Dark arts or a healthy stretch? Why Christians should try yoga

A yoga practice mat. Is yoga a doorway to the demonic, or a healthy way to keep fit – and even to worship?LA

Should Christians do yoga? The Eastern practice is deeply spiritual for some – rooted in the Hindu religion – while for others it's simply a way to keep fit.

For some believers though, it's an anti-Christian doorway to the demonic, and it certainly shouldn't be practised in churches.

Church bosses at St David's Church, in Blaenporth, Ceredigion, Wales have banned yoga activities from their premises. They said that 'activities that might be seen to be in conflict with Christian values and belief would not be appropriate', which includes yoga, but not pilates – another popular form of body exercise. Some local villagers are boycotting the church in protest, according to The Metro.

So, is yoga in conflict with Christianity, or can it benefit a Christ-seeking spiritual life? Is it a harmless stretch, or a dark path to heresy?

What would Jesus do? Was yoga on his mind when he implored the crippled man: 'Get up! Pick up your mat and walk'(John 5:8)?

Christian Today spoke with Libby, a 22-year old Christian student who's avidly practised yoga for six years. She's been wary of certain aspects of it, but maintains that much good can be found in the ancient art.

'A few of my friends questioned it. One of my ministers kind-of-jokingly said: "Are you sure that's an OK thing to be doing?"'

Libby says that yoga, a Hindu practice originally focused on attaining union with the god Shiva, 'undeniably has roots in eastern religion. It can be quite a spiritual thing.' But she adds, 'we are spiritual beings'.

Libby embodying a classic yoga pose. She says yoga can draw her closer to God.LA

She explains: 'It's a bit like Christmas. People say a lot of our traditions are from pagan winter solstice festivals. We use those traditions in our celebration of Jesus' birth.' She says that it ultimately comes down to 'heart and intentions'.

'The body is a temple, 'many say, riffing off Paul's message to the Corinthians that their bodies were temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). Some see yoga as simple way to look after the body God made. Libby first sought it as an antidote for stress, and extols the physical health benefits of the exercise.

More than that she says, there's some wise philosophy in the yoga tradition, and the practice can actually enable a new way to worship.

She describes yoga as 'a physical practice of breath and movement where you're aware of the unity of your physical body and spiritual soul.

'It can definitely be worship. God had given us these bodies, [in yoga] you explore the capabilities of that body in a humble way. It's not about winning or succeeding.

'I'm naturally a striver, and want to be "good enough". In yoga, there is no "good enough"'. Yoga emphasises stillness, active presence and attentiveness, and a posture of humility. These can be a boon to Christian contemplation.

Yoga is centred on rhythms of breathing, which can provoke reflection on Christian theology, where God breathes life into human beings (Genesis 2:7). Libby says that breathing in and out draws her to a profoundly Christian contemplation of God: 'more of him, less of us', she says.

Sometimes she listens to sermons or prays while she does the exercises.

'It's not the be and end all of my life. It's a tool...just another thing we can use to worship God,' she says. When classes have veered away from physical exercises and into chanting words she doesn't understand, she says she felt uncomfortable and decided to leave.

Yoga can be an idol, Libby says - but it can also be used for worship.LA

The philosophy can be unchristian, Libby says. 'Some of it is very self-glorifying: "Thank yourself for coming here" they sometimes say. "All the power of the universe is inside of you." Well no, it's not.'

For Libby, her evangelical faith – centred on the value not found purely 'within', but in relationship with Jesus, with value given by God – is still central.

Some Christian groups have sought to appropriate the physicality of yoga with a Christian theology instead of a Hindu one, with initiatives like Holy Yoga and PraiseMoves. Some might say such attempts are offensive to the historic religious traditions. Libby thinks PraiseMoves is 'just a bit silly'.

There are worthy questions to consider when it comes to Christians doing yoga. For some particularly enamoured by New Age thinking, it may well be unhelpful. Libby advises those exploring the practice to remain aware (a key principle of yoga), and keep having conversations and praying about it.

She notes that anything in creation – anything made by God – can become an idol. Anything can be used for good too. True idolatry, she says has less to do with the substance of certain objects than it does our relationship to them. Golden calves aren't inherently evil, Libby says – we just shouldn't worship them.

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