I have been asked more than once if I consider yoga a Christian practice. Even @MattWalsh wrote recently we should avoid yoga since it’s a pathway to paganism. I confess I am astounded when confronted with these concerns. I hadn’t really thought that deeply about the origins of exercise and why (or not) they would be related to my religion. However, the question has come up multiple times since and it’s caused me to ponder the relationship between yoga and my spiritual life.
Technically, yoga isn’t a Christian practice since yoga is an Eastern tradition unrelated to Christ. Yoga actually began as a science in India as a method for dealing with disease unrelated to religion. Does this mean yoga shouldn’t be a Christian practice? I don’t think so. I personally believe that when God is first and foremost in your thoughts and actions and you act from a place of love, then you are practicing behaviors that are derived from Christian teachings. St. Peter tells us that love covers a host of sins. Since my yoga practice is often devoted to God and not myself, and I use the time to clear my head of the nonsense of the world to more deeply devote myself to God in my daily life, I have a hard time believing it is a sin.
Jesus teaches us that “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength (Mark 13:20). Does this not entail our whole being worshiping with God? Can this not be done through all our practices, including yoga? Paul goes on to teach us: “do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6: 19-20). It seems to me that the Bible is teaching us that we should worship God in all we do. Even if it’s yoga.
Regardless of any affiliation to politics, church, creed, or specific theology, the most important thing to me as an individual is how I live my life according to the teachings of Christ. Hence, I take issue with a narrow minded view that if I practice yoga as a Christian I am opening myself to a path to hell. That’s like saying people shouldn’t run marathons because it was developed by Greek pagans. Attributing yoga as a “bad practice” is like saying we shouldn’t do strongmen competitions because it was developed by a bunch of drunk Germans trying to figuring out who could lift the heavier keg or tree trunk. I think many of the same thing could be said about a lot of exercises and religions. Roman pagans attributed physical feats as gifts from gods. An argument that attributes physical practices as pathways to sin basically tells me I shouldn’t walk, hike, swim, sail, or a host of other activities that make me feel closer to God because I am enjoying God’s nature. The argument that yoga is a pagan practice fails for me because it does not put God at the beginning of any activity a human engages.
In addition, this position fails to address the very physical benefits of yoga. Many, many, many evidenced-based research articles have documented the benefits of yoga with dealing with cancer pain (I’ve been there, and while I may be a cohort of one, my experience is substantiated by the literature); reducing dependence on depression and anxiety medication; helping individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder in a healthy way; reducing the need for hypertension medications in those with high blood pressure and cardiovascular diseases; improving the recovery times following surgery; improved recovery from injuries; and much, much more. Yoga is good for the body.
Whenever I practice yoga, I feel closer to God. The very acts of the movements center my busy brain on God. I’ve learned over the years that I am the sort of person that NEEDS yoga. As a high-energy, passionate, and intense do-er, yoga is the yin to my yang. It provides balance in my life that I most desperately need. Yoga for me is prayer with my body. Each pose reminds me of the methods that can be used when walking a prayer labyrinth and techniques used in meditative prayer. Centering, breath, being in the moment, releasing your worries, are all things we should practice when we pray. These practices tell our body to stop making it about the “me," and focusing on God.
With each breath, I pray to breathe in God’s guidance in my life and with each exhale release those things that are out of my control. With each rush of my breath, I hear the ocean, like the waves hitting the shore. It is loud and rushing in my ears, and the rhythm of my diaphragm rising and falling seems to mimic the rise and fall of the water. With each breath I feel connected to the earth and feel honored to be a part of God’s creation. As I raise my arms high in tree, I feel as though my whole self is reaching for God in praise. When I bow down low in humble warrior, I feel as though I am bowing before God, humbled at how little I am without God in my life. When I hear the leader call the class to shine our hearts forward, I feel as though I am offering my heart to God. My soul says, “Here I am Lord.” When I transition to Warrior I or Warrior II, I feel fiercely ready to take on whatever is thrown at me in life. Whenever I do any balancing poses and fall, I am reminded that I will always fall without my faith. When I struggle with other poses, I am reminded that it is through hard work and dedication that we achieve success. It is through the repetition of my practice that I’ve learned my faith and my practice are both disciplines that require work.
Mr. Walsh, I will concede that yoga isn’t really a Christian practice, but neither is walking, or reading, or cooking, or raising children, or singing, or any thing we do daily unless we weave God through all those things. Christian practices are anything where we take the teachings of God, and honor God with all that we do. I believe we can do this whether it’s yoga, or karate, or walking, or running, or any sort of activity. I’d like to think that when we love God in all we do, we are making our faith a part of all that we do.
Acknowledgements: Many Thanks to My Yogi friends for providing pictures for today’s blog.
Jimi Parker is a born again Christian coming to the faith 15 years ago. She lives in Kansas and has practiced and taught yoga for 4 years, and is continuing her studies to become a yoga therapist. Yoga has taught Jimi that the least invasive healing comes through Faith, and moving meditation that is yoga. Jimi finds God in her quiet time on the mat.
Beth Hughes is a life-long Episcopalian, Aspirant to Holy Orders, Member of the Order of the Daughters of the King, and Yoga Therapist who has practiced yoga for more than 10 years. Not only has yoga drawn her closer to God, but it's helped her prep for and recover more rapidly following back surgery. You can learn more about Beth at www.romega.yoga