Thursday, February 3, 2011

Balancing Yoga

I watched my eleven year old daughter as she followed the commands of the virtual yoga instructor in her WiiFit game.  First the Crane, then the Cobra, finishing with the Lotus as the Wii balance board measured her stillness. I found myself vaguely conflicted. My sister had recently sent me a video outlining the religious origins of Yoga and the dangers of Christians involving themselves in such practices. Several Hindu clerics interviewed in the video strongly stressed their opinion that yoga cannot be separated from Hindu spirituality and that people in the West who try to do so are deluding themselves.  Yet here was my daughter, a dedicated Christ-follower, happily stretching and exercising with her Wii completely oblivious to any Hindu connection. There is no doubt in my mind that worshipping Hindu “gods” or partaking in a religious ritual was the farthest thing from her mind. So was the video right? Was she really opening herself up to dangerous spiritual influences?   

In the past few years there has been a growing debate within the Church, to yoga or not to yoga.  A practice with roots in Eastern mysticism has found its way to the West, and in a big way. No longer is it an obscure discipline practiced by a few avant-garde types on the coasts, but by a wide stratum of socioeconomic groups in nearly every city, town, and suburb in America. In fact, in today’s culture it would be considered highly unusual to find a health club or fitness center that didn’t offer Yoga classes. So given the origins of yoga and its ubiquitous presence in our culture, how should Christians interested in maintaining a Christian world view respond?

I found myself thinking about this question recently after being commissioned to write an article on why certain cults-of-Christianity do not celebrate Easter. Invariably, members of these groups will cite pagan origins for the timing of the celebration, some of the traditional symbols, and even the name.  Most of these groups will say very similar things about Christmas. In doing research for the piece, I believe it is fair to say that there is a certain amount of truth to some of these claims.   However, to eschew Easter or Christmas because of ancient links to paganism would be missing the point. The Church developed and grew in the midst of a pagan Roman world, but rather than join in pagan worship, the Church was a counter-culture force that focused its celebration and worship on the incarnate Christ and His resurrection.  Regardless of some distant link to pagan celebrations or symbols, what was being celebrated by Christians was the birth and resurrection of Jesus so the symbols were given new meaning in that context. It doesn’t much matter where the dates came from or why Christmas trees and Easter eggs are used if the object of the days and the symbols are now focused on Jesus. Whatever pagans may have celebrated in winter and spring has been supplanted by new traditions, a new focus, and new meaning.  The links to paganism have been broken and the celebrations redeemed. Simply put, Christianity triumphed over paganism.   Few people today have any idea that these holidays ever had any link to paganism and many have even separated them from their Christian traditions and now celebrate them as secular holidays.

I see a parallel with yoga in Western culture.  Many Americans who participate in yoga as an exercise regime have no idea that there ever was any underlying spiritual connection. The overwhelming majority are probably much like my daughter and see yoga as a purely secular exercise. Most would be surprised, and perhaps even incredulous, if someone were to tell them yoga was at one time linked to religion. Simply put, these individuals are exercising not worshipping.  However, some may object to drawing such a comparison to how ancient pagan festivals were transformed into something positive. After all, those festivals are now completely dead traditions with no counterpart in today’s culture. The transformation of Easter and Christmas is a fait accompli, while in the case of yoga there are still currently millions of people in eastern religions practicing various forms of yoga as a spiritual discipline. Unlike the holidays of Easter and Christmas, yoga is far from being completely and permanently transformed worldwide. While somewhat rare in the west, it must be admitted that certain strains of yoga still have ties to Hinduism. So is it possible for a Christian to simply enjoy the physical benefits of yoga while rejecting any practices and beliefs associated with Hinduism?

In answering the question above, I found it helpful to turn to a similar dilemma facing the early Church in Corinth. The Corinthian believers were living in a culture saturated in polytheistic idolatry. It was common practice in the pagan temples to slaughter animals and offer the meat to the gods with a certain portion of the offered meat being sold in the marketplace. Evidently, some within the Church were concerned that purchasing and eating meat offered to idols was either spiritually dangerous or at least made them complicit in something associated with pagan practices. The apostle Paul addressed this concern in his first letter to the Corinthians.

Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that "no idol in the world really exists," and that "there is no God but one." Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. - 1 Corinthians 8:4-6 (NRSV)

Paul is essentially saying that the origin of the food doesn’t really matter because believers know that pagan gods are false gods and there is only one true God. Believers can divorce the food from its origin because their faith is in Jesus, not the so-called gods that the food was offered to. Paul goes on in chapter 10 to assure the Corinthian believers that they can eat anything in the market place with a good conscience.

  Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience, for "the earth and its fullness are the Lord's." If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, "This has been offered in sacrifice," then do not eat it, out of consideration for the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience— I mean the other's conscience, not your own. For why should my liberty be subject to the judgment of someone else's conscience?  If I partake with thankfulness, why should I be denounced because of that for which I give thanks? So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. - 1 Corinthians 10:25-31 (NRSV)

Paul’s basic message is that there is nothing wrong with the meat itself, only the significance that some might give to the meat.  A Christian who rejects paganism can enjoy the meat as food and glorify God. The principle would seem to be applicable to westernized yoga. Westernized yoga has been divorced from its Hindu origins and is marketed as a healthy fitness routine. Certainly it is true that much research backs up the health benefits of yoga. So, like meat offered to idols, there is nothing wrong with yoga in and of itself, only in the significance that some might give to the exercise. Many Christians participate regularly in yoga exercises and stretching as a way of maintaining their health while utterly rejecting Hinduism. They are enjoying the health benefits of yoga while glorifying the one true God.

To be sure, both chapters 8 and 10 contain a great deal of instruction from Paul about not using our freedom and knowledge about such things in a way which might cause others to stumble or to injure their own consciences. We must take these commands to be cognizant and respectful of our weaker brothers and sisters seriously.  Our personal health and fitness must be secondary to loving our fellow believers. However, Paul also appears to bristle at the idea of being denounced by those who might try to use the issue in a judgmental way. So how do we balance the voluntary restriction of our liberty for love’s sake while avoiding the trap of uniformed legalism? Perhaps the best approach is to go out of our way to inform, educate, and studiously avoid any unnecessary offense or misunderstanding. Perhaps we could do a better job of stating up front that while some yoga may have ties to Hinduism that is not something we embrace or participate in. We need to explore ways to explain, label, and define our exercise regime as just that, a program for gaining increased flexibility, reducing stress, and promoting health and fitness. Perhaps it’s time for westernized yoga to have its own name that clarifies the break with its past.   There are no doubt a myriad of ways that we can protect our brothers and sisters from error while benefitting from a wonderfully healthy practice. Given the totality of the Apostle Paul’s instructions, we should expend effort in doing so prior to completely eschewing a good thing.

This topic will no doubt remain controversial. Honest concerned Christians will take various views depending on their conscience. That’s okay. These things are worth having a dialogue about, just as they were in first century Corinth.  In my case, I’m no longer worried about my daughter doing yoga on the Wii. I am convinced she is exercising with thanks and giving glory to God in everything she does.