There are a lot of valuable lessons to be learned by the ongoing “yoga wars” – the decades long battle between Christians who believe yoga is just exercise, and those who believe it’s a Hindu spiritual practice. One side has a tendency to look down on yoga enthusiasts as somehow less Christian then they are, while the other sees anyone who opposes their yoga workouts as “religious fanatics.” Thankfully, the Bible gives us clear instruction about how to conduct ourselves charitably when confronting conflict – regardless of what side we’re on.
For those who may find themselves tempted to look down upon yoga enthusiasts, remember Jesus teaching in Matthew 7 to “Stop judging that you may not be judged.” Of course, this doesn’t mean that you turn a blind eye to blatant sin such as unmarried couples living together, same-sex “marriages,” the use artificial contraception for birth control, supporting abortion, etc. These are clearly against the teachings of the Church.
But things aren’t nearly so clear when it comes to what a person is doing while striking the cobra pose on their yoga mat. I have given presentations on the dangers of yoga throughout the country and can tell you that most yoga enthusiasts have no idea that many of the poses they enjoy for fitness are actually positions of worship of Hindu gods. In fact, most of them are downright shocked when they hear this. So it’s safe to assume that they probably spend most of their class time focused on perfecting their poses rather than worshiping the Hindu pantheon.
And while it’s true that worship of a pagan god is a direct violation of the First Commandment and a grave sin, the Catechism tells us that this sin requires full knowledge and complete consent (No. 1859).
But even if the person performing the yoga knows that these poses are positions of worship to Hindu gods, they must have the intention of worshiping those gods to commit a sin. and because we cannot possibly know what’s in their heart, it is not for us to condemn them. As Scripture teaches us, the heart is the Lord’s domain.
“God does not see as a mortal, who sees the appearance. The Lord looks into the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)
We must be careful not to become self-righteous. Remember, Jesus had a real aversion to this vice. The few times we ever see Him riled in the Gospels is when He’s confronting the Pharisees and the Sadducees. It wasn’t because the rules they were following were wrong, it was how they were following the rules – with little or no charity – that distressed Him.
For those who stand on the other side of this debate and insist that their yoga practice is just exercise and everyone who disagrees is a “yogaphobe” or a “fanatic,” the Lord has some words for you as well.
“Then let us no longer judge one another, but rather resolve never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.” (Romans 14:13)
Rather than stoop to name-calling and accusation, let Christian charity prevail by realizing that your practice of yoga can indeed cause scandal among those who see the practice as being somehow “impure” because of its non-Christian roots. This position is not only reasonable and justified, it is also well-documented in Scripture. The faithful have expressed fear of being led into false worship by engaging in pagan practices since the days of the Old Testament where we find numerous accounts of martyrs who were willing to die rather than even appear to be worshiping other gods.
As St. Paul continues, “If your brother is being hurt by what you eat, your conduct is no longer in accord with love. Do not because of your food destroy him for whom Christ died. . . . Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to become a stumbling block by eating; it is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.” (Romans 14:15-21)
In other words, even if you disagree with their position, if your practice is causing scandal and upset to your fellow Christians and you continue to engage in it, “your conduct is no longer in accord with love.”
By continuing your practice, you could risk the sin of scandal, which the Catechism teaches us “can be provoked by laws or institutions, fashion or opinion” (No. 2286).
The sin of scandal isn’t just about causing upset in people, it’s about leading others into sin. Because yoga is universally associated with Hinduism, your practice could lead someone to believe that engaging in Hinduism is okay because they see you doing it.
As the manager of the New Age blog here at Women of Grace, I can say that both sides of the yoga debate have well-reasoned and credibly substantiated arguments in their favor. Both sides have prominent figures in the Church and academia who support their point-of-view. This adds up to a potential learning experience for both sides that can be rich and rewarding.
When it comes to the “yoga wars” – and all similar conflicts involving the voluntary participation of Christians in non-Christian practices – we need to get beyond judgment and name-calling. Both sides of the yoga war need to put aside the rancor – those who are too quick to condemn yoga enthusiasts, and those who resort to mockery and offensive labeling of anyone who does not agree that yoga is just exercise. Neither of these behaviors is acceptable for Christians.
The best thing either side can do for their argument is to put up the white flag of surrender and submit themselves anew to the teachings of Jesus Christ.
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