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Is Yoga Demonic?

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It seems like every neighborhood now has its own yoga studio.[1] Stores that sell yoga specific clothes have profit margins that will make your head spin.[2] The rumors of the benefits of yoga are flying around weight-lifting and climbing gyms, running clubs, and cycling shops (I’ve even met a guy doing yoga to improve his golf game). With 36 million practitioners in the US, it’s definitely the “it” workout and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.[3]

 

Its sudden pervasiveness and Eastern roots have many in the church asking, “Is it ethical for Christians to practice yoga?” As a certified yoga teacher and Masters of Divinity student at a conservative Protestant seminary, I have many conversations around this. Here is a summary of the discussions I’ve had:

 

1) It’s Hindi/ Buddhist roots. This is approximately the normative argument. Its assumption is that there is something metaphysically sinful in the practice of yoga which goes against the first commandment. It is the concern that doing downward dog is secret Sanskrit code for worshipping Vishnu. And if one does any sequence of yoga poses, Vishnu (or Satan) will be rubbing his hands in the back of the room saying, “Aha! I fooled them into worshipping me without knowing it!”

 

Christians like Albert Mohler, John Piper, and Douglas R. Groothuis believe that no matter how secularized the form of yoga, the practitioner is still participating in an overtly sexual ritual of the occult.[4] Their thought is that no matter the Christian’s intention in going into a yoga practice, he/she is “channeling sexual energy throughout the body as a means of sexual enlightenment.”[5] I appreciate these men’s conservative approach in trying to uphold the first (and possibly second) commandments. There were, in fact, times in my yoga teacher training when I had to opt out of chants[6] or object to some minor metaphysical teaching because it didn’t align with Biblical teaching.[7] However, the only teaching on anything sexual was that sexuality was a fact of being embodied and that “making love” is a good stress reliever. We covered it in about two minutes over a 200-hour program. The only time we discussed Hindu gods was a basic description of Ganesh when we learned a traditional Sanskrit chant.[8]

 

Here’s something these men don’t seem to know: the movements conducted in an actual yoga class are only slightly different than any done in ballet or modern dance classes. The only difference is the emphasis on moving with the breath. I do not believe that 1 Corinthians 6:12-22 applies to any yoga class in which a Westerner is likely to find themselves. I’ve done more “channeling of sexual energy” dancing in my bathroom to Whitney Houston. Therefore, for someone to think that these movements are, in themselves, offensive to God is a denial of the meaning of Christ’s bodily incarnation. The fact that Jesus was bodily born and bodily resurrected dignifies our bodies and our worshipful bodily expressions. Moreover, God made our bodies, and “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.”[9] If as a Christian I thankfully and prayerfully recognize the creative, loving power of the Lord who made me while I’m in a headstand, then it is glorifying to the God of the Bible. Vishnu, Ganesh, or whoever has no place on my mat.

 

2) It’s trendy cultural capitulation: This is somewhat a focus on the situational ethic. The negative argument states, “Christians practicing yoga is, at worst, religious syncretism, at best, wrongful cultural appropriation.”[10]

 

I recently became a certified yoga teacher. I loved the practice and wanted to answer this question for myself. I went through a certification program with the Yoga Alliance, the largest standardized certification program in the world, to learn what exactly was behind what I was being taught in a yoga class. Here is what I learned: Yes, there can be instances of heinous cultural appropriation.[11] But any self-aware Christian (or human for that matter) can easily dodge these things.[12] Yes, many in Buddhist and Hindu religions use a form of yoga as a means to transcend to speak to the divine. But the forms practiced by almost anyone in the West are versions developed in the first half of the 20th century as a part of the “subtle body theory”[13] and are fitness focused.[14]

 

Something else I learned: this is where my culture is headed. In post-Christian America, there is a vacuum in the category of transcendence. And my culture, middle-class white women, are turning to yoga to fill it.[15] I believe I need to know my culture and its transcendent language.[16] It was surprising to me how much of yoga I can affirm as a Christian. Not only does it affirm a higher power (something you won’t find in Crossfit or Zumba) but it affirms the connection between the mind, body, and spirit. This is something the Western church is seeking to recover in the wake of gnostic philosophies.[17] If I can learn to speak the language of yoga, I can use it to build bridges to the gospel.[18]

 

3) The “weaker brother” argument: This is definitely the hardest argument against doing yoga to refute. It says, “I am not comfortable with yoga because I don’t know enough about it,” or “because it is simply not done in my culture.” The person is existentially opposed to the activity. The Christian’s response here is prescribed in 1 Corinthians 8 by defaulting to the side of the “weaker brother.”

 

For instance, I have a friend who is a refugee from Nepal. The idea of he or his wife doing yoga is anathema because of its use in their culture, and if he truly believed it was idolatrous, I would die to myself and stop practicing.

 

For a Christian to ethically practice yoga he/she should first prayerfully understand its loaded cultural implications. Do research. Know your community. Namaste.

 


 

[1] http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/2016-yoga-in-america-study-conducted-by-yoga-journal-and-yoga-alliance-reveals-growth-and-benefits-of-the-practice-300203418.html

[2] http://marketrealist.com/2014/12/lululemons-profit-margins-trumping-companys-peers/

[3] http://www.yogajournal.com/yogainamericastudy/  It is also important to point out that when I say yoga I mean the western version- almost any yoga class you’d find in the US.

[4] http://www.albertmohler.com/2010/09/20/the-subtle-body-should-christians-practice-yoga/

[5] Ibid.

[6] Which are hardly ever lead in any actual class in mainstream, US yoga studios.

[7] i.e. the different nostrils having masculine/feminine energy. Eye roll. This was only in reference to the energy of different genders and not anything sexual. In fact, I was encouraged that there was something “gender binary” being taught, affirming that we are made male and female. But again, these things are rarely taught in actual classes.

[8] This was mostly to learn about the history of the yoga, but as a nod to the first commandment, I did not participate in actually doing it.

[9] 1 Timothy 4:4-5. See also Galatians 2:20-21.

[10] There is some overlap here with the first section concerning the origins of yoga. However, the first argument deals primarily with metaphysics and this argument deals with culture.

[11] At graduation we were given red dots of ink in between our eyes with no explanation of what it meant. I think it was just supposed to make us feel cool and eastern-y. We also were given mala beads with no explanation of the history of them, only “you can use them for meditation or just to wear! They can represent whatever you want!”

[12] Just as a rule of thumb, if you don’t know the history or meaning of an object or symbol, don’t wear a tank top with a picture of it.

[13] Jones and Ryan, Constance and James (2007). Encyclopedia of Hinduism. New York: Infobase Publishing. p. Baba Hari Dass.

[14] Going back to the normative argument, to say that our modern practice of yoga is wrong because of its Hindu/ Buddhist roots is to commit a genetic fallacy.

[15] https://www.yogaalliance.org/Portals/0/2016%20Yoga%20in%20America%20Study%20RESULTS.pdf 72% of practitioners are women.

[16] Acts 17.

[17] 1 Thessalonians 5:23.

[18] Acts 10; John 1: Not unlike how the NT writers used the Hellenistic culture and the Greek language to preach the Gospel. John 1 is a license to appropriation.

AUTHOR - Caroline Clark

Writer, artist, and yoga teacher from Knoxville, Tenn. Currently finishing her M.Div at Covenant Seminary.