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Yoga and the Martial Arts – Should Christians Practice Either?

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I was asked by a reader to comment on whether or not Christians should practice or participate in either yoga or the martial arts. My short answer is – very carefully.

Depending on your age, you may have very little interest in either activity. However, if you have children, grandchildren or you mentor someone who does, you would be wise to have a position on these activities. (See my May 6, 2013 blog on Writing Jesus’ Speeches).

I’ll be right up front. I have less concern with yoga, the exercise, not the practice of spiritual meditation, than I have with martial arts. I realize that both came out of eastern religions and both were practiced for centuries as a religion, or a way to connect with “the gods”, and in most cases, still are. But, we don’t stop celebrating Christmas even though December 25 was originally a pagan holiday – Roman Solstice. So, I’m less concerned about the historic roots than the actual practice today by Christians, or led by Christians.

I’m also aware that there are serious Christians who believe we should stay as far away from both as possible. And, that could be the wisest choice for you. However, the Church in Corinth had similar questions. For instance, should they eat meat sacrificed to idols? In I Cor. 8, Paul addresses this issue straight on when he says, “Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.” I Cor. 8:7-8

But in the same chapter Paul goes on to say that he’d never eat such meat if it offended another believer’s conscience. “Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.” I Cor. 8:13

So here’s my first warning; I would not want to see either yoga or the martial arts practiced in a church or family if it seriously violated the conscience of another Christian. My second warning is this; just the other fact that these practices have their origin in eastern religions, should not automatically disqualify Christians from practicing them, unless any element of that religion is also practiced or encouraged.

Here’s how this issue worked out for my wife and I recently.

Yoga For a year, Susan and I attended an exercise and stretching class called, Exercise/Yoga at a local health club. It was purely a class to help build flexibility and core muscles. There was never a mention of any gods. No eastern religious symbols were present and we weren’t asked to utter any words or sounds. (Although, I involuntarily groaned a lot!)

However, Christian friends of ours encouraged us to try a new yoga place closer to our home, so we went – once! While the facility was very nice, as the instructor began speaking it was clear she was heavily influenced by new age and/or eastern religions and was encouraging us to do the same. She said things like, “Now, empty your mind and let the spirits that are in all things connect you with the universe…” We never went back.

Be Cautious My third word of warning is, that while we have freedom, we should also be wise. Paul said later in I Cor. 10:23, “I have the right to do anything, but not everything is constructive.”  So, if there’s even a hint of eastern religion, or calls to, “empty your mind”; run for the door! Regardless of what a brochure says, what happens in any class varies by the instructor. Think about taking a mature Christian friend with you to sit in on a class, if you’re unsure.

Martial Arts I’m just going to come right out of the chute on the martial arts and tell you I object to almost all of it. Again, my objections aren’t so much it’s origin in eastern religions. I just think it teaches a worldview that is anti-ethical to a Christian worldview.

I realize that there are many churches that offer martial arts training, especially for kids. There are also martial arts evangelists that travel the country, breaking boards and bricks with the hands and heads, all for the purpose of drawing people to the gospel. I don’t doubt their sincerity or motives. But, most of the rest of this blog I’ll be quoting from Dr. Russell K. Tardo, who says;

“While one may argue that Christ can be preached from any platform, we must also bear in mind that the method we employ affects the message we preach. For instance, how can someone preach “turn the other cheek” while teaching you how to hurt them? When the method contradicts the message, it destroys credibility.

Seeing someone who bobs his head up and down, gathering momentum and mental strength as he prepares to crash his head into a thousand pound block of ice, can’t possibly prepare the heart for a message about a meek Savior who extolled humility and scorned self-exaltation. While such stunts might attract an impressionable group of young people to sign up for a karate class, it is difficult to see how it will cause them to want to enroll in a Sunday school class.  While I have no doubt that the performers’ sincere goal is evangelism, the impression kids are left with is one of power, dominance and self-reliance – the glorifying of the flesh.”

Is the whole idea of self-defense and training to hurt someone else, even Christian? It appears to contradict the direct commands of Jesus to;

  1. Love your enemies (Matt. 5:44)

  2. Turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:39)

  3. Resist not evil (Matt. 5:39)

  4. Bless them that curse you (Matt. 5:44)

  5. Do good to them that hate you (Matt. 5:44), etc.

  6. Be a peacemaker (Matt. 5:9)

Guilty as Charged Twenty years ago, before I’d ever thought about these issues, our son attended a karate class. Here’s what I observed.

  1. The instructor did a nice job of teaching respect and self-discipline in the class, which I thought was “right on”.

  2. However, the instructor was “tough guy” and told stories of protecting himself and others using karate. There also was a “don’t mess with me or I’ll hurt you” message that the boys were resonating with far more than the “protecting others” or the respect message.

  3. We found our son demonstrating his new found toughness to his friends. As a group they began kicking and hitting each other, in playful, but occasionally hurtful ways. As the year went on, it felt like the kids had become more cocky and self-confident, not more spiritual and kind.

  4. I realize now, that by enrolling him in that class, I was unintentionally promoting some behaviors and attitudes that Jesus actually warned us against!

Okay, here’s where I’m Inconsistent Personally, I have less concern about self-defense classes for women or girls to protect themselves from an attack, primarily because I generally don’t find women wanting to hurt people or demonstrating their toughness to others. Most of these classes are a few months long, purely defensive and free from any association with eastern religions.

My Recommendations

1. Pray for spiritual discernment. Almost every practice or habit, even good ones, has in it the seed of temptation to sin and want to control our own lives or the lives of others.

2. Avoid any behavior or practice that distracts you from worshipping God alone, or that violates a clear teaching of the Bible.

3. Avoid any practice that violates your conscience, or the conscience of a fellow believer in Christ.

4. Avoid any practice that tempts you to pride, self-reliance, or violence.

5. Enjoy the rest!

“So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” I Cor. 10:31

by Clare De Graaf

Question:  Tell me what you think. Should Christians run for the door from these activities, or do we have freedom in these areas?

Following Jesus in Real Life

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