Yoga is found everywhere in our society, and without exception it is presented as one of the most positive things a person can do. Exercise and spirituality – what more could you want? In the film Mitchells Versus The Machines (2022) the ‘perfect’ family of course does yoga. This is a common perception. Yoga is available and promoted on the streets, in sports centres, and in schools and church halls. Moreover, a growing number of Christians also now practise yoga. The question, then, is whether yoga is compatible with the Christian faith. This study will focus on a Biblical perspective.
Yoga is from the Sanskrit, originally meaning ‘yoking’ or ‘union’1. Both of these imply ‘with’ – i.e. the aim of yoga is to yoke, or unite, oneself with someone or something else. The Online Etymology Dictionary supports this, giving yoga as “literally ‘union, yoking’ (with the Supreme Spirit)”2. Another source expands on this: ‘The union referred to is that of the individual self uniting with Cosmic Consciousness or the Universal Spirit. Yoga is a means to achieving this goal.’3
Similarly we can read:
‘In the Indian Sanskrit books yoga is defined as the process of establishing a link-up between the individual consciousness of the living entity with the Supreme consciousness of the Lord. This process of establishing a link-up with the Supreme Lord leads to God consciousness, the ultimate aim of all yoga processes.’4
It is hard to argue that the Supreme Spirit is the same as the Judeo-Christian God. The Hindu term ‘Supreme Spirit’ or ‘Universal Consciousness’ refers to an impersonal greater force. Sources also identify the Supreme Spirit with either Shiva or the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.5 So the aim of yoga is to yoke the practitioner with a Hindu, or New Age, force or power, something which has nothing to do with the personal God of the Bible whom we are invited to call ‘Father’.
As this is a Biblical study, it will be noted that yoga does not appear in the Scriptures at all. This is hardly surprising as there is virtually no mention of India, for obvious geographic reasons, and anyway the purpose of Scripture is not to provide an exhaustive list of practices that should be avoided. There will always be words or activities that do not appear in the Bible, but there are principles that allow us to understand God’s perspective. In this case, bearing in mind the definitions above, our focus is on the word yoke, which appears 67 times.
A yoke is a wooden crosspiece placed over the neck of two animals in order for them to pull a plough or cart. This was in common use in pre-industrial times. When animals are yoked together, they share the same purpose, work at the same pace, and move in the same direction. We should also note that a stronger, or more experienced, animal, was often paired with a weaker or younger one. There would effectively be a master-disciple relationship in operation.
There are several different ways in which yoke is used in the Bible. (In this study, references are to chapters rather than verses. This is to allow the context to be read rather than providing ‘proof-texts’.)
In about ten places it is simply used as an agricultural term. For example, Job has 500 then 1,000 yoke of oxen. In a parable a guest excuses himself on the grounds that he has just bought five yoke of oxen. Elisha is ploughing with 12 yoke of oxen when Elijah calls him6. Note that other animals were counted individually, but animals yoked together were counted as one unit.
This brings to mind that a man and woman are joined to become one flesh – as Jesus said, no longer two but one7. Paul develops this; whoever unites themselves with the Lord is one with him in spirit8. This suggests a Biblical principle: to yoke yourself with someone is to combine yourselves into a single unit, which lasts for as long as you are still yoked.
(At one point, cows that had ‘calved but never been yoked’ were chosen by the Philistines to pull the ark back to the Israelites. They had never done hard work before and therefore were less likely to draw the cart behind them – a test to see whether the plagues the Philistines had suffered had truly been because they had taken the ark9.)
Most commonly a yoke appears in a negative sense. God tells Moses he has come to rescue his people from Egypt’s ‘yoke of slavery’10. Isaac prophesies to Esau he will have to serve his brother, but ‘when you become restless, you will throw off his yoke’11. Both of these are about one nation subjugating another, and this is a common thread to the use of ‘yoke’ in the Old Testament. Most often this concerns Israel being oppressed or in bondage to another nation – particularly Egypt12, Assyria13 and Babylon.
Jeremiah goes as far as to wear a physical yoke, instructing both the King of Judah and emissaries from other nations to submit themselves to the rule of Babylon. When a false prophet breaks this, Jeremiah responds that Judah will receive an iron yoke in place of a wooden one, suggesting even greater strength of the oppressor14.
As well as one nation oppressing another, a yoke could refer to an oppressive ruler. After King Solomon’s death, the people requested his son Rehoboam lighten their yoke – referring to the heavy labour that had been imposed with Solomon’s various building projects. Rehoboam instead vowed to double down on the people’s workload, resulting in the split of Israel into a northern and southern kingdom15.
There are also references to spiritual oppression. Isaiah writes:
‘The people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the shadow of death a light has dawned… For as in the days of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders’16.
While originally this was a reference to Assyria, it is then fulfilled in Jesus’ Galilean ministry, particularly in healing and casting out evil spirits17.
It is interesting that in the discussion about Gentiles being required to keep the law, legalism is described as a ‘yoke of slavery’18. In the Council at Jerusalem, Peter asks, ‘Why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?’19 The point is that where new believers were being required to fulfil the entire Mosaic law, they were having to submit themselves to something which they could not carry out.
In the Psalms, a history lesson reminds listeners that the Israelites ‘yoked themselves to the Baal (god) of Peor’20. The word is used only once in the Old Testament and can be also translated as ‘joined in worshipping’ or ‘harnessed/strapped (to something)’. This is revealing; throughout their history, whenever the Israelites turned away and worshipped another god, they were submitting themselves, and putting themselves in bondage, to that god.
Writing to one of his daughter churches, Paul instructs his listeners to ‘not be unequally yoked’ – some translations say ‘Do not be yoked together with unbelievers’21. The Greek word used, uniquely in the New Testament, is heterozygeo. Hetero means ‘of another kind’ (as in heterosexual), and zygeo means ‘yoke’. This chimes with the Torah’s instruction not to yoke different kinds of animal together e.g. ox and donkey22. No farmer would do this as there would be no chance of effective ploughing taking place, with the animals unable to work together.
Paul’s teaching is often taken to refer to marriage, and while that is a valid application it is not the only one. (Usually when he means marriage, he explicitly mentions it.) Christians are expected not to join themselves to something that is not of their nature. Paul goes on to ask what harmony there can be between light and darkness, or Communion (the Lord’s Supper) and idol worship.
As believers in Jesus it is not suitable to participate in an activity seeking to combine us with a Hindu god. In fact, if we follow Paul’s discussion about prostitution23 we see that, as we belong to Christ, in yoga we are taking part of his body and attempting to join that to a false god.
In summary, here are some key words associated with yoking in the Bible: oppression, slavery, burden, submission. These are the results of being joined to a harsh master.
Breaking the Yoke
Reading through the Bible, we can see that God’s desire is to break any yoke imposed upon his people – Jews and Christians alike24. Nine times in Scripture the image of a yoke being broken or removed refers to the oppression or dominance of one nation over another25.
Isaiah, when discussing true fasting, also twice mentions this – in this context, true fasting is equated with a desire for justice, which involves setting free or aiding those who are oppressed. It seems to have a more personal application here – for example, rescuing tenants from a cruel landowner, or releasing slaves26.
While the word ‘yoke’ is not explicitly used, we can think of the woman bent double who was healed by Jesus. His words are revealing: ‘Should not this woman… be set free from what had bound her?’27 Breaking the yoke leads to personal freedom, and we can see that an individual can be ‘bound’ by sickness or other work of the enemy.
Positive: God’s Yoke
We should note that there are a number of instances where we see that God intends a different kind of yoke for his people in the Old Testament.
(It is also worth remembering that, as has been seen earlier, God’s plan was that all nations would come under the yoke of the King of Babylon for 70 years, and those that did not would be punished. So this oppressive yoke was actually God’s purpose, for a season – until the fall and punishment of Babylon28.)
Both Hosea and Jeremiah prophetically saw Israel as a rebellious heifer that would not submit to her master29. God sought to put a yoke on her – the Mosaic law – but she broke free and refused to serve him – people and leaders alike.
We have already touched on the image of marriage as a positive example, instituted by God, of taking two people and making them into one unit. Here we see that God had bound the people of Israel to himself – not oppressively, but as one might wear a belt30 – but they were not willing to be his.
This is not of course limited to the Old Testament. Jesus’ words in Matthew are worth quoting in full.
‘Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.‘31
Jesus’ yoke is the antithesis of those seen elsewhere in Scripture – the heaviness of Solomon’s forced labour, the destructiveness of slavery, the misery of being oppressed by another nation. (Perhaps this helps us see why the disciples’ final question to Jesus, as the one who breaks every yoke, is whether he would then set them free from Roman rule.) Instead Jesus calls us to voluntarily take on a yoke and submit to him – a yoke where the pace is not forced and we will not be worn down.
There is a final interesting reference in the New Testament. Writing to a young church, Paul asks a friend to help bring peace between two women who seem to have been feuding32. The word for the friend is sometimes rendered as the name Syzygus, but it is better understood as the term ‘yoke-fellow’ – used only here. It suggests someone engaged in the same work that Paul was, with the same heart and purposes.
So, then, we have seen that the word ‘yoke’ is used in a variety of contexts in the Bible. Primarily it refers to slavery, oppression or heavy labour. We see that God’s desire is to set people from these things – or from whatever is weighing us down.
We have also seen that the concept of yoking involves two individuals being joined together to form one unit. One is usually weaker or less experienced and is brought into submission to the other. This speaks of marriage and also the call of Jesus for us to join ourselves with him.
As yoga involves the submission of one’s self to a Hindu or New Age deity, we can see this has no place in a Christian’s life. Arguments can be made that modern yoga is simply about stretching and breathing, and yet the postures used are designed to bring the practitioner into union with that god. The reality of the spiritual world, as seen in the New Testament in particular, should warn us away from such things.
Don’t follow Hindu/ New Age teachings. Instead, be yoked to the Lord Jesus. Let him be your master. Let him set the pace and determine what load you can pull. He is not a harsh taskmaster; he will guide you and walk beside you. As the Message translation puts it, ‘Learn the unforced rhythms of grace’33.
3 https://www.medindia.net/yoga-lifestyle/yoga-orgin.htm, accessed 24th Oct 2022
4 https://www.yoga-philosophy.com/eng/yoga_union.htm, accessed 16th Nov 2022
5 https://www.yogapedia.com/definition/5800/brahma-vishnu-shiva, accessed 16th Nov 2022
6 Job 1, 42; Luke 14; 1 Kings 19
7 Matthew 19
8 1 Corinthians 6
9 1 Samuel 6
10 Exodus 6
11 Genesis 27
12 As well as Exodus 6, mentioned above, see Leviticus 26; Ezekiel 30; Hosea 11
13 Isaiah 9,10 & 25; Nahum 1
14 Jeremiah 27,28
15 1 Kings 12; 2 Chronicles 10
16 Isaiah 9
17 Matthew 4
18 Galatians 5
19 Acts 15
20 Psalm 106
21 2 Corinthians 6
22 Deuteronomy 22
23 1 Corinthians 10
24 For example Isaiah 61, quoted by Jesus about himself (Luke 4).
25 Exodus 6; Lev. 26; Is. 9, 10 (twice); Jeremiah 28.30; Ezekiel 30,34. Note that most of these are found in the Prophets.
26 See Jeremiah 34, where Hebrew slaves were released (as they should have been every seventh year) but then re-enslaved.
27 Luke 13
28 Jeremiah 25, 27
29 Hosea 4, 10; Jeremiah 2, 5, 31
30 See Jeremiah 13
31 Matthew 11
32 Philippians 4
33 Matthew 11, the Message translation