“Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
(1 John 4:1)
I have been asked by at least two church members and some other Christian friends as to what is the Christian response to some of the so-called Asian and Western exercises like yoga, pilates, qigong, taichi, meridian exercises, amongst others. I must confess that I have heard about them but somehow as a Christian, I do not think much about them since I do not practice any of them. To my Christian friends, these are issues because there are Christians on both sides of the camp, some rejecting them as Asian or New Age spiritual practices while others accept them as the arsenal of exercises for healthy living. In this article, it is a primer on what I have read thus far and my personal opinions on these exercises. More had to be done to provide a ready defence for our faith “in and out of seasons”.
John the Apostle was insistent that his readers are to test the spirits to see whether they are from God. There is a presupposition that even in the early church, false or deceiving spirits abound. He gave the rule for testing the spirits in 1 John 4:2-3 “This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.” The word spirit here is used generically as not only referring to the actual spirits but teachings, beliefs, practices and ways of life which influence us as Christians. This includes the exercises above.
The direct way to interpret this verse is that a spirit is from God if it acknowledges Jesus Christ is from God and its teaching is consistent with the Gospel. The spirit from God draws us closer in our walk with God (1 Corinthians 12:3 – “Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.”). On the other hand, the spirit of the antichrist is one which causes us to concentrate on anything (physical, imaginary or even spiritual) that brings us away from Christ and the gospel. This approach is the biblical standard but can this be applied to the above exercises? The problem with the above exercises is that they seemed to be “Christ- or gospel-neutral” in the sense that they do not advance or deny the gospel. Should we then accept these exercises as some form of healthy living for our physical well-being much like any other exercise? Or are they really Christ- or Gospel-neutral?
Some ways for Christians to deal with such exercises or practices include:
a. Read up and check for the origins of these exercises
We need to obtain knowledge by reading up on the origins of these practices. For example, a quick preview of the history of yoga would suggest that it has a rich spiritual heritage as its origin can be traced to the Stone Age Shamanism and one author said, “Both Shamanism and Yoga have similar characteristics particularly in their efforts to improve the human condition at that time. Also, they aim to heal community members and the practitioners act as religious mediators.” On the other hand, Pilates is a system of exercises created by Joseph Pilates when he was a World War I intern and he trained other internees in his system of exercise to strengthen the body. Qigong is an ancient practice “involving the coordination of different breathing patterns with various physical postures and motions of the body”. However, some variants of qigong view it in “more metaphysical terms, claiming that breathing and movement exercises can influence the fundamental forces of the universe.” This would suggest that qigong can take on a spiritual dimension unbeknown to the practitioners. Meridian exercises is based on the ancient Chinese belief that “meridians summarize the general functions of the human body” and the exercise “combines tapping for stimulating and opening meridian points, rotating motions to loosen joints, shaking and vibration to release stagnant energy along with twisting and squeezing to move energy (qi) within the body”.
An understanding of the origins of these exercises helps us to know whether the exercise is linked to ancient spiritual practices or beliefs or philosophical systems which involve the unknown, mystical or spiritual world. The danger is that some exercises have spiritual origins but have also evolved into exercises which seemed harmless as they are remotely linked to their spiritual origins. Other exercises when practised at a deeper level must include the unseen, unknown or the spiritual world.
b. The concept and practices behind the exercise
The challenge is that exercises morph and change over time. What may start out as a pure exercise subsequently embraces the spiritual dimension and the reverse can be true too. For example, it can be claimed that yoga is non-spiritual as it teaches one to breathe and to empty one’s mind without having a need to link to the ancient spiritual root. But can an exercise which has a spiritual origin be stripped of it in practice over time? On the other hand, a meridian exercise may start out as a form of exercising the meridians due to the philosophical belief of meridians but it connects with the ying and yang and qi (spirit) in our bodies and it becomes an indirect form of spiritual exercise in addition to being a physical exercise.
c. Embrace a Biblical mindset but without being judgemental
At the end of the day, as Christians we like to live a healthy and long life. However, this is not our end goal. Our end goal is to glorify God and to enjoy Him. All these exercises may give us a more healthy body but do they really help us to glorify God. This matter is almost similar to the “food offered to idols” problem in 1 Corinthians 8 which Paul dealt with concerning the prevalence of a pagan practice in the new Christian lifestyle. Paul’s advice was “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” The major difference between the above exercises and the eating of food offered to idol is that the above exercises may result in our active participations in the spiritual realm if we are not careful.
We live in a complicated and profusely confusing world of alternatives, spirits and multiplicity of non-Christian practices. We are exhorted to use our God-given wisdom to discern and test the spirits. We need to understand what we are getting ourselves into. We need to exercise our convictions but we must not be judgemental. May God grant us a spirit of humility, discernment and ability to exercise our freedom to glorify Him.