Once upon a time, I was part of starting and hosting a Christian yoga practice group. Naturally this raised questions, which I answered thus:
Let’s talk about what our yoga practice looks like, why we do it, and why we call it Christian yoga. We recognize that some Christians are nervous about yoga, so at the bottom of the page, we’ll also devote some attention to those concerns. We also commend to you our essay on the real history of modern yoga, which is a bit different than people think.
What do we do?
The word “yoga” tends to conjure up images of bendy young women in impossible poses. What we do is a little different from that. First of all, a number of us are men. We’ve done a lot of fun things that were bad for our bodies over the years, and this kind of exercise helps us recover. Second, while the young are certainly welcome, most of us are over 40. Third, most of us don’t do impossible poses. Some of us can’t even reach our toes. Other than that, it’s a lot like you might think: slow movements that focus on control, mobility, strength, balance, and coordinating movement and breath. Because we’re Christians, we practice like it, with a focus on Christ and what He is doing in us.
Why do we do it?
Because there are significant health benefits to this kind of exercise, and we can all feel the difference. Because we believe that the gym belongs to Jesus as surely as every other area of life, and we prefer to exercise in an attitude of prayer rather than in the attitude of self-worship that’s so common in places where they hang mirrors on all the walls.
Why do we call it “Christian Yoga?”
We are aware, of course, that “yoga” is a Sanskrit word that means “yoking” or “union,” and that among people who use yoga posture practice as a Hindu spiritual discipline, it is intended to connote union with “the divine,” which we would understand as union with demonic spirits. (Sorry, guys, but it’s true.) Obviously, we don’t do that.
We are also aware that “yoga” has gone the way of kleenex, band-aid, and velcro. It may have been a narrowly construed religious brand back in the 60s and 70s, but in branding terms, that was a long time ago. The term “yoga” has long since entered the popular lexicon as the generic label for a particular kind of exercise: a complex, relaxing, posture practice, challenging to the point of being gymnastic at times, focused on flexibility, balance, and control.
Of course, when legally constrained to do so, people can avoid brand names and use circumlocutions like “facial tissue,” “adhesive bandage,” and “hook and loop fastener.” Some Christians have done exactly that with yoga (see the note on PraiseMoves, below). They are acting in the way most agreeable with their consciences. As Paul calls us to do in Romans 14, we bless their efforts. After all, who are we to judge God’s servants?
At the same time, we aren’t called to take that route ourselves. Everybody knows that when you say “hook and loop fastener,” you really mean velcro. Likewise, we could call what we do “Christian restorative gymnastics” or “stretching for Jesus” or something, but let’s face it: five minutes into the class, everyone will know it’s Christian yoga, so why not just say so to start with?
Today, the generic term “yoga” has a lot of latitude, and people attach different modifiers to connote different focuses of practice, hence “power yoga,” “restorative yoga,” “flow yoga,” and “prenatal yoga.” So, for example, prenatal yoga is a yoga exercise practice specifically designed for the needs and concerns of expectant mothers. It leaves out those things that would hurt mother or baby, and in their place it teaches things that will help them to grow healthily. Likewise, Christian yoga is a yoga exercise practice specifically designed for the needs and concerns of Christians. It leaves out those things that we as Christians find damaging or dehumanizing, and in their place it teaches things that will strengthen and deepen our relationship with Jesus.
Retaking the Territory
A lot of Christians are afraid of yoga, and depending on what we mean by “yoga,” the fears can be well-founded. But they can also be poppycock, and in any case, God has not given us a spirit of fear.
If you go into a studio and there’s a little brass Kali in the corner with a bowl of fruit in front of her, yeah — a Christian should be concerned that demonic entanglement is a real possibility in that yoga class. A Christian seeking exercise should walk right out of there and never go back.
On the other hand, it’s profoundly silly to suppose that a healthy exercise — any healthy exercise — can somehow become the exclusive property of a demon. Why would we ever believe that?
Suppose the U.S. Marine Corps were to claim rights to the pushup. Suppose they were to claim that the pushup was a Marine exercise, and unless you intend to be a Marine, you have no right to be doing pushups. Should anyone believe them? Of course not.
“There is not one square inch of the whole creation over which Christ does not call out, ‘Mine!’” Our bodies belong to Christ. Our health belongs to Christ. Every healthy exercise rightly belongs to Christ. The yogini who thinks her body and its movements belong to Shiva is sorely mistaken. The secularist in a step aerobics class at Bally’s who thinks there is no religious significance to her body and its movements is equally mistaken. (And you can see her true religion for yourself when she glances over her shoulder to admire her toned backside in the mirrors that liberally adorn the walls.) Over both of them, Christ calls out, “Mine!”
We all worship something; we can’t help it. As Christians, we believe that every movement we make, every day, all day, should glorify Christ. As we seek to enjoy the bodies God has given us, and to steward them well, we are in His service, and we should not be afraid to employ whatever belongs to Him.
Now there are exercises over which one lying demon or another has shouted “Mine!” and there are foolish people who have believed them — notable yogis and Dave Hunt among them. A good Christian should respond to that foolishness in the same way we would respond if the Marines were to try to claim the pushup: point and laugh. A claim has been made, to be sure, but that hardly makes it true. As the hands and feet of Christ in the world, it is our privilege to reclaim that territory for our King. Where healthy movement is being foolishly and unlawfully prostituted to the service of demons, it is our pleasure to return it to its right use in service of the King, and to demonstrate His supremacy over it.
This is not simply a matter of appropriating useful movement wherever we happen to find it. The spiritual battle is real. If the Marines were to claim exclusive rights to the pushup, we could expect them to press their claim vigorously and try to punish those who didn’t respect it. Likewise, where demons have claimed the territory, they will try to hold it. We cannot expect to retake the territory without a fight. But retake it we will, because we are the church of Jesus Christ, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against us.
Christian Yoga Resources
In our pursuit of yoga-style exercise, we have found a number of resources helpful for the physical exercise — most of them not authored by Christians. But there are some yoga resources created by and for Christians. We don’t vouch for everything they say about the theory and theology of Christian yoga, but when it comes to what’s on the mat, we have found them helpful, and we think you might, too.
- Susan Bordenkircher has a book/DVD combination that is a pretty good place to start your Christian yoga practice. She also has a few other DVDS on her website. We began our group practice with nothing but her three DVDs.
- Brooke Boone’s Holy Yoga has a number of DVDs, a couple books, downloadable resources, a subscription service, and teacher training.
- Yahweh Yoga has DVDs, CDs, a book, online resources, and teacher training.
- PraiseMoves has built their brand around being not-yoga, but rather a Christian alternative to it. They have a number of DVDs.