Can Christians Practice Yoga?
Recently, a new series of exercises DVDs emerged, marketed exclusively toward Catholics. SoulCore combines core strengthening, isometric movements, and the praying of the Rosary into 60 minute videos to exercise the body while nourishing the mind. SoulCore defines itself against one of the most popular forms of exercise, yoga. “SoulCore is not yoga, nor are yoga poses referenced at any time.” Instead, SoulCore emphasizes uniting the mind and body in prayer and putting the body through a series of challenging poses to mimic the suffering of Christ.
I’m not here to bash SoulCore; if this specific sort of exercise while praying the Rosary works best for your spiritual and physical needs, then that’s great. What concerns me is the demonization of yoga by this and other Christian groups. Yoga, as a physical exercise, is a series of isometric movements that holistically strengthen the body, especially the core. (For a brief lesson in exercise science, isometric movements are muscular contractions in static poses, such as a plank, wall sit, or holding a lunge.) The movements in SoulCore are strikingly similar to those of yoga: isometric lunges, deep squats, planks, and back stretches. Yet they are not doing yoga moves, with the implication that there’s something spiritually unsettling about Warrior II and child’s pose.
Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland, a priest made the news recently when he warned that yoga opens your soul up to bad spirits and practicing the occult. This belief does not seem to be uncommon among some groups of Catholics and other Christian denominations: the Christian fundamental group Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry claims no Christians should practice yoga because yoga is religious in nature and anyone who practices it with their body is also practicing it with their soul. A few years ago, megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll proclaimed that “yoga is demonic…is absolute paganism…[and] if you just sign up for a little yoga class, you just signed up for a little demon class.”
Despite what these people say, you are not handing over your soul to bad spirits when you use pigeon pose to stretch or attend a yoga class for a workout. Thousands of years ago, yoga was a spiritual practice. Now, however, what we call yoga is far different from the meditative spiritual practice described in the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita. In a 2010 op-ed on NPR, an Indian reflects on how modern yoga is practically a foreign practice to Hindus. Some Hindus believe that modern yoga has disconnected itself from the ancient practice and now functions solely as a physical exercise, not a spiritual practice. Even if some people describe yoga as a spiritual practice, modern yoga has taken the name, a few Sanskrit words, and not much else of ancient philosophical yoga.
Rather, modern yoga is a series of poses and breathing patterns that stretch, strengthen, and align the body. Most yoga you encounter today does not even include chanting or meditation, but focuses on balance, stability, flexibility, and relaxation. Yes, the poses may be similar to those assumed by Hindus and Buddhists for meditation, but the poses themselves do not carry any spiritual connotations or effects. Think of how someone could assume a prayer position on the kneeler in church without actually praying or even believing in God. Likewise, Christians can master crow pose without practicing any form of non-Christian meditation.
Christian moral theology often considers the end, or the pursued result, of an issue when determining its role in the Christian life. Let’s look at yoga through this lens. If you are using yoga to reach a spiritual end, namely salvation, then you should reconsider your practice and seek the spiritual advice of your priest or pastor. We have Christ, the Church, and the sacraments for our attainment of salvation; we as Christians should not be seeking it elsewhere. Very few people in the West nowadays practice yoga in this way, so your average yoga class or video more likely than not does not view yoga as a means to anything other than a limber and fit body. In fact, almost every yoga studio I’ve encountered prides itself in focusing on yoga as an exercise and shuns any “new age-y” practices.
If, however, you are using yoga to exercise, to release stress, to fight arthritis, or (as I am when I do yoga) realign your hips after an especially grueling week of training, then you are fine doing yoga. Demons aren’t going to snatch up your soul anymore than they would during a marathon or a cycling class. In fact, yoga as an exercise can help you treat your body well, which Scripture calls us to do when it reminds us that our bodies are temples. God gave us these bodies; to keep them healthy is to respect his creation.
Some Christians do find spiritual benefits in yoga, such as cleared minds, silent time for prayer, and the feeling of being closer to God. There is nothing wrong with this, as long as you recognize it is not yoga uniquely that is bringing you closer to God. We are embodied creatures, and God reaches out to us through physical activities as much as he does through spiritual activities. A clear mind, relaxation, and spiritual awareness are not directly solely the effects of yoga, but rather the effects of any physical activity: running, gardening, swimming, or housework, and these activities can connect one with God as much as yoga. It’s important to keep things in perspective and realize it’s God, not some power of yoga, that binds the physical to the spiritual.
SoulCore Home Page. http://www.soulcoreproject.com/