As a Christian, you may be wondering if it’s okay for you to practice yoga. Is yoga a religion? Can it be used to bring glory to God? These are all important questions, and things that you should be thinking about as a Christ-follower! To bring some clarity to this topic we spoke with Pastor Joe Suozzo who served with his wife as a missionary in India for 10 years.
Can yoga be used for God’s glory?
The term yoga can be traced back centuries before Christ to Aryan civilization and several branches of Buddhist and Hindu philosophy. Yoga literally means to ‘yoke’ oneself or to have ‘union’ with that which would lead one to greater spiritual awareness and knowledge, which in turn would lead one to self-realization or enlightenment. One could yoke oneself to varied spiritual disciplines to achieve such knowledge, e.g. the study of scripture, meditation and contemplation, and right action.
Around 200 BC an editor by the name of Patanjali compiled a handbook of yoga as a school of thought and discipline in a work called the Yoga Sutra. For the most part, the practice of yoga in India and the west today finds its foundation in Patanjali’s work. In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali explained in that there are eight practices or limbs (angas) which range from moral restraint and physical postures, to breath work and the discipline of the mind. These practices are said to lead one from the bondage of desire and ignorance to the freedom of self-realization. When yoga is practiced and talked about in the world today, for the most part it is the practice of breathwork and physical postures that Patanjali first compiled, which have been further developed by many gurus over the ensuing centuries.
The question is, can yoga, despite all its philosophical and cultural moorings to Hinduism, be embraced and used as a tool for God’s glory? Is it possible to take yoga and place Christ at the center and use it to share His love and salvation with those who would otherwise never enter the doors of a church building or Christian community? My argument is a resounding yes. And the force of my argument rests in understanding the basic principle of contextualization that distinguishes between form and function (meaning).
Form has the idea of a particular practice that a people or society embraces which has its roots and meaning from its own culture, religion, and philosophy. Within Hinduism there are dozens of forms, e.g. breaking a coconut, worshipping with a particular style of music, lighting candles and incense, using Sanskrit, observing holy days, and practicing yoga and mediation. The form takes on a particular function, or meaning, as it is learned by those who practice it.
Here in the west, we have a long history of taking various forms that had one meaning in the ancient, pagan world and importing new meaning into them in Christ. For example, the celebrations of Easter and Christmas at one time aligned themselves with winter solstice and the worship of the fertility goddess Ostera. Aspects of Augustine’s and Thomas Aquinas’ theology find their framework in Aristotelian and Socratic thought. The way some of our churches and modern democracies are organized find their origin more from ancient pagan Rome and Greece, than the Word of God. While various forms can be amoral and neutral, the meaning and function we import into them are not. This is where the beauty of the gospel has tremendous ability to enter into various cultures and use their forms and embrace them for the glory of Jesus Christ. It was the love of Christ that compelled Paul to stand on the steps of the Areopagus in Athens and quote from their Stoic philosophers to win their hearts for God (Acts 17:16-34). It was Paul’s love of his fellow Jew that led him to take a Nazerite vow (Acts 18:18), even though he repeatedly preached that we are no longer under the law through Christ.
While Paul argued that we are free in Christ to embrace various pagan forms, (such as the eating of meat that had been previously sacrificed to idols), the warning he extended with those freedoms was that we should never do so if they would cloud the gospel message. “We are no worse off if we do not eat and no better off if we do, but take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” The weak here in this context are those who are new believers or unbelievers who would be confused by the use of the freedoms we have in Christ, since they do not possess the knowledge of Christ that we do (1 Corinthians 8).
Importing the message of the gospel into the practice of yoga
Can we enter into a Hindu form, into a practice which is called yoga, and embrace it for the glory of Christ? Is it possible to enter into the lives of those who see yoga as a positive practice and impart new meaning to it so that they may hear the gospel and share in the wonderful glory of God in Christ? Is it possible to use yoga to reach out to those who are leaning on the empty philosophies of New Age in the west and the emptiness of idolatry and eastern pantheism in the east?
Holy Yoga, gives the following mission statement: “Holy Yoga is an experiential worship created to deepen people’s connection to Christ. Our sole purpose is to facilitate a Christ honoring experience that offers an opportunity to believers and non-believers alike to authentically connect to God through His Word, worship, and wellness.”
As a response to these efforts there have been a number of well-meaning pastors, ministry leaders and academicians who have thrown up the red flag, saying that these efforts can potentially mislead those who profess Christ to participate in idolatry and false worship. Their concerns are rightly placed if indeed that is where it would lead people. What Christian leader in their right conscience before God would not send out a warning if a ministry that claims to be of God is really leading people into the enemy’s camp?
Recently, Mark Driscoll (founding Pastor of Mars Hill Church) and Albert Mohler (president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) have come out strongly against bringing Christ into yoga. Their concerns are warranted, if indeed those who profess Christ are embracing eastern philosophy and idol worship and are denouncing the orthodox tenets of the Christian faith. Driscoll put it this way: “…yoga is a religious philosophy that is in direct opposition to Christianity. Thus, in its true form yoga cannot be simply received by any Christian in good conscious. To do so would be to reject the truths of Scripture and thus Jesus himself.”
Mohler’s argument is similar when he said, “…stretching and meditative discipline derived from Eastern religions is not a Christian pathway to God.” The force of both their arguments is that yoga as a form of Hindu worship is beyond redemption and beyond importing new meaning into it so that others may know Christ.
When you look at their warnings, the overriding assumption is that the form and practice of yoga, because of its history in Hindu philosophy and idol worship, is absolutely outside the scope of Christian practice. I believe it is the same mistake the missionaries from the west made when first going to India. Rather than entering into Hindu culture and embracing various forms of Hinduism to win people to Christ, they assumed that all aspects of Hindu culture are beyond the scope of Christian worship and should simply be abandoned. As a result, from the Hindu’s perspective today, to embrace Christ also means to deny their Indian culture and embrace the western Christianity. Is it possible to lead a group of people through a session of yoga, using Scripture and prayerful reflection on Jesus Christ, and then introduce the central aspects of the gospel, like the divinity of Jesus Christ, redemption through His blood, the hope of the resurrection, and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit? Absolutely! In fact there are a number of believers practicing yoga who are doing just that thing.
It is possible to use yoga without importing its history of eastern pantheistic philosophy, idolatry and ideas that stand in opposition to the gospel of Jesus Christ. And while the road towards healthy biblical contextualization is not without its hazards, when we place Christ at the center and are saturated with the Word of God and His Spirit, we can say with the Apostle Paul: “I have become all things to all people that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them its blessings” (I Corinthians 9:22-23).
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