If you know the origins of yoga, you can see why some Christians view it as a controversial practice. Many cite its pagan origins – they believe the stretching part is OK, but everything else that comes with it isn’t. On the other hand, many Christians have had life-changing experiences with yoga, as it’s offered them relief from physical and emotional ailments that they had trouble combating through other methods. How should followers of Christ respond to this ancient practice and should they withhold from one of today’s most popular fitness trends?
Before we dive into the answer, it’s important to understand what yoga is and its origins. According to WebMD, yoga is a “total mind-body workout that combines strengthening and stretching poses with deep breathing and mediation or relaxation.” Much of yoga has to do with stretching muscles, building and strengthening through a series of postures and poses coordinated with deep breathing. The benefits include increased flexibility, improved muscle tone, calmness and lower stress. To many people, including Christians the practice has many positive aspects. We know from Scripture that God made our bodies and charged us with taking good care of them. The distaste for yoga by some Christians has to do more with its focus on a state of being, popularly known as mindfulness. Mindfulness in yoga is defined as focusing one’s awareness on the present moment. In other words, it’s paying attention to what’s around you without getting hooked on the past or worrying about the future.
Now, the origins of yoga are obscure but it is thought to have been developed in India over thousands of years as a form of physical and spiritual practice geared towards enlightenment. Yoga was first introduced to the U.S. in the 1890s by a Hindu monk and became popular in the Hollywood in the 1950s. Only a decade later, yoga was a part of the 1960s counterculture. Today, there are more than 100 types of yoga from “power yoga” and “hot yoga,” most of these being Western creations. Today, yoga is a booming industry, generating $10 billion a year in classes and claiming 20 million practitioners. America has shifted yoga as a brand, watering down particular elements and ignoring many of its Western practices. So the question becomes does yoga’s origins in Eastern philosophy mean that Christians shouldn’t participate in it?
No, and here’s why. Yes, yoga has Eastern origins but roots don’t determine everything. There are a number of holidays and traditions we celebrate including Mardi Gras, Valentine’s Day, Birthdays that have pagan origin, or elements of paganism. Many of these are celebrated by Christian culture and embraced by common culture. How many of us put up Christmas trees to celebrate the birth of Christ? According to Encyclopedia Britannica and other sources, the origins of the Christmas tree are closely tied to pagan winter rites and even tree worship among pre-Christian Europeans. Christians took something that had been used in pagan origin and re-interpreted it, giving it new meaning as a symbol of Christian faith. This is similar to what has been done with yoga – it has been reinterpreted to fit the needs of those who are practicing it. Just as in the case of Christmas trees and many other holidays we love, yoga can be re-interpreted to benefit followers of Christ.
Another thing that many Christians who are anti-yoga fail to realize is that mindfulness isn’t necessarily Hindu. Many early Christian spiritual teachers taught their disciples to develop something they called nespis, which means to be wakeful and attentive and to watch what was around them. Jesus calls us to let go of worry and anxiety by being awake, alert and paying attention to our surroundings. Jesus tells us, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or at your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your Heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” In this text, Jesus calls us to look at the birds and consider the lilies, to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.
If you’re Christian and are interested in practicing yoga, focus on the positive aspects of yoga and downplay the remnants of an Eastern worldview. You can do this a number of ways. First, re-interpret anything that makes you feel uncomfortable. In many yoga classes, sessions will end with hands in a prayer position saying “Namaste” an ancient Sanskrit greeting meaning, “My true self bows to your true self.” You can opt to say, “Thank you,” to the instructor instead. If you are called in a yoga session to focus on “the universe” or “nothingness” focus on Jesus instead. Yoga can be turned into a time of prayerful meditation and closeness with God. This is also especially useful given Christian meditation is a practice that many don’t do today, but should. Jesus can be a part of your workout routine.