Let us say that Tammy and Bill are Christians and members of the local Christian church in town. They faithfully attend Sunday services and a Wednesday evening Bible study, which they host in their own home. They seem to be in pretty good shape, too. In fact, every morning of the week they both wake up at 5:30 and exercise. Their routine? Thirty minutes of yoga. Hatha Yoga, to be exact.
A few months ago they met a yoga teacher through a friend from church, who introduced them to the benefits of Hatha (pronounced hut-ha) Yoga. Raving about how it makes him so relaxed throughout the day, this friend slipped Tammy and Bill the business card of the Yoga teacher and encouraged them to “try it out.” They did, and they liked what they got! Since then they have talked to friends at the church about Hatha Yoga. Oh, sure, they have been asked once or twice about whether Hatha is spiritual in any way, but their teacher assured them that it does not have to be. So, Tammy and Bill tell others that they are “in it for the exercise alone.”
Should Christians perform Yoga? Before you answer, here are some things you need to know.
What Is Yoga?
In an ancient language of India known as Sanskrit, the noun yoga comes from the verb yuj — to yoke, to join. When placed in the context of spiritual philosophy, yoga means “union; a process or path of discipline leading to oneness with the Divine or oneself” (John Grimes, A Concise Dictionary of Indian Philosophy [Albany: Sate University of New York Press, 1989] 410).
What many Westerners do not know is that there are many types of Yoga. For example, we have Jñana Yoga (union with God through knowledge), Bhakti Yoga (union through devotion to a deity), and Karma Yoga (union through selfless action). By far the most popular form of Yoga in the West is Hatha Yoga.
What is Hatha Yoga?
Hatha is comprised of two Sanskrit words — Ha means the sun, and Tha means the moon (Usharbudh Arya, Philosophy of Hatha Yoga [Honesdale, Pa.: Himalayan International Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy of the USA, 1985] 2). As one’s consciousness begins to rise, sun and moon are no longer simply associated with objects that illumine our days and nights, but are associated with spiritual truths of the body as it relates to the universe (ibid.). Through different postures (asanas) and breath control (pranayama) the serpent power (kundalini) that is the “sleeping spiritual force in every human being [and] lies coiled at the base of the spine” is awakened as it rises through several energy centers (chakras) in the body (The Encyclopedia of Eastern Religion and Philosophy [Boston: Shambhala, 1989] 190, 58). The goal, then, of Hatha Yoga is “to transform the human body to make it a worthy vehicle for Self-realization” (Georg Feuerstein, Encyclopedic Dictionary of Yoga [New York: Paragon House, 1990] 133). Self-realization is not to be defined through western lenses, but rather through the lenses of various Indian philosophies. Generally speaking, the “Self” is the Divine or God within us all. Through Hatha Yoga we can realize that we are God or one with God.
Christians who practice Hatha Yoga need to realize that even though in their minds they are in it merely for exercise, the practice itself, in Indian philosophy, cannot be divorced from its spiritual connotations. “Thus, yoga should not be practiced for the sake of perfecting the postures only. This is a particular problem in the West, where yoga has become especially popular in the form of hatha yoga. The goal of hatha yoga ultimately is to attain the goal of raja [royal] yoga, that is, Self-realization” (Rajmani Tigunait, in the Introduction of Hatha Yoga: Manual I (Honesdale, Pa.: Himalayan International Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy of the USA, 1985] 2). I once asked a yogin (a teacher of Yoga) if the postures of Hatha Yoga could be divorced from its spiritual philosophy. He answered, “At first it is possible, but later one naturally will progress toward the spiritual philosophy.”
In light of the above, Christians who practice Hatha Yoga need to consider whether the LORD wants them to practice Hatha Yoga or not.
First, they need to consider the realm of the demonic. Could demons be associated with this practice? To answer this, they need to think through the fact that Hatha Yoga was not formed merely for the benefits of physical exercise. It was formed with the goal of realizing the God within, a theology that is contrary to that of the Bible. Biblically, specific theological structures that are not of God are pointed out by the apostles to be closely connected with the devil and his minions ( I Cor. 11:13-15; Eph. 6:11-12; 1 Tim. 4:1; 1 John 4:1-5).
Second, they need to consider whether their practice of Hatha Yoga will lead others into it, and consequently toward Hatha’s ultimate goal of realizing the God within.
Having studied various philosophies of Hinduism, both formally and informally, I believe that Christians should not practice Hatha Yoga. Because of what the word yoga means and the philosophy behind Hatha Yoga, and because of the considerations mentioned above, Christians should seek other forms of exercise (for some of us, under the direction of a medical professional).