Yoga: Forming a Right Response
by Rick Shrader
In 1857 The Atlantic Monthly published “Brahma” by Ralph Waldo Emerson which included, “The strong gods pine for my abode, And pine in vain the sacred Seven; But thou, meek lover of the good! Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.”1
In 1893, at the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, Swami Vivekananda opened the Parliament of Religions saying that Hinduism “taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. . . The whole world of religions is only traveling . . . through various conditions and circumstances, to the same goal.”2
In 1929, Margaret Woodrow Wilson, daughter of the President, turned from her Presbyterian heritage to Yoga and “craved only ‘the Realization of God consciousness’ and did ‘not really care about anything else.’”3
In 1948 the Hollywood ad about Yoga read, “Look Pretty, feel good. Marilyn Monroe, who plays the ingénue lead in Columbia’s Ladies of the Chorus, exercises her way to beauty and health.”4
In 1967 George Harrison of the Beatles proclaimed, “Like, in the beginning was the word and I knew mantras were the words. . . We don’t need drugs anymore. We think we’re finding other ways of getting there.”5
In August, 1969, Swami Satchidananda gave the “invocation” at Woodstock by saying, “America is helping everybody in the material field but the time has come for America to help the whole world with the spirituality also.”6
In 2009, at the annual Easter Egg Roll on the White House lawn, First Lady Michelle Obama proclaimed, “Our goal today is just to have fun. We want to focus on activity, healthy eating. We’ve got Yoga, we’ve got dancing, we’ve got storytelling, we’ve got Easter-egg decorating.7
After taking the reader through 150 years in 300 pages, Yale literature author Stefanie Syman, with no religious or Christian perspective to this point, concludes her book, The Subtle Body, by writing,
They’ve spent the last century and a half convincing us that this ancient, Indic, and half-tamed spiritual discipline doesn’t contravene our most sacred beliefs. They may actually be wrong on this point. It’s hard to reconcile the subtle body and the possibility of experiencing divinity for yourself by methodically following a program of exercise, breathing, and meditation with Judeo-Christian notions of God and the afterlife, but we seem willing to ignore the discontinuities.8
Today, this ancient religion is more influential in America and American Christianity than ever. One article, about the yoga dieting craze, says, “Right now there are all these yogi Instagram celebrities with millions of followers . . . And they’re not drinking beer, they’re drinking juice. Mindfulness, in a way, is the new church.”9 One blogger wrote,
Can yoga be completely stripped of Hinduism and even ‘Christianized’? Many Christians believe it can. In fact, some churches and Christian colleges, like Wheaton College and Gordon College, even offer yoga classes. Christian yoga proponents admit that yoga originated as a form of Hindu worship. But, as an article posted to the Wheaton College website says, ‘yoga today is often just an ancient system of postures and breathing’ that’s ‘largely void of religious overtones’. . . It’s one of those things like Christmas and Easter, which was once pagan, but now has been co-opted for Christian worship.10
One author notes that a Google search for yoga on the internet jumped from 66,800,000 hits in 2007 to 220,000,000 in 2011 alone!10
Many still try to convince themselves that incorporating yoga into exercise and diet is in no way connected to the ancient religion itself. Yungen quotes a Jesuit priest, William Johnson, who argues this point,
The twentieth century, which has seen so many revolutions, is now witnessing the rise of a new mysticism within Christianity . . . . For the new mysticism has learned much from the great religions of Asia. It has felt the impact of yoga and Zen and the monasticism of Tibet. It pays attention to posture and breathing; it knows about the music of the mantra and the silence of Samadhi.12
However, Douglas Groothuis, well-respected apologetics professor at Denver Seminary has written,
Overstressed Americans are increasingly turning to various forms of Eastern meditation, particularly yoga, in search of relaxation and spirituality. Underlying these meditative practices, however, is a worldview in conflict with biblical spirituality—though many Christians are (unwisely) practicing yoga. . . . Yoga, deeply rooted in Hinduism, essentially means to be ‘yoked’ with the divine. Yogic postures, breathing, and chanting, were originally designed not to bring better physical health and well-being (Western marketing to the contrary), but a sense of oneness with Brahman—the Hindu word for the absolute being that pervades all things. This is pantheism (all is divine), not Christianity.13
Albert Mohler, Jr., President of Southern Baptist Seminary took much grief (even from Christians) for this statement, “When Christians practice yoga, they must either deny the reality of what yoga represents or fail to see the contradictions between their Christian commitments and their embrace of yoga. The contradictions are not few, nor are they peripheral.”14
With the flood of yoga and other eastern religious practices coming into America in the last century, came also the commercialization. America was where the money was, and to make it big in America meant fame and fortune. Syman tells of television programs from the early 50s and 60s in Los Angeles. On one program called Yoga for Health on KTTV, the star of the show, a man deeply committed to yoga and Zen, knew, “Americans didn’t really relate to yoga. They related to ‘exercise, sports, health.’ He felt he had to keep its esoteric elements—pesky and possibly untoward details about the subtle body and Kundaline—to a minimum if he was to reach Americans ‘en masse.’”15
Author Ray Yungen tells of attending a New Age convention where the speaker said, “If you barge in with occult lingo it turns them off right away. You have to tell them how you can make their employees happier and get more productivity out of them—then they will listen. You are really teaching metaphysics, but you present it as human development.”16 No doubt, yoga and other metaphysical religions have won millions of unknowing converts who are convinced that they are merely exercising and dieting their way to spirituality.
German theologian Kurt E. Koch (1913-1987), Th.D from Tübingen University and author of many books on cults has written,
The word yoga itself has a meaning corresponding to the unio mystica of German mysticism, that is, the mystical union with the universal spirit. The difference between yoga and German mysticism is that yoga is atheistic in nature whereas the German mystics were engaged in a search for God. Their similarity lies in the fact that they share the idea of self-realization. Man must aim at attaining to his eternal self through the practice of many exercises in purification. This eternal self or real self is supposed to be part of the universal or ultimate reality. As we have said, yoga calls this process self-realization. We can see already that it will always be impossible to harmonize yoga and Christianity.17
Koch also, after defining yoga as mystical, magical, and occultish, shows how participants grow in this religion through four stages to finally mastering the cosmic forces. The first of these four stages “embraces remedial gymnastics, breathing, exercises, relaxation exercises, exercises in concentration, contemplation and meditation.”18
Much more could and should be said about the history and the beliefs of yoga. That would take a book not an article, and those books are out there for people to read who will. But this much is true: yoga is an ancient religion that is God denying and Christ denying. That is firmly fixed in the thoughts and convictions of millions of people alive on this planet right now. Any attempt to personally divorce it from that pantheism does not work for them, it only says “God speed, more power to you” in their ears.
What should a Christian do?
Let me give some Scriptures that I think apply to the use of something like yoga, and then I will give a few practical reasons I think yoga should be avoided by believers. Finally, I will give a bottom line as to what a believer can do.
First, do not say “God speed” to yoga (or “like”) because when you do you are “partaker” in all of its pantheistic deeds (2 John 11). This is not the same thing as Christians keeping Christmas or birthday cakes. No one in the world today is keeping the ancient rituals that these words come from. Besides, Christmas also has a unique Christian message which yoga does not. When Halloween again began to be practiced for real in America, many of us discontinued its use for testimony’s sake. I think I can continue to say “Thursday” without someone mistaking what I said for a worship of Thor. I can eat a birthday cake without someone thinking I am baking cakes to Tammuz. But you cannot practice yoga today without encouraging millions of people in this world in their false religion.
Second, realize that Hinduism’s yoga is pantheistic and unchristian. To them, God is everything, you are part of everything, therefore you are part of God. Even Jesus Christ was no more part of God than you are. Meditation and exercise are the primary forms of coming to the realization that you are God. They release the seven “chakras” within your spiritual body that allow the “kundalini,” or serpent energy, to flow from the lower parts to the highest parts and elevate you into God consciousness or the higher wisdom. This is also done with the help of “centering” prayers and visualization.19
This all sounds much like the first century problem in the church over Gnosticism. Its fundamental denial of the divinity of Christ, and one’s esoteric rise to full-knowledge is uncannily similar to yoga’s doctrine and practice. John specifically warned that such doctrine is the spirit of antichrist (1 John 2:18-22, 2 John 7). His warning was to “try the spirits whether they are of God” (1 John 4:1). He did not say to “try out” the spirits and then decide whether they are beneficial. “He is antichrist, that denieth the Father and the Son” (1 John 2:22).
Third, the period of the Old Testament judges repeatedly shows that God commanded Israel to have no part in the gods of the new land they were entering. The saddest verses are those which show that a king did most things right but “nevertheless” the high places and the groves were not taken away. In 2 Kings 16 Ahaz, king of Judah, went to Damascus where he saw an altar of the religion of the Syrians. He then commanded that a replica of the altar be brought to Jerusalem and erected in the temple of Jehovah, setting aside the proper instruments of God’s temple. It was not until his son Hezekiah came to the throne that these abominations were destroyed and the true worship again established. God is not pleased when we give honor to false gods by connecting them to the worship of the true God.
Fourth, Paul specifically commanded the Corinthians, a church badly affected by the false religions around them, not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers (2 Cor. 6:14-18). He then asked five questions that showed why they must not do this. “For what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? And what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? Or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols?” Paul’s inspired command to be separate from these entanglements (vs. 17) should be the desire of every believer today. When we do God says, He will be “a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters.”
In addition, here are a few practical applications.
Fifth, there has been an inordinate emphasis in our day upon the physical body, and yoga plays perfectly into this scenario. True, our body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and I believe we ought to take care of it, even diet and exercise when possible and necessary, but the exercise of it only profits minutely compared to godliness (1 Tim. 4:8). As a pastor over the years, I have seen many men and women drawn away into a world of lust because they play with fire in this emphasis on their (and other’s) body. Many times this is at the gym or pool or track. Yoga’s history in America is riddled with sexual scandal because of the nature of the exercises that men and women do together. One of the reasons older saints are more mature is because “though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16). “Therefore, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh” (Rom. 8:12).
Sixth,your children will take your emphasis in life much further than you. Dabbling around the edges of yoga and other ancient mysteries will open a door for them that the world is already displaying. From Harry Potter’s superconsciousness to Darth Vader’s dark side, the dangers are enough as they are, without us adding to them.
Seventh, surely believers see and understand the spiritual decline of our country and even of the church of Jesus Christ. We are to be salt and light, ambassadors of our Lord, people with a higher thought process than the vain things of this world. Why is it that believers need these worldly methods to live spiritual lives? Why isn’t the Word of God, time in prayer, simple worship with God’s people, verbal witness to our friends, satisfying and fulfilling? Paul’s words in that ancient pagan world are appropriate, “Which things have indeed a show of wisdom in will-worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body; not in any honor to the satisfying of the flesh” (Col. 2:23).
And So . . .
Joshua’s words to Israel in the new land of spiritual challenges is good for us as well,
And if it seem evil unto you to serve the LORD, choose you this day whom you will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD” (Josh. 24:15).
Every family or church has the right to practice by its own conscience. A church may set its own guidelines as to how it wants to handle these issues, even though that may differ from other churches. You should seek a local church which sets these boundaries in a way in which your family wants to practice. Where you worship, raise your kids, and fellowship with believers is important to you because that will affect you and your children (and grandchildren) for generations to come. Choose wisely.
- Stefanie Syman, The Subtle Body (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011) 12.
- Ibid., 44.
- Ibid., 145.
- Ibid., 195.
- Ibid., 200.
- Ibid., 233
- Ibid., 3.
- “Sober is the New Drunk: Why Millennials are Ditching Bar Crawls for Juice Crawls,” The Guardian.com. April 21, 2016.
- Julie Roys, “Three Reasons Christians Should Think Twice About Yoga,” http://julieroys.com/three-reasons-christians-should-think-twice-about-yoga/.
- Ray Yungen, For Many Shall Come in My Name (Eureka, MT: Lighthouse Trails Pub., 2015) 102.
- Yungen, 120.
- Douglas Groothuis, “Dangerous Meditations,” ChristianityToday.com, November 1, 2004.
- Albert Mohler, Jr., “The Subtle Body—Should Christians Practice Yoga?” albertmohler.com, 9/20/2010.
- Syman, 246-247.
- Yungen, 59.
- Kurt E. Koch, Occult Practices and Beliefs (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1971) 123-124.
- Ibid., 125.
- These and many other descriptions can be found easily in any book on cults, Hinduism, and yoga. See Yungen, chapter 9, “New Age Religion;” Syman, chapter 11, “How to be a Guru Without Really Trying;” Koch, section 47, “Yoga.”