Yoga has gotten both a good and bad rap over the last few decades. A recent statement by the president of a Southern Baptist seminary indicated that Christians and yoga are incompatible. Many Christians I know feel similarly or at least tend to be suspicious of the practice; others seem rather neutral and uninterested. To many, yoga is a means to unite mind, body and spirit and serves as a wonderful life practice for overall well being. Its origins date back approximately three thousand years with roots in Hinduism; yoga’s earliest writings were penned in the ancient language of Sanskrit.
While polarities of opinions and philosophies abound on this practice complete with stereotypes of narrow-minded, Bible-beating, right-wing, fundamentalists arguing against New Age, pot-smoking, vegan, crystal-rubbing types, it’s important to know that yoga isn’t a religion. It’s a practice — a discipline. It’s also a philosophy but one that is very fluid and noncommittal – there is no pressure to become a Hindu or New Age pagan when one does yoga. Many yoga practitioners here in the West are truly a la carte devotees: they pick and choose what parts they like. Some go all the way, making it a lifestyle practice and spiritual ritual. Most simply take a class at a local yoga studio, sports club or even church, or follow a video at home…and go on with their jobs, families, church participation, and community volunteer work. This illustrates how the demographic of those who enjoy yoga has dramatically changed over the years as well. No longer is it a west coast fad for hippies; you’ll see corporate businessmen and women, suburban Protestant soccer moms, and senior citizens at a yoga class. Supermodel Christy Turlington – a practicing Catholic – has written a book on yoga.
Since I’m a Christian believer myself and also a yoga lover, I am sensitized to the concerns of fellow Christians who can’t seem to find acceptance of this discipline as not being “of the devil” or at least dangerous. In the medical community yoga has, for years, been scoffed at as a legitimate method of illness management or preventive health, and viewed as quack medicine. That has changed and now, yoga is gaining endorsement from even conventional physicians and psychiatrists (especially the younger generation of docs), who increasingly acknowledge the health benefits such as posture, breathing, flexibility, and stress reduction. So, from a purely physiological and psychological point of view, perhaps it’s easier to accept those aspects of yoga.
But how to get past the eastern spiritual overtones of yoga, like for instance, if an instructor bows to some altar with burning candles off to the side of the studio, or closes the class with “Namaste” (rough translation: “the spirit in me honors the spirit in you”)? And how about all those Indian terms like asanas (poses), pranayama (breath control) and dharma (teaching – slightly different definitions in Buddhist vs. Hinduism). It also happens to be a common greeting in Nepal and India and a typical finishing line in a yoga class, similar to “good game!” at the end of the ninth inning of Little League.
Perhaps there’s a fear of the unknown or discomfort with the unfamiliar. Possibly a threatened feeling of being outnumbered by those who may believe differently and might seek to convert you? No worries, Friends. Yes yoga is spiritual but it’s not exclusively Hindu, or Buddhist, or New Age. Unlike taking Holy Communion, which is unequivocally Christian, or studying for a Bar Mitzvah — clearly Jewish — or praying to Allah facing Mecca five times daily (Muslim)…practicing yoga is just practicing yoga, however you choose to do it. You can be a faithful believer in Christ and do yoga without conflict. It can be a good warm-up for your quiet times to read your Bible. It is also a wonderful way to quiet your body after a long day at the office or with demanding children. Does it mean you are trying to split your allegiance between Jehovah God and other pagan deities? Not unless you choose to do so.
Namaste and God Bless!