A story about yoga and the use of Church facilities broke today in the media. It seems as though much of the public are as confused about the issue as people are about the meaning of the cobalt blue rooster! There is however good reason behind the decision among Sydney Anglicans.
The Bishop of South Sydney, Michael Stead, has explained that yoga is incompatible with Christian belief and practice, and therefore should classes should not be offered within Church precincts. I tend to agree with my friends from the north.
Here’s a post from a few years ago, which although not touching on yoga classes on Church property, does highlight relevant points to the discussion:
“There are many Churches that organise yoga classes and many more Christians who use yoga at home. Even to ask this question may seem rather banal to many Christians today, but let me begin by explaining something that happened yesterday.
One of my sons came home after school and told us that they had taken a yoga class that day. Apart from the issue that parents were not made aware that this was happening (a mistake I’m sure that school won’t repeat), I suspect the school was not aware of what took place during this session. The children were taught a number of different postures and to speak aloud various names. It is difficult to ascertain whether the children were simply being encouraged to learn the names of the different postures or whether they were being taught particular chants that can accompany the postures. My concerns were heightened when my 6 year old son produced a ‘magic stone’, given to him and one to every student by the instructor. Two pamphlets came home with him, one asking him to sign up to an after school yoga program, and the other explaining the value of the ‘magic stone’, to quote, “ask your magical stone to take away any of your worries, so you can sleep better at night. Or ask your magical stone to give you special powers”.
Yes, that’s right, without parental permission a stranger handed out little idols to the class (that’s what they are) and is encouraging them to pray to these stones for help and special power’!
Thankfully my son thought the whole exercise was, to use his word, ‘ridiculous’. But nonetheless he came home confused about what he had heard and been taught.
I hear some friends saying, ‘Murray that’s terrible but yoga doesn’t have to taught that way. It’s okay to do yoga’.
Can Christians practice yoga? I know some Christians who believe that yoga is demonic and should never be touched, and I know Christians who believe that yoga is fine and can be easily practiced without any pagan connotations.
I would like to offer these thoughts:
1. Yoga comes from ancient Indian religions.
Yoga’s precise origins are ambiguous. What we know is that it comes from India and has been practiced for centuries, and is intimately tied to paganism, Hinduism and Buddhism.
2. Yoga is not simply physical exercise.
The purpose of yoga is to attain union with the soul and therefore peace. It involves physical, mental and spiritual dimensions.
As Christians we do not want to delve into practices that are idolatrous and could introduce us to ideas/practices that undermine the beauty, sufficiency and truthfulness of Jesus Christ. But I know some Christians who will practice yoga and believe that they can adopt the physical exercises while keeping out the spiritual aspects that regularly accompanies yoga. I don’t use yoga, but I can appreciate how relaxation exercises can be useful, and perhaps it is possible to redeem these exercises from yoga’s pagan roots. But let’s be aware of the following:
It is often said that the yoga is practiced in ways that are divorced from Hinduism. One local yoga instructor in Mentone offers ‘Hatha yoga’. ‘Hatha yoga’ deals with, to quote, focuses mainly on the physical body as opposed to more spiritual yoga styles.’ Sounds ok. But further on the same web site says this,
‘Yoga develops all aspects of one’s being – body, mind and spirit. The body becomes stronger, more flexible, more relaxed and generally much healthier. See each class as an opportunity to nurture yourself physically, emotionally and spiritually.
‘Turn your mind inwards and focus on your own practice.’
‘Be kind and loving to yourself by accepting where you are. Remember to practise with a sense of ‘honouring and exploring’. Honour yourself and what you are capable of and explore where your body can take you. It is important to listen to your body and recognise your limits so that you do not injure yourself.’
So, spiritual free yoga is nonetheless designed to help you spiritually!
The Yoga Australia website explains.
‘Today, the most popular of these more recent approaches is generally known as a form of Hatha Yoga, and is considered to be the beginning or early stages of the process towards fullness of what Yoga offers.’
In other words, ordinary yoga is designed to be an initiation into real yoga.
3. Yoga is bad theology. Even when we leave out all religious connotations, yoga teaches us to look inside ourselves for peace, whereas the Bible clearly teaches us that we need to look away from ourselves and to Christ. Peace doesn’t come to us from meditation and looking inward, but it comes from God and is given to us freely through the cross of Christ. Yoga simply repeats the same old problem, but with hip pseudo-spiritual language. The Gospel of Jesus Christ exposes the folly of seeking peace from within and points us to the only true God who is able and willing to forgive and restore and bring peace.
Something that yoga gets right is that we are not purely physical beings, but the physical, mental and spiritual interrelate. But it calls us to seek peace from within and it calls us to pay homage to nature and to false gods in order to empower us to achieve this self-seeking harmony.
We are physical beings, and therefore physical exercise, even relaxation exercise, can be useful. While it is theoretically possible to empty these exercises of all their religious content and replace it with godliness, the dangers are many and often subtle. When there are so many great alternatives available to us, why bother at all? Take up a sport, go swimming, go for a walk, get a massage!