Yoga​—Just an Exercise or Something More?

HAVING a slim and healthy body is very much on people’s minds today. This has caused many to turn to gymnasiums and health clubs for help. For the same reason, thousands of people in the Western world have turned to the Eastern art of yoga.

People suffering from stress, depression, and frustration have also turned to yoga for solace and solutions. Particularly since the 1960’s, the decade of hippies and flower children, has interest in Eastern religions and their mystic practices spread throughout the West. Transcendental meditation, a close adjunct of yoga, has been popularized by film stars and rock musicians. In view of the growing interest in yoga, we might ask: ‘Is yoga simply an exercise routine that will give the practitioner a healthy, slim body and some peace of mind? Can yoga be practiced without any religious overtones? Is yoga suitable for Christians?’

The Background of Yoga

The origin of the word “yoga” is related to that of the English word “yoke.” It can mean to join or yoke together or to bring under a yoke, to harness or control. To a Hindu, yoga is a technique or a discipline that leads to union with a great supernatural force or spirit. It has been described as “the yoking of all the powers of body, mind and soul to God.”

How far back in history can yoga be traced? Figures of people seated in various yoga positions appear on seals found in the Indus Valley, in present-day Pakistan. The Indus Valley civilization is dated by archaeologists to between the third and the second millenniums B.C.E., very close in time to the Mesopotamian culture. Artifacts from both areas portray a man, representing a deity, crowned with animal horns and surrounded by animals, reminiscent of Nimrod, the “mighty hunter.” (Genesis 10:8, 9) The Hindus  claim that the figures sitting in yoga positions are images of the god Siva, lord of the animals and lord of yoga, who is often worshiped through the lingam, a phallic symbol. Thus, the book Hindu World calls yoga “a code of ascetic practices, mainly pre-Aryan in origin, containing relics of many primitive conceptions and observances.”

The methods of yoga were at first handed down orally. Then they were put into detailed, written form by the Indian yogic sage Patañjali as the Yoga Sutra, which remains the basic instruction book of yoga. According to Patañjali, yoga is “a methodical effort to attain perfection, through the control of the different elements of human nature, physical and psychical.” From its inception until the present time, yoga has been an integral part of Eastern religions, now particularly Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. Some practicers of yoga believe that it will lead them to attain moksha, or liberation, through a merging with an all-pervading spirit.

So once again we ask: ‘Can yoga be practiced simply as a physical exercise to develop a healthy body and a relaxed mind, without any involvement with religion?’ In view of its background, the answer would have to be no.

Where Can Yoga Take You?

The objective of yoga as a discipline is to lead a person to the spiritual experience of being “yoked” to or merged with a superhuman spirit. But which spirit would that be?

In Hindu World, author Benjamin Walker says of yoga: “It may have been an early system of magical ritualism, and yoga still retains in its meaning an overtone of occultism and sorcery.” Hindu philosophers admit that the practice of yoga can give supernatural powers, even though they usually claim that this is not the ultimate goal of yoga. For example, in the book Indian Philosophy, former president of India, Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, says of the yogi that “control of the body through postures results in an indifference to the extremes of heat and cold. . . . The yogin can see and hear at a distance . . . Transmission of thought from one individual to another without the intervention of the normal communicating mechanisms is quite possible. . . . The yogi can make his body invisible.”

The image of a yogi sleeping on a bed of nails or walking on hot coals may appear to be a hoax to some and a joke to others. But these are common occurrences in India, as is the practice of standing on one leg while staring directly at the sun for hours and breath control that allows a person to be buried in sand for long periods of time. In June 1995, The Times of India reported that a three-and-a-half-year-old girl lay in a trance as a car weighing more than 1,600 pounds [750 kg] was allowed to run over her abdomen. To the amazement of the crowd, when she awoke she was totally unharmed. The report added: “It was sheer yogic power.”

Without a doubt, no normal human is capable of performing any of these tasks. Hence, a Christian must ask: Of what are these feats an indication? Are they from Jehovah God, “the Most High over all the earth,” or are they from some other source? (Psalm 83:18) The Bible is clear on this point. When the Israelites were on the verge of entering the Promised Land, which was occupied by the Canaanites, Jehovah told the sons of Israel through Moses: “You must not learn to do according to the detestable things of those nations.” What “detestable things”? Moses warned against “anyone who employs divination, a practicer of magic or anyone who looks for omens or a sorcerer.” (Deuteronomy 18:9, 10) These  things are detestable to God because they are works of the demons and of the fallen flesh.​—Galatians 5:19-21.

Not a Choice for Christians

Whatever health instructors may say to the contrary, yoga does not stop with physical exercises. The book Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies relates the experiences of two yoga novitiates who were under the guidance of a guru. One is quoted as saying: “I made superhuman efforts to hold my breath as long as possible, and only breathed when I was on the point of fainting. . . . One day, at high noon, I thought I saw a bright moon, which seemed to move and sway from side to side. Another time I imagined myself enveloped in thick darkness at midday. My director . . . was greatly pleased when I mentioned these visions to him. . . . The time was not far distant, he assured me, when I should experience much more surprising results from my penance.” The second man relates: “He obliged me to stare at the sky every day without blinking my eyes or changing my position. . . . Sometimes I thought I saw sparks of fire in the air; at others I seemed to see fiery globes and other meteors. My teacher was much pleased with the success of my efforts.”

The strange sights were evidently what the gurus felt were proper results along the way to the true aim of yogic exercises. Yes, the ultimate goal of yoga is moksha, explained as the merging with some impersonal great spirit. It is described as “the (intentional) stopping of the spontaneous activity of the mind stuff.” This is clearly contrary to the goal set out for Christians, who are given the admonition: “Present your bodies a sacrifice living, holy, acceptable to God, a sacred service with your power of reason. And quit being fashioned after this system of things, but be transformed by making your mind over, that you may prove to yourselves the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”​—Romans 12:1, 2.

The choice of what physical exercise to pursue is a personal one. Christians, however, would not allow anything​—be it bodily training, eating, drinking, clothing, entertainment, or something else—​to mar their relationship with Jehovah God. (1 Corinthians 10:31) For those exercising simply for the sake of their health, there are many avenues available that do not involve exposure to the dangers of spiritism and occultism. By keeping clear of practices and beliefs that are rooted in false religion, we may look forward to God’s blessing of a righteous new system of things in which we can enjoy perfect health in body and mind for an eternity.​—2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:3, 4.

[Pictures on page 22]

Many enjoy healthy activities that do not involve exposure to spiritism