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.
Christians, those who live by faith and not by sight, should know better than anyone that there is, without a doubt, a spiritual aspect of life that cannot be seen but can certainly be experienced. We practice many things that appear simply physical but which we know have much more than a physical affect: praying, meeting together with other believers, reading scripture, partaking in communion, singing and raising our hands – all physical actions which we trust to affect both our spirit and God’s. Ouija boards, tarot cards, astrology signs and symbols are also simply physical realities, but we know that they have significant spiritual implications connected to them – dangerous ones that ensnare and trip up rather than give life. Eve in the garden of Eden participated in a seemingly purely physical act – reaching for and consuming a piece of fruit, but there was a deeply spiritual implication associated with it that had lasting consequences for all of mankind.28 We could go on to make the case with other things. For example, why is adultery wrong? It could be argued that it’s just a physical activity, with some definite pleasurable benefits. But we all know that there’s more to it than that. The bottom line is that our physical actions are linked with our minds, our emotions, our will, and with the spiritual realm around us.
Now, does this assume that if I bend down to collect a pot from the cupboard and accidentally perform a stretch that mirrors a yogic pose I am left open to a chance encounter with the demonic? This is not what I am saying at all. But if I know that yoga postures are based around union with ‘gods’ outside of Christ, will I actively choose to go out of my way to imitate the poses of those who practice this? In Deut 18:9 we find instructions for the Israelites who are claiming their promised land. It states: “When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there.” It goes on to provide examples of religious practices (physical actions that have spiritual implications) that were absolutely out of bounds for a people called out to be set apart and different. Although there is nothing sinful about stretching, we need to keep in mind that “yoga isn’t really about that; it’s aimed at transforming human consciousness to experience the Hindu god, which is a false god.”29
The question becomes, is it possible for a Christian to isolate the physical aspects of yoga as simply a method of exercise, without incorporating the spirituality or philosophy behind it?30 I’ve heard it argued that in the case of Naaman, a man healed of leprosy by Elisha in 2 Kings 5, he was given the freedom to bow before the god Rimmon in order to assist his master, suggesting that the physical posture of bowing holds no power for those whose hearts are set on God. However, in this case, it is obvious that Naaman is fully aware that bowing before a false deity is, without a doubt, a faulty practice for those dedicated to Yahweh. And yet it is under compulsion by his master that he must bow, so he requests pardon and forgiveness to do so – indicating a heart that recognizes it as wrong, doesn’t want to bow, and certainly would not if given the choice. Are Christians who practice yoga doing so under threat of death? Are they offering a service to a Hindu who needs assistance? Do they feel the need to ask God’s forgiveness each time they bow? And if so, why not just choose an alternate activity?
Another common response to yoga’s use for Christians is the discussion of ‘food sacrificed to idols’ that we find in 1 Corinthians 8. Some suggest that according to Paul, we are permitted to eat this kind of meat now – and to take advantage of the useful things from other religions for our benefit. Based on this, they may assume that yoga is free for the taking as well. Well, let’s take a closer look.
If we look closely, it’s clear from Acts 15:19-20, 28-31 and 21:25 that abstaining from meat sacrificed to idols was “considered a minimal, basic requirement for all Christians” right along with abstaining from consuming blood and the meat of strangled animals, and practicing sexual immorality.31 The new Gentile believers didn’t have to get circumcised, but they did have to stop eating meat sacrificed to idols. In Revelation 2:14-16, the letter to the church in Pergamum reaffirms this foundational teaching – eating meat sacrificed to idols was not okay, and was considered as heinous as sexual immorality. It’s when we get to 1 Corinthians 8 that things get a little fuzzy – and this is because we must also look a little further down the letter in 1 Corinthians 10 to finish off Paul’s thought. Paul was writing to the Christians in Corinth, who apparently were arguing that eating meat sacrificed to idols was okay since idols are not real. Opening up the dialogue in 8:1-2, Paul sets the stage by warning about arrogance from knowledge and reminds the church that all our actions should be based on love.32 He goes on to assert that in theory, eating this kind of meat should be okay since idols are not real (8:4-8, 10:19) but out of love for others no one should do it (8:8-13, 10:23-24). By chapter 10, Paul is more explicit on the matter as he exhorts his readers to flee idolatry (10:14), not because of the idols themselves, but because of the very real-ness of demons, who end up as the true recipients of the offering (10:18-21). Paul reveals that when they knowingly eat food sacrificed to idols, they are actually participants with demons (10:16-21) – an interesting look into the spiritual implications of this very physical practice. Furthermore, knowingly eating food sacrificed to idols (demons) provokes God to jealousy. He goes on to conclude that if you’re not sure about the food on your plate, don’t worry about it (10:24-30), but as far as it depends on you, don’t do it (10:23, 10:32-33)!33 Paul concludes that the arrogant will continue to declare his “right to do anything,” (10:23) a faulty understanding of identity in Jesus Christ that should be marked by saying no to self’s wants out of love for God and others. It is “clear from reading Paul’s letters that we need to make sure to not be seen as participating in the rituals of other religions in any way.”34 Identity in Jesus Christ demanded different practices – and still does today.
Although an entire topic in and of itself, we should also be aware of the influence of postmodernity on the way we think about the use of yoga by Christians. Postmodernism, a way of thinking unconsciously embraced by the current generation due to numerous historical and societal factors, is “characterized by broad skepticism… relativism;”35 and a suspicion of any truth claim.36 Postmodernism influences people to render everyone’s choices as valid, true, right. The idea of absolute truth is certainly questioned if not discouraged. In this way, postmodern thinking leads to a tendency to mix and match elements of religions to create a spirituality of our liking. But Douglas Groothuis warns against this kind of logical inconsistency. He states:
If it “works” for someone to combine elements of Hinduism (the practice of yoga) and Christianity (church attendance, the golden rule and prayer), one need not worry about intellectual consistency or spiritual fidelity to an ancient tradition or revealed authority. But this smorgasbord approach lacks intellectual integrity because it makes religious belief something to use instead of something to discover and live by.37
The bottom line is that yoga (whether we wish it to be or not), is the definitive practice of Hinduism, firmly rooted in its philosophy and spirituality. How then can Christians – who have the Spirit of Christ living within us – willingly participating in it?
Dr. John F. Weldon concludes his thoughts on yoga practice in the following way:
“given the following – the intentional psychospiritual impact of the asanas, the opposite worldviews of Christianity and Hinduism, the pagan nature of Hinduism and the Biblical prohibitions against paganism (belief & practice), … and the Biblical teachings on the subtleties of spiritual deception/warfare – then one would logically have to advise caution over mere practice of the asanas [yoga postures]”.38 We are also warned that viewing “yoga as a spiritually neutral practice is to ignore 5,000 years of teaching that the physical body is a virtual gateway to spiritual perfection and enlightenment.”39 Groothuis declares “Christian yoga” an oxymoron, affirming instead that “yoga is rooted in Hinduism and cannot be separated from it.”40
We must think long and hard about the implications of how we use our physical bodies, and how this relates us back to the One who created us to fear and to love Him with every aspect of our being. God calls us to live with humble submission and service as a new people in every aspect of life within his kingdom. At the same time, we can certainly remember that we don’t define Christianity by the things that we don’t participate in. But we cannot, nor should not, dismiss this topic because it is difficult or controversial, or less important than other topics. Christians are called to sharpen one another to prevent the continual undermining of the riches we have in Christ, or the degradation and stripping away of our calling as the people of God. May we unwrap ourselves from every thing that entangles so that we can run with perseverance the race God has marked out for us.
28. Downs, William. “The Spiritual Deception of Yoga.” https://www.cai.org/testimonies/spiritual-deception-yoga.
29. 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.
30. “What is the Christian view of Yoga?” Accessed Jan 17, 2016. http://www.gotquestions.org/Christian-yoga.html.
31. Choose Your Beliefs. “The Wheaton College Yoga Class.” Sept 11, 2008. Accessed Jan 17, 2016. http://www.chooseyourbeliefs.com/2008/09/wheaton-college-yoga-class.html.
35. Duignan, Brian. “Postmodernism.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Accessed Jan 17, 2016. http://www.britannica.com/topic/postmodernism-philosophy.
36. Crouch, Andy. “What Exactly Is Postmodernism?” Christianity Today. Accessed Jan 17, 2016. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2000/november13/8.76.html.
37. Groothuis, Douglas. Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case For Biblical Faith. Downer’s Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2011, 131.
38. Weldon, Dr. John F. “Yogasanas: physical postures, spiritual method or both?” Apologetics Index. Accessed Jan 17, 2016. http://www.apologeticsindex.org/y06aa.html.
39. Enroth, Ronald, ed. A Guide to New Religious Movements.
40. Groothuis, Douglas. Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case For Biblical Faith. Downer’s Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2011.