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What does Halacha and Halachic Authorities have to say about the permissibility of a Jew practicing Yoga? Is it Avodah Zarah?

If it is problematic, are there methods of doing it where it would be permissible?

If it is permitted, are there restrictions? For example, what about going to a Yoga class? What about having a Yoga instructor who does follow the meditations and beliefs?

Are there some Yoga styles that are less problematic than others?

Here is an answer that differentiates between the meditations of Yoga (problematic) and the exercise aspect (not a problem).

On the other hand, this answer says that any Jew aware of the "philosophy" on which Yoga is based should be wary of getting involved in the exercises, even when they appear to be isolated..

Authoritative sources would be great.

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    As for that last part, is that to say that those ignorant of the philosophy should not be wary of the exercises? – WAF Jul 6 '11 at 21:50
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    @WAF: It seems to say that if you've never studied the philosophy and you're only interested in the exercise it's OK, but once you've been tainted by the knowledge of the philosophy you shouldn't do the exercises. I could be wrong, I'd like to see some sources. – Menachem Jul 6 '11 at 21:59
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    Shalom Seth and Friends.With regards to Jews and Christians practising yoga.With respect I believe people can do yoga type stretches without being in front of any idol.It's interesting a lot of chiropratic stretches for one's back are synonimous with yoga back bends.I learn't the headstand from yoga.Yet have seen the same headstand being performed in a photograph of gymnasts.How do you differentiate between yoga and gymnastics?There is a philosophy behind yoga that is Hindu,yet I still think to worship any deity the worship has to be a conscious act of the mind. Blessings and Shalom! Andrew – Andrew Knight Apr 1 '12 at 16:55
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  • interesting article that discusses the issues: tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/23099/is-yoga-kosher – Menachem May 29 '13 at 22:02
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I wouldn't be answering this question, except I just met a religious woman here in Israel who is studying to be a yoga instructor.

I asked her about the connection between yoga and avodah zarah.

She said that, when an instructor receives certification to teach yoga in the Diaspora, s/he must learn all of the "hashkafa" (l'havdil) behind the various stretches and poses.

The Israel Yoga Association, on the other hand, teaches only the physical exercise, and omits all of the "kavannah" (again, l'havdil) that originally accompanied yoga.

http://www.isyoga.co.il/

I don't know which rav she asked, but at least this provides evidence that there are poskim who know about this topic, and have made arrangements in Israel to provide for the practice of yoga without the avodah zara aspects of it.

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I'm not authoritative on this, but my understanding is that ALL the traditional positions are forbidden. They are all essentially prayers to Surya (and others). See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surya_Namaskara for example.

One would have to be an expert in the many many (and there are a lot of them) yoga based/containing religions to know which positions are considered prayers and which are not. But my understanding is that most of them are indeed prayers, and therefor idol worship.

If someone wants to practice yoga they need to make up their own brand new positions, and not learn from someone who has ever learned the traditional ones.

http://www.kabalahyoga.com/ seems to try to do this, but I can't say for sure if they succeed.

  • @HachamGabriel Right. The idea of kabalahyoga is that it's not one of the traditional positions, and therefor presumably OK. But I don't know if they copied anything or not - I'm not that familiar with yoga. – Ariel Jan 8 '12 at 7:23
  • +1 For the record, I heard a shiur from Rabbi Aryeh Leibowitz and he couldn't find a leniency. He did not come out saying it is yehareg vlo yaavor, but it was very apparent what he believed to be Halacha. – user6591 Oct 19 '15 at 12:29
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The Lubavitcher Rebbe wrote the following letter:

By the Grace of G-d

Teveth, 5738

MEMORANDUM

It is well known that certain oriental movements, such as Transcendental Meditation (T.M.), Yoga, Guru, and the like, have attracted many Jewish followers, particularly among the young generation.

In as much as these movements involve certain rites and rituals, they have been rightly regarded by Rabbinic authorities as cults bordering on, and in some respects actual, Avodah Zarah (idolatry). Accordingly Rabbinic authorities everywhere, and particularly in Eretz Yisroel, ruled that these cults come under all the strictures associated with Avodah Zarah, so that also their appurtenances come under strict prohibition.

Moreover, the United States Federal Court also ruled recently that such movements, by virtue of embracing such rites and rituals, must be classifies as cultic and religious movements. (Of. Malnak V. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, U.S.D.C. of N.J. 76-341, esp. pp. 36-50, 78)

On the other hand, certain aspects of the said movements, which are entirely irrelevant to religious worship or practices, have a therapeutic value, particularly in the area of relieving mental stress.

It follows that if these therapeutic methods – insofar as they are utterly devoid of any ritual implications – would be adopted by doctors specializing in the field of mental illness, it would have two-pronged salutary effect: Firstly, in the view of the fact that these methods are therapeutically effective, while there are, regretfully, many who could benefit from such treatment, this is a matter of healing of the highest order, since it has to do with mental illness. It would, therefore, be very wrong to deny such treatment to those who need it, when it could be given by a practicing doctor.

Secondly, and this too is not less important, since there are many Jewish sufferers who continue to avail themselves of these methods though the said cults despite the Rabbinic prohibition, it can be assumed with certainty that many of them, if not all, who are drawn to these cults by the promise of mental relief, would prefer to receive the same treatment from the medical profession – if they had a choice of getting it the kosher way. It would thus be possible to save many Jews from getting involved with the said cults.

And another letter

Inasmuch as the Torah and mitzvot were given to all the Jews, and to each one individually, for all times and in all places, and “these are our lives and the length of our days,” it is clear that every moment of a Jew's life should be consecrated to Torah and mitzvot. Hence it is both surprising and painful to see a Jew spending precious time in search of "greener pastures" elsewhere, even if his intentions are good, for, as above, the important thing is the actual deed.

Needless to say, the above includes Yoga and similar cults even if it is not connected with anything pertaining to avodo zoro (idol worship) - if there is such cult that is completely free from avodo zoro, and in this only a competent Torah authority who is permeated with halocho is qualified to rule.

I am not seeking opportunities to admonish anyone, but since you mention certain oriental cults, it is my duty to call your attention to the fact that every spare moment that a Jew can use to deepen his knowledge of Torah he dissipates it on other things is deplorable enough, not to mention cults that in their overwhelming majority are certainly connected with avodo zoro in one way or another, and if there are exceptions, one must make doubly sure through an expert Torah authority, as mentioned above.

The present days are highly suitable for Jews to separate themselves from any alien influences in preparation for the Festival of Mattan Toraseinu (the giving of our Torah), when G-d sanctified us as a nation apart from all other nations, a unique "Kingdom of G-d's servants and a Holy Nation," by giving us His holy Torah and mitzvos. And since G-d Himself has shown us the way, what sense is there in looking for better ways. This is really too plain and self-evident to need further elaboration.

Wishing you a Joyous and inspiring Festival of Kabbolas haTorah and the traditional blessing to reaffirm the commitment to Torah and mitzvot with joy and inwardness.

                With blessing,
                The Rebbe’s Signature
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Yoga is a body of teachings within Hinduism. In declarations signed by a group of Torah scholars and Hindu swami's at the first and second Jewish-Hindu leadership summits, the following statements were affirmed:

Their [Jews' and Hindus'] respective Traditions teach that there is One Supreme Being who is the Ultimate Reality, who has created this world in its blessed diversity and who has communicated Divine ways of action for humanity, for different peoples in different times and places.

(Report of the Hindu-Jewish Leadership Summit, page 45, 'The Declaration of Mutual Understanding and Cooperation')

It is recognized that the One Supreme Being, both in its formless and manifest aspects, has been worshipped by Hindus over the millennia. This does not mean that Hindus worship 'gods' and 'idols'. The Hindu relates to only the One Supreme Being when he/she prays to a particular manifestation.

(Declaration of the Second Hindu-Jewish Leadership Summit, point 2)

Based on these declarations by respected scholars, Hinduism is a monotheistic religion, and there are not grounds for casting aspersions of avodah zarah on it.

  • Why does Hinduism being monotheistic matter? – Double AA Jan 10 '17 at 19:37
  • @DoubleAA, I assumed that was the question's concern: that yoga might have something to do with "avodah zarah". I also assume that monotheism (ייחוד האלוהים בלב שלם) is the opposite of avodah zarah. – paquda Jan 10 '17 at 19:45
  • Neither of those seem like great assumptions to me – Double AA Jan 10 '17 at 19:51
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    a particular manifestation - - > this is not the basis of AZ according to Rambam? – kouty Jan 10 '17 at 20:33
  • @kouty, in Hebrew we talk about different manifestations of God, e.g., מדת הדין ומדת הרחמים - is that AZ? – paquda Jan 10 '17 at 20:43
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I disagree with the claim that practicing yoga "asanas" postures is tantamount to idol worship for the simple reason that to worship God or any deity, the "worship" has to be conscious, such as reading a passage of scripture, or praying in a church or synagogue. I am a Christian with Jewish relatives by marriage and wonderful Jewish friends, thank the Lord, yet I can't equate conscious worship with physical stretching exercises. Yoga has cured me of two years of chronic back pain. During my time of suffering I could scarcely move due to the severity of the pain.

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    Re worship must be conscious: I am not with my books at the moment, but the g'mara states explicitly in Sanhedrin (in the 60s) that accidental prostration before an idol is forbidden. This, and specific cases like it, are codified. – WAF Nov 24 '11 at 12:14
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    Hello Andrew Knight and welcome to Judaism.SE! Thanks for bringing your unique perspective to the site. – WAF Nov 24 '11 at 12:15
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    @WAF: No source right now, but there are some acts of idol worship that are forbidden across the board, even if the idol is not worshiped that way (e.g. bowing). Other methods of worship however, are only forbidden if the idol is worshiped this way. This is discussed in relation to the jews worshiping baal peor. – Menachem Nov 24 '11 at 20:11
  • Andrew, to bow in front of an idol is a prohibited act whether or not one actually intend to pray or not, likewise it isn't a stretch (sorry I couldn't help myself) to suggest that since one is DOING YOGA after all, that performing the physical acts as yoga is a problem even if one doesn't "mean" it. The context is the problem. – Yirmeyahu Jan 8 '12 at 3:45
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    Andrew, I apologize for the harsh tone of some of the comments. Welcome to our forum. Your perspective is welcome, however, we generally hold ourselves to a standard of providing sources from Jewish literature, particularly when answering questions of Halachah (Jewish law). In fact, as others have pointed out, the Talmud and other sources have explicitly condemned accidental and incidental performance of acts associated with worship of idols. – Seth J Jan 8 '12 at 21:46
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The Ruling in Israel regarding this subject is as follows. Yoga and similar things are OK as long as the person teaching it does not know any of the meaning behind the stretches and has no way to learn the meaning.

If the meaning is learned however, then the teacher must alter the stretch in some way as to make it meaningless.

The basis of this ruling is that the practice has become known through secular fitness experts who have likely not learned the 'proper' religious stretches and so it is most likely a corruption of anything that smells of Avodah Zarah. Therefore, since it's not really avoda zarah there is no problem. If it is learned that that is not the case, then the activity must be changed so it is most certainly not Avoda Zarah.

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    do you have a source for this? Also, how much altering is necessary? For example, is facing a different direction enough? – Menachem Nov 24 '11 at 20:09
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    "and has no way to learn the meaning" in the age of the Internet? – msh210 Nov 25 '11 at 4:42
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    @Meachem I read it in a shul newsletter one shabbat many months ago. Don't remember who they quoted sorry. As for the age of the internet.. I guess that means you have to research it and alter it. – avi Nov 25 '11 at 7:21
  • @Menachem I imagine that you have to change enough that a religious practitioner would feel that you are 'doing it all wrong, and this is meaningless' – avi Nov 25 '11 at 7:22
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Besides the above concerns there's a possibility of Maris ayin when conducting any of their techniques or promoting it in a public forum

  • Could you edit to elaborate? What is maris ayin, and why would this be an issue? – DonielF Aug 14 '17 at 13:29
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I would like to make something very clear about "yoga" and the Halakhik rulings regarding it. It seems that these rulings weather lenient or strict are based on the very very very flawed premise that Yoga is a "cult" and Yoga Asanas (postures) have religious meanings or are some kind of religious ritual. Allow me to clarify that NOTHING CAN BE FURTHER FROM THE TRUTH!

The Great Rabbis deciding or endorsing these rulings (Including the Lubavitcher Rebbe ZTZa"l who I deeply adore) have no right to speak or rule of something which they are entirely ignorant.

Firstly, Yoga Asanas (posture practice) and Pranayama (breathing practice)make up merely 25 % of the entire Yoga system.Neither have ever been endowed with any god /gods/or religious meaning at all, they were designed as strictly physiological strength training for the body /mind.

Someone earlier claimed that "traditional postures are prayers to surya" and quotes wikkipedia (unreliable source) which did not even mention prayer. Surya Namaskar (greeting the sun) is name given to a series of poses done in flow order usually early in the morning as the sun rises hence the name "greeting the sun", no prayer or worship involved just body strengthening and timing.

Secondly,Comments like "Yoga is Hindu" are also false and ignorant of the concept and even meaning of the word Yoga. I have heard many Gurus and Swamis state that "Yoga belongs to no nation nor religion". BKS Iyyengar guru was once asked his opinion of the "westernization of Yoga" His answer was just that- Yoga does not belong to the east or west , it is a systematic method of self development. Sadh Guru was asked a simmilar question, and said soething like: " If Yoga is Hindu then math, science and the Law of gravity are Christian"

But The real understanding of Yoga can be found in the classical Yoga texts like the Yoga Sutras. If You read the second sutra it states clearly and defines Yoga as the "calming of the restlessness of the total mind". (Had any of the above mentioned Rabbinic authorities took the time to read from the Yoga sutras or the Hatha Yoga Classics, perhaps their understanding of Yoga would be very clear and their rulings based on fact and knowledge vs ignorance.) Then the Yoga sutras give the methodical system called Asthanga (8 limbs) Yoga, to achieve this calming of mind, in 8 stages of which the third is posture practice and the fourth is breathing practice. No mention of any "religious meaning behind the stretches" are even imaginably hinted at in the Yoga Sutras. In fact all that the sutras really say about the postures is that they are "Happy and stable" (stiram sukkam asanam). Does that sound Hindu or like any Avoda Zara?

The same is true of the next stages of Yoga which are more meditative. They are procedures to strengthen the ability to focus (we Jews call Kavanah/Kavono) and direct our attention as we wish rather than by default.

In conclusion, Yoga practice as we know it , is not a cult, religion, prayer etc. It is a method/technique/technology of achieving the higher human potentials of the physical body and mind abilities.

  • @DannySchoemann The question only says authoritative sources "would be great." The currently top-voted answer forbids yoga based on a Wikipedia page about yoga and nothing else, so I think this answer is definitely no worse. – b a Aug 9 '18 at 14:19
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If I remember right, idol worshipers can not forbid phenomena that occur naturally (Mishnah in Avodah Zarah). Things like landscape, water sources, celestial bodies, weather phenomena, animals in general, and more.For example idolaters worship Sun or Moon or Nile river, bit those are not forbidden to enjoy because of it.

I think, personal postures and movements can not be "copyrighted" by idolaters and become "idolatrous" by themselves. Therefore practicing physical exercises as natural human movements can not be regarded as Avodah Zarah. However, dealing with philosophy and teachings of Yoga as a part of Hinduism (as Lubavither Rebbe noted in his letter above) is superfluous and apparently forbidden.

  • You are confusing making an object considered neevad, and an act. – mevaqesh Dec 5 '17 at 20:52
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    This is a parable, as idolaters bow to AZ, bowing can not be forbidden, same with yoga, if they use their body to AZ, the postures and movements can not be forbidden. – Al Berko Dec 6 '17 at 12:43
  • If it was just a parable, then we are left with no real sources; just someone's assumption about the question which isn't very useful. – mevaqesh Dec 6 '17 at 14:18

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