Christian Yoga?

Is “Christian yoga” an oxymoron?  Influential Evangelical thinker R. Albert Mohler certainly thinks so.  His September, 2010 blog post on the topic was picked up by Yahoo news and started a media-driven debate, especially among Christians.

Mohler is essentially correct—the most commonly practiced forms of Yoga emerge from a largely unbiblical worldview and involve spiritual ideas and practices that cannot, as a whole, be reconciled with biblical Christianity.  While he has no objection to specific Yoga poses per se, he rejects the idea that the physical components of Yoga can be separated from the spiritual.  In a subsequent post, he writes:

I have heard from a myriad of Christians who insist that their practice of yoga involves absolutely no meditation, no spiritual direction, no inward concentration, and no thought element. Well, if so, you are simply not practicing yoga. You may be twisting yourselves into pretzels or grasshoppers, but if there is no meditation or direction of consciousness, you are not practicing yoga, you are simply performing a physical exercise. Don’t call it yoga.

Mohler traces a bit of the history and philosophy of yoga, pointing out that much of yoga practice has involved the channeling of sexual energy to unite with spiritual entities.  And Mohler’s fears that this practice could bring harm to Christians are justified.  The word yoga means “yoked,” and the theme of yoga throughout its various forms is the idea of being yoked to the spiritual.  A Christian walking into a traditional yoga class may be at risk of being yoked not to Jesus, but rather to a demonic spirit.

This sounds scary, but is yoga all bad?  Is there a baby in the bathwater?  We learn in bible school and seminary that there are two sources of knowledge or revelation.  We call them “general” and “special” revelation.  General revelation consists of what we know to be true by observing the world around us.  Most true knowledge in fields like science, math, architecture, astronomy, etc. fall into this category.  Special revelation is what we learn when God directly communicates to us, e.g. the Bible.  But regardless of how it comes to us, if anything is true in this world, God established it.  God not only rescued the Israelites out of Egypt and fed the five-thousand from a few loaves and fish, but also invented the laws of nature that we discover through scientific inquiry.  The architect who designed my house did not learn the truths of architecture from the Bible, but through general revelation.  Yet God is their author.

In a response to Albert Mohler, John Mark Reynolds from Biola University argues that Mohler lacks imagination in this regard. He raises questions like: Are there any benefits at all from yoga practice?  Could there be benefits if yoga was practiced differently?  If yoga contains any spiritual and physical truths, then didn’t those truths come from God and therefore are intended for our benefit?

Reynolds writes that we need to

find faithful men and women who can appropriate what is good, true, and beautiful in yoga and turn it to Christ. It was Christ who gave men of old the insight to do good through yoga and devils that corrupted that insight into a false religion.
While certainly yoga has brought spiritual harm to many, if there is any truth in yoga—and the fact that so many throughout history have experienced some benefit from it suggests there could be—then whatever truths are there can be rescued from the enemy and turned into tools in Christ’s kingdom.
Consider spiritual disciplines that Christians also practice: prayer, fasting, raising hands or kneeling in worship, singing, solitude, silence, etc.  These very practices could also be used by members of false religions and offered to demons with destructive results.  But we don’t discard them simply because non-Christians have also used them.
Reynolds explains poignantly:

A brick may be used in a pagan temple, but then reverently placed in a Christian church. A cave may be used as a stable, but then turned into the birthplace of God. No metaphysical system is safe from plundering by Christianity, because Christianity is afraid of no good idea, object, or word. The system in which a great work of art is trapped may be corrupt, but we can reinterpret that work and so redeem it for Christ. Is this process dangerous? Of course, because there is always the danger of being corrupted by the object of redemption before it can be reimagined. What is more dangerous is the cowardice that would leave any good, true, and beautiful thing to the Evil One. We must reclaim everything for King Jesus.

The Evil One has used yoga for thousands of years to enslave its adherents.  But our enemy cannot create, he merely corrupts and distorts what God has made.  If there is anything good, true, and beautiful in yoga, then our Lord created it for our benefit.  Let’s not be afraid to redeem and rescue what we can from yoga while remaining faithful to biblical truth.

What might this look like in practice?  Common yoga practices include emptying the mind, or meditating on the breath or body with the possible aid of mantras.  A Christian practicing yoga would instead fill the mind with God’s truth, meditating on scripture, and might dwell on how a particular pose reveals God.  For example, some common yoga poses include mountain, tree, or child’s pose.  All three of these ideas are used in scripture as object lessons to teach us spiritual truth. Reimagined in Christ, the poses then can become natural ways to connect to God. Dropping down into child’s pose, which looks a lot like bowing before a king, we can meditate on our status and position before God, that of an adopted son or daughter, and we renew our commitments to walk in that identity. This is much like lifting up your hands in church when the worship song lyrics say “we lift up our hands.” Our physical position helps to encourage and express the posture of our heart.

Of course Albert Mohler would object to this practice by saying, “then you are not practicing yoga! Don’t call it yoga.”  And in a sense, he is right.  In that sense, “Christian yoga” is an oxymoron, if we mean by ‘yoga’ the entirety of practice and teaching that has ever been called by that name.  But this objection misses the point.  We should care less about what we call it, and more about whether Christians can redeem specific practices or principles from yoga and use them to bring us closer to the Triune God of the scriptures.

And there are some, in fact, attempting to do just that—groups like Holy Yoga, Praise Moves or Outstretched in Worship.  Some Christians trying to redeem elements of yoga have erred through lack of robust theological training or spiritual discernment.  They are too quick to welcome spiritually dangerous practices and integrate them into their practice.  Others certainly err on the side of being too afraid to consider the full extent to which yoga practice can be redeemed.  But while shortcomings are inevitable, some are finding God’s presence and grace through a devotional yoga practice.

More thought and research needs to be done.  For example, are there specific, measurable health benefits to the poses or to the sequence of poses?  As the poses are redeemed and rooted in scripture, will new “Christian” pose sequences emerge that have even greater physical and spiritual benefits?  Will God’s power for physical and emotional healing, deliverance, or spiritual growth be manifested through new practices that emerge?

My hope is that through this process the full measure of grace that God intended through what can be rescued from yoga will be redeemed and released in the body of Christ.  As Reynolds concludes, “It is easy to imagine yoga dying, because Christianity has enfolded all that is good in yoga within the embrace of its true home.”

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