“Be still and know that I am God.”
I’ve been sincerely warned by Christian friends not to practice yoga. “Well,” they often add, “the stretching part is okay, but not the rest of it.” Christian leaders such as the Rev. Al Mohler echo their concerns.
On the other hand, at least two other Christian friends have shared that yoga has been life-changing for them, offering them relief from physical and emotional ailments that nothing else had alleviated.
So what exactly is the story of the Christian ambivalence toward this ancient practice, and how should followers of Jesus Christ view what is one of today’s most popular fitness trends?
Body and Breath
On one level, yoga is about stretching muscles and building strength through a series of postures and poses coordinated with deep breathing. The benefits of practicing yoga, according to WebMD, are increased flexibility, improved muscle tone, calmness, and lower stress.
Christians, for the most part, do not quibble with these aspects of yoga. After all, we recognize that God made our bodies and that we are charged with taking good care of them, as the Apostle Paul admonishes (1 Corinthians 9:27). And the art of breathing as part of natural childbirth is just as popular among the churchgoing population as the general population.
Now we come to the sticking point of yoga for Christians: the focus on a state of being, or, as it is popularly called, mindfulness. For the purposes of yoga, mindfulness is defined as “focusing one’s awareness on the present moment,” paying attention to what is around us without mulling over the past or worrying about the future. Sounds a lot like, “Be still and know that I am God.”
Wait a second. How did we get from an essentially Hindu spiritual practice to the Psalms?
Let’s go back a bit.
Not What It Used to Be
Though its exact origins are obscure, yoga is thought to have been developed in India over thousands of years as a form of physical and spiritual practice geared toward enlightenment. It was first introduced in America in the 1890s by a Hindu monk and became popular in Hollywood in the 1950s. A decade later, it became a staple of the 1960s counterculture.
But today in America, according to a recent article in The Week magazine, there are more than 100 types of yoga, many of them Western creations, such as “power yoga” and “hot yoga” (practiced in a room with temperatures ranging from 90 to 105.) In fact, the spiritual elements of yoga have been so blended, so watered down, or so ignored in the West, that India is attempting to reclaim yoga. But with estimates that the American yoga industry tops $10 billion a year in classes, clothing, and DVDs, and claims over 20 million American practitioners, India’s aims are unrealistic at best. The fact is, America has its own brands of yoga now and most are a far cry from the original.
Roots don’t determine everything
But do yoga’s undeniable origins in Eastern philosophy mean that Christians shouldn’t participate in yoga?
Let’s answer this question with another one: How many followers of Jesus Christ put up Christmas trees to celebrate the birth of Christ? According to the Encyclopedia Britannica and other sources, the origins of the Christmas tree are closely tied to pagan winter rites and even tree worship among pre-Christian Europeans. What did Christians do? They took something that had been used in pagan rituals (the tree) and re-interpreted it, giving it new meaning as a symbol of the Christian faith. There is even a story that Saint Boniface cut down an oak tree that German pagans were worshipping and replaced it with an evergreen tree, showing how its triangular shape reminded one of the Trinity and how it pointed to heaven.
Some of the most famous hymns of the Christian church have similarly dubious origins. Hymn composers such as Fannie Crosby and William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, often turned to popular songs of the day as tunes for their hymns, simply changing the lyrics and hoping, in Booth’s case, to attract those on the street with familiar music. Some say Booth famously retorted to criticism of this practice with, “Why should the devil have all the best tunes?”
All Truth is God’s Truth
We might echo Booth by saying, “Why should Hinduism have the best exercise?” Cannot yoga, as in the case of Christmas trees and hymns, be re-interpreted and reshaped to benefit followers of Christ?
St. Augustine said, “Wherever truth may be found, it belongs to the Lord.” Sometimes this sentiment is expressed as, “All truth is God’s truth”—the point being, if something is true and good, it is ultimately a gift from God, wherever it is found. So if stretching our muscles, breathing deeply, and staying present in the moment can actually can help heal and restore our bodies and minds—then isn’t it essentially of God?
A practical approach
If you’re still with me, I’d like to suggest a practical approach for Christians who want to practice yoga in America in the 21st century, embracing what is positive and good about yoga while downplaying any remnants of an Eastern worldview:
- Try different yoga classes or DVD’s. While some instructors bring elements of Eastern philosophy into the class, others do not. Look for a class that focuses on stretching, breathing, and being in the moment—not the teachings of Hinduism. Some churches and recreation centers even offer “Christian yoga.”
- Re-interpret what makes you uncomfortable. For example, some classes end with hands in a prayer position saying “Namaste.” This is an ancient Sanskrit greeting meaning, “My true self bows to your true self.” Instead, I just say, “Thank you,” as a closing greeting to the instructor. Similarly, if you are invited to meditate on “the universe” or even “nothingness,” fill your mind with thoughts of Jesus Christ instead. After all, Christian meditation is a one of the spiritual disciplines of the church, largely ignored today. Why not practice it as part of your yoga workout?
- Finally, realize that that there IS a faith connection between yoga and Christianity. We mentioned earlier the Christian duty to care for our bodies as temples of God. But think for a moment about the way the Holy Spirit is described in the Bible as the “breath” of God. Jesus even breathed the Holy Spirit upon his disciples (John 20:22). When you are breathing deeply in yoga, why not imagine breathing out any worry or anxiety that you are holding onto (“Cast your burdens upon the Lord,” Psalm 55:2), and imagine breathing in God’s Holy Spirit and the peace He promises.
- Mindfulness isn’t necessarily Hindu. Early Christian spiritual teachers taught their disciples to develop nepsis, that is, “to be wakeful and attentive (from the Greek verb nepho—to be vigilant, mindful) to that which was inside and around them.” Isn’t it interesting that Jesus’ primary antidote to worry and stress was to prompt us to pay attention, to be awake and alert, to our surroundings: Look at the birds. Consider the lilies. (Matthew 6:25-33).
In a world of increasing stress-related diseases, where children are overstimulated by electronics and entertainment and most of us are generally overcommitted and too busy, the practice of yoga can be an oasis, offering relaxation, calm, and a boost in both physical and mental health. But rather than embrace yoga uncritically or dismiss it wholesale (extreme responses of which we Christians are often guilty when it comes to cultural trends), why not approach yoga with thoughtful discernment—embracing the good, dismissing the bad—re-interpreting and making the faith connection where we can. William Booth would be proud.
For Further Reading:
I recommend checking out these books for further study of the subject of Christian mindfulness; I haven’t yet read them, but am familiar with some of the authors’ other work.
Martin Laird, “Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation” (Oxford University Press, 2006).
Richard H. H. Johnston, “Introducing Christian Mindfulness” (Amazon Digital Services, 2015).
Richard H. H. Johnston, “Christian Mindfulness: Are You Living on AutoPilot?” (Amazon Digital Services, 2015).
Image courtesy of “pat138241” at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Ginny Mooney writes about spiritual and cultural matters from her home in Port St. Lucie, Fla., where she often practices yoga with a faith connection.