The practice of yoga may not always be as helpful or innocuous as people think.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
10 November 2017
I frequently run into Catholics and other Christians who practice yoga. It’s usually the case that they see yoga as a good form of physical exercise—its movements, stretches, and isometrical techniques certainly can be beneficial to bodily health. Usually, when they mention that they’re on their way for “some yoga” or that they “just got back” from their session, they do so as if it is an entirely normal and safe form of health maintenance that “everybody’s doing.” It’s as if no one should ever give the slightest thought about the possible spiritual risks of this practice or concern themselves with the fact that it finds its roots in eastern spirituality, inner “forces” and polytheistic belief systems.
Often, when I talk to people about yoga, I find they aren’t at all concerned with its eastern religious origins. Either that, or they’ve not given it any thought—and that is cause for concern.
As popular as yoga is in America (usually the Hatha yoga tradition), it’s important to understand it may not always be wise to engage in its practice. When yoga is considered in its full spectrum, it’s difficult to see how it can be compatible with the Christian faith, given its ties to eastern meditation, Hinduism, and a polytheistic spirituality. In my opinion, it poses some potential spiritual dangers.
What is it about yoga that might be a problem? First, it’s necessary to make the distinction between the physical exercise involved in yoga and the eastern spirituality connected to it. If a person is engaged in, for example, the physical stretching and/or isometrical movements that form one aspect of yoga, and is not in any way practicing its spiritual component, then that might be harmless. On this topic, Msgr. Charles Pope writes:
The Church generally distinguishes between physical postures of yoga and the philosophy or religion from which they come. The adoption of a physical position, even if originating in a religious system other than Christianity, is permissible provided the posture is sought apart from the religious tradition which originated it. (OSV Newsweekly, November 5-11, 2017, p. 19)
In other words, we shouldn’t think that just because we duplicate some physical aspect of yoga that we’re automatically engaging its eastern spirituality. What matters is the intention of the person involved. For example, one can kneel with the intent to worship Christ or kneel with the intent to worship a pagan god. It’s important not to become superstitious about bodily posturing when taken in and of itself without other clues that might shed light on a person’s intentions.
On the other hand, yoga is firmly rooted in non-Christian religious teaching and meditative practices, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. And that’s the problem with it. It is a physical-spiritual system that seeks to integrate body, mind and spirit with internal, mystical forces in order to achieve a type of enlightened state of oneness with the universe. Etymologically, the word “yoga” means “to join” and is linked to the concept of yoking oxen or other animals. Some of yoga’s religious characteristics can include monism (the philosophy of the oneness of all that exists), gnosticism (matter is evil vs. the spirit which is good), and mantras or chants with meanings opposed to the Christian faith.
Not only do these aspects of yoga have no basis in the deposit of faith (divine revelation on faith and morals) received from Christ and placed in the Church, they are incompatible with the belief of the Church and the Christian religion. For example, monism is related to the heresy of Pantheism that refers to the physical universe itself as divine (the universe and all within it is itself the essence of God; that is, God and the universe are one and the same thing). And gnosticism is a heresy that attached itself to some members of the Church in the 2nd century.
In America, Hatha yoga is often the preferred version. The claim is that it is rather innocuous when compared with other yoga styles. However, Hatha yoga can contain spiritual-meditative elements incompatible with the Christian faith as well. According to texts on Hatha yoga, meditation is its ultimate goal. The primary aim of this meditation is Nada-Brahman, which is a type of absorption into or union with Brahman (in Hinduism, Brahman refers to the ultimate reality or essence underlying all phenomena).
Some Hatha yoga sessions consist of strictly physical exercise, but others include eastern spiritual components. For example, sessions can include giving homage to the Hindu sun god, the “salute to the sun posture,” the chanting of the word “om” (referring to a cosmic or mystical symbol of the divine) with the aim of inducing a trance-like state in order to help achieve oneness with the universe, and sometimes the word “namaste” is intoned at the close of each session, which means “I bow to the god (or the divine) within you.” Although some of these concepts could potentially be understood in a Christian way, the proper distinctions, differences, and incompatibilities would have to be drawn out. As such, it’s difficult to see how Hatha yoga can be readily accepted as something entirely harmless and easily reconcilable with the Christian faith.
There is also the danger of scandal. When Catholics and other Christians are complacent about yoga, they often lead others by their example to begin to use it. If public sessions are attended, or perhaps a DVD or the Internet is used, people may be led into practicing its eastern meditative aspects. In other words, yoga could open the door to spiritual trouble for the unwary.
An example of just such a situation is found in Laurette Willis’ story about how her mother introduced her to yoga as a child, which, she claims, led to her future involvement in New Age practices as an adult.
I’ve often suggested that if people find some of the physical aspects of yoga beneficial, then adopt those into their own exercise program, but steer clear of its spiritual components. I also suggest they should not call it “yoga.” Name it something different; call it isometrics or stretching or core-exercises. This practice avoids confusion, apparent approval of yoga, and scandal. Additionally, it avoids the inappropriate and sometimes offensive confiscation of other people’s non-Christian religious practices. Would we be comfortable with Hindu or Buddhist practitioners celebrating an artificial replica of the Mass and calling it by the same name? Hardly. It also avoids leading others into thinking that Catholics are so unconcerned about their level of dedication and commitment to Jesus Christ and Christian prayer that they’re willing to carelessly trade eastern meditative practices for the fullness of divinely revealed truth and grace found in Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ is entirely unique in that he is himself the fullness of God’s revelation. In him, God dwells bodily. Our Lord and Savior has entrusted his Church with the fullness of the divine faith and deposited in her womb the fullness of divinely revealed truth. In dwelling in full communion with the Spirit-guided Church, we are given the fullest means of attaining salvation and gifted with the fullness of grace and truth. The Church Fathers often referred to the Christian religion transmitted by the Church as an “absolute religion,” meaning it is entirely without error and without equal.
Further, the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ himself taught us the most perfect of all prayers, which we call the Lord’s Prayer. It begins with these words: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” When we pray we do not seek to empty our minds or engage in chants designed to bring about a trance-like state inducing “oneness” with the universe. On the contrary, when we pray, we do so by virtue of the Holy Spirit himself, in and through and with Christ, directing our praise, adoration, intentions and petitions to our personal God and Father, creator of all things visible and invisible. There is hardly any comparison—nor is there equal ground—between the tradition of Christian prayer and the various meditative practices of eastern polytheistic religions.
However, while some elements of non-Christian religions are incompatible with the Christian faith, others can reflect various rays of truth which can be helpful for enlightening men. With this in mind, we need to be attentive to the principle of critical assimilation: Catholics should not reject everything out of hand, displaying a superstitious or fortress mentality, but rather critically examine and take in what is wholesome, authentically true and good, while rejecting what is incompatible, harmful, and poisonous.
The Vatican II declaration Nostra Aetate noted that, although Catholics should respect the rays of truth found in non-Christian religions, they should not lose sight of the obligation to proclaim Jesus Christ as the Redeemer and Savior of humankind:
The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself. (Nostra Aetate 2)
I think it is prudent to ask these questions: is the practice of yoga beneficial or detrimental to my Christian faith? Further, if it might be a risk, is it really necessary that I take that risk? It’s understandable that people desire to come together, enjoy friendship, and engage in physical exercise. If some of the physical postures of yoga are beneficial for the body, then that seems fine. However, it might be difficult for some people to separate out the physical and spiritual aspects of yoga, especially when it is used in a public setting.
Although Msgr. Pope notes that the magisterium has not given any definitive statements against the practice of yoga, he adds that it may be imprudent to use it. “The saints got along fine without it” (OSV, Ibid).
The saints always provide us with the best model of life. That does not mean nothing new has any place in the Catholic life. However, various styles of yoga have been around for a very long time. The saints did not prefer eastern meditative-spiritual practices in favor of Jesus Christ, the belief of his Church, and the tradition of authentic Christian prayer and its associated spirituality.
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Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel.