Yoga in America has increased greatly in popularity over the past 60 years with more than 36 million people actively practicing yoga. With its roots in eastern spirituality, many Christians who practice yoga to stay healthy and reduce stress, have been left wondering if Christian faith and yoga are compatible. Is Christian Yoga a thing?
In this article you’ll be equipped with everything you need to know about the debate, and be empowered to seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance in this area. In this guide, these are the topics we will cover (click to go right to that section.)
Before we dive in, I want to tell you how proud I am of you for wrestling with this topic. I know it’s your heart to honor God in all you do and put the gospel at the center of your health. You are exactly where God wants you, with a humble heart seeking to glorify Him!
Yoga was introduced to the western world in 1893 by Swami Vivekananda in his speech to the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, “to shift the involvement with Eastern spirituality from something intellectual to something practical and daily.” This idea of Yoga as a physical activity first, and a spiritual practice second, drove the explosion of yoga in the United States over the next century.
American religions scholar Jay Gordon Melton said that by the beginning of the 20th century, “they taught and sold hatha (yoga) on its benefits to the body, rather than through its religious trappings.”
In 1950 American Richard Hittleman studied yoga in India and brought it to New York as a non-spiritual based yoga focusing on the physical benefits. “Hittleman’s goal was to teach American students to gradually embrace the spiritual side of yoga, which many people have.” Yoga continued to grow through the 1960’s and 70’s making its appearance at Woodstock and yoga studios in Hollywood and across the nation. It was an exercise first, followed by a spiritual practice.
What we know today as yoga, or asanas (physical postures to balance the body), is only 1/8th of the Hindu practice of yoga. Yoga itself is an 8 step process to achieve moksha, or freedom from the cycle of death and rebirth (reincarnation.) The 3rd and 4th limbs of yoga, Asana meaning posture, and Pranayama meaning breath, are cherry picked from the practice as whole and make up what most know as the modern practice of yoga.
In fact, many studios prefer to keep their classes sparse in religious undertones that could make their customers uncomfortable. Yoga is a 16 Billion dollar industry and the commoditization of yoga is big business. 94% of yoga participants say they practice for the physical benefits, while about half of accredited yoga studios say they are “spiritually-oriented.” That is a large mismatch between customer and product intention.
This begs the question, is it the classic cloak and dagger strategy? Appeal to the physical benefits on the front end, and gently introduce Hindu philosophy on the back end? A wolf in sheep’s clothing, or do we save the baby (asana yoga) and throw out the bathwater (Hinduism) as Christians?
Interestingly, even devout Hindu followers have recently taken objection to the secularization of yoga with an Indian-American campaign called Take Back Yoga. “In a way,” said Dr. Aseem Shukla, the foundation’s co-founder, “our issue is that yoga has thrived, but Hinduism has lost control of the brand”, and “offered up a religion’s spiritual wealth at the altar of crass commercialism.” Perhaps Hindu’s own objection with the lack of spirituality in yoga is telling?
Yoga’s Physical Benefits
The major draw of yoga is its numerous health benefits sought after by 94% of those who practice it. Something to consider for Christians who want to honor God by staying healthy. Here are the top ten physical benefits of the postures and breathing exercises we know as yoga.
- Yoga improves flexibility, strength, and balance. Anyone who has tried yoga can attest to the challenge and growth in these three key areas of physical fitness.
- Yoga can reduce stress. One study of 24 women showed that after a 3 month yoga program, its participants experienced less stress, anxiety, fatigue, and depression.
- Yoga can relieve anxiety and symptoms of PTSD. Another study following 64 women with PTSD, found half of them no longer qualified for the diagnosis after 10 weeks of practicing yoga.
- Yoga could reduce chronic pain. A study on osteoarthritis of the knees found significant reduction in symptoms after 8 weeks of yoga.
- Yoga may reduce inflammation. An interesting 2015 study divided participants into two groups, those who practiced yoga and those who didn’t. Both groups performed strenuous exercise and had their inflammatory markers measured after. The group that practiced yoga in addition to more vigorous exercise, had much lower inflammation markers than the exercisers who did strenuous exercise alone.
- Yoga could help improve sleep. A handful of studies support the idea that yoga could help improve sleep. A 2005 study found that elderly patients who practiced yoga vs. the control group who drank herbal tea, fell asleep faster, stayed asleep longer, and naturally felt more well rested in the morning.
- Yoga could help with breathing. It’s no surprise, with yoga’s emphasis on deep and purposeful breathing, that participants experienced a positive effect on both vital capacity and symptoms of mild to moderate asthma.
- Yoga may help promote healthy eating. Intuitive eating, which focuses on paying attention to your hunger signals and how certain food makes you feel, is a very effective way to stay healthy and achieve a healthy weight. Yoga employs a very similar principle of mindfulness, being aware of your body and listening to what it tells you. Because mindfulness is so closely related to intuitive eating, one can effectively lead to the other. A small study showed that yoga was effective at lowering binge eating in overweight participants along with a modest decrease in weight over 12 weeks.
- Yoga could help reduce migraines. If you’ve ever had a migraine, you know the throbbing, stabbing pain they can cause. Several promising studies have shown that yoga can be more effective at reducing the frequency and severity of migraines when compared to traditional treatments.
- Yoga could improve heart health. Yoga could improve heart health simply because it is known to lower stress, and there is a strong stress-heart health connection. Yoga may also lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood glucose levels.
With all these benefits, it’s no surprise yoga has become so popular and the controversy over it so heated for Christians.
The Spiritual Significance of Yoga Poses
All of the poses in yoga have unique names, and behind them, a spiritual significance. Most are inspired by the mythological tales of Hindu gods, and inspire the individual on their journey through the eight limbs of yoga to reach the ultimate goal, oneness with all things.
The Warrior pose is rooted in the story of Virabhadra, warrior son of the Hindu god Shiva, who was created in wrath from a lock of his hair. Virabhadra was so powerful and fierce that all the other gods fled before him and could not overcome him. Therefore the warrior pose symbolize the strength and power of Virabhadra.
The very well known child’s pose was born out of Hindu stories of the childlike play of the god Krishna. Alanna Kaivalya Ph.D., known as the Yoga Doctor, writes this about child’s pose:
“By embodying the pose of the child, you access a version of yourself who can love unselfconsciously and who’s not constrained by ego-based fears. That childlike surrender opens the pathways of grace which, when there is nothing left to rely on, is all anyone has. It’s the “more” that you keep chasing in yoga and in life.”
The tree pose is inspired by the epic story Ramayana. In the story, the god Sita is kidnapped by the demon king Ravana and kept outside the palace under a grove of trees. While waiting to be rescued by her husband Rama, she leans against the trees and they comfort her and remind her to be patient. The tree pose represents patience and faithfulness while waiting in a situation you cannot escape.
The mountain pose, though not connected to Hindu mythology like many other poses, is still rich in symbolism. The Yoga Doctor explains the symbolism saying “In India, there is a mountain called Mount Kailas with two lakes—one shaped like the sun and the other like a crescent moon, which represents hatha (ha = sun, tha = moon) yoga. Mount Kailas is considered the seventh chakra—sahasrara. The two lakes have been likened to the two streams of energy (ida and pingala nadis) that rise up one central channel (sushumna nadi) moving toward the highest level of consciousness.
When we stand in Tadasana (mountain pose), we are equally grounded and rising. Our base is firm, yet we reach upward toward the heavens. Our spine is situated as it would be during meditation, ideal for the free flow of prana (life force) throughout the body.”
Somewhat like Catholic saints are prayed to, and known for certain character qualities that emerge from their unique stories, the Hindu symbolism and mythology in each pose is meant to help the practitioner align themselves with the god’s particular strength. Chants and mantras in yoga classes, sometimes including prayer beads, are the yoga equivalent to praying to saints.
A popular example is the word “Om” which is said to be the first sound heard when the universe was created. Many matras are abstract like om, but some are direct invocations to Hindu gods like Ganesha, Patanjali, or aligning one’s own self as god in matras translated “truth is my name.”
In reviewing the spiritual significance of all the poses, and the history of yoga itself, one common thread emerges. The ultimate goal of the practicing Hindu is to reach moksha, where the individual and their desires cease to exist and they become one with the supernatural universe and are freed from the cycle of death and rebirth. It is important to understand the spiritual roots of yoga, so that as Christians, we can more easily discern if what is being said in classes is something in line with our faith in Jesus.
Why Christians shouldn’t do Yoga
Christian bloggers, pastors, fitness instructors, and theologians have all chimed in with their convictions on Christians practicing yoga. In 2008 Missouri megachurch pastor John Lindell condemned yoga as demonic to his more than 10,000 member congregation. He asserted the yoga positions are worship to Hindu gods and “to say the positions of yoga are no more than exercise are tantamount to saying water baptism is just aqua aerobics.”
Lindell’s condemnation of yoga for Christians has come from several other pulpits as well. The TV evangelist Pat Robertson pointed to the problem of Sanskrit chants and mantras in yoga “You don’t know what the Hindu says, but actually it’s a prayer to a Hindu deity and so it sounds like gibberish. So you’re saying ‘kali, kali, kali,’ but you’re praying to a Hindu deity.”
John MacArthur, pastor of the Grace Community megachurch in Sun Valley, California, said “The idea of Christianity is to fill your mind with biblical truth and focus on the God who is above you. That’s Christian worship. The idea of yoga is to fill your mind with nothing except to focus on yourself and try to find the god that is inside of you. From a Christian viewpoint, that’s a false religion. Exercise is a different issue.”
Seattle based Megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll has taken on yoga on multiple occasions saying “Yoga is demonic. . . . It’s absolute paganism. . . . Yoga and meditation and Easternism is all opening to demonism . . . if you just sign up for a little yoga class, you’re signing up for a little demon class. That’s what you’re doing. And Satan doesn’t care if you stretch as long as you go to hell.”
Christian speaker and author Lauerette Willis, grew up culturally calling herself a Christian but without ever hearing the message of salvation at her church. When her mom began seeking New age ideas and taking her on yoga retreats, she enthusiastically followed along. “I tried everything—Kabbalah, Universalism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism —because I was spiritually hungry,” Laurette says. “I call the New Age movement ‘Burger King’ because it’s like the fast-food restaurant’s motto: ‘Have it your way.’ That’s what the New Age movement tries to do, to achieve god on its terms.”
Laurette, left empty and lacking peace, eventually came to a saving relationship with Jesus, and the conviction to do away with all of her new age practices, including yoga. Nearly 20 years after her conversion, the Holy Spirit gave her the idea of creating a workout program of poses that gave all the benefits of yoga, but with a firm focus on Christian values. Praise Moves was born where Christians can pair movements with biblical symbolism, scripture, and meditation on Jesus.
Brand Extension Advertising
While some Christian leaders condemn yoga categorically, others point out the danger isn’t as much in the physical exercises themselves, but in where those exercises naturally lead. Brand extension advertising is a remarkably effective technique where a brand uses their success and consumer trust to stretch and include other related products.
Historical theologian and president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Albert Mohler warns about the slippery slope of yoga: “[The American cult of health] is a concentration upon the self that is not spiritually healthy and yoga for many people I think becomes the entry drug recognized or not into more troubling forms of spirituality and spiritual confusion.”
In an interview with Albert Mohler and secular Indian historian Alistair Shearer, Alistair says: “It depends why one does yoga. If people want to take yoga as a set of physical exercises that make them feel better, a wellness therapy, that’s absolutely fine by me. It doesn’t worry me at all. But it’s like stopping a dinner with a starter, it seems to me. If you want the full meal, all the courses, you have to go deeper than the physical. You can use the physical, and that’s certainly part of yoga, but I think one has to move into the mental and even at a deeper level to spiritual to really get the full nourishment from yoga.”
Data certainly supports the idea that those who practice yoga come primarily for physical reasons, but stay for spiritual reasons. In a survey of over 500 yoga students, “findings suggest that most initiate yoga practice for exercise and stress relief, but for many, spirituality becomes their primary reason for maintaining practice.”
Christian Alternatives to Yoga
Though theologians and pastors in support of yoga are more sparse, an offering of Christianized yoga classes tailored toward women thrive in the 16 billion dollar industry. Believers who are interested in the health benefits of postural yoga, purposeful breathing, and mindfulness/meditation can choose from Holy Yoga with it’s 2,000+ certified master instructors, Christian Yoga Retreats, Praise Moves, Wholy Fit, and dozens more.
Wheaton College, a premier private liberal arts college committed to equipping students to make an impact for Christ offers morning yoga classes dedicated to Christ stating: “At Wheaton College, we seek to bring yoga under the Lordship of Jesus Christ as a system of physical movements, breathing and mental stillness, rather than grounding yoga in pagan religion or secular philosophy.” They cite verses from Genesis as God’s physical creation being good, verses from the Psalms about being still, and passages from Matthew 6 about God inviting rest and not anxiety.
Doug Pagitt, a progressive Minnesota pastor who holds yoga classes at his church has this to say about yoga: “there’s a great little verse in the New Testament where it says, Whatever is good, whatever is right, whatever is noble, whatever is praiseworthy, think upon such things.” And for so many of us, yoga has been one of those ‘whatevers’ that’s such a positive thing in our life.”
Christians who practice yoga share testimonies like Marty Andersons: “In May 2011, I was a physical mess with back pain, muscle spasms and tightness everywhere. Today, after 450+ classes and becoming an instructor in 2013, I am physically much stronger and able to recover from injuries much faster.”
And Nancy Iannios “Holy Yoga is a COMPLETELY, COMPLETE experience. It allows me to strengthen my body, nurture my soul and DEEPEN my love connection to my Heavenly Father! There is not one square inch of my earthly being that is left untouched through my Holy Yoga experiences.”
Common Grace Theology
It is clear from medical science that the deep breathing, and intentional posture exercises in yoga are very beneficial for the bodies God gave us. In James 1:17 the Bible tells us that “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” If this form of exercise, completely separated from its pagan undertones, is good for us, then perhaps we can assume it is from God?
This is the argument of theologian and prolific writer Dr. Paul Tripp in applying his “common grace theology” to the Christians doing yoga debate.
“Every human being experiences God’s grace everyday. Because God loves us, because He’s a God of tender, faithful mercy, He allows bad people to do good things, fallen people to make wise contributions, so that life would be livable for us.
So I can benefit from the physical regimen of yoga, because that stretching of the muscle system can be a very healing and health-giving thing, without buying into the philosophy of people who designed that system. God is willing to give them wisdom about things in the human body for the betterment of our lives.”
Making the Choice
In the debate of Christians doing yoga, there will always be those who love Jesus who fall on either side of the argument. I am reminded of the St. Augustine quote “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity.” I commend you again as I did at the beginning, for giving this question your time and careful consideration. I know it’s your heart to seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance, and honor God in all that you do.
Pilates can be an excellent alternative to yoga, sharing many overlapping qualities in strength, flexibility, stress relief, and breath work, but without the Hindu roots or modern spiritual undertones.
Christian who do choose to practice yoga can be intentional about avoiding classes and instructors who weave new age jargon and Hindu worship into their classes. A simple call to the studio in advance or a search on the Yoga Alliance directory can tell you if your studio/school teaches “spiritually oriented classes.”
Some red flags to watch out for are:
- Sanskrit language and chants which are often used as worship to Hindu deities.
- New Age music or instructions such as “negative and positive energy” and “the divine in me.”
- Buddhist meditation strategies that encourage you to empty your mind or get out of your head.
- The promptings of the Holy Spirit if you are feeling something isn’t right, pay attention to that!
These red flags can even be found in some christianized yoga teachings including the previously mentioned Holy Yoga with over 2,000 instructors practicing in all 50 states and around the world. You can read more here and ask for God for wisdom.
I’ve given you a lot of information to think and pray about in this article, however, I know it can still be helpful to hear the convictions of others. In my 15-year career in personal training, along with my own personal missteps and growth along the way, this is where the Holy Spirit has led me in this question of “should Christian’s do yoga?”
Over many generations Christians have tried to adapt various cultural practices from across the globe into their daily routines. We cannot deny there are useful tools from other parts of the world, and even in our own secular culture, that can be helpful to our physical health. A good example of this is massage derived from eastern culture.
We need to practice discernment, of course, allowing the Holy Spirit to guide us as we look to pagan culture for remedies, solutions to our problems, and daily healthy habits. There is no doubt that yoga provides great benefits for the physical body when applied to stress, stretching, and breath work.
On the other hand, Yoga opens our bodies up to pagan worship. The ideas, concepts and poses are rooted in Hinduism and Buddhism. God is very clear in His instructions to the Israelites that they not worship false Gods or take on those religious practices.
If we strip yoga down and remove its Hindu and Buddhist roots, it becomes just movements. As a Christian woman in the fitness industry, I began to think of it that way. They’re just movements. Eventually the Holy Spirit rose up in me and said, no Mendy, these aren’t just movements, these were created for worship of false pagan gods.
The truth is as Americans we’ve been mesmerized by something that is meant for worship to false gods. I don’t think we did this on purpose. I think it was accidental, because yoga feels amazing, and has amazing benefits. However, there are many other solutions to those problems like Pilates, that don’t also include worship positions and incantations to the gods Virabhadra, Sita, Krishna, Ganesha, Patanjali, and others.
I’m convinced that most Christians don’t know the roots of yoga, and like myself, are doing it just for fitness, stretching, and to open up our bodies. Unfortunately, yoga also asks us to open our minds and reminds us things like “we are the light,” ”you are the light,” and “the light is within you.” Those messages are absolutely contradictory to God’s word.
I believe our movements, daily activities, and our work, should all be a worshipful expression of thankfulness to the one true God. God wants our best intentions to put Him first in all aspects. At Gospel Centered Health, we help women use their bodies in ways that are honoring to Jesus, and because yoga is derived from pagan worship, I don’t believe it’s capable of doing that.
If you’re reading this article it’s likely you’re seeking information about yoga. Maybe you’re a Christian beginning to question your own yoga practice, just like I did at one point. It’s also possible this article has been very challenging to read.
When I began to wonder if yoga was right for me, or right for Christians in general, I had a sense that I had sinned when I had done it. I want to assure you that you are not sinning if you have felt convinced about this, you’re just in the process of working it out with God. You have been sold another bill of lies from the fitness industry.
So, sister in Christ, if you are wondering about this practice called yoga, I encourage you to spend more time in prayer. Listen to the Holy Spirit, because he will lead you in the correct path as you walk daily with Christ.