I got sent this article by Mark Driscoll with the question of what I thought of Christian yoga. My response, tweaked up to be nicer for the general public, is below.
First, some introduction on Driscoll for those who don’t know him. I’m immediately skeptical whenever I am linked to teaching of Mark Driscoll. He tends to be very black-and-white, and that seems to be the case again here. He says he’s not a fundamentalist right in the article, but I suppose it depends how you use the term fundamentalist. His basic style of teaching is yelling “God hates you! you’re a miserable human being! how can you be so selfish?” and then calling it the good news. He also would definitely accept the 5 fundamentals from which the term fundamentalism comes. But with my Driscoll bias out of the way, this time he does say some things I don’t mind and not just some things that make absolutely no sense to me.
I suppose it depends how you are defining yoga. Many Christians say they are doing yoga and they are essentially doing what most Christians throughout history have called meditation, which has only fallen out of vogue as a spiritual discipline since the Reformation and Enlightenment. It was a very important discipline in older Catholic and Eastern Orthodox practice, though. Many still practice that today and encourage other Christians to do the same, although still less in Protestant circles than in Catholic or Orthodox ones which generally allow for more direct workings of the Holy Spirit. This meditation usually relies on similar calming breathing techniques and trying to set aside distractions to be fully immersed in God – sometimes focused on a Scriptural passage, sometimes on a theological concept, sometimes attempting to listen to what is being said to you. The stretches usually aren’t a part of that, but it would often be encouraged in some comfortable-but-alert position so that you did not fall asleep – that’s the same basic concept of using your body as an ally in spiritual discipline. Those positions could very well be similar to the exercises of yoga. The only real difference then: our concept of God instead of theirs.
As Driscoll correctly points out, the exercises were originally – and still are – part of Hindu spirituality. I have no idea how that leads him to say that everybody who does the same physical motions is subscribing to the same spirituality. In my opinion he actually disproves his own point when he talks about how the fact that yoga has been secularized is offensive to Hindus, because that implies that it has successfully been secularized! If it was still Hindu practice, then they would be glad that lots of Christians are doing it. It’s only a problem because we have stripped its meaning, in the same way (using Driscoll’s own analogy) we would be offended if Hindus started sprinkling water on each other’s heads and saying that it was just meaningless fun. To us it isn’t, but that doesn’t mean that the act of sprinkling water has magic spiritual meaning. Similarly, neither does stretching in certain ways have magical spiritual meaning in and of itself, in my opinion. He says that “yoga is a religious philosophy”. I’d disagree; I’d say that yoga originally had a religious philosophy, but the act itself is not a religious philosophy no more than sprinkling water on a baby’s head. I’m not sure why it is different from using a Christmas tree or any of the other traditions we redeemed/stole from ancient paganism – the fact that we also use an evergreen tree in winter doesn’t mean we are following the same philosophy behind it as classical pagans did.
My basic answer then, to anybody who would be considering yoga from a Christian perspective, would be to look into what the philosophy is of the yoga class in consideration. I’ve done yoga on my Wii Fit. There is no religious philosophy of my Wii Fit yoga exercises – not Christian, not Hindu, not anything else but secular exercise (and you could argue that secularism is wrong, I suppose). Most gym yoga classes are simply stretching and there is no religious philosophy attached. If you want to attach your own Christian philosophy to it (use the breathing to help you calmly meditate on some aspect of Christian belief), go for it. I probably wouldn’t suggest going to a Hindu yoga studio because you are going to be taught a different philosophy. To an extent Driscoll seems to be fine with this idea of redeeming the practice of yoga, as long as we don’t call it yoga. I don’t personally think the semantics really matter, but sure, if you really want to make sure you’re detaching from the historical roots of this particular set of exercises, call it something else. I definitely don’t think it would hurt because really the difference between Driscoll and I here is that he is defining yoga as the religious philosophy and I am defining it as the particular bodily movements which may or may not have the philosophy attached to them.
I know that wasn’t a particularly biblical response (originally part of the question), but the biblical writers didn’t know anything about yoga. The closest comparison I can think of had to do with meat that had been sacrificed to pagan gods – I think it is in one of the Corinthian letters but not sure. Unlike Jewish law, Greco-Roman sacrifice burned up the crappy meat and kept the good meat for themselves for the feast. So Christians who didn’t believe in those gods anyway, and therefore it was no different from any other meat to them, asked Paul what they should do. He basically said that they are free in Christ, but the only reason they wouldn’t is because it might cause one of their brothers or sisters to stumble who saw them and did think it had meaning. In other words, the problem with sacrificing the meat to pagan gods wasn’t the meat – it was the philosophy of sacrificing to pagan gods. I’d draw the parallel: the problem isn’t with certain exercises or breathing techniques (many of the latter which have been used by Christians since the beginning of the church), the problem is with the philosophy behind it. So in one sense, if you know people who are worried about Christians doing yoga because they in seeing it will tie Christianity to Hinduism, it is quite possibly the best to not do it or to do it under a different name – not because the practice is inherently idolatrous but because you care about them and don’t want to tempt them into something against their own conscience.
So to wrap that all up, I don’t think I’m really that far off of Driscoll, which may be the only time you’ll ever hear me say that. We are operating from a different definition and that is really all that separates us. He’s defining yoga as the religious philosophy, so rightly says that goes against Christianity. I’m defining yoga as the activity, which has traditionally been tied to that religious philosophy, so don’t inherently see anything wrong with the activity when practiced without the philosophy. I’d agree with him that it could be helpful (definitely wouldn’t hurt) to use a different name to break the association, although I don’t really think that is mandatory either. I would also still recommend looking into the philosophy of the particular yoga class of interest, because many are strictly exercise while many are not. I would definitely agree with Driscoll that you should avoid attempting to worship our concept of God in a class teaching a different concept. To boil that all down: yoga’s traditional philosophy = contrary to Christianity, yoga movements = not contrary and can be beneficial to Christianity.