Yoga is everywhere you look. Celebrities have their own brands of it, and I’m sure you know of at least one person who practices it or recommends it. It’s done as a form of exercise, especially to increase your flexibility, and also a form of relaxation and stress relief. As something that is widely practiced and praised, is it something that Christians should embrace? I contend that it is not.
The argument is often presented that yoga is merely another form of physical exercise, and as long as you’re not chanting or doing the weird stuff, then it’s worldview-neutral. I will let you know that this is naive at best. Notice that this sounds like an approach that is careful, but in reality, it’s an approach which practices the “minimal Christian living” approach to the Christian life. As Christians, we should not try and take things which are inherently unchristian and take the “bad stuff” out, and then keep the rest. This is like trying to walk as close to the “sin line” as possible without touching it. The correct approach to Christian living is to constantly be asking yourself what things you can be practicing/saying/doing/thinking that will be the most Christ-exalting things possible. Will yoga bring you closer to Jesus? Will yoga allow you to better reflect the glory of God to the watching world? Phrased in these ways, the question seems almost laughably easy to answer: NO!
Popular workout regiment(s) P90X has a section on yoga. Now it doesn’t have strange chanting, but it does have Tony Horton (the leader) talking about using yoga to turn off the business of your head from your stressful day/week. Are you getting a sense that something is a bit strange about that? Relaxing is one thing, but why would you be seeking to empty your mind? Take a look at this short question with Tony Horton.
Interesting, isn’t it? Why mention your mind or you spirit, when the main thrust is being flexible? Here’s a translation tip: Any mention of using your energy or focusing on your breathing to empty your mind is the “weird stuff” you were trying to say wasn’t in yoga.
Yoga, as it was originally conceived in Hinduism and Buddhism is a way for you to meditate (empty yourself) in order to connect with the divine. The physical is the spiritual. There is no divide. Al Mohler makes a very pointed observation when he says “Consider this — if you have to meditate intensely in order to achieve or to maintain a physical posture, it is no longer merely a physical posture.” and he’s entirely correct.
Here are a few quick links of either articles or audio of John Piper, Albert Mohler, & Doug Groothuis talking about yoga.
A quick note on tactics. Our culture is hyper-sensitive right now, which means that we do everything we can not to offend other people, and especially other cultures. Something that might help to break through the idea that yoga is merely a physical exercise is that attempting to rip apart a discipline that is sacred and important to millions of people in eastern countries and religions is decidedly quite offensive. Also, a helpful comparison I’ve found is one within Judaism. Attempting to do yoga as merely exercise, without any spiritual element is much like taking the Jewish ceremonial washing and doing them only to get clean. Most Christians can see the badness of doing that, which may be a way for you to open the door to showing the badness of doing what they are attempting to do with yoga.
Finally, what do we do? Suppose you’re now convinced that it isn’t a smart idea to practice yoga, but you still want to work on your flexibility and balance. Are there any alternatives that focus on the same things without all the worldview baggage? Yes! Tai Chi isn’t the way to go, because you get a lot of the same baggage. Most of the “christian yoga” or “praise moves” are super cheesy, and basically identical to yoga. I would suggest pilates. When I was doing P90X, I substituted pilates on the days when I was supposed to be doing yoga, and it worked just fine. It focuses on the same areas, and gets the same results. Why do people not do pilates instead? Frankly, because it’s not as popular. I am nowhere near an expert on pilates (the knowledge, let alone the activity!) so if you run into something which raises red flags for you, then stop doing it! I am currently unaware of any negative worldview issues tied to pilates, but that doesn’t mean that people aren’t mixing and matching out there.
Above all, we should seek to ask questions which lead us to the maximal approach to Christian living. We are to live as before the Lord, before a watching world. Hopefully this helps you toward that end.