In the book on alternative medicine that I co-wrote with Donal O’Mathuna, PhD, we have an extensive chapter on the topic of yoga. The book, Alternative Medicine: The Christian Handbook, has gone on to become a best-seller and is endorsed by the Christian Medical Association as “medically reliable and Biblically sound.” In the book, we have an entire chapter on our evaluation of yoga. We conclude, “Given its origin and the potential for spiritual problems, the burden rests with the yoga advocate to demonstrate why this form of exercise should be chosen when so many other breathing, exercise, and stretching routines exist that have no spiritual underpinnings.” Here’s the basis for our conclusion:
Yoga: What It Is
Yoga in the United States has frequently been presented as a gentle exercise and relaxation therapy. It is frequently taught at health clubs, senior citizen centers, adult education programs, and similar lo- cations. And it is increasingly available in Christian churches. It is also used for stress management and may be recommended to business executives.
However, yoga is more than an exercise program. The word yoga literally means “union.” As an integral part of Hindu religion, it implies union with the “divine.” It is fundamentally a spiritual exercise designed to bring spiritual enlightenment.
Yoga incorporates both asanas (physical postures) and pranayamas (breathing exercises). The asanas are assumed to relax the body and the mind and bring them into spiritual harmony. The pranayamas, while focused on physical breathing, are designed to regulate the flow of prana, the Hindu term for life energy. The exercises are to help bring a person into a meditative state from which union with the Great Unconscious occurs, leading to spiritual enlightenment.
Advancement in yoga is expected to bring moral and character changes, with the ultimate goal being the realization of one’s divine nature. Given these Eastern roots, yoga is a deeply religious practice.
However, yoga is viewed by many as simply a set of breathing and posture exercises designed to improve strength and flexibility and promote relaxation. The different exercises address breathing, movement, and posture. Certain movements are done while exhaling, others while inhaling. The breathing is coordinated to help maintain various postures.
Different forms of yoga exist, each with its own set of positions of varying difficulty. The form most commonly practiced in the West is called “hatha yoga.”
Yoga is an alternative therapy that raises difficult questions for Christians. The physical and breathing exercises taught in yoga classes may improve general well-being. However, as a deeply religious practice with the goal of union with the divine, it is antithetical to biblical Christianity.
Most commonly, yoga is promoted as a way to reduce stress, increase flexibility, and promote better blood circulation. Other claims have been made that yoga can relieve back and neck pain and treat epilepsy and asthma.
Those committed to the spiritual roots of yoga claim it leads to spiritual enlightenment and union with the divine. The pinnacle of such enlightenment is called “Kundalini arousal.” In Hindu mythology, Kundalini is the serpent goddess who rests at the base of the spine. When aroused, the serpent travels up the spine, activating a person’s prana and clearing the person’s chakras (“energy transformers”). The latter action releases psychic abilities, including healing powers. Ultimately, Kundalini reaches the head chakra that opens practitioners to enlighten- ment from occult sources and spirit guides.
Clinical research shows that yoga exercises can improve physical fitness. Studies have shown it can reduce stress and help relieve chronic pain. Numerous studies have been done with yoga for specific conditions, but many of them have had methodological flaws. A few small studies examined the impact of yoga on asthmatic patients. (Our chapter) on Breathing Techniques gives more detail, but the results have been inconsistent. Overall, these studies have not been able to determine whether any beneficial effects came from the stress reduction and breathing exercises or from the life energy and spiritual nature of yoga.
An important point to keep in mind when evaluating these studies is that the benefits came only with sustained, regular practice. The most encouraging study had asthmatic patients practice yoga daily for one hour for six weeks. If yoga is practiced less consistently or for shorter periods of time, there will most likely be less benefit, if any at all.
Yoga, it must be remembered, does not cure illness. Using it in place of effective conventional therapies may exacerbate problems. If people believe yoga and meditation can prevent diseases, they may resist seeking help for serious illnesses until the disease has progressed too far. In addition, some of the postures and the physical exertion may cause physical problems. As with any exercise program, people should ensure they have no underlying health problems and start slowly.
The spiritual dimensions of yoga must also be kept in mind. People who start yoga as a form of exercise may find themselves exposed to its religious teachings. Gradually, people may find themselves seeking the spiritual enlightenment that yoga was originally designed to produce. Apart from the spiritual dangers, intense involvement with Eastern spiritual practices is known to cause psychological and emotional problems. People who have progressed to the point of Kundalini experiences have been known to have psychotic breakdowns.
In spite of its reputation as a simple calisthenics program, reports of physical and spiritual harm continue to surface. A debate between Christian practitioners and opponents of yoga was triggered by Holly Robaina’s 2005 article in Today’s Christian Woman. The author interviewed a woman who was introduced to destructive beliefs through yoga. Robaina noted that terms commonly used in “secular” yoga have religious meanings. The “salute to the sun” posture used to begin many classes pays homage to the Hindu sun god, and namaste, used to end yoga classes, literally means “I bow to the God within you.”
However, a faithful user of yoga responded that her faith in Christ is invigorated by yoga. As she goes through the positions, she reflects on Christ and his character. While some people’s faith may be too weak to resist the temptation to explore the worldview behind yoga, this person’s faith is strong and she claims she benefits from yoga. Robaina responded that the bottom line is not whether we are strong enough to practice yoga but whether we should refrain from yoga for the sake of those who may be too weak to withstand its spiritual lure (1 Corinthians 8:12 – 13).
We agree with Robaina’s view. There may not be clear reasons for Christians to condemn all forms of yoga. Some people may be able to practice it beneficially and without spiritual problems. But the results are not all that matter.
Paul gives some helpful advice in 1 Corinthians 6:12: “ ‘Everything is permissible for me’ — but not everything is beneficial.”
Given its origin and the potential for spiritual problems, the burden rests with the yoga advocate to demonstrate why this form of exercise should be chosen when so many other breathing, exercise, and stretching routines exist that have no spiritual underpinnings.