Every so often the same old arguments about yoga and Christians resurface. I had resolved to keep my thoughts to myself about the matter, but as I was reading (though not responding) to a recent online kerfluffle there were a number of comments from people like me, who had successfully used yoga to help manage their chronic illness issues and didn’t understand why there had to be such a fuss. Even worse, they were wondering if they should discontinue the very practice that had helped them to heal!
My Story of Chronic Illness and Yoga
In 2010 I got diagnosed with cervical dystonia, a crippling neurological movement disorder that affected my neck and shoulders. I quickly became so incapacitated I lost my ability to drive and could barely stand up to cook a quick meal. I shook so hard I looked like I had Parkinson’s. I was a homeschooling mom and I couldn’t get off the couch. I was devastated.
The only “help” I got from mainstream doctors was Botox shots and dangerous pharmaceuticals that I didn’t want to take. I was flattened and desperate to get up.
I came across a book called Yoga for Movement Disorders and I started to use it. I was a Christian and I simply skipped over anything that was mystical in content. I moved on to Gary Kraftsow’s video for neck and shoulders.
As a Christian I know that the Holy Spirit gives us discernment about what to do and not do and will lead us into all truth. I found a Holy Yoga book at the store and got it, but I do better with video so I found a couple of teachers that were secular, but didn’t make me feel uncomfortable.
Over time and with discipline and consistency, I started to get better and got my range of motion back. I’ve been to a lot of secular classes, but I never had any desire to pursue alternative spirituality. I stay grounded in the Word every single day. The only thing I did discover that there is a great big beautiful world of Christian thought outside of rigid fundamentalism and I’ve been learning more about developing a contemplative prayer life and that has brought me a lot of peace.
I still have cervical dystonia and ulcerative colitis. Both have to be managed on a daily basis. Stress reduction is essential. Dr. Farias, who has made great strides in naturally treating dystonia patients, uses restorative yoga as part of his protocol. I hope to be able to see him someday but until then, I’m doing what works for me. I have no guilt. Years of chronic stress dysregulated my nervous system, causing my brain signals to misfire and it’s taken years to slowly bring it back to a parasympathetic state. I’m still not there. Other options like Pilates, T. Tapp and even “Christian stretching” aren’t the right choice for me because I typically practice a lot of Yin, restorative and even bed yoga and I needed the practical guidance in these practices.
Why All the Fuss About Yoga?
from “Is Yoga Safe for Christians?”
The common objection to yoga is that it is rooted in Hinduism. Some say that the poses in yoga were intended as antennas for attracting false gods. Other objections focus on the meditation and chanting that are often used. Meditation is seen as dangerous because it involves emptying one’s mind and focusing on a single word or phrase. And the greeting commonly heard at yoga classes, Namaste, has been criticized because it means, “I bow to the divine in you”; which many view to be pantheism. Among other criticisms, some have warned that yoga practice is a slippery slope into New Age. And more spiritual concerns warn against the kundalini spirit that is focused on in some types of yoga.
With all these objections it would be easy to just run and hide from all things yoga. Christians have long been in the habit of circling the wagons and hiding. But what if, instead of turning tail and running from what is shown to be a very beneficial form of exercise, we took a redemptive posture and sought to find the good in yoga?
Those Pagan Origins…
Yes, yoga has Eastern origins but roots don’t determine everything. There are a number of holidays and traditions we celebrate including Mardi Gras, Valentine’s Day, Birthdays that have pagan origin, or elements of paganism. Many of these are celebrated by Christian culture and embraced by common culture. How many of us put up Christmas trees to celebrate the birth of Christ? According to Encyclopedia Britannica and other sources, the origins of the Christmas tree are closely tied to pagan winter rites and even tree worship among pre-Christian Europeans. Christians took something that had been used in pagan origin and re-interpreted it, giving it new meaning as a symbol of Christian faith. This is similar to what has been done with yoga – it has been reinterpreted to fit the needs of those who are practicing it. Just as in the case of Christmas trees and many other holidays we love, yoga can be re-interpreted to benefit followers of Christ.
Is Mindfulness Wrong?
Many Christians who are anti-yoga fail to realize is that mindfulness isn’t necessarily Hindu. Many early Christian spiritual teachers taught their disciples to develop something they called nespis, which means to be wakeful and attentive and to watch what was around them.
I have a very long history of anxiety, depression and racing thoughts. Practicing mindfulness has helped me to slow my thinking down and find more focus as I strive to do one thing at a time. I primarily use the Calm app for this.
Can We All Get Along?
I completely understand why someone coming out of an Eastern/new age background might need an alternative to traditional yoga because it’s a sin to them (Romans 14) and possibly trigger negative spiritual experiences. But why the need to throw a stumbling block in front of those who have found physical and emotional relief through a balanced yoga practice?
We’re so fortunate to live in a day and age when we have a choice! If something isn’t right for you, go ahead and find something else! As I read through the comment thread on the kerfluffle I mentioned above, I wondered why some feel the need to “warn” others about yoga. Can’t we all stay in our own lanes? If you don’t want to do it, then don’t. But if your friend is finding health and vitality through her yoga practice, let her find her path.
Some Christians make a business out of perpetual outrage. Their intentions might be good. They pride themselves on being “bold.” They sell lots of books, get invited to speaking engagements and get a lot traffic to their social media pages and blogs. But the constant sensationalism creates division amongst Christians who should be focused on sharing the message to a hurting world and reaching out to the marginalized.
Many in Christian suburban America don’t see that there’s a lot of hurting people out from very diverse backgrounds who might never enter a church – but they might attend a yoga class. Why not reach out to them where they’re at? They just might find Jesus on the mat!
If you’re a Christian who wants to practice yoga, simply try out some different classes or DVDs. Most local gym classes are exercise focused without an Eastern element. If you’re worried, just ask before you go. If a video doesn’t sit right with you, don’t do it and try another one.
For me, I found three secular yoga teachers that I was comfortable with and I just stick with them. With my physical challenges, I needed experienced teachers who could help me adapt things as I needed to. I also learned to pace myself and to accept that it was okay to have restorative days when I needed them.
I’ve found that the deep breathing and mindfulness that I practice with yoga has helped to calm down my perpetual monkey mind and actually focus on prayer and biblical meditation. Yoga has been instrumental as a recovery modality both in sobriety and in my chronic illness journey.
If you’ve found healing and relief through your yoga practice, don’t let the border bullies guilt you out of your practice. Keep seeking God, move forward on your healing journey and find what works for you.
Mark 7:15 “It’s not what goes into your body that defiles you; you are defiled by what comes from your heart.” You are not going to have an issue with yoga tempting you to Hinduism or New Age if you are already filled with the Holy Spirit and pursuing relationship with Him. The stories of people led into New Age by yoga or getting freedom from repenting of yoga are certainly valid experiences, but those stories are almost always about people who had New Age, demonic, or occultic experiences before becoming Christians. Yoga might be a correlated experience, however, correlation does not equal causation. 1 John 4:4 tells us that, “He who is in us is greater than he who is in the world.” So we are in the power position here. We do not need to be weak and afraid.
More Christian Yoga Resources
Caroline Williams Yoga (I just discovered her while researching this…she’s awesome & has videos up on YouTube!)