Can Catholics practice yoga?
— Tessie in Effingham
Crazy trivia fact: Most languages spoken across Europe and Asia are all descendants of an original Proto-Indo-European language spoken around 12,000 B. C. In Sanskrit, an ancient and medieval Indian language used in many Hindu, Buddhist and Jain writings, the noun “yoga” comes from the Proto-Indo-European root: “yewg,” meaning “to join.” This trickles down into English in words like “yoke” (joining two animals), through Greek in the term “zygote” (the first cluster of cells in a developing human person), and through Latin in the term “jugular” (the vein connecting your head to your body).
In Eastern mysticism, the word “yoga” came to refer to the practices of self-concentration, controlled breathing, various bodily postures, and fasting for the sake of contemplation, that is, eventual liberation (nirvana) from the cycle of reincarnation (samsara). “Yoga,” meaning “yoked,” was thus used in the sacred Hindu Vedas to refer to both the subsuming of one’s body into one’s spirit (a kind of Gnosticism) and oneself into the divine (Monism).
For Christians, both ideas are problematic! For the first, we are our bodies, they are not something we eventually leave behind, but rather, any discontinuity between our bodies and souls comes from our fallenness and concupiscence. See Christ’s admonition, “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:42) or Paul’s recognition that “I do not do what I want” (Romans 7:15). We do not seek to transcend our bodies, but to work here and now to integrate our bodies/emotions with our intellect/will. By loving God and neighbor with our heart, mind, soul and strength now, we prepare for eternal life, body and soul, with God in heaven. There, our bodies are not lost into our spirits, and we are not lost into the divine. We will be bodily individuals united with God.
Now, meditation, silence, controlled breathing, bodily postures, fasting, etc. are not intrinsically related to the pitfalls of Eastern Spirituality, in fact, all can be aids to deeper Christian prayer. Think on Jesus’ own 40 days in the desert, or his invitation, “When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (Matthew 6:6). Recall St. Benedict’s integration of asceticism and lectio-divina, St. Dominic’s Nine Ways [Postures] of Prayer, or, in mystics like Francis de Sales, Theresa of Avila, and John of the Cross, what Thomas Merton describes as prayer “centered entirely on the presence of God.”
The key difference is that all these prayer-practices are aimed toward an encounter with God who personally loves us! “Christian Prayer … flees from impersonal techniques or from concentrating on oneself, which can create a kind of rut, imprisoning the person praying in a spiritual privatism which is incapable of a free openness to the transcendental God” (Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation).
Can the movements or disciplines of yoga be done without their associated gnostic or monist dangers by practicing yoga solely because it helps your physical body? Sure. Could practicing yoga even lead into proper Christian meditation and contemplation? Maybe. But, let us keep in mind that Christians seek in all things to be “yoked” with Christ, and anything that hinders or distracts us from that should not have a place in our lives.
All humans in today’s world are enduring the triple stress hitting us: the pandemic of COVID-19, the financial crisis, and the climate change. Sometimes we hardly know which way to turn.
Or who to blame.
So, we turn to God. We grab our Bible and find simple statements in answer.
First: “God is light” (1st John 1:5). God is superbly intelligent; knows everything.
Second: “God is love” (1st John 4:16). God totally loves every one of us at every moment.
Third: “God will wipe away every tear” (Revelation 7:170). God comforts us.
Father Dominic Rankin is parochial vicar at Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception Parish and has a license in Theology of Marriage and Family from the John Paul II Institute in Rome.