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?
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
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."
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
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."
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?"
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
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.