Controversy! Thoughts on Christians Doing Yoga

There is a lot of controversy surrounding the U.S. Presidential election, especially for Evangelicals who, for the first time in my memory, are divided over what to do with the highest office in the nation. Dr. Russell Moore and Dr. Albert Mohler (SBC Head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and Seminary President respectively) said that they would be voting for third party candidates. Dr. Wayne Grudem and author Eric Metaxas have argued that in light of the evils of Hilary Clinton’s policies on abortion and religious liberty, as well as her well-documented political corruption (thanks Wikileaks) that one is morally obligated to vote for Donald Trump in spite of the (at best) offensive language and (at worse) potentially admitting to and bragging about sexual assault. Other evangelical old-guard leaders like Jerry Falwell Jr. have a more unqualified support for Mr. Trump. I was astonished to find out that Max Lucado and Thabiti Anyabwile have come out in favor of former-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the grounds of predictability and as a stand against Donald Trump.

There is much controversy, in fact there is so much controversy that many people don’t want to talk about the election any more. I find that totally understandable, so I have decided to try and provoke controversy on the basis of a completely different question. Try this when your Christian friends bring up the election.

Your friend: “Who are you going to vote for, I mean I just don’t think there is a viable candidate.”

You: “The election? You’re thinking about the election? Why bother with that when increasing numbers of Americans are participating in a (potentially) pagan worship practice? What do you think about the viability of Christians doing yoga?

Yoga

That’s right, in an attempt to distract myself and any voluntary readers from the dismal and depressing political situation we find ourselves in, I am turning to the question of yoga. Is it okay for Christians to do yoga?

The first question we have to ask is how to define yoga. If you assume you know what yoga is because you go to the yoga class at your local gym situated in some cultural hub like Austin, LA, San Francisco, or Manhattan, then you are being highly uncritical. That is similar to thinking you pray because you “send good vibes” or “think positive thoughts” when you read on Facebook that a ‘friend’ is sick. So let’s begin with the question what is yoga?

The history is a bit patch work and speculative, but it appears it developed first as a Hindu practice and then shortly after as a Buddhist practice sometime in the fifth and sixth century in India. Yoga was understood to be a discipline with a physical, spiritual, and mental side to it. The physical side of yoga is pretty obvious, it uses various stretches to build flexibility, stamina, and muscle strength. The spiritual side is also well known, the pursuit of calm and smooth movements are meant to facilitate an openness to the spiritual realm (dualistic worldview). During this openness one can meditate on a text or thought, one can pray silently to a deity or spirit, or one can allow their mind to wander and try to either forget or relinquish mental stress as the stretching relieves physical stress. This latter practice is more common in Buddhist yoga. Mentally, yoga is considered an epistemological (the study of knowledge) discipline. Yoga frees the mind to meditate on problems and specifically pursue a new perception (try and understand the problem from a different perspective), make a new inference (attempt to find another possible answer or conclusion), or consider a new authority (mediate on the words of an expert).

There are lot of nuances to yoga depending on the various schools and yogis and religious emphasis. Generically speaking, however, the definition of yoga is found in the intersection of the physical, spiritual, and epistemological aspects of eastern mystical traditions.

Can Christians Do Yoga?

Here is where the water gets murky. The easy answer is no, Christians cannot and should not participate in the Hindi and Buddhist practice of yoga. However, as is usually the case, the easy answer is often too reductive and sees the issues as overly simplistic. When Christians want to participate in yoga, they are not desiring to participate in a pagan worship ritual, but are seeking the physical benefits, communal engagement, and meditative lifestyle that accompanies yoga. So the real question is not can Christians participate in yoga, but is there a kind of yoga-lite that offers the benefits and avoids the pagan aspects. This question has been answered a few different ways.

One answer was put forward by author and journalist Stefanie Syman is that yoga cannot be serrated from its mystical roots, and that the rise of yoga participation in America has a correlation to various troubling social trends (like sexual libertinism) and the increase of the western New Age movement. Religious studies professor Dr. Candy Gunther Brown backs up Syman’s findings in her own book Healing Gods: Complementary and Alternative Medicine in America, suggesting that yoga has impacted evangelical Christianity by promoting a dangerous syncretism that augments Christian spirituality in troubling ways. This is also the point of Lisa Miller’s Newsweek article from December 2009, “We Are All Hindus Now”. Christian theologians and apologists like Dr. Albert Mohler (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary), Dr. Douglas Groothuis (Denver Seminary), and Dr. Michael Horton (Westminster Seminar) have cautioned against yoga as subversive to Christian spirituality on this and alike evidence.

Another answer is to baptize yoga into, I hate this name so much, chroga (CHRistian yoGA). There is a chroga program, though I have been told it is unpopular. The idea however is popular. Notably, Rosaria Champaign Butterfield, an author and pastor’s wife who has found notoriety for her books (Secret Thoughts from an Unlikely Convert and Openness Unhindered) chronicling her conversion to Christianity (specifically in the conservative Presbyterian denomination called The Orthodox Presbyterian Church) from being a liberal-feminist-lesbian tenured literature professor of feminist and queer theory. Dr. Butterfield uses yoga as part of her home school curriculum physical education units. The general idea here, is if Syman and Dr. Brown are right about the spiritual and physical aspects of yoga being inseparable, maybe we can exchange the pagan spirituality with Christian spirituality by praying to God and meditating on scripture during our yoga sessions.

The final answer, only rarely espoused by evangelicals (and then it is usually limited to the evangelical let), is that yoga is fine as a merely physical exercise. You don’t need to meditate or anything, just play some calming music and do the stretches.

I have held each of these positions at one time or another. I think there are very valid points in each argument.

  • Dr. Mohler cites the Golden Calf and discusses the need for right and proper worship of God, thus rejecting the idea that a pagan practice can be brought cleanly into Christian spirituality.
  • Dr. Horton points out how the lack of theological knowledge by modern evangelicals leaves them without the necessary theological anti-bodies to fight off syncretism (thus affirming that it may be possible for some, but it shouldn’t be publicly endorsed because we may stumble are weaker brothers).
  • Other Christians comment on the freedom in Christ and how they have felt connected to God during their time in meditation and yoga. Some Christians have commented on yoga helping them meditate for longer periods than they are usually able due to their ADHD.
  • In some cases, Christians with various auto-immune disorders have cited yoga as the primary manner their are able to get exercise and maintain some muscle strength.
  • In one case I have heard a Christian argue that Football is rarely questioned by Christians as a viable form of exercise and activity, but football players rarely make quality role models, the NFL is driven by worship of the pagan god maman (worship of money), and the sport is so violent that it can have long term consequences on the physical and mental health of the players.
  • Christians in support of the third position often argue that we stretch before workouts and playing sports, yet those positions seem to have no spiritual connotations so why would yoga? In response to this point some Christians have pointed to the shrinking amount of atheists in the western world and the growing amount of New Age believers who often cite yoga as their first experience with New Age thought.

Some Quick Questions

Here are some questions for reflection as you consider this issue:

  • If you believe yoga is problematic:
    • Have you researched yoga and compared it to what is practiced by various gyms and yoga studios? I wonder if you would find significant differences in terminology, stretches, etc.. In other words, is westernized yoga really yoga?
    • How do you stretch and are you sure that does not have pagan roots?
    • Most believe many Christian holiday traditions came from the co-opting of pagan practices by missionaries who sought to contextualize to the cultures they wanted to reach, as such have you reflected on your holiday traditions?
  • If you think yoga can be redeemed:
    • Can you do yoga in public, with non-Christians?
    • How does yoga differ from the Golden Calf or the “high places” spoken about in the Old Testament?
    • How can yoga be removed from its pagan tradition? Can other eastern practices be so as well (i.e. mindfulness of Buddhism or Kama Sutra or Hinduism)?
  • If you think yoga can be purely physical:
    • Then why call it yoga? Only doing the stretches would not classify as yoga?
    • Can yoga stretches be made up?
    • Have you studied eastern yoga and considered how it is used and its purpose in the eastern traditions?

As I tell my students, its not that we agree that is important, but that you thought about it.

Thanks for reading,

t.d.h.

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