Is Yoga Kosher?
The people who like to say "Yes, of course it is!" usually claim that yoga is merely a form of physical exercise, and that there’s nothing inherently religious or spiritual about it. Ergo, even religious Jews can happily participate in a yoga class without worrying about infringing the following Torah commandments (as described in the Artscroll Gemara Tractate Avoda Zara):
a. “And you shall not follow their rituals – Leviticus 18.3 – which proscribes rituals that are used in idol worship.”
b. “And you shall not act according to their practices – Exodus 23-24 – which forbids any practices specific to idolatrous peoples, even those that have nothing to do with idolatry.”
As a side note, there are three sins that a Jew is meant to die for, instead of transgress, and idol worship is one of them, so this stuff is a big deal.
So is yoga just a good workout, or is it actually an idolatrous, religious practice that can’t be separated from its spiritual roots and repackaged as "just" exercise?
Let’s take a look at the facts:
Fact 1: There are millions of practicing Hindus, Buddhists and Taoists all over the world who are still happily practicing their yoga moves in their idolatrous temples. In fact, Hindus in the West are becoming increasingly vocal about their belief that yoga is being misrepresented and whitewashed as being "purely exercise", when they claim it’s clearly one of their main religious practices, and is innately bound up with the (idolatrous) Hindu religion.
Fact 2: In 2013, a lawsuit was filed by parents against the Encinitas Union School District in San Diego arguing that the twice weekly, 30-minute yoga classes they’d introduced into their schools were inherently religious, and in violation of the separation between church and state. One of the expert witnesses in the lawsuit, Harvard-educated religious studies professor Candy Gunther Brown, testified that yoga was pervasively religious, “having its roots in Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist and metaphysical beliefs and practices.”
Fact 3: To qualify as an accredited yoga teacher in the West, the Yoga Alliance requires you to spend a minimum of 30 hours learning about: "Yoga philosophy, ethics and lifestyle" including submerging yourself in a bunch of religious (idolatrous) texts including The Hatha Yoga Pradipika or Bhagavad Gita.
When was the last time you heard of someone having to take a "philosophy of swimming" class, or having to learn through the whole book of Genesis before they could qualify as an aerobics instructor?
If yoga is purely a physical exercise, then why do you even need to get into all the Eastern philosophy and ideas behind it? But if you don’t learn this stuff, you can’t teach a yoga class.
Fact 4: Yoga is literally dripping with references to idol worship. Look up "Hatha yoga" on Wikipedia, and you’ll find this:
“Hindu tradition believes that the deity Shiva himself is the founder of hatha yoga."
Now’s a good time to check back with the two Torah laws we referred to earlier. It’s hard to argue that something that was apparently founded by an idolatrous deity is NOT a ritual used for idol worship, or NOT a practice followed by idolatrous peoples.
In case you think that first example was just a fluke, look up plain old "yoga" on Wikipedia and you’ll get this:
“In the 1980s, yoga became popular as a system of physical exercise across the Western world. Yoga in Indian traditions, however, is more than physical exercise, it has a meditative and spiritual core. One of the six major orthodox schools of Hinduism is also called Yoga, which has its own epistemology and metaphysics, and is closely related to Hindu Samkhya philosophy.”
Fact 5: There is not a single, reliable, knowledgeable, Orthodox halachic decisor who has officially given yoga the thumbs up for Orthodox Jews.
Yes, there are many rabbis who don’t know a lot about yoga, and based on the information they’ve been given that it’s "just exercise" say it’s okay, although even they are usually very reticent about saying this out loud or in public. But the rabbis who are versed in the Kabbalah and Jewish esoteric thought, AND who are also knowledgeable about yoga’s pagan roots and religious connotations, have a very different opinion.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe famously issued an edict in the 1970s, declaring that it was impossible to make yoga "kosher". More recently, Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburgh, a very knowledgeable kabbalist and author of more than 30 books on practical kabbalah, had the following to say:
“Yoga has a negative energy that originates from tumah [spiritual impurity]. Therefore, it is forbidden, even if only for exercise and without any specific negative intentions [for idol worship].”
So do your Pilates, your stretching, your aerobics as much as you want, but if Jewish law is important to you, steer clear of yoga.
Have something to add? We'd love to hear from you. Please comment below to share.
For more great Jewish content, please subscribe in the right hand column. Once you confirm your subscription, you'll get an email whenever new content is published to the Jewish Values Online blog.
Any comments below have been contributed by third parties through social media. Jewish Values Online does not moderate comments and assumes no responsibility for the opinions expressed therein. In case of abuse, click the grey arrow in the upper right corner of any comment to report it.