A few weeks ago I saw a Christian college’s student handbook which prohibited students from practicing yoga, referring to it as a “ritual of Eastern mysticism” that denies the truth of God’s Word. Then just the other day Paul Tripp posted a video discussing whether followers of Christ can practice yoga. He emphasized separating the “errant philosophy” of Eastern mysticism from the healthful benefits of yoga’s exercises which we can experience due to “common grace.” Common grace means that something designed or offered by a non-Christian can still be helpful to us, like having a non-Christian physician. Unfortunately, though, I believe his focus on common grace fell short in addressing the concern of many Christians. One commenter on the video objected: “the sequence of yoga stretches are demonic and is worship to gods… stretching is not yoga but yoga is demonic. Period.” Another person agreed: “The poses of yoga are designed to worship/imitate their false gods.” Ten years ago, Al Mohler wrote that “the embrace of yoga is a symptom of our postmodern spiritual confusion”, not because of the poses, per se, but because of the meditation element which has a spiritual end. Since this has popped up for me a couple times recently and since people seem to either assume it’s a no-brainer than Christians can practice yoga or that it is clearly demonic, I thought it would be helpful to consider here.
So the question is: Is it possible to do yoga for exercise without being wrapped up in a misguided or even idolatrous philosophy? Is yoga false god worship?
If you read a brief history of modern yoga in the West, it is clear that modern “yoga as exercise” has been so changed and commodified during the 20th century, that in many cases the slow, low-impact gymnastic exercises and stretches for building muscle and bone strength bear little resemblance to yoga’s early days in India centuries ago. (This is further evidenced by the fact that there is a movement to “take back” yoga to its Hindu roots since now much of yoga has no spiritual component whatsoever.) I think it is rather misleading that “yoga for exercise” variants without the mystical elements are even called “yoga”. This is like calling a group that meets on Sundays and sings folk songs and reads poems a “church”; there may be some superficial resemblance to a church service but certainly a different term would be more appropriate since all signs of Christianity are absent from such a gathering. Likewise, calling such a large range of things “yoga” has led to some confusion about whether most or all yoga in the West contains problematic—even sinful—elements of Eastern religions.
Admittedly, I have wondered about these things since I worked briefly in a day program where the patients did yoga every day but I never saw exactly what they did. By way of full disclosure, there is a children’s yoga lady on YouTube that our children sometimes have watched (especially during quarantine when we needed a large spectrum of activities to keep them engaged and active inside during the 100+ degree days here in Southeast Asia). She tells children’s stories with corresponding actions, such as pretending they are animals on a farm or in the jungle. Although I would not necessarily endorse every video of hers, those we have screened appear to be suitable content for our children on occasion because there is no transcendental meditation or reference to false gods. Likewise, not all forms of adult yoga for exercise contain transcendental meditation. However, there are, indeed, some forms of yoga which do practice these unbiblical types of meditation, such as looking for answers inside yourself or emptying your mind of all thoughts to reach a transcendent state of tranquility. For Christians, our meditation is on Scripture (Psalm 1:2, 19:4) and true peace does not come from emptying our minds but is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22) as we are transformed in order to have the mind of Christ (Phil 2:5). Thus, any yoga incorporating transcendental meditation should be avoided by Christians.
So if we see that there are kinds of commercialized yoga which have no mystical meditation or overtly “spiritual” elements (as is the case with much of the American money-making yoga industry), the question remains: Since at least a few of these poses came about in relation to false gods, is it possible for a specific pose to somehow be paying homage to that false god? (We will overlook the fact that many famous yoga poses were not even invented until fairly recently for yoga as exercise.)
If we turn to 1st Corinthians 8, Paul’s main point here is that people who know (correctly) that they have Christian liberty to eat any meat should not flaunt this such that they wound the consciences of former idol worshipers who are now Christians. He is focusing on loving our brothers, but the specific example he gives here is also instructive. Some people were eating food that had been offered to idols, even sometimes at a banquet in an idol’s temple (verse 10), which perhaps a Christian might be invited to by a friend. There might also be situations where someone could buy food in a market that had recently been used in an idolatrous ceremony, or a Christian could be invited to a friend’s house for a meal to eat such dubious meat.
Regardless of the exact scenario, Paul says that even if meat had been used to worship a false god, this doesn’t mean it can’t be eaten by Christians. Wow, really? To many of us I’m sure that sounds kind of creepy. Yet Paul explains that this meat was still on the table, shall we say, for Christians because “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” (1 Cor 8:4-6). Paul confirms that the meat would not—could not—defile a Christian since the false gods are nonexistent and therefore it was meaningless that the meat had been “consecrated” or sacrificed to a god that doesn’t exist. It had might as well have been consecrated to Santa or the Easter Bunny. The mere eating of meat, even that which had been used for false god worship, was a morally neutral event and not an act of idolatry: “Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do” (1 Cor 8:8). (What made the act move from moral neutrality to sin was when people abused this knowledge of their freedom, leading to conscience violations by other Christians who worried they could inadvertently be paying homage to false gods [1 Cor 8:1-2, 9-13; Romans 14:20-23]).
I believe that here we have a useful biblical basis to answer our question. Does the Bible prohibit certain kinds of exercise or stretches? No. We have every reason to believe that stretching and exercising with various movements or poses are, in and of themselves, morally neutral, like shaking hands or driving a car or eating meat. So then, if these poses or movements have been overtly separated from mystical religious practices like transcendental meditation, are they still sinful (idolatrous) if some people somewhere have associated some of the movements with false religion? Admittedly, we should not be harsh with others who disagree and we should be fully convinced in our own mind so we do not violate our own conscience (Rom 14:5). But what Paul says here is that we know that false gods are no gods at all, and thus we are not worshiping them when we are doing something that is otherwise morally neutral like standing with your hands above your head or sitting down with your hands on your knees.
And even while we should not superstitiously ascribe demonic power to something which has no such power, there is still wisdom to be applied here. If you are considering trying yoga for the purpose of exercise, you should know what kind of yoga it is and what the components of the class are. I have never tried yoga myself, but now that I live in a Buddhist country, I would definitely not go to a yoga class unless I knew exactly what I was getting into. There is a relatively high likelihood in this part of the world that a yoga class would incorporate Eastern mystical elements such as transcendental meditation which I could not participate in. Even in the Western world it is best for Christians to have full awareness of what to expect so they are not violating their conscience or doing something unbiblical like meditating on a meaningless mantra. And together we can all rejoice that there is only “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” (1 Cor 8:4-6). Thanks be to God!