There's a myriad of opinions on yoga and Christianity.
"Why would you participate in something that is rooted in pagan rituals? Stay away, just stay away." "But I'm an athlete and it's almost impossible to avoid all yoga poses! Seriously? Is all kinds of yoga wrong?" "Oh, I never even thought about this!"
Is it wrong? Is it helpful? Could it be demonic?
When it comes to yoga, Christians tend to fall into 3 categories:
Category A: They’ve never thought about the spiritual implications
Category B: They’ve considered the spirituality aspect of yoga and either set up boundaries they feel good about or aren’t quite sure what to think
Category C: They feel yoga is an occult practice to stay away from.
Perhaps there is a 4th category of someone who thinks it’s bad but continues to do it, however, I personally don’t think I’ve ever found a seeking Christian who genuinely thinks they are dabbling in the occult but decides to continue anyway.
This blog post is primarily designed for the three main categories. If you are a category A person who really doesn’t have any awareness of the issue, this will give you the pro-yoga and anti-yoga points of view. For the category B people, it will help you have a better understanding of yoga to perhaps more appropriately set boundaries or to help you feel more confident in your decision. For Category C, it will help you understand the thought process and beliefs of Category B and will give you more information and understanding about your conviction and why you view it the way you do.
With that laid out, lets begin!
What is yoga?
That question is actually more complicated than you’d think so I’ll just share some answers that I found.
Yogabasics.com shares that yoga is a state of self-realization and is also the practice required to experience yoga. This includes asana (the physical yoga postures), but is not limited to asana. This definition of yoga is further expressed by Patanjali who codified yoga in a text called The Yoga Sutras sometime around 200-500AD (9).
According to the google dictionary yoga is a Hindu spiritual and ascetic discipline, a part of which, including breath control, simple meditation, and the adoption of specific bodily postures, is widely practiced for health and relaxation.”
The google dictionary mentioned that “yoga” in Sanskrit (an ancient Indic language) literally means union. But as I searched to clearly define to which union yoga referred I found a blog explaining that the Sanskirt root word is “yuj”, can have various meanings depending up on the context (2).
Yoga could be thought of as the union of body and soul or the union of body, mind and soul, but this blog explains how the Yoga Sutras actually promote the “non-union of purusha (soul) and prakriti (body/mind etc.).”
What is the origin of yoga?
Again this was not as straight-forward as I expected.
Yogabasics.com says “The beginnings of Yoga were developed by the Indus-Sarasvati civilization in Northern India over 5,000 years ago. The word yoga was first mentioned in the oldest sacred texts, the Rig Veda. The Vedas were a collection of texts containing songs, mantras and rituals to be used by Brahmans, the Vedic priests” (9).
India’s Ministry of External Affairs claims the origin was “before the first religions or belief systems were born.” It then proceeds to tell the “yogic lore” of Adiyogi who is said to have “poured his profound knowledge into the legendary Setarishis or “seven sages” who then proceeded to share this knowledge through Asia, the Middle East, Northern Africa and South America” (10).
A Princeton paper on yoga references a ninth-century Netra Tantra, a Hindu scripture from Kashmir that describes both subtle yoga and transcendent yoga. Both are far out there. Subtle being “nothing more or less than a body of techniques for entering into and taking over other people’s bodies.” That seems like a lot to me. However Transcendent yoga, as you could expect, goes further. It is “a process that involves superhuman female predators, called yoginis, who eat people!” And when it says eat people, they mean more so consuming the sin of the body to avoid rebirth and to “allow for the ‘union’ (yoga) of their purified souls with the [so called] supreme god Siva.” This is quite contrary to the Yoga Sutras. In the Hindu scripture source, they don’t talk of posture or breath control at all. Also, third and fourth-century texts about yoga, which are often referred to as “classical yoga” for the most part ignores postures and breath control and focused on human salvation, meditation and concentration on the god Krsna (11).
With this background in mind, my own observations and through observing other Christian’s objections to yoga, I believe the bottom line is that yoga certainly has some connection to Hinduism, the occult and New Age spirituality. Before we dive further I’ll give you more background on all three.
Hinduism is a major religious and cultural tradition of South Asia, developed from Vedic religion. We now know that the Vedic priests had texts that spoke of yoga. Plus there is Hindu scripture describing yoga. Hinduism involves many gods and certainly has elements of “supernatural, mystical, or magical beliefs, practices, or phenomena,” which is the definition of the occult. New Age is “a broad movement characterized by alternative approaches to traditional Western culture, with an interest in spirituality, mysticism, holism and environmentalism.” Hinduism, the Occult and New Age are all intertwined. They are against the teachings in the bible and are sin. (I don’t think most Christians need much convincing that those are sinful but here are a few verses to back this up.)
Exodus 20:3-5 You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol of any kind, or an image of anything in the heavens above, the earth below, or the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God…
Deuteronomy 18:10-12 There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord. And because of these abominations the Lord your God is driving them out before you.
Galatians 5:19-21 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Yoga definitely has an association with mysticism and that is why some Christians warn others to stay away from yoga.
After all, we don’t want to flirt with sin, especially with the occult that arguably opens up gateways for demons. For many this is the end of the conversation.
(Side note: do not be fooled, demons impact your life and perspective in other ways, even if you stay far far away from any of that!)
However, I believe there is another side of the conversation.
Some people wonder, If you do yoga, are you actually participating in Hinduism, the Occult or New Age practices?
Some aren’t sure and some believe that in many cases it does not. That big question brings up some other valid questions.
*If something can be used for sin or was used for sin in the past, is it always sin?
*Will we become legalistic if we consistently jump to the conclusion that something is 100% bad when it has before been used for evil?
*Can Christians unknowingly invite demons in?
*Can you separate the physical yoga postures and concepts of breath control from unbiblical practices?
*Is there something spiritually beneficial that we would miss by rejecting yoga?
*If yoga isn’t altogether discarded as sin, what can Christians do to put up spiritual boundaries around the practice?
If something can be used for sin or was used for sin in the past, is it always sin?
Yoga is not the only thing that has non-biblical origins. Your first thought may be Halloween, but what about Easter?
Obviously celebrating the resurrection of Christ is a wonderful thing but many traditions associated with and perhaps the word “Easter” itself has questionable roots.
Venerable Bede, an English monk argued that the word Easter was “derived from a pagan fertility goddess named “eostre” in English and Germanic cultures. There isn’t much evidence for that, so it might not be true but nevertheless for many cultures the egg symbolizes new life, fertility and rebirth. (3) In fact, it has been used in magical rituals to promote fertility and restore virility; to look into the future and other things. The Easter Bunny mimics “the hare, the symbol of fertility in ancient Egypt.” (4) However, Christians have used the egg to represent new life through the resurrection of Christ and a “symbolic re-enactment of the rolling away of the stone from Christ’s tomb” (3).
Furthermore, I’ve heard Christmas trees, Christmas lights and a host of other things are also rooted in pagan roots. This question is applicable to much more than just yoga.
Some people view it like if it ever was sin, it always is sin. Others believe that whether something is good or bad is often not literally about the thing in question, like the egg, but rather the meaning that we currently associate with it.
I’m on the side that no, it is not always sin. There’s a common theme throughout the bible where in one instance an action or inaction is sin but that isn’t necessarily a blanket statement of sin.
For instance, in Genesis people gathered together to build a huge tower to reach the heavens (or some commentary has mentioned their intention was actually to pierce heaven and war against the heavens). This was done in part to avoid being scattered throughout the world even though God specifically instructed people to fill the earth. This was sin. God was angry and scattered the people and confused the language. (Genesis 11:1-9 for the story and Genesis 1:28 for fill the earth.)
Was it sin to build a tall tower? No. The problem was pride and disobedience.
With yoga is the sin to put your body in certain positions, gain balance, flexibility and strength and learn to control your breath? I believe no.
The issue comes depending on the type of yoga, your intentions and what exactly you are doing and taking in during the practice.
A more modern example from which I see parallels is rock music. While rock music in the mid-50s became associated with rebellious behavior and sex (and not holy marital sex!) (5), eventually the majority of Christians came to accept it. People could say that was conforming to the world but truly I believe for most it was about identifying that God didn’t have an issue with rhythm or guitar but rather the messages that were being communicated. Christians began to see the music itself as a neutral tool that actually could be used to attract youth to the church and communicate an entirely different message.
Will we become legalistic if we consistently jump to the conclusion that something is 100% bad when it has before been used for evil?
One of the reasons I decided to spend so much time praying, researching and thinking through my position on this is because I absolutely believe the answer is “yes.” Christian culture can quickly become legalistic and judgemental if we approach everything as a total absolute and shut down people who want to have a more in depth conversation about it as people who just live by their worldly desires and aren’t really prioritizing God.
There are some things that the bible is super clear about and there are some things it is not. Mysticism definitely is wrong, but investigating what does and does not actually constitute mysticism is up for debate. Assuming anything that has any connection to it is wrong can cut Christians off from things that actually are helpful not just on earth, but spiritually. (It could be argued that C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series is wrong because of magic but how many people has his writings reached to help people understand Christ?)
Additionally, we should take freedom in Christ very seriously. Adding laws and regulations where there need not be, not only makes life arguably less enjoyable but more importantly it distracts from true relationship and natural response to God’s love and Christ’s sacrifice.
Are Christians so vulnerable to demonic influence that they can invite demons in without any intention to do so?
The notion that Christians are heading out to their yoga class, not even thinking about this and unknowingly open their spirits up to demonic influence is a really frightening thought.
Is this hyperbolic or is this a real concern?
My conclusion is both yes and no.
To begin, as Christians we have authority over demons. We shouldn’t deny their reality and the effect of them; we should be on guard, but we needn’t be fearful. This blog on Christianity Today is really good for laying out the process that the author uses to remove demonic oppression.
I think it’s important to note that the enemy is constantly prowling, looking to devour you in all kinds of areas of life (1 Peter 5:8). Sins of all kind opens the door to the devil. It gives you that spooky feeling to imagine some strange force coming in with a yoga practice but truly we are spiritual beings and nearly everything has a spiritual aspect to it. You could even argue chanting at a football game is a spiritual practice. I don’t believe that a fitness-only oriented yoga class is a special doorway because the same poses were used for evil in other situations.
However, there are some kinds of yoga to be aware of and different yoga instructors and studios bring more or less of a spiritual element to it. This is why some yoga education is helpful. Here are some different types of yoga (7).
Hatha yoga - Grounded in a physical practice. Many other kinds of yoga tend to focus just on poses and breath, such as ashtanga, vinyasa, bikram (hot yoga), anusara (another kind of hot yoga) and prenatal yoga.
Kundalini yoga - Combines both spiritual and physical practices and is about “releasing the kundalini energy in your body said to be trapped or coiled in the lower spine.” They often involve chanting, mantra and meditation.
Yin Yoga and Restorative Yoga - Slow paced that could just be relaxing but also can be used as a meditative yoga practice to help you find inner peace.
Jivamukti yoga - Mainly vinyasa flow-style classes infused with Hindu spiritual teachings.
Attending a Kundalini or Jivamukti yoga class is definitely at least flirting with the Hindu/Occult/New Age element of yoga.
Same things goes for any time the Holy Spirit nudges you that something is weird. Whether that is ooming syllables or saying words for which you don’t know the meaning. Yes, you could be accidentally praying to some so called god.
If the instructor is spouting off spiritual thoughts and beliefs and you aren’t sure if it would pass the Belt of Truth test, yes she may be sharing New Age ideas.
I actually did have an experience in a yoga studio where the class seemed to cross a line and I ended up deciding to not return to that studio. Honestly I loved the peaceful vibe of the place and people were super nice. But I know the enemy comes with deceit and the many symbols throughout the room and the chanting of words I didn’t recognize helped me discern it was somewhere to avoid. I personally do not believe that in my situation being in the room I opened myself up to anything but I am glad I did not say whatever syllables the class was instructed to say.
Another concern is if they ask you to “empty” your mind. Based off experience and reading, I believe it is more of a myth that the ideas behind yoga and/or meditation is to have a blank mind. Rather it is more about calming your mind and learning how to shift your focus to what you want it to focus on, more often than not your breath or balance. However, should someone instruct you to do so, Christians often bring up the passage in Matthew 12:43-45 where Jesus shares about how unclean spirits return. I believe this passage is better applied with when you breakdown a disempowering belief but fail to replace it with God’s truth. However, you can avoid the issue by focusing on God if you find yourself in a situation where you are stuck in a yoga class and they prompt you to have a blank mind.
Can you separate the physical yoga postures and concepts of breath control from unbiblical practices?
I believe yes. Lamaze is all about controlled breathing techniques so I don’t think the occult has a patent on controlled breathing.
Additionally, the physical yoga postures are all over the place in all kinds of fitness programs that have nothing to do with spirituality. Insanity Max 30 has an exercise going from Diamond Pushup to Child’s Pose. I’ve experienced many different ways that yoga has been used and taught and I know when it’s spiritual in a potentially dangerous way vs. when it is simply an easy way to describe the position an instructor wants you to put your body in for fitness purposes.
One exception is if you’ve had a dramatic experience with yoga and spiritual abuse or perhaps if you’ve been deeply involved in the occult or something like that in the past. It could be argued your brain has too strong of association with yoga and the occult and that could trigger your mind in a negative way, even if the intention isn’t there. (For example the youtuber “The Other Side of Darkness” had abusive experiences with Kundalini yoga, which was the super spiritual and clearly unbiblical kind of yoga, and she now argues you cannot separate the two.)
Also, I talked about in the previous question but if the type of yoga or the instructor involves unbiblical spirituality, it can’t be seperated because the spiritual practice you are doing is not trying to seperate it.
Is there something spiritually beneficial that we would miss by rejecting yoga?
I believe the answer is yes. There are tons of tools to boost mindfulness and to connect with the true God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and I believe yoga is one of them.
John Piper pointed out in an interview about whether yoga is okay or not for Christians that the best way to approach questions is not with the minimalistic approach of “what’s wrong with it?” But rather with “does this make me more Christ-like?”
Ironically even though his view was "just stay away," his question actually drove me further into my answer of "yes, yoga DOES help me be more Christ-like." I honestly believe that.
There have been times I’ve gone to more fitness oriented classes or even classes where the instructor encouraged some introspection in a neutral, not necessarily Christian way, and I choose to focus and meditate on the Lord and I did feel closer to God. Of course there have also been classes where there really was not enough space to do this and it was simply a fitness class.
In this crazy world filled with chaos and endless information, it is harder than ever to be still and know that God is God so I applaud the work of Christian yoga organizations such as Yahweh Yoga. Yoga can be used as a tool for the glory of God.
Here are some thoughts from a blog by Yahweh Yoga:
“Yoga is a methodology, not a theology. Our theology defines how this method is used. When our worldview, intentions and theology are grounded in the word of God and we keep our practice centered on Christ, we honor God.”
“When we spend time ‘being’ before we get too busy ‘doing” we center with Christ.”
If yoga isn’t altogether discarded as sin, what can Christians do to put up spiritual boundaries around the practice?
I’ve answered this here and there throughout this blog but I’ll summarize:
Prayer over your conclusions and decisions regarding yoga.
The best protective measure is to participate in Christian yoga to avoid any potential conflicts.
Avoid Kundalini and Jivamukti yoga always or any other kind of yoga that is by definition spiritual (except Christian yoga of course.)
Be cautious or just avoid Yin Yang and restorative yoga.
Avoid yoga studios and instructors that use a lot of yoga symbols and seem to embrace the worldly spiritual aspect of yoga.
Don’t mentally participate with or speak anything that you find questionable.
My prayer for anyone reading is that you are now either a category B or C Christian who is not naive to the potential for yoga to be sinful, just as all things have the potential to be sinful. I also pray that whatever prayerful conclusion you come to that you now have a better understanding of the beliefs that other Christian hold.
Please do comment with your thoughts on this topic, additional information or considerations that I didn’t address or to just let me know how this discussion may have helped you!