We have a stack of sixty emails from listeners in Scotland, the States, and India who all want to know about yoga. Is it merely physical exercise or unavoidable participation in Eastern spirituality? One listener, Todd, writes, “As a healthcare professional, I am interested in the benefits of Eastern practices like yoga and tai chi for the documented health benefits. Can a Christian practice such things with roots in mysticism in good conscience?” What would you say, Pastor John?
Reframing the Issue
One of the first things I would want to say is that there are two kinds of approaches to questionable practices in life. One I would call a minimalist approach to holiness and godliness, and the other a maximalist approach.
In the first case, your typical question is “Well, what is wrong with it?” It would apply to movies and music, and kids often ask their parents, “What is wrong with it?” The other approach is not mainly to ask, “What is wrong with it?” but, “Will it make me more Christlike? Will it make me more devoted to Jesus? Will I be more powerful and full of the Holy Spirit? Will I be more effective in prayer because of it? Will it make me bolder in witness, or weaken me? Will it help me be spiritually discerning of the ways of Satan in the world, and will it help me lay up treasures in heaven? Will it help me find joy in God and all that he is for me in Jesus?”
“Physical health is wonderful, but it is not the goal. It is a means to much greater goals.”
You can see that there are these two kinds of approaches to life. One wants to maximize godliness and holiness by drawing nearer and nearer to God, and the other one is just trying to do as many things as you can do without being tripped up explicitly by sin. I don’t mean to suggest that every time you face a questionable activity, you will opt for renunciation because you have weighed things that way. I just want people to approach questions with the greatest passions for godliness and to not think like a minimalist. That is the first thing I would want to say.
A View into Worldviews
Second, I want to say that both yoga and tai chi (based on the little I know and the little research I have done) have their roots in Eastern worldviews. Those roots are profoundly antithetical to a Christian understanding of God and the way he works in the world. So, yoga is to the body what mantra is to the mouth — that is the way I would put it anyway. One explanation says that for the mantra, “One has to chant a word or a phrase until he/she transcends mind and emotions. In the process the super consciousness is discovered and achieved.” Note the use of word, in that mantra-like way, in order to move into the super consciousness. In other words, yoga exercises are a spillover from that kind of verbal repetition and philosophy of how one moves physically and emotionally and intellectually to this super consciousness.
So, yoga focuses on harmony between mind and body. Yoga derives its philosophy from an Indian metaphysical belief. The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit language and means merger or union. The ultimate aim of that philosophy is to strike a balance between mind and body and attain a kind of self-enlightenment through the use of mantra and certain kinds of physical exercises or meditative stances. To achieve this state, yoga uses breath, posture, relaxation, and meditation in order to bring about a healthy, lively, balanced approach to life. That would be more or less the way they would say it in a lot of places on the web.
For instance, if you go to the Minneapolis YWCA website and click on “Fitness Classes,” you will get 22 references to yoga. That includes beginning yoga, MS yoga, youngster yoga, youth dance and yoga, yoga for everybody.
“We will be perfectly healthy — body, soul, and mind — in the new heaven and the new earth after the resurrection.”
It is the same thing with tai chi, though a little less so. Tai chi has Chinese religious or metaphysical roots, and one definition says that tai chi is understood to be the highest conceivable principle from which existence flows — the supreme ultimate. That is what the word tai chi means. The supreme ultimate creates yang and yin. Movement generates yang, and when its activity reaches its limit, it becomes tranquil. Through tranquility the supreme ultimate generates yin.
When the tranquility has reached its limit, there is a return to movement, and movement and tranquility in alternation become each the source of the other, and the transformations of the yang and the union of the yin produce everything, and these, in turn, produce and reproduce, and that makes the process never-ending. That is more or less what I have learned in my little bit of research.
Radically Different Roots
Christians have a radically different worldview than either of these — the view shaped by yoga or the view shaped by tai chi. Our approach toward history and toward God and toward well-being is radically different.
In Christianity, progress toward wholeness moves from a God who communicates intelligibly through language to be understood. It moves through a person, Jesus Christ, who became fully human and speaks to be understood by the mind, not the canceling of the mind. Through his death and resurrection, he objectively overcame a real Satan and real guilt before God through a real gospel message for us once for all in history with historical events behind it.
Progress toward wholeness moves through an understanding of that message in our minds consciously, through faith in Christ; through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit; through the promises understood and believed; through joyful meditation on those objective promises; through the transformation of the Holy Spirit; through objective words understood as we meditate in progressive likeness to Christ, as we see his glory in the word and in the gospel; through practical deeds that lead us to help other people; and through a life of transformed godliness into eternal life, where God is our joy forever.
That is Christianity. It is totally different from the kind of worldview that lies behind the meditative and physical and emotional and intellectual practices that flow out of yoga and tai chi.
Seven Principles for the Body
Consider Christian wholeness of health and the body. If you ask, “How does that relate to the body? How does that relate to exercise and stuff you do with your body?” I would say Christian wholeness and the health of the body is a chastened and realistic view marked by these facts:
1. We are fallen and physically, emotionally, and intellectually under a curse on the whole of creation. And, therefore, we will all die.
2. We will be raised from the dead if we have faith in Jesus. This is the health we are mainly, ultimately aiming at. We will be perfectly healthy — body, soul, and mind — in the new heaven and the new earth after resurrection. That is our glory; that is our hope.
3. In the meantime, our outer nature “is wasting away,” but our inner nature “is being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16).
“The question is not, ‘What is wrong with it?’ but, ‘Will it make me more Christlike?’”
4. So, bodily exercise is of a little value, as Paul says in 1 Timothy 4:8. But spiritual exercise is of value in every way (in the way I described it a minute ago).
5. We should not unnecessarily damage our bodies, which are the temple of the Holy Spirit, and we should seek their maximal usefulness in the goals that God has given us. Physical health is wonderful, but it is not the goal. It is a means to much greater goals, and a qualified means at that, because there are more important means than having a body that is super fit.
6. We may accomplish our greatest goals by dying — by risking our lives and getting Ebola or malaria or river blindness in some missionary activity. We don’t strive for maximal physical well-being. That is a subordinate useful goal as a means to something greater. And it may be compromised intentionally by risking our lives for the sake of somebody else.
7. So, any physical regimen that begins to take the place of the pursuit of holiness and sacrificial service by which we may lay down our lives is probably starting to become a religion for us. It seems to me that yoga and tai chi have already declared themselves by their very names on that score. They have run up the flag of the Eastern worldview by the very names yoga and tai chi.
So, for my money at this point, as I assess maximizing rather than minimizing my pursuit of God’s goals and the flourishing of my own soul, I would go another way and find another kind of exercise.