Lady Gaga, Russell Simmons, Jennifer Aniston, Jon Bon Jovi and other top celebrities practice it. It's practiced in schools, day cares, health spas and nursing homes. Workplaces even report less employee stress when it is incorporated into the work day. From the extremely fit to the overweight, the spandex-clad gym rat to the average Joe practicing in their living room: Yoga is the next new thing.
The practice has now spilled over from the mainstream into the Christian world, as its popularity as a form of exercise has risen and the spiritual aspects downplayed.
"There are huge health benefits – I sleep better and feel more energized," said Ashley Rosales, a Christian counselor in Denver. "I enjoy the time to relax."
One in 10 Americans practice yoga, according to Yoga Business Academy. Proponents cite supposed health benefits. Among other things, yoga has been said to:
reduce stress, improve sleep, reduce cortisol levels, improve many medical conditions, lower blood pressure and lower heart rate, as well as reduce anxiety and muscle tension and increase strength and flexibility
Christians are getting in on the act, too. Church websites reveal various fitness programs featuring yoga and several groups claim to offer "Christian Yoga."
Recently, Rick Warren's church came under fire for incorporating yoga and other practices into the church's fitness program. Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago offers "Holy Yoga."
In 2005, Christianity Today featured an article titled, "Yes to Yoga" in 2005, which detailed the author's positive experience with yoga and deep breathing.
"Soon after I take off my socks and do a couple of poses, spontaneous prayers soar to Christ. Give me five minutes of yoga, and my mind immediately goes to the metaphor of God's spirit being as omnipresent and as necessary as the air," wrote Agnieszka Tennant, who said she is an evangelical Christian.
Christian Yoga Magazine carries news and resources about Christian spirituality and yoga and books such as Yoga For Christians: A Christ-Centered Approach to Physical and Spiritual Health, by Susan Bordenkircher, offer ways in which Christians can "safely" practice yoga.
However, the new exercise trend is a red flag for most Christians because of its deep roots to Hinduism – a pantheistic religion that involves emptying of the mind and using bodily positions to connect with the divine.
Many Christian leaders have spoken out against the practice.
Pope Benedict XVI said, "yoga can degenerate into a cult of the body," in 2008.
Albert Mohler stirred up controversy in September 2010 when he said on his blog, "When Christians practice yoga, they must either deny the reality of what yoga represents or fail to see the contradictions between their Christian commitments and their embrace of yoga."
After the post sparked heated debate in both the secular and the Christian world, Mohler defended his statements on NBC News in Oct. 2010.
"Yoga, as a spiritual practice, runs directly counter to the spiritual counsel of the Bible," Mohler declared.
Pat Robinson and John MacArthur hold similar views.
In a Headline Prime News segment on CNN, MacArthur said, "The idea of Christianity is to fill your mind with biblical truth and focus on the God who is above you. That's Christian worship. The idea of yoga is to fill your mind with nothing except to focus on yourself and try to find the god that is inside of you. From a Christian viewpoint, that's a false religion. Exercise is a different issue. If it's just purely exercise, and you're a strong Christian, it probably wouldn't have any impact on your faith. But in the big picture, why would Christians want to borrow an expression from a false religion, from pantheism?"
And along with the purported health benefits, yoga affects the body in negative ways, too.
"The actual physical postures have occult significances and can trigger reactions just as the breathing and mind work do," said Clare Merkle, a former yogi, on her website crossveil.org. "We have nervous, endocrine, organ, neuroskeletal and cognitive functions that are very delicate and interconnected. By manipulation of either some kind of occult or unknown power through the use of the will or intellect, or simply the stimulation through targeted exercise, this can and has caused some crisis in people."
The issue at heart is whether or not yoga is a religion, or just an exercise practice used in eastern religions.
The American Yoga Association says, "The practice of yoga will not interfere with any religion," and About.com writer Ann Pizer says, "Yoga can be a spiritual practice, but it is not a religion, because it does not dictate the nature of a God to be worshipped."
However, Webster's Library Dictionary gives a clear definition of yoga – "Yoga is a system of Hindu philosophy, strict spiritual discipline practiced to gain control over the forces of one's being to gain occult powers but chiefly to attain union with the Deity or Universal Spirit."
Yoga itself means, "unite," the body with a higher power, and emptying the mind makes a Christian vulnerable to Satan's attacks.
So what should a Christian do? Find a healthy alternative, as Laurette Willis and Laura Monica did.
Willis created PraiseMoves, a Christ-centered alternative to the practice of yoga.
"'Christian yoga' is an example of syncretism (an attempt to blend conflicting beliefs, religions or philosophies)," Willis says on her website. PraiseMoves postures are integrated with corresponding Bible scriptures, she said.
Monica, Leah Nelson, and Connie and Oliver Haedener offer a similar exercise program called Wholy Fit.
"WHOLYFIT IS NOT Christian Yoga and is not associated with Yoga culture, philosophies, religions, or practices, regardless of whether or not they are represented as Christian. We are committed to RADICAL purity for Christ and separateness from yoga," the website proclaims.
Both programs incorporate Bible verses and prayer into the exercises, and certain postures and poses performed.
Willis summed up her program's goal to Christian Broadcasting Network.
"Whatever we do, we do as unto the Lord by focusing on Him, by realizing that this is not a cult of the body. I am not trying to get my body to look a certain way to meet the world's standards. I want to be a fit witness for Him."