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I confess, I've always viewed yoga as an activity for yuppie health nuts who insist they cannot stretch without their brightly colored mats; they proudly wear the spandex that you couldn't get near me regardless of any health benefits. According to a recent study by U.S. News & World Report, however, 18 million people in the U.S. practice yoga.

I had previously ruled out this controversial practice for two reasons: First- and this is the big one: It's a spiritual practice of a faith in which I do not believe. Yet surprisingly, according to Rev. Thomas Ryan, author of Prayer of Heart and Body: Meditation, Yoga as a Christian Spiritual Practice, at least half of "yogis" identify themselves as Christians. The May/June '01 issue of Yoga Journal proclaimed that yoga didn't conflict with any religions; but in another issue they admitted that it's a potential $27 billion industry, with the average participant spending $1500 per year on everything from clothing to weekend retreats. Why alienate your biggest audience of "Christian" Americans?

Second reason: I can't even get down to the floor, and the closest I come to being a human pretzel is when I have an itch I can't reach. Still, the growing trend of health benefits intrigued me, and I have Christian friends that faithfully attend their classes. I wondered if there could be something beneficial in it after all. I did my research and came up with surprising but controversial results.

In one study of chronic pain patients and the use of yoga as pain treatment, Yoga Journal (September/October 2001) says, "Most of the patients identified themselves as Christians, and when asked how consistent the mindfulness practices were with their own religious background, an overwhelming number said that not only did they feel comfortable doing the poses and meditation, but they also felt the practices helped them to grow spiritually." That sounds positive, but then again, according to an ABC News Poll, 83% of Americans identify themselves as Christians, so I can't presume all of the Christians are practicing reasonable discernment.


How are Christian Leaders Handling the Yoga Issue?

There are more churches that have yoga classes than I would have expected. In 2003, Susan Bordenkircher, founder of www.christianyoga.us received an award from the United Methodist Conference for her efforts at evangelism-through yoga! As a certified yoga instructor, she combined the disciplines of yoga with her own Christian faith, resulting in a class called Outstretched in Worship. This led to a video series which taps in to the physical and psychological healing benefits of yoga while instructing students to "quiet the mind" and "come to God with no baggage."

Bordenkircher explains, "Yoga has helped me to realize it's not all about me, to become stronger and more agile, to work out imbalances in my posture and my personality. Spiritually, I feel a much closer connection to the Lord. My quiet time is more intimate with Him and my prayers more focused."

George Smith, M.D., Assistant General Secretary of Christians in Caring Professions in the United Kingdom argues in an article entitled Yoga and Transcendental Meditation: A Christian Option?, "There is little doubt that yoga [is] inextricably linked by [its] Hindu origins. In Matthew 7:18, Jesus said, "A good tree cannot bear bad fruit and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.'" He explains, "[The word yoga] comes from a Sanskrit word meaning 'yoke' or 'union.' The purpose of yoga is to yoke the human spirit with Hindu gods or the great 'Universal spirit' by means of physical postures." Hmm. . . The scripture, "You shall have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:3) comes to mind. Anything to do with "higher powers" is a waving red flag.

What is Christian Yoga?

With an open mind I sat down to watch Bordenkircher's video, Outstretched in Worship, and was pleasantly surprised at the Christ-centered focus of what appears to be simple stretching and strength training exercises. The video is enlaced with instructions of, "ask the Lord to keep ourselves Christ-centered. . . with arms stretched to the Lord."

But Smith disagrees that simply changing the wording does not change the spiritual realm. "We need to be aware that Christian patients who have been involved in these activities (as well as some other alternative therapies) may suffer spiritual ill-health as a very unwelcome result," he explains in his article. "Ill effects may include anxiety, depression, fear, lack of Christian assurance, interference with prayer life and Bible reading."

Laurette Willis would agree. She is founder of Praise Moves™, which is described as "The Christ-Centered Alternative to Yoga: Yoga? No!" Her web site passionately states, "Does everyone open themselves up to demonic influences when practicing yoga techniques? I know I did, and I believe the majority do-whether they realize it or not, and whether or not they believe in the existence of these deceptive forces." Yet her literature states the following about her videos: "Some [positions] look similar to yoga postures. Some look a lot like yoga postures. . .Could it be that these lovely movements meant to relax our bodies and keep them healthy while praising the Lord were 'stolen' by the enemy and twisted to bring people to the feet of a false idol?"

How Confusing!

What I find is one similar exercise program which stems from two different perspectives. One, "Christian Yoga" (even called by some "Chroga") which adds Christ to historically recognized yoga postures. Two, in the process of worshipping Christ, we add "historical movements" for the body. It seems as if some believe that any Christians who want to worship God while stretching, must have moves which could be interpreted as "yoga moves." After all, how many positions are there that a body can get into and why should Hindus get to claim them all to worship their gods? As Ecclesiastes 1:9 says, "There is nothing new under the sun." Who knows what position David was in as he danced and prayed?

Examining Alternative Medicine, by P.C. Reisser, D. Mabe and R. Velarde says, "At the risk of sounding narrow-minded, we recommend staying away from yoga, even when it would seem to be nothing more than simple stretching and breathing exercise." But Alternative Medicine: The Christian Handbook, written by Christian Medical and Dental Association members C. O'Mathuna and W. Larimore states that yoga can be used as a complementary practice that "can improve general well-being," but it "is antithetical to Biblical Christianity" when used "as a deeply religious practice with the goal of union with the divine." I interpret this as the CMDA saying Christian Yoga is possible and beneficial-it's not an oxymoron.

Bordenkircher agrees. "There are a number of ways to combine the yoga practice and a Christian prayer life. For example, you can voice your prayer focus using an Affirmation of Faith (or 'Trinity Prayer') or you can link postures together to form a prayer using songs."

Where to Draw the Line

Despite controversies one thing is clear: I have extreme reservations about a Christian participating in a secular yoga class. Matthew 7:15 says, "Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves." Bordenkircher explains, "I encourage students to use discernment in what the Holy Spirit is saying is right for them. Those who are still unsure of their faith would be best served by staying away from classes that make them question what they are learning. Take responsibility for listening to your heart and know your boundaries."

In my opinion, I have a need for stretching, mild exercise and yes-worshipping the Lord. The simple command, "Be still and know that I am God," is a challenge for me to obey, so perhaps making the commitment to stretch while meditating on a scripture would be my best option. Your decision is personal; discuss your options with a Christian mentor and health issues with a doctor. 1 John 4:1 says, "Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world." I cannot think of better advice.

Lisa Copen is the editor of hopekeepers(R) and lives with rheumatoid arthritis.

This article was featured in our May/June 2004 issue.
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