It is a privilege to cross paths with friends who share Prepared to Answer’s goals of helping Christians think biblically about life and critically about culture. I am pleased to welcome Karen Bird as a guest contributor of this article. Karen is a wife and mother of three. She holds a BA in kinesiology from Western University and a Masters of Theological Studies from Tyndale Seminary. In addition to working in business alongside her husband, Karen sits on the board of Hope Story (formerly Kids Alive) and serves in various capacities at her church, North Park Community, in London, Ontario.
Yoga – should Christians practice it? Is yoga simply another exercise like aerobics or running, or could it possibly be a discipline linked with evil spiritual forces? Emotional reactions aside, in this two part article we will examine the truth about yoga in order to help us determine what our posture as Christians should be in response to this rapidly growing trend.
To begin, we must define and explain yoga before we can make any deductions about its use for Christians. ‘Yoga’ is a word that finds its origins in Hinduism, a religion so old that no one really knows when it began.1 ‘Yoga,’ is derived from a Sanskrit root ‘yuj,’ which is also the source for the word ‘yoke’ in English and is most commonly understood to mean ‘union.’2 The union that yoga teaches and guides towards is a union of the “finite transitory self” with what Hindus believe to be the “infinite eternal self”, Brahman (or God).3 Its aim is transforming human consciousness to experience Brahman.4
To the Hindu, Brahman is an impersonal, universal consciousness; a spiritual substance that is connected with all of reality.5 Some schools of Hindu thought attest that Brahman is “everywhere and inside each living being, [so that] there is connected spiritual oneness in all existence.”6 This doctrine is called pantheism, the view that everything is “God.”7 Hindus actively worship thousands or even millions of gods and goddesses – spirits, trees, animals, planets – all representing the many aspects of Brahman.8 Since yoga philosophy teaches that everything is “God,” (i.e. Brahman) it necessarily follows that man, too, is “God.”9 Hinduism’s aim for each person is unification of the soul with the “Supreme Spirit”, or the “divinity” within.10 The primary means of attaining this ultimate enlightenment and union, which achieves liberation and salvation for the individual, is through the disciplines of yoga.11
Around the second century AD, yoga was organized into eight distinct “limbs.” These eight limbs include: “yama (self-control), niyama (religious observances), asana (postures), pranayama (breathing exercises), pratyahara (sense control), dharana (concentration), dhyana (deep contemplation), and samadhi (enlightenment).”12 The yoga that we are most familiar with in the West is Hatha yoga, (limbs 3 and 4) which includes asana (postures) and pranayama (breathing exercises). Hatha yoga’s goal includes preparing the body, considered simply a “crude ‘layer’ of mind/spirit,”13 by suppressing physical obstacles and manipulating consciousness in the ultimate pursuit of enlightenment and union with Brahman.14 Its postures mimic animals and reflect other beings and gods, reminding the practitioner that the same “Universal Spirit” (Brahman) is in all.15 Hatha yoga’s goal is no different from the goal of the other six limbs of yoga, namely uniting the “self” with the “universal consciousness” which is Brahman.16
The ultimate experience of union with God that Hindus seek though the discipline of yoga is called “kundalini.” Traditionally, kundalini is understood as energy in the form of a coiled serpent that lies at the base of the spine. It is said to be awakened through meditation, chanting, and also through pranayama (the breathing of Hatha yoga) and asanas (the postures of Hatha yoga).17 When awakened, it reaches upward to the brain, at which point the yogi experiences “total absorption in the Godhead.”18 This is what yoga is all about – the divinity of humankind.19 Whether we believe this energy exchange happens or not, we are told that “according to the ancient texts, it is indeed the main aim – the asanas [postures] and the pranayama [breathing] really intend to produce the awakening of what is known as ‘kundalini power.'”20
Perhaps one could argue that the idea of a snake coiled in my spine is utter nonsense, not to mention the fact that as Christians, we have the Holy Spirit living in us, not serpents. To this, I wholeheartedly and gratefully agree, but this raises the question: If we believe that the Holy Spirit indwells us, then we are already convinced that there is a spiritual reality (i.e. the Holy Spirit) at work in our physical body. Why, then, is it such a stretch (pun intended) to believe that other spiritual realities (e.g. Kundalini) might also be at play? If the 1 billion members of the world’s third largest religion (Hinduism) are convinced through their own experience that spiritual powers exist and can be accessed through disciplines like yoga, why are Christians so quick to dismiss the idea or assume they will not be affected? Should we not exercise caution when making judgments about which spiritual forces we think (or prefer to) exist? Ephesians 6 is clear about the very real presence of spiritual forces of evil including its rulers, authorities and powers (6:12); not to mention a scheming devil (6:11); while Revelations 9 indicates that demon worship actually happens (20:20). And Ephesians 4 reminds us to be wary of deceitful desires and exhorts us to stop living like outsiders who give themselves over to sensuality (the pursuit of physical pleasure), which in this case could arguably include the feelings of tension/relaxation and the self-satisfaction and pride that comes from a ‘Zen’ mind and body. Furthermore, Colossians 2:8 calls believers to protect themselves from being taken “captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.” This exhortation assumes a few things: first, that spiritual forces exist in the world; second, that hollow and deceptive philosophy exists and is a real, not imagined danger; and third, that it’s possible to be taken captive.
“But, isn’t yoga just stretching,” we might prefer to reason? Yoga authorities (without a Christian bias) Feuerstein and Miller don’t think so. They assert that the yoga postures (asana) and breathing exercises (pranayama), are not simply physical exercise but are “psychosomatic exercises” – meaning there is a very real, and not imagined, mind-body connection.21 We are told “certain physical exercises/disciplines may indeed have dramatic impact on the psyche.”22 Furthermore, many hold the view that postural yoga is “functionally incapable of being separated from Eastern religious metaphysics.”23 Dr. John Weldon asserts that asanas cannot be strictly isometrics/calisthenics because it is simply not their nature.24
Subhas Tiwari is a professor of yoga philosophy and meditation at the Hindu University of America in Orlando, Florida (where you can get your doctorate in Yoga if you’d like). Their homepage mission statement reads, “At Hindu University of America (HUA) the transforming and enriching practical wisdom of Yoga, Meditation, Sanskrit, Ayurveda, Hindu Philosophy, Vedanta, Vaastu, and Astrology is delivered in a contemporary manner to be applied in the modern world.”25 Mr Tiwari plainly admits “Yoga is Hinduism.”26 If the Hindus are confident on this score, why do we as Christians try to convince ourselves otherwise? Just because we want asanas (yogic postures) to be separated from their Hindu spiritual component does not mean that they can or will be. Dr. John Weldon rightly questions, “If yoga is religious by definition, and asanas are one of the eight limbs of yoga, are not asanas religious by definition?”27 Do we know how asanas or pranayama interface with individual consciousness or the spiritual world? No. But just because we don’t understand how it happens doesn’t mean that we can deny or dismiss its reality.
Next week in Part 2 we will discuss why Christians are opening themselves up to error and real spiritual harm when they assume that the physical acts of yoga can be safely divested of their spiritual nature.
1. Das, Subhamoy. “Hinduism For Beginners”. about religion. Accessed Jan 17, 2016http://hinduism.about.com/od/basics/p/hinduismbasics.htm.
2. Burnett, David. The Spirit of Hinduism: A Christian Perspective on Hindu Thought. Tunbridge Wells: Monarch, 1992.
3. Gleghorn, Michael. “Yoga and Christianity: Are They Compatible? – A Biblical Worldview Perspective” Probe Ministries, May 27, 2002. Accessed Jan 17, 2016. https://www.probe.org/yoga-and-christianity-are-they-compatible/.
4. Robaina, Holly Vicente. “The Truth About Yoga.” Today’s Christian Woman. Accessed Jan 17, 2016.http://www.todayschristianwoman.com/articles/2005/march/truth-about-yoga.html?start=5.
5. “What is the Christian view of Yoga?” Accessed Jan 17, 2016. http://www.gotquestions.org/Christian-yoga.html.
6. Wikipedia. “Brahman.” Accessed Jan 17, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brahman
7. “What is the Christian view of Yoga?” Accessed Jan 17, 2016. http://www.gotquestions.org/Christian-yoga.html.
8. Das, Subhamoy. “Hinduism For Beginners.”
9. Gleghorn, “Yoga and Christianity: Are They Compatible? https://www.probe.org/yoga-and-christianity-are-they-compatible/.
10. Weldon, Dr. John F. “Yogasanas: physical postures, spiritual method or both?” Apologetics Index. Accessed Jan 17, 2016. http://www.apologeticsindex.org/y06aa.html.
11. Enroth, Ronald, ed. A Guide to New Religious Movements. Downer’s Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2005, 43.
12. Gleghorn, “Yoga and Christianity: Are They Compatible? https://www.probe.org/yoga-and-christianity-are-they-compatible/.
13. Weldon, Dr. John F. “Yogasanas: physical postures, spiritual method or both?”
14. Gleghorn, “Yoga and Christianity: Are They Compatible? https://www.probe.org/yoga-and-christianity-are-they-compatible/.
15. Veinot, Don. “My Yoga is Easy: Hinuization of Christianity.” Midwest Christian Outreach Inc. Accessed Jan 17, 2016. http://midwestoutreach.org/2007/10/04/my-yoga-is-easy-hinduization-of-christianity/.
16. Gleghorn, “Yoga and Christianity: Are They Compatible?
17. Wikipedia. “Kundalini.” Accessed Jan 17, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kundalini.
18. Gleghorn, “Yoga and Christianity: Are They Compatible?
20. Downs, William. “The Spiritual Deception of Yoga.” Christian Assemblies International, Wednesday, April 21, 2010. Accessed Jan 17, 2016. https://www.cai.org/testimonies/spiritual-deception-yoga.
21. Gleghorn, “Yoga and Christianity: Are They Compatible?
22. Weldon, Dr. John F. “Yogasanas: physical postures, spiritual method or both?” Apologetics Index. citing cf. Somatics: Magazine-Journal of the Mind/Body Arts and Sciences (1976-) ; Journal of Bodywork & Movement Therapies (1995-)
23. Gleghorn, “Yoga and Christianity: Are They Compatible?
24. Weldon, Dr. John F. “Yogasanas: physical postures, spiritual method or both?”
25. Hindu University of America, “Homepage.” Accessed Jan 17, 2016. http://www.hua.edu.
26. Hall, J. R. “A Stretch into the Occult: A Christian’s Response to Yoga.” Accessed Jan 17, 2016. http://www.bereanwatchmen.com/index.php/homepage/about-us/8-bwm-articles/21-a-stretch-into-the-occult-a-christian-s-response-to-yoga.
27. Weldon, Dr. John F. “Yogasanas: physical postures, spiritual method or both?”