The cool kids on Twitter use the term "ratioed" to describe an event where someone sends a controversial tweet that garners far more replies than it does likes. According to Twitter logic, this is supposed to be an indication that you were wrong about whatever you said. If so many people are making fun of you, and so few have expressed their approval by pressing the little heart icon, surely you must be mistaken in your view.
It will not surprise you to learn that I get ratioed quite a bit. I may well be the most ratioed person on Twitter. Yet I have found that the ratio more often indicates the correctness of a statement than it does incorrectness. That does not always hold, of course, but I think it did this morning when I fell into another ratio because of a tweet about yoga. Here's what I said: "It's kind of amazing to see all of the Christians who think nothing of going to a yoga class. There are many excellent ways to get in shape that do not involve participating in Hindu worship."
I have been mocked relentlessly for this opinion, especially by Christians who find any criticism of yoga to be not only wrong but hilarious. It is just a given, in their minds, that Christians should feel free to engage in pagan spiritual practices. The matter is not worth discussing.
This is a very odd situation.
As Albert Mohler points out, Christians of any time prior to the mid-20th century would have taken the reverse approach. They would have been shocked that any Christian would even consider attempting to adopt a Hindu spiritual exercise. Today, however, many of us have adopted it to such an extent that we now defend it with the same ferocity that we defend our faith itself. There are some who seem to defend it with even more ferocity. As with most things, if I have to choose between the modern Christian attitude or the traditional Christian attitude here, I will lean very heavily toward the latter.
I'll explain why.
We know that yoga means "to yoke" or "to unite." It has its roots as an ancient Hindu practice meant to unite a person with his body and with the universe. The classic mantras that people repeat in yoga to help them meditate — "so'ham," means "I am the universal self" — are all in service to this mission of "oneness." It is a pantheistic practice because it derives from the belief that we are all a part of some great flow of cosmic energy, which has no original Author, and which we all are born and then reborn into over and over again. Yoga is supposed to bring us into harmony with this "energy."
You can find the word yoga and the basic concept in Hindu texts dating back thousands of years. It's true that the modern western version is not entirely the same as its traditional form, but I do not see that as a mark in its favor. After all, it's no coincidence that it was exported to the West hand-in-hand with the philosophy of the "universality" of all religions, and it finally began to explode in popularity with the counter-culture movement of the sixties. Hindus had their spiritual purposes for yoga, we have ours. Neither purpose seems at all compatible with Christianity.
So, if we follow the trajectory of yoga, we begin with pagan spiritualism, trace it through the anti-Christian counter-culture revolution, then sprinkle on a bunch of new age gibberish, and here we land with the modern day yoga class. Is it really crazy to think that perhaps this thing — with its combination of ancient paganism and new age mysticism — may not be an advisable hobby for Christians?
Of course, yoga apologists will say that the spiritual aspect and the physical acts can be separated. I think that's a bad argument for three reasons:
1) In a great many cases, there is not even an attempt to separate them. Many yoga classes feature these same pagan mantras and meditation techniques which seek to put us "in touch with the universe" and so on. For this argument to work, you would need to find a yoga class that leaves all of that out. It seems pretty cut and dried that a Christian should not be performing physical acts of worship to pagan deities while performing meditations meant to bring him into oneness with the energy of the universe or whatever. But what about forms of yoga that do attempt to strip the spiritual aspects of it?
2) The whole point of yoga is that you can't sever its physicality from its spirituality. That's literally the definition of yoga. It would seem that a "non-spiritual yoga" is a contradiction in terms. It's like trying to make G-rated porn. Either its G-rated or its porn. It can't really be both. Either it's yoga or its non-spiritual. It can't really be both.
The physical practices of yoga are expressly designed to open ourselves up to enlightenment (Hindu enlightenment, that is). The intended final stage of yoga is to achieve a state called Samadhi, where the self disappears and you are brought into an unthinking trance. You may perform the moves without consciously seeking the demonic trance they were designed to help you attain, but it would seem you are playing, quite literally, with fire. And then the question is why?
3) I like John Piper's approach here. He says we are asking the wrong question about yoga. Rather than: "Can I perform yoga while avoiding the many spiritual pitfalls inherit to it?" It should be: "Will this clearly help me in my walk with Christ? Is this an active good?"
It's very telling that most of the pro-yoga arguments I read from Christians seem to focus on the possibility that a Christian could do yoga while carefully making sure to drown out or skip over all of the pagan stuff. I thought this was a well-written article by a pro-yoga writer named Katie Kimball, but here's her conclusion: "Yes, practicing yoga could be a sin. Yes, practicing yoga could be a pathway down which one could fall into pagan worship and away from God. However, doing a yoga pose is not an automatic pathway to Hell."
I, of course, would never call it an automatic pathway to Hell. But if "it's not an automatic pathway to Hell" is the best justification you can construct for doing something, isn't it best just to not do that thing? What is the point of trying to re-purpose pagan worship for the sake of getting a nice workout? What's wrong with just using an elliptical machine? How is the Kingdom advanced, how is an individual's actual spiritual fulfillment attained, by participating in a pagan ritual? We truly are asking the wrong questions. We're looking to see how much we can get away with before it becomes explicitly dangerous to our souls. Is this the right strategy? Is this how we "cloak ourselves in the armor of God" (Ephesians 6:11)?
There may be some physical benefits to bowing to Mecca five times a day. I'm sure you could get a nice lower back workout. But, of all the ways to exercise your back, why would you choose to prostrate yourself to Allah? Indeed, I wonder how the Christian yoga apologists would respond to a workout routine based around Muslim prayer? My guess is that they would make every argument against it that I have made against yoga. But they don't apply it to yoga because yoga is just a "normal" part of their life, and so they don't question it.
I see a comparison here with something like a Ouija board or a horoscope. Yes, you can mess around with those things relatively innocently, not actually seeking to summon spirits or ascertain your future from the stars, but why? Is this a form of entertainment that Christians should seek out? What's wrong with just playing Monopoly instead? Why mess around with it?
I don't think you'll automatically be possessed if you do yoga. I don't think all yoga practitioners go to Hell. But neither do I see how a pagan ritual could ever help someone get to Heaven, and maybe that's reason enough to leave it alone.