By Karis Carlson. Posted with permission from Baptist Bulletin May/June 2012. All rights reserved.
In April, the First Lady hosted the 134th Annual Easter Egg Roll, one of the oldest and most unusual presidential traditions. Over 30,000 people flocked to the White House to roll eggs down the south lawn, watch a cooking demonstration, listen to celebrities read children's stories, take a basketball lesson, and...do yoga.
Michelle Obama introduced the Yoga Garden to the Easter festivities last year as part of her "Let's Move" initiative to combat childhood obesity. Yoga has become one of the most popular forms of exercise today. Not surprising, considering yoga already was a fitness phenomenon without the presidential seal of approval. As Stephanie Syman writes in The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America, "There certainly was no better proof that Americans had assimilated this spiritual discipline. We had turned a technique for God realization...into a singular thing: a way to stay healthy and relaxed."
Stephanie has succinctly summed up the entire argument of yoga for believers. Should believers condemn yoga for its pagan origin, or embrace it for its modern benefits? The Christian community is closely divided over this issue, and both sides are passionate about their viewpoints. So who is right?
Two Sides to Every Yoga Pose
Let's begin with a brief explanation of traditional yoga. To put it simply, traditional yoga is an ancient mental, physical, and spiritual discipline. The term "yoga" comes from the Sanskrit word yuj, which means "to join or unite," referring to the union of body, mind, and spirit. The purpose at the time of its creation was to join the disciple, or yogi, with the universal spirit in order to reach samadhi, or enlightenment.
In the Yoga Sutras, one of the most important texts of yoga, Patañjali divides the practice of yoga into eight aspects: yama (moral codes), niyama (self-purification and study), asana (postures), pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (sense control), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (absorption into the universal). These eight pillars make up the foundation of all yoga practices. So to call yoga simply a stretching exercise is like calling baptism water aerobics, because the physical movements (asanas) are only a small fraction of what yoga involves.
There are many different styles of yoga--too many to count, and certainly too many to discuss in any amount of detail. One style, however, is important to understand, because it is the version that modern Americans have accepted. Hatha yoga is the combination of three of the eight aspects of yoga: asanas (postures), pranayama (breath control), and dhyana (meditation). But the emphasis of most modern yoga classes is on the physical postures.
Since the traditional styles of yoga and the modern American alternative are so different from one another in practice and purpose, we need a good understanding of each to decide whether believers should practice yoga.
Yoga: A technique for god realization?
Laurette Willis was introduced to yoga in 1965 at age 7. She and her mother, Jacquie, spent many hours together exercising along with a television yoga program. Laurette loved it. Her mother loved it as well--so much so, in fact, that she began to teach classes out of her home, often using her daughter as a model for poses.
Laurette's family attended a church regularly, but the church did not teach salvation or a relationship with Christ, so as a young adult, Laurette grew hungry for spiritual truth and found that yoga filled that longing. As a result, Laurette became immersed in metaphysical practices, including universalism, Taoism, tarot cards, Ouija boards, crystals, and parapsychology. What began as an innocent exercise program led Laurette into New Age beliefs that would enslave her for 22 years.
In 1987 Laurette was freed from these addictions through a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Her life was radically altered. Now, as a popular speaker, writer, fitness professional, and the founder of PraiseMoves (a Christian fitness alternative to yoga), she is outspoken about the dangers of yoga.
According to Laurette, the meditation aspect of yoga encouraged her to empty her mind and have "out of body" experiences. The postures she practiced were worship to the 330 million pagan Hindu gods. Even the breathing aspect taught her to "manipulate the life force." All three aspects are dangerous.
Laurette's story is proof that yoga is not always just an innocent exercise, especially for those who lack a strong spiritual foundation. Yoga programs that emphasize spirituality stand in direct opposition to what the Bible teaches us about life, God, salvation, and ourselves.
But is there such a thing as yoga without pagan religious philosophies? Yes, in fact, there is.
Yoga: A way to stay healthy and relaxed?
Three years before I was born, my mother, Jeannie Vogel, was pregnant with her second child, my sister Heather. Remembering the 10-hour nightmare of giving birth to her first child, Nathan, my mom enrolled in a prenatal yoga class at the hospital, hoping that her second delivery would go more smoothly.
The class was simple and strictly physical exercise. "I would have been uncomfortable if it had been at all religious," my mom said. There was no meditating, no emptying of the mind, no New Age undertones. The class was designed for the sole purpose of strengthening the muscles used for childbirth and teaching the mothers-to-be to breathe and relax their bodies.
"It was my easiest delivery," my mom says. "I remember thinking during my next delivery, I wish I'd taken a yoga class." She said the yoga class taught her to relax and control her body--things that are extremely difficult during labor--and made the whole experience faster and less painful.
My mother has been the wife of a conservative Baptist minister for 33 years. She is a popular speaker and an author of women's Bible studies. She is a godly woman. And she still uses the yoga program on Wii Fit to improve her balance and get a good workout. "Yoga is just exercise to me." And she's not the only one who feels this way.
A quick perusal of book titles in the health section of Barnes and Noble will tell you that yoga not only prepares a woman for childbirth but can heal osteoporosis, relieve neck and back pain, improve posture, help breast cancer patients, eliminate stress, reduce arthritis pain, reduce stuttering, improve runners' speed, and be therapeutic for children with special needs like cerebral palsy and Down syndrome. Yoga is for every body type, every physical condition, and every age, even infants. Itsy Bitsy Yoga: Poses to Help Your Baby Sleep Longer, Digest Better, and Grow Stronger by Helen Garabedian pictures an infant in the downward facing dog pose on the front cover. And you won't want to miss the sequel: Itsy Bitsy Yoga for Toddlers and Preschoolers: 8-Minute Routines to Help Your Child Grow Smarter, Be Happier, and Behave Better.
It's no wonder yoga is overwhelmingly popular. It appeals to every American. Whether yoga can deliver on all of these promises is doubtful, but it does have undeniable physical benefits. These days, hospitals, therapists, and chiropractors are recommending yoga as a way to treat common ailments, not because of any spiritual emphasis, but because it has been proven to be good for the body.
In America today, yoga is loved for its physical benefits, not its religious affiliations.
Learning to Be Discerning
So which is it? Is yoga a dangerous religious discipline associated with the occult, or is it an exercise program that eases aches and pains while helping a person lose weight?
The answer is yes.
Yoga can be both. It was created to be a spiritual discipline; however, somewhere between the ancient temples in India and our modern American suburbs, yoga has been transformed into a purely physical discipline. Of course, that is not completely true in all cases. There are yoga programs in America today that still teach pagan religious doctrines, but just as many do not. I don't believe Christians should ban all yoga programs, just as I don't believe they should embrace them all.
The idea of a "Christian yoga" class poses special problems, and perhaps some of my concern is with the label itself. Is the instructor attempting to reconcile the teachings of Hinduism with the teachings of Christ? If so, the result can only be confusion and compromise. Is the instructor teaching solid Bible principles along with the exercise regime? If so, their teachings should be evaluated for their Scriptural value, not just their exercise value. Would you invite this particular exercise leader to teach a Bible study at church? The "Christian yoga" label, at its best, might describe a healthy workout delivered with a thin veneer of God-talk and "Christianese."
Yoga options that will not compromise your faith do exist. As a fitness enthusiast who loves to use a variety of workouts, I can attest to the fact that nearly every workout instructor uses a yoga pose or two in every warm-up and cool-down and usually sprinkled throughout the workout. So when Jillian Michaels asks me to go into downward facing dog pose, I do not have the slightest hesitation. Or when Shaun T, from the popular cardio workout Insanity, invites me to go into child's pose after a particularly strenuous circuit, I do so gladly.
It's clearly not the pose or position of the body that makes yoga a threat to Christian beliefs, but rather the intent behind them. Otherwise, we would not allow our children to sit Indian style (lotus pose, or padmasana), we would not stretch out with lunges (low lunge pose, or anjaneyasana), or we would not even just stand up tall (mountain pose, or tadasana). Obviously yoga does not own the sole rights to these positions. Many of us have been using them all our lives without ever knowing that there is an ancient Sanskrit name for them.
The issue, then, is one of discernment. How do believers ensure that when they practice yoga it is free from any pagan undertones?
Across the page are five warning signs that will help you recognize the difference between a classical approach to yoga and a purely physical approach.
Just last month, San Francisco officials opened the first airport yoga room in North America. Yoga is taught in school gym classes, incorporated into workout programs, and hailed by health enthusiasts. The First Lady endorses it, doctors prescribe it, and our neighbors are probably doing it. Yet as innocent as it appears to the rest of the nation, believers should handle yoga with caution and discernment.
Karis Carlson is a graduate of Baptist Bible College, Clarks Summit, Pa., with a degree in Biblical studies and communications. She works at Fenwal, a global blood technology company in Lake Zurich, Ill. She and her husband, Brett, enjoy breeding exotic animals, training for triathlons, and leading worship in their church.