Recently, a Jesus-following friend expressed deep concern about my yoga practice. She believes I am in grave danger and felt compelled to warn me.
Isn’t that an amazing kindness?
For some of you, living in busy urban areas where yoga studios and coffee shops are equal in number, that’s crazy talk, but I live in the Bible belt where a lot of people consider yoga demonic.
I don’t. Let’s talk about it.
I am hardly the first to weigh in. In fact, if you Google Can Christians … “do yoga” autocompletes fourth after drink, eat pork and get tattoos. Opinions vary, but one article said by practicing yoga you’re unconsciously offering worship to Hindu gods.
Wait, what? Unconscious worship?
Maybe I don’t understand the meaning of those words, but I think that phrase is an oxymoron at best, fear mongering at worst. So I had an imaginary conversation with the writer.
Anti-Yoga Writer – “I don’t believe yoga can be separated from Buddhism, Hinduism and/or the occult. I think you’re wandering around in idol worshipping territory.”
Me – “Do you meditate?”
AYW – “Yes. The Bible tells us to meditate on scripture.”
Me – “Did you know Hindus meditate too?”
AYW – “Of course, but I don’t meditate on Hindu texts.”
Me – “So when you meditate, you choose the object of your focus, and meditation is the vehicle?”
AYW – “Basically.”
Me – “Interesting.”
Yoga As Vehicle
A lot of yogis try to calm the fears of their Christian students by insisting yoga is nothing more than exercise, but that just isn’t true. We rob it of its power by promoting that. Oh oh. Yoga has power?
Yoga’s secret sauce lies in its ability to cultivate a calm, working relationship between our bodies and our minds. There is nothing in Western culture I know of that does that more efficiently than this 5,000 year-old Indian practice with its Hindu roots. Perhaps that’s why it is prescribed for sexual abuse survivors, traumatized refugee populations and soldiers with PTSD.
Done well, in good sequence, the poses demand a singular focus on breath and movement, which is why after a well-taught class you’ll be sweaty, breathing deeply, with a calm, quiet mind.
When was the last time you experienced those three things at once?
I can spot the moment in my classes when people really start to focus.
Are they focusing on Buddha, Jesus, Hanuman, Shiva, nail polish on their toes? I have no idea. Their thoughts are their own, and how absurd would it be for me, a non-Hindu, to encourage some sort of Hindu observance? Asking them for long spines, soft hamstrings, quads on the edge, a level sacrum, and ujjayi breathing, while standing on one foot is plenty.
“Ok but what about the giant Buddha on the wall,” says anti-yoga writer.
I know people will disagree with me here, but I’m open to that.
Thought #1 I feel about Buddha or Shiva statues exactly as I do about pink flamingoes in your yard. You like them, but they are meaningless to me. I love to shop at Pier 1 and there are a thousand Buddhas in there. Should I avoid that store? Am I really that suggestible? Do people follow Jesus because they saw a cross once? Come now.
I think the average Pier 1 shopper, (certainly not all, but many) who buy Buddha statues, exhibit the same dedication to Buddhism they do to Christianity – observing the easy parts, and ignoring the hard ones. I know some committed Buddhists, and they are remarkably disciplined. Spiritual devotion will cost you deeply. Statues at Pier 1 will cost you $12.95.
Thought #2 – My goal is to be so filled with the light and love of Jesus that you won’t see me anymore, you’ll only see him – certainly a lifelong and costly endeavor. Therefore, when I walk into a yoga studio, a medium security prison full of maximum security offenders, or down the street in Santa Cruz California, a town known for it’s tolerance of every possible spiritual practice, my aim is to be as light there as I am anywhere else. Same person. Different place.
So do I teach “Christian yoga?” No. I teach yoga. Square your hips, engage your locks, drop your tailbone and hold for five breaths. Modify if you like, but dismiss the voices saying you can’t. And if you can hold hanumanasana and smile – rock on!
The funny thing is, I work for a Christian NGO that sends me to Africa a couple times a year. Often, my yoga students, who may or may not be Christians, ask me about that, and I happily tell them about my job and my Jesus.
But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 1Peter 3:15
These conversations happen under a big picture of a silent Buddha. I have nothing against Buddha, in fact, my childhood nickname is Booda, but I follow Jesus because I need God to tell me, in real time, when to open my mouth and when to shut it, and that he loves me.
Jesus does that regularly.
There are countless out of shape, stressed out, pharma-dependent Christians, whom yoga could help, but I think many are afraid to show up in a random class in case someone is bowing to Shiva, which they sometimes do.
But millions of Indians bow to Shiva every day, does that mean you should never go to India? What a pity. The Taj Mahal is awesome. Devotion is an act of will, into which nobody can trick or force you. Use your holy discernment.
For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love and self-discipline.
II Timothy 1:7
Your polite, thoughtful comments are most welcome.
*As ever, my thoughts are my own, not those of my employer.