of Christian yoga; it is not and end in itself but an aid toward attentiveness to our Father and Creator. We are not God, nor are we seeking to be absorbed into the Absolute or achieve Nirvana, so we should not approach yoga with that goal. All the more reason, perhaps, not to learn it from a non-Christian source.

    Here is a link to the entire original document, which I recommend reading:

    http://www.ewtn.com/library/curia/cdfmed.htm

  • flankus7

    False Prophet

    • chezami

      So if I prophesy that you are a living saint, where does that leave you? :)

  • wineinthewater

    I think you are essentially right Mark. But I think a few caveats are in order. We have to remember that the postures in Yoga were specifically created to embody and promote certain spiritual realities as held within that spiritual tradition. That connection remains even when the postures are used outside of their context. Now, the connection may be so weak at this point as to be inconsequential, but we should not ignore it entirely or deny the reality of embodied spirituality. And the other risk mentioned in this thread is also important. The good feelings produced by those postures are physical, not spiritual, and we have to be careful not to confuse it.

    When Christianity baptized things pagan, she did not just strip out their pagan context. She found what in the pagan context was compatible with Christianity and transformed it to actually express Christianity. If we want to talk about baptizing yoga, then this is what we need to do. Otherwise, there are plenty of other perfectly good stretching regimens to use.

    • Rosemarie

      +J.M.J+

      It’s interesting to note that many of the postures used in yoga today are not part of an ancient Hindu religious tradition passed down over many millenia. In fact, they are actually about 200 years old or less. See this article written by a yoga instructor:

      http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sadie-nardini/your-yoga-poses-arent-500_b_272821.html

      A key portion of the article:

      “There is a common misconception that stubbornly remains, which is that the yoga poses are thousands of years old, and that they have existed as one static teaching since the beginning of yoga time.

      “This could not be farther from the truth. Though a very few poses have been recorded in the ancient texts, they were all variations on seated or supine meditation postures. There was no Triangle, no Downward-Dog. Nope…not even a headstand. In fact, there is no evidence of a traditional practice of yoga postures handed down intact over millennia.

      “Yoga philosophy and directives about how to embark on a personal path of self-realization have been here for thousands of years. But a specific, holistic, yoga practice of physical and spiritual fitness simply didn’t exist before about 200 years ago. And no, I didn’t forget another zero on the end of that number.

      “That’s right: most of the poses we do in our yoga classes, whether our teacher is an Indian master or an American one, come from a much shorter lineage than we imagine.

      “The first workout-like practice of asanas, or poses, stem from the Sritattvanidhi, a book written in the early 1800′s by Mummadi Krishnaraja, a patron of Indian culture and arts.

      “The manual showcased 122 postures, like backbends and handstands, many of which we still practice today. However, some of the poses were clearly drawn from Indian gymnastics, such as what we know today as Chaturanga Dandasana. Shockingly to some, it wasn’t a sacred move handed down from, ancient yoga sages to enlighten the masses. It was a pushup gymnasts used to get stronger.

      “In the early 1900s, a yoga teacher named Krishnamacharya and later, his world-famous students, B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois, began to formulate their own takes on the Sritattvanidhi poses, and then some. Krishnamacharya pulled some moves straight from British gymnastics, which one of his main students Pattabhi Jois took forward, like the Pendant Pose jumpback of Ashtanga. BKS Iyengar, another famous student of Krishnamacharya’s, created his own, very different take on those poses, and he also added his own variations.

      “Iyengar and the others drew inspiration from the Astanga, or 8-limbed path set forth in the Yoga Sutras, but also from (often contradictory to the Sutras) sources like the Baghavad Gita and Upanisads. Though an inner spiritual tradition may be gleaned from these historic texts, as opaque and esoteric as they can be in their simplicity, the fact remains that the poses themselves were not set forth until much later.”

      This is another reason I’m not afraid of yogic postures. Many are drawn from British and Indian gymnastics!

      • Alias Clio

        Indeed. People often fail to understand that Western religious, philosophical and aesthetic traditions have influenced what used to be called “the East” as much as vice-versa. Why not Western forms of exercise as well?


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