Stretching Our Religion - Yoga
by Rabbi Aaron Tendler
Dear Rabbi Tendler,
Is there a problem with doing Yoga? I've heard that it may be a form of Avodah Zarah. Can you clarify the issue?
Thank you very much.
Name and Seminary withheld upon request
Thank you for your question. Although I must admit that I know very little about Yoga, from the information that I have gleaned from various references it is clear that it is an important feature of Hinduism, which is clearly Avodah Zara. Apparently, there are also many different types of Yoga, some involving "religious meditation", and other involving non-religious meditation.
It is important to realize that every religion that is started has some elements of truth to it, as this is how they attract adherents. However, they "repackage" the truths with other beliefs, and present it as a "package deal", and the claim is made that if one part is true, the whole must be true. This is how Christianity and Islam were started (based on our truths of Yiddishkeit). The Rambam (Hilchos Avodah Zara 1:1) writes that even Avodah Zara was started in this manner, and over time the original truths were pushed to the background, and only the nonsense (in the case of Hinduism I assume that this would be the deification of cows, etc.) remained.
Consequently, it is important to distinguish between meditation and exercises that are beneficial to a person's mental and physical well being, no matter what their beliefs are, and rituals that are part of idol worship. There is nothing wrong with meditation per se, references to it can be found in the Sifrei Kabbalah and even to a certain extent in Sifrei Mussar (Hisbodedus). People claim that meditative exercises can assist them in reducing weight, toning nerves and muscles, and improving their mental health, among other things. If this is true, there is nothing wrong with it, and a person might even be fulfilling the Mitzvah of "V'Nishmartem Me'od L'Nafshoseichem" by doing so. But to believe that this only works through a religious medium, and to pattern these exercises in the manner of those that practice Avodah Zarah, is clearly not proper according to Halacha. I also believe that since Yoga is so closely connected with Hinduism, it would not be proper to organize a group of people, even if they are properly doing these exercises and call it a "Yoga class or group", rather it should be called a "meditation class", or something along those lines.
If however, it is a regular exercise class with the yoga and breathing stretches and so forth- not connected to any form of religion etc - this, of course, is fine.
Rabbi Aaron Tendler