Today’s observance of the International Day of Yoga, proclaimed by the United Nations since 2015 and led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India during his visit this week to New York, underscores yoga’s global popularity.
Although not a religion, the ancient Eastern practice is mentioned in the sacred scriptures of Hinduism such as the Bhagavad Gita. A Sanskrit word meaning “union” or “yoke,” yoga aims to unite the body, mind, soul, and universal consciousness, allowing its practitioners to experience freedom, peace, and self-realization.
The practice of yoga involves various physical, mental, and spiritual techniques, including breathing exercises, postures, relaxation, chanting, and meditation. Different styles of yoga exist, each with its own focus and approach to achieving a “unitive state.”
The roots of yoga can be traced back to the Rigveda and the Upanishads. One of the most well-known texts is the Yoga Sutras, written by Patanjali around 200 B.C. In this foundational text, the ancient scholar describes yoga as the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.
Yoga holds spiritual significance, aiming to control the mind, attain a detached witness consciousness, and liberate oneself from the cycle of birth and death, as stated on one yoga website.
Since assuming office in 2014, Modi’s government has actively promoted yoga as both a cultural and spiritual practice. Yoga has been a prominent soft power tool for India’s foreign policy.
However, a massive study conducted by the Pew Research Center of almost 30,000 Indian adults found that 6 in 10 said they never practice yoga—including 6 in 10 Hindus. Only 35 percent of respondents reported having “ever” practiced yoga, with 22 percent practicing monthly or less and a mere 7 percent practicing daily.
According to the Pew survey, Hindus were “not the religious group most likely to practice yoga in India.” Jains (62%), Sikhs (50%), and Buddhists (38%) all ranked higher than Hindus (36%), while Muslims (29%) and Christians (24%) in India ranked lower.
Pew found that only 3 percent of Christians practice yoga every day, the least likely of the six religious groups compared. Sikhs (14%) were most likely to be daily practitioners, followed by Buddhists (12%), Jains (11%), Hindus (7%) and Muslims (6%).
Political inclinations also played a role, as 38 percent of Indians with favorable views of Modi’s BJP party reported practicing yoga, while only 31 percent of non-BJP supporters said the same.
While yoga’s spiritual roots lie in Hinduism, a Pew survey conducted in Western Europe asked adults if they considered yoga not just as exercise but also as a spiritual practice. The results indicated that many individuals in Western Europe—a regional median of 26 percent, including 4 in 10 Swedes, Portuguese, and Finns—embraced yoga from a spiritual perspective, acknowledging its significance beyond physical exercise.
CT queried a Hindu professional yoga expert, who has been practicing for eight years and teaching for five, on her view of whether yoga is just exercise or also has spiritual significance.
CT then asked five Christian leaders to answer the question: Is yoga too Hindu for Christians to practice? Their responses are arranged from yes to no:
Pinky Choubey, a Hindu yoga teacher, Noida, Uttar Pradesh:
Yoga certainly has spiritual significance. When you go deeper into the practice of yoga and perform meditation, your senses will develop toward spirituality. It certainly is connected to Hinduism. Whoever follows the Bhagavad Gita gets connected to yoga automatically.
Yoga is far more than just physical exercise; it is spiritual exercise. In the words of Swami Sivananda, “The practice of yoga leads to communion with the Lord. Whatever may be the starting point, the end reached is the same.” Yoga manifests itself as four major paths: Karma, Bhakti, Raja, and Jnana. In Karma yoga, the active aspect of mind is involved; in Bhakti yoga, the emotional aspect; in Raja yoga, the mystical aspect; and in Jnana yoga, the intellectual aspect.
Calling yoga a mere exercise is a shallow definition. Hinduism and yoga are woven together. People are becoming aware of this fact more and more in recent times.
Jaykar Kristi, a former Hindu sadhu (ascetic) who practiced yoga for 10 years before becoming a Christian; now a pastor in Indore, Madhya Pradesh:
Christians should not practice yoga. Yoga means union–so union with who or what?
When we practice yoga, it leads us to become devoid of any thought—that’s the whole purpose. Yoga teaches how to modulate one’s breath. It is based on the control and manipulation of breath and in this way, it aims to achieve thoughtlessness.
But we as Christians pray consciously, as well as in the Spirit, and we pray using our minds. Just as the Bible says in Mark 12: We are called to worship the Lord with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our strength, and with all our mind.
Yoga generally starts with Sun Salutation (Surya Namaskar), which is the practice of worshiping the sun. Christians worship the Creator, not the creation. We bow down before the living God alone.
Sunita Howell, principal, Caleb International School, Gurugram, Harayana:
For me, yoga is definitely a Hindu practice. It stems from an awareness of the Purusha, the supreme power untouched by affliction and its causes. Yoga is practiced with the chanting of “Om” [a sound considered sacred and ancient in Hinduism and other Eastern religions].
Self-awareness leads me to confess that I am a sinner who needs outside help. I receive that help in Jesus alone.
Leela Manasseh, a leader with Global Spiritual Care Networks and Singles Asia, Bengaluru, Karnataka:
Yoga by itself is a form of worship. I know of several Christians who are into yoga and practice it while reciting the Psalms. Personally, I am not for yoga as there are alternate exercises for better health and immunity.
If Christians like to get into yoga, I don’t judge them; but personally I refrain from it.
Dorcas Isaac, retired principal, Mysuru, Karnataka:
I am presently attending three yoga classes per week. I have found that yoga is scientific, and that “Om” is just a sound. Shantimeanspeace, … [and] yoga exercises make us flexible, active, and energetic. Today yoga is taught in schools as part of physical education and not as part of the Hindu religion.
Several Christians come to my house once a week to join the yoga class. We are all finding the exercises very useful. Even though its origin is in Hinduism, and we are practicing all the asanas (yoga poses), I think it is okay. We recite Bible verses instead of Sanskrit shlokas (stanzas) and mantras.
We don’t think there is anything Hindu about it. We are happy with the results of yoga. We have been doing it now for 3–4 months. We consider yoga as scientific exercise.
Mohit Singh, lay preacher, Methodist Church, Noida, Uttar Pradesh:
I don’t think that yoga is too Hindu for Christians to practice. Any Christian who wishes to take up yoga should be clear about the reasons for opting the same.
In my case, it was purely driven by getting some guided exercise regimen to help me lose weight and get fitter. While there are other options available like Zumba and Pilates dance classes, I found them immoderate for me, while yoga class was more gradual in its approach.
Initially, when I went for the yoga class, I was taken aback to see the instructor and students chanting Om and Gayatri mantra both before and after the class. [Gayatri is the name of the goddess of the Vedic meter in which the verse is composed, and a mantra is a sacred utterance.]
As one of the students I was required to conform to this ritual. However, I did not follow that path and instead remembered my God and prayed to him by calling out his name and asked his guidance in this new venture where I was trying to make my physical body healthier.
I believe that if your intentions are right, God will not feel offended and will provide a way to deal with such tricky situations. While no one forced me to recite any of the mantras, I kept praying to God and performed the exercises that the instructor was describing.
I recollect myself deliberating over the various asanas that are practiced in yoga to be “poses honoring the [Hindu] gods.” However, I continued to do them purely from an exercise point of view and not to please any [Hindu] deity. Hence, I would like to sum it up by saying that as long as our intentions are clear and we do not chant the mantras, it should be okay—for God looks at the heart.