About 16 million adults in the United States practice yoga—an increase of 85 percent from 2004 to 2008—and the Los Angeles Times reports that both Christian and Jewish groups are incorporating the Eastern meditation practice into their respective faith tradition. Explicitly Christian yoga classes, such as Laurette Willis's PraiseMoves, seek to "transform your workout into worship!" I've practiced yoga for over six years now, but haven't sought out a Christian class, instead being content to bring my faith to the class I attend. This exercise in Christian discernment has strengthened both my body and my spirit.
I had two reservations when I began practicing yoga. One, I don't like trying new things, and the thought of contorting my not-so-flexible body in front of others made me nervous. Two, I knew that yoga had Eastern origins, and didn't want to turn exercise into an unwitting endorsement of Hinduism. But the class was free, and I wanted to be more willing to try new things, and I figured my faith could withstand one yoga class. So I went.
And I loved it. As a Christian, the spiritual aspect of yoga both attracts me and concerns me. It's easy to affirm the goodness of taking care of my body. Even though "honor God with your body" (1 Cor. 6:20) was written to address sexual morality, it extends to the care we take in other areas as well. Christian theology insists that our bodies matter. God's physical creation is a good one. In contrast to the Greek idea that the body is corrupt, Christ's incarnation affirms the importance of physical existence. Moreover, Christian hope is built on the promise that our souls and our bodies will be resurrected as a part of God's new heaven and new earth. Again, Christian theology insists that our bodies matter—even though our spiritual practices, especially in private, are often devoid of physical expression.
Yoga offers a way to connect the physical and the spiritual. A posture of hands raised (a "sun salutation") can be an expression of worship to the God who made the sun. "Child pose," a posture of dependence, head to the ground, knees drawn into the body, can be a reminder of humility, reverence, and vulnerability before God. Yoga also emphasizes the significance of breathing. When I start a yoga class with breathing exercises, I think about God's Spirit—a word in Hebrew that can also be translated breath—hovering over the face of the waters, and breathing life into Adam. I think about Jesus on the cross, breathing his last that we might live.
Over the years, I've started my personal prayer time by integrating God's Word with the breathing techniques I learned in yoga. Breathe in: "Be still." Hold the breath: "and know." Exhale: "that I am God" (Ps. 46:10). I have translated my yoga class into my Christian experience, and my understanding of God has grown.
But what to do with all of Scripture's warnings against worshiping false gods and listening to a false gospel? Is yoga one more opportunity for idolatry? Yoga is, at its core, a Hindu practice. Certainly Hinduism does not affirm the triune God whom Christians worship. It does not affirm human sinfulness, human uniqueness, or the possibility of a personal and eternal relationship with a loving Creator. At the end of every yoga class, we are invited to put our hands together in "prayer position" and bow forward with the words "Namaste." Our instructor translates this phrase as, "I salute the light that is within you." I go back and forth on my participation in this act. On the one hand, I do salute the light that is within you as a human created in God's image. On the other, I don't want to suggest that the light within you is sufficient for you to be justified before God or to experience God's sanctifying work in this world. I don't want to suggest that you are (or I am) divine. Similarly, I have participated in yoga classes where part of the class involves chanting "om." I choose to abstain due to the spiritual implications of the chant, which, as I understand, is intended to take me into union (the word yoga translates to "union") with the sound of the universe. Chanting "om" stretches too close to pantheism for my liking.
Still, yoga has offered me a way to integrate exercise and prayer. That weekly hour of movement and thought and breathing is one way I am able to honor God with my body. Ultimately, I believe that "whatever is true" (Phil. 4:8) comes from God, and that we can affirm any truth, any goodness, as God's truth and God's goodness—even if it involves lunging and stretching. Even if, perhaps especially if, it recognizes the ways the body and spirit are inextricably linked. Yoga just might support the gospel after all.
Christianity Today magazine has a special online section on "Yoga and the Christian."