There’s been a bit of buzz lately (HT: First Things) regarding a post by Al Mohler titled, The Subtle Body – Should Christians Practice Yoga?. Mohler’s conclusion is a decided “no”. From his post,

…a significant number of American Christians either experiment with yoga or become adherents of some yoga discipline. Most seem unaware that yoga cannot be neatly separated into physical and spiritual dimensions. The physical is the spiritual in yoga, and the exercises and disciplines of yoga are meant to connect with the divine.

Mohler essentially warns that the eastern practice of yoga, while encompassing the physical, is inherently spiritual in nature. As such, Christians dabbling in the practice are unwittingly (or not, as the case may be) exposing themselves to spiritual worldviews contrary to that of Christianity.

It’s interesting to see how Mohler’s warnings are falling on some deaf ears.

I think that western Christians assume they can successfully separate the physical from the spiritual; yet, is such an assumption merely a backwash from our western mindset? J.P. Moreland, noted Christian philosopher, has recently been advocating the view that western Christians lack a proper supernatural mindset for experiencing the fullness of God’s blessing – a fullness which must include that of the supernatural. We, in the west, tend to see things with a scientific mindset, despite what the apostle Paul told us, in Ephesians. From Moreland,

We have inadvertently accepted a naturalistic, scientistic worldview in which we tend to believe that God only speaks through Scripture, miracles largely happened in biblical times, and yet demons manifest themselves overseas.

Also, western Christians may, at times, attempt to reconcile certain philosophical and spiritual aspects of the world with those of Christianity.

Consider this description of a yoga class, attended by at least one Christian,

We were in the middle of a particularly hard pose (I would tell you the name of it but I still can’t understand the names) and many of us struggled to hold it and maintain our balance. The instructor guided us through it and while giving us mental encouragement, “Often in life we find ourselves faced with struggles and pain. During these times we are stretched and face pain. It is then we learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Not many are willing to go the less traveled path. But those who do, find true strength and peace.”

True strength and peace. Is it the result of the mere yoga body position, from the mental encouragement accompanying it, or a combination of both? And at what point, if any, does the spiritual aspect of yoga come into play? Well the author goes on to state that she felt God speaking to her about persevering to His peace. So is this a case of a kind-of-Christian-type idea, from a secular-derived exercise class based on an eastern-worldview, opening the door for God to speak to a Christian about finding true strength and peace? Does something sound not quite right here?

Is God capable of using an exercise class, with origins based on eastern spirituality, to bring direction, strength, and peace to a Christ follower? Certainly. But it seems to me that, given our cultural context, it would be more likely to find such direction, strength, and peace directly from His Word.

A critic of Mohler’s post (and, as it turns out, the husband of the person referenced above) gave several reasons for his disagreement. I’d like to address his criticisms. From his post,

First, Christianity is fundamentally an eastern religion. These were the first words out of my wife’s mouth when I told her about Mohler’s blog. The context has that truth ringing deeper in my mind than ever before. As much as modern Christians imagine Christianity as a “western” religion, its roots are undoubtedly eastern.

I’m at a loss for this one… weren’t the prophets of Baal practicing an eastern religion? I really don’t know how the fact that yoga is an eastern religion – which is an explicit confirmation of its spiritual aspects – renders that practice as somehow, if only partially, compatible with Christianity.

Second, all truth is God’s truth. In many Christian circles there is a certain refusal to accept any part of another discipline if it doesn’t affirm every single aspect of Christianity. You can see this with science. In other words, some churches reject scientific teachings because those teachings don’t culminate with affirming orthodox Christian teaching.

A more balanced and reasonable approach is to realize that every discipline is imperfect and we should strive to take what is good and noble and reject that which is not. In the case of yoga, flexibility, building body strength, and exercise combined with relaxation and stress removal techniques is good and something we all need on a periodic basis and a part of the “sabbath” principle in Scripture. Granted some yoga tries to direct one’s energy toward other spiritual teachings and that’s what we should guard against. There is no need to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.

This criticism, in my opinion, carries much more weight. I wholeheartedly agree that all truth is God’s truth and that Christians should be discerning of all aspects of knowledge and truth. However, yes there’s the “however”, Mohler is not arguing that the physical components alone, of the practice of yoga, are at issue. Even as the author admits that, “…some yoga tries to direct one’s energy toward other spiritual teachings…” he simply cautions that this is something we should guard against! Mohler is warning that such an approach is dangerous, at best, and disastrous, at worst. This is an instance, in my opinion, where our western mindset clouds our judgment on decidedly non-western ideas.

Third, Mohler’s blog reveals an even deeper and more troubling aspect, namely a black-white or good-bad way of viewing the world. Just because an activity or even a religion does not affirm Jesus Christ as the way, the truth and the life does not necessarily mean that it is all bad. Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism all have aspects that we should all learn from and redeem.

Life is more grey than many of us care to acknowledge. Living in the grey requires more discernment and humility and is often times more difficult than the black-white world. But it is a more honest reflection of reality.

That this criticism comes from a Christian is, to put it bluntly, scary. As Mohler stated, “The embrace of yoga is a symptom of our postmodern spiritual confusion, and, to our shame, this confusion reaches into the church.”

Fourth, Christians have a long history of re-purposing “pagan” practices. The Christmas tree is a notable example. It would have been hard to divide the tree from its pagan roots, but Christians did. Many of our hymns were adapted from “worldly” bar tunes, even Amazing Grace. So, history has shown us that certain things can be used for new purposes without detrimental spiritual confusion resulting.

Ah yes, the genetic argument. How many of us have fond memories of their childhood, at the time of Advent, especially of the family Christmas tree? Now, how many of us truly believe that said Christmas tree tradition was present at the first celebrations of the fact of Christ’s birth? Furthermore, how many of us were taught, as a child, the pagan roots of the use of evergreen trees at the Winter solstice? (Note: there are no “pagan” roots of the “Christmas” tree, since the pagans did not worship Christ and, as such, had no “Christmas” trees) The point is that the connection between the pagan use of evergreens at Winter solstice, with the use of Christmas trees by Christians is not readily apparent to modern, western Christians. Yet, it seems reasonable to conclude that the spiritual aspect of yoga is readily apparent to modern, western Christians. For a blatant display of this difference, go to the Wikipedia page on “Yoga” and compare it with what is found on the page for “Christmas tree”. Another aspect to consider is that while the Christmas tree was a direct re-purposing of the pagan tradition into one with Christian meaning, we do not see a similar re-purposing with regards to the physical aspect of yoga. Rather, based on what the author clearly references, we see acknowledgment and acceptance of non-Christian spirituality. This is not a good thing.

Fifth, Mohler’s blog carries the implication that we can be accidentally duped into engaging in a false religion. While undoubtedly there are many people who do not have spiritual clarity about what they believe or what they are doing, the idea that we can be worshipping another god against our knowledge seems quite dubious. I doubt anyone is accidentally worshipping Satan because they have a Christmas tree.

This criticism fails because it admits that the practice of yoga is spiritually dubious (besides presenting a red herring in the Satan / Christmas tree argument).

Sixth, as yoga has moved mainstream, there are now plenty of centers and instructors that are devoid of the religious/spiritual aspects of yoga. Mohler acknowledges this but says that you can’t really divorce the spiritual from the physical in yoga. I believe that is true for the Christ follower as well. If you do yoga to the glory of God then it’s a spiritual act. As yoga is secularized or even repurposed as a Christian act, we are again reminded that our spiritual loyalties are a matter of the orientation of our hearts and not the historical origins of our preferred exercise routines.

The notion that yoga has moved mainstream, within Christian circles, may be new to some, but I think its the result a slow creep – a slippery slope, if you will – within our culture. I recall a conversation I had with a non-Christian friend, while I was in high school. We were fellow athletes on the track & field team, and he informed me he was attending yoga classes. Upon seeing my quizzical look, he promptly reassured me it was okay because, as he stated, “it’s only an exercise class”.

That was in 1974.

Filed under: CultureRusty

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