Yoga phobia is a real issue, especially among conservative Christian groups. Yoga phobia is a fear of integrating a practice or set of beliefs incompatible with one’s own religious and moral beliefs. The fear is completely understandable and respectable. The potential for compromising one’s integrity and displeasing God is scary. But yoga isn’t the way to do that. I hope this article sheds light on why a fear of yoga is misguided, even if you’re a follower of Christ.
I’m a believer in Christ. I also majored in science during college, became a Christ-centered meditation teacher, and have a certification in yoga and meditation. Based on my secular education, study of world religions, and decades worth of professional and practical experience, I’m going to address the following questions:
- Is yoga a health science or a religion?
- Should a Christian, or a believer in the Bible, practice yoga and meditation?
But first, it’s important to understand the origins of yoga and how it has become such an integral part of popular culture in America today.
A Brief History of Yoga
Yoga dates back before formal religion appeared. According to historians, yoga first appeared in ancient Egypt over 6000 years ago. Scholars and archeologists suggest hunter-gatherers were practitioners of yoga. History shows yoga made its way from Egypt through India and down into South Asia.
Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Chinese Zen, and Islam created their own versions of yoga practice. Like other eastern religions, the early disciples of Jesus, known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers, also sought to experience God by going within the body.
Yoga has since infiltrated America, standing at the door of many traditions and asking to be let in. We’re now being challenged to be open regarding alternative approaches to health and wellness practices that originate outside of our country. I understand the concern and appreciate the apprehension, but based on my expertise, I believe the restriction prohibiting yoga put in place by some Christian leaders and authorities should be lifted under certain circumstances.
At the core of my reasoning is the work done by Christian missionaries who travel the world establishing churches and teaching God’s Word so these individuals, too, may become followers of Christ. Indeed, the people Christian missionaries strive to educate from around the world face a similar challenge to those who are considering practicing yoga. They ask themselves as we ask ourselves:
- Do we let Jesus (yoga) in?
- Will we still be able to retain our traditions?
- Will Christianity (yoga) improve our lives?
- Will this change be beneficial?
In other words, if we’re asking other cultures to embrace Christianity, why should we be so unwilling to embrace the life-enhancing practices belonging to other cultures? Based on this logic, we shouldn’t.
Is yoga a science or a religion?
There are many definitions of yoga. Yoga is a Sanskrit word that means to unite, yoke, connect, join, or balance. The essential purpose of yoga, by definition, is the integration or union of all the layers of life. Whether it’s for health or spirituality, the practice of yoga seeks to balance the inner realms, thus creating outer harmony.
A more scientific definition of yoga is that yoga is a type of exercise where you move your body into various positions to become more fit or flexible, improve your breathing, relax your mind, and become more balanced. So yes, by this definition, yoga is based on science, especially for the health benefits that it offers.
Yoga as a Health Science
As a dietitian, I’m trained to only accept information as true if it has been scientifically proven. Fortunately, there are countless documented studies proving yoga’s health benefits. Therefore, along with many medical doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, physical therapists, chiropractors, and other health professionals, I’m a strong proponent of the practice.
As is well-established by research, our heart emits a field that is electromagnetic and flows throughout the body. This same energetic field exists throughout the universe. We have six senses and 11 bodily systems all running primarily on their own that are affected by this field. When this energy system becomes imbalanced, it can cause us to experience stress and disease. When all parts and systems are running in a unified way, we feel healthy and happy.
Yoga causes a release of positive chemicals from our brain and gut into the body that benefit our hormonal and nervous systems, resulting in an unmistakable change in mood. We feel lighter, expanded, suddenly clear-minded, and alert. Movement and breathwork are detoxifying and purifying. You can actually feel as though strange toxic forces are moving out of your body.
We also have a physical body made up of matter and non-physical aspects, which are non-matter. For example, our breath is non-matter. Yoga, from a health perspective, unites the physical and non-physical, just like swimming or jogging. Multiple studies have confirmed the various mental and physical benefits of yoga. Incorporating yoga into your routine can help enhance your health, increase strength and flexibility, and reduce symptoms of stress, depression, and anxiety.
The ancient practitioners of yoga had no scientific data to explain their experiences. They didn’t have scientific studies or the Bible to explain why this practice made them feel better or why conscious movement with an inner awareness inclined them toward a spiritual life. However, they knew its positive effects, which they recorded in texts, probably why the practice has persisted this long.
Yoga as a Religion
Believers in the Word of God, the Bible, share a similar desire with the yogis, gurus, monks, and other seekers or mystics to be united with and have an experience of God’s presence. In Latin, religion breaks into “re” and “ligare” meaning “again” and “unite or bind.” Religion intended for participants to know and experience the union of God within. Yoga seeks the same and, therefore, is considered to be a religious practice when used in this way.
What we know as believers in the Bible is that we’re already united with God. He lives inside of us. In the New Testament Gospel of John, Jesus affirms God’s indwelling presence, saying, “I will ask the Father and He will give you another Helper to be with you forever, the Spirit of truth whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you. (John 14:16-17). Jesus’ invitation is to abide in God’s Holy Spirit; and His promise is that He will abide in us (see John 15:4).
Since the beginning of time, people have not only tried to name God but also to have an experience of God through practices that increase a sense of union with Divinity. Yoga as a religion seeks to unite or connect the practitioner with the mystery we call God and others may call by a different name.
God made humans in His image so that, like Christ, we can experience the deep union between our humanness and His Spirit. God is Spirit, and we have a spirit. We were given a spirit so that we can connect to and be united with Him. Humans are capable of this because we’re born with a human spirit. “The spirit of man is the lamp of the Lord searching all his innermost parts.” (Proverbs 20:27)
Therefore, we have a right to engage in yoga as it’s the practice of uniting with God and bringing harmony to our bodies. The teachings of Jesus, which continue to spread throughout the world, give clear instructions on uniting with God. We don’t need a yoga practice. But if yoga makes us healthier and less stressed at the same time, and gives us a sense of unity with a higher power such as God’s Spirit, then logically wouldn’t it be a beneficial practice?
Seeking to be united with the creator of life and the creation of life is what the human does naturally. The word yoga is like the biblical word reconciliation. To reconcile means to unite, to have a reunion. Thus, when practicing yoga, you can reunite with God.
As Jesus demonstrated, we don’t need to belong to a specific religion; we can go straight to God. Perhaps this is what churches fear most and the reason some feed us a stream of false propaganda full of fearful messages regarding yoga practice instead of offering it as another way to enhance the many benefits of belonging to a group of like-minded individuals. It’s no wonder that yoga practice is part of many religions as a way to settle the body and the soul, or what the Bible refers to as “the flesh.” This allows the Spirit of God to be experienced without all the turbulence which may come from the body and or the soul.
Biblically, we’re directed to surrender the flesh to God’s Spirit. A practice such as yoga or meditation gives us the power to do that as the Holy Spirit comes forward and the practitioner gets a sense of union between body, soul, and Spirit. An opening of the heart allows those whose hearts are filled with the love of the Lord to spread throughout the entire body, bringing new life from the one true source, God’s Holy Spirit.
Yoga as a Health Science and a Religion
Yoga is a health science and a religion. If you want to practice yoga for its scientific benefits, which are many, find a class that has no religious overtones and is primarily a stretch, strengthen, flex, and balance class. If you’re looking for a religious or spiritual experience, find a class with a teacher who’s well-versed in the religion of your choice. Yoga can be a system of scientific technologies or a system for spiritual growth. Regardless of which path you choose, all yoga is intended to promote aspects of wellbeing.
At the end of a yoga class, one might hear “Namaste” which, in the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit, means, “The divine in me sees the divine in you.” In the same vein, the Bible says,“One God and Father of all, who is over all, and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:6)
Whatever your faith, yoga and meditation can bring about a balance, harmony, and a union between our longing for spiritual life and the divine characteristics of the Spirit of God. It can also bring harmony to the physical body and contributes to overall wellbeing.
Is yoga dangerous?
Many people fear yoga because of the misconceptions surrounding it. What follows are the most common fears about yoga, and why each is unfounded.
Fear #1: “Yoga means to yoke to the Hindu God, Shiva, the destroyer. Yoga means to yoke with the Hindu God Brahman. Yoga and Hinduism are inextricably linked. Christian yoga is, therefore, an oxymoron.”
Truth: If you’re practicing a form of yoga from Hinduism with a Hindu teacher, you’ll be opening yourself to their god and their beliefs. If you’re practicing a form of yoga with a Buddhist teacher, the result is a form of Buddhism. If you’re practicing a form of yoga that is Christ-based, you’re not automatically linked to Hindu gods or to the Buddha. You’re linked to Christ and the Trinity of God. If you take a yoga class with a teacher who’s only about the health benefits of yoga, you’ll be exercising, that’s it.
Yoga has never belonged to any one religion. It has never been a static tradition. It has evolved and has been packaged in many different ways over time. There are currently over 100 types of yoga in the West, with over 20 million people practicing it. It’s estimated that 300 million people practice yoga in the world, and that number is growing.
Fear #2: “Yoga opens you up to demonic oppression, thereby opening a door to the enemy. The postures are dedicated to other deities and will attract presiding spirits, the kundalini serpent power is from Satan, and yoga penetrates a spiritual realm beyond the natural realm, which are dominated by powers subservient to the Prince of Darkness.”
Truth: If this were true, we would see a lot of people showing signs of mental disturbance. Clearly, this is not the case. Yogis, gurus, monks, and mystics are some of the most spiritually disciplined and evolved people I’ve ever met.
Many are awake before sunrise to spend a couple of hours worshipping God. Many eat vegetarian diets and abstain from drugs and alcohol. Many yogis practice purity, non-violence, serve people, love animals, and respect our environment. They radiate health and wellness, sometimes practicing yoga well into their senior years. The young and old turn to yoga for physical or emotional healing and wellbeing. Recovery programs and hospitals offer yoga.
Consequently, believers in the Bible have no reason to fear yoga. According to the Scriptures, God encircles, encompasses, covers, and shields those who make Him their refuge. His presence, the anointing, is a kind of force field of protection making you inaccessible to the enemy no matter what the circumstances.
The Bible provides the following verse: “The sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will protect you from every evil, He will guard your soul…People will let you down, but God will never let you down.” (Psalm 121:6)
The only enemy of oppression regarding the practice of yoga appears to be man-made. The Bible says, “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” (Isaiah 41:10)
Fear #3: “Yoga is a pagan ritual.”
Truth: So is Christmas, Christmas carols, Halloween, Easter, Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Day, eating chocolate, using a calendar, weddings, wedding rings, the Olympics, and playing football. The list goes on. The early church tried to resist these traditions but eventually absorbed them. Some churches have absorbed the practice of yoga, too, while some still fear it.
Yoga is a lifestyle similar to the Christian “narrow path.” The original yogic teachings encourage us to avoid violence, lying, stealing, wasting energy, and possessiveness. Yoga teaches us to embrace cleanliness and contentment, to purify through heat, to continually study and observe our habits, and to surrender to something greater than ourselves.
Should Christians do yoga?
YES!! Christians can do yoga for their health, and they can practice Christ-centered yoga and meditation, keeping in mind the goal of growing in Christ’s likeness. As a supplement to seeking to know God through words, thoughts, and images, the practitioner is seeking to experience God directly with the awareness of loving faith and God’s indwelling presence.
Anything that’s focused wholeheartedly on giving glory to God is a good thing. Our physical strength and wellbeing are an aid to fight the good fight, endure life’s challenges, and have the power to pursue God’s Will.
The word “mystic” was used in early and medieval Christianity to describe a person who sought connection through a direct experience of the intimacy of God through awareness, devotion, silence, meditation, singing, movement, and reality. Karl Rahner, a preeminent Catholic theologian, wrote in “A Companion to Jesuit Mysticism,” “The devout Christian of the future will either be a ‘mystic’—someone who has ‘experienced something’—or will cease to be anything at all.” Perhaps I am becoming an emergent Christian mystic, as I seek to find God in all ways that are available to me.
The Bible says we’re not to spend our energy condemning other religions or religious practices. We’re to use our time sharing the good news of the Gospel of Grace. However, we must be careful not to exclude other seekers of God but to include them. We’re to be the “light” of the nations and lead others out of darkness (ignorance) and into the light, love, and truth of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.
We’re called to shine our lights brightly so that all will see the glory of God living in us and become drawn to the truth. I love wearing my cross and witnessing for Jesus, whether during a yoga class or while having coffee at Starbucks.
God is the ultimate judge. I will not judge the Hindus or Buddhists or any other religion. I have learned to know godly people by the love they have for one another.
“Jesus said, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:37-39)
Jesus also said, “So in everything, do to others as you would have them do to you…” (Matthew 7:12) When we fear our neighbors, they will fear us. Only love can and will unite.
Cynthia Bourgeault, Episcopal priest and author, says in “Returning to Essentials: Teaching an Alternative Orthodoxy”:
We begin to discover that our Buddhist and Jewish and Islamic and Hindu friends are not competitors. Religion is not a survival of the fittest. There is a deep understanding that we all swim together, or we sink together. Each religious tradition reveals a color of the heart of God that is precious.
Richard Rohr, founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation says this: “The core experience of the Christian life is a heart-to-heart relationship with the person of Christ and the indwelling Trinity who came to make their home in us.” We can do this alone, in nature, in a church, or in a biblically-based yoga or meditation class.
Christ moves outside of established Christianity and even the human realm. The world’s religions cannot be reduced to one truth. The core teachings can be unifying. There are no limits on the power of God.
Conclusion: This has been my experience with yoga.
I went through a divorce and was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. It was recommended that I try yoga and meditation. The church I belonged to did not have any such programs, so I found my own. I was faithful in going to church. Learning to meditate and have a yoga practice healed me and still helps me keep my anxiety and depression at bay. With God’s help, I was able to find a way to make my practices biblically-based and Christ-centered.
I live a lifestyle where I daily do what Jesus says to do. “When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:6)
Once I get to my room, I pray, meditate, contemplate, read Scripture, and sing songs to the Trinity. I have found a way to be continually filled up and united with God’s Spirit.
When I finish, I put on my gym clothes and go exercise. For me, exercise might be a walk, or it might be a yoga class. To be sure, light and grace fill my life, and His glory is magnified through me. People always tell me I have such good energy! I’m always prepared to explain the reason why.
I pray for those individuals who have yoga phobia to release their fear. Supporting and being open to the practices and people who’ve been anointed to teach biblically-based or Christ-centered meditation and yoga is a necessary step towards peace and inclusion instead of polarity and exclusion.
There are a growing number of people leaving the church to be “spiritual but not religious.” They do not want to be told how to practice or experience becoming more spiritual.
I pray for churches to start offering these classes to help seekers and believers have the experience of health and wellbeing, along with growing in a relationship with Christ. And I also pray for those who long to go deeper into a spiritual experience via a heart-to-heart communion with the Presence of the Divine that they find a path to help them achieve this.
I hope this message will lift the oppression of those who fear and also strengthen churches by encouraging people to incorporate certain safe spiritual practices into their religious lives. God’s Spirit of Truth is there in our hearts guiding us into all Truth, which is why we don’t need judgment, fear, and condemnation. And why it’s possible for churches to provide people with a place to heal body and soul while staying as faithful members of the Body of Christ.
Tonyah Dee has studied the Bible and wisdom traditions of the world for the last 30 years and teaches about finding ways to increase inner strength, stability, and confidence through practicing spiritual disciplines and healthy habits daily. Tonyah is a nutritionist, registered dietitian (R.D.), and earned her B.S. from Loma Linda University. She also holds certifications in Christ-centered life coaching, equine therapy, and meditation. Tonyah has been published in Scary Mommy, MSN, The Mighty, Mantra Wellness, CoveyClub, Thrive Global. Follow Tonyah on her blog, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn, and Medium.