I did not want to write about yoga. Yoga is controversial. Lately I feel this need to avoid controversy. Apparently God has other plans for me since recently no less than five people asked me to write about yoga.
So here we go, yoga.
Yoga is an ancient Sanskrit word meaning union. It is an “asana” which means the “practice of posing or posture”. In Western culture the words are used interchangeably but that is not really correct since yoga is also comprised of a spiritual and emotional element that has its roots in Brahmanism which is the basis of modern-day Hinduism. The earliest practice of yoga is known to have taken place in the Verdic period, the time in which the oldest scriptures of Hinduism were written, art from that period depicts people in the various poses. Vedic hymns praise a divine power and the practice of yoga was to unite mind and body in praise and worship. Yoga evolved to include meditation practices and sometime near the year 500 BC the Bhagavad-Gita, or the Lord’s Song, was composed. It is the oldest known yoga scripture and is said to have come from a conversation from a Prince Arjuna and a god-man Krishna.
Yoga has eight basic principles, referred to as the Eight Limbs of Classical Yoga.
- Yama, which means social restraints or ethical values;
- Niyama, which is personal observance of purity, tolerance, and study;
- Asanas or physical exercises;
- Pranayama, which means breath control or regulation;
- Pratyahara or sense withdrawal in preparation for Meditation;
- Dharana, which is about concentration;
- Dhyana, which means Meditation; and
- Samadhi, which means ecstasy.
None of this sounds particularly harmful, does it? Hang on, we are getting there. The purpose of these principles is to reach for the divine. Except that the divine they are reaching for isn’t really divine at all.
“Yoga exercises are practiced to free the soul from the body. Some of these exercises were: to rid one’s self of moral faults, although there is no consensus as to what these faults are, to sit in certain, sometimes painful postures, check the breath, and reduce thought to a minimum by staring at the tip of the nose; to place the soul in a particular part of the body, and so gradually acquire mastery over it, or, rather, let the soul, the true self, acquire mastery over the body; to stave and learn to subsist on air or even without it; to concentrate thought by meditation, i.e. to think of nothing. Thyana, the highest state of which is the cataleptic trance samadhi, in which the mind is suppressed but the soul is in full activity. In this sate the person is a mahatma, a master-soul and can enjoy a temporary release from the body which it leaves to go roaming about, performing wonderful feats on material nature and controlling other less powerful souls. This latter was the secret of the Yogi’s real power and was supposed to be done by a transfer of soul. When the soul re-enters the body, the Yoga wakes and is like other people. By repeated exercises the soul can become so strong that is secures perpetual release from the body, thus, according to the older Yoga teaching, it flies to heaven where it enjoys great happiness, riding in a celestial car attended by lovely women and music; but with the latter Yogas, on breaking all bodily bonds it formed immediate absorption into the Supreme Soul.” (Source: NewAdvent.org)
Yoga was introduced to the West in the nineteenth century as part of an Eastern religion craze that was happening. It became particularly popular in America beginning in the 1930’s culminating in the 1960’s with the popularity of Maharishi Mahesh, the Yogi who popularized Transcendental Meditation. You may remember seeing pictures of him with the Beatles, who famously, spent a weekend in his ashram learning about TM.
There is nothing there that we, as Catholics, should be a part of. Unfortunately, yoga is wildly popular in our culture and classes are available in schools, community centers, churches and every fitness center you walk into.
So let’s boil this down. Yoga is a part of the Hindu religion that has expanded to include many New Age beliefs that is disguised as a harmless exercise program. There is no denying that yoga began as a prayer posture to praise and worship various Hindu gods. The postures all have Hindi/Sanskrit names which have great significance in the Hindu religion. The meditation portion of much yoga practice is designed to center people on themselves and to focus their energy on themselves rather than, what we as Catholics should be doing, that is resting in the Holy Spirit. It is a very self-centered practice and one designed, not to bring you closer to God, or even other people, rather closer in to yourself. The first words from a yoga instructor’s mouth will be to tell you to empty your mind. As Christians we are not called upon to seek mindlessness but rather to constantly renew our minds to be able to discern God’s will (Romans 12:2).
In 1999, while serving as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Father Gabriel Amorth issued the document “Some Aspects of Christian Meditation“ in which he warns Catholics about the dangers of eastern practices such as yoga, Zen, and transcendental meditation, saying that these practices have the danger of degenerating “into a cult of the body” that debases Christian prayer.
He also states that yoga poses could create a feeling of well-being in the body which could be confused with “authentic consolations of the Holy Spirit.” (Source: Women of Grace)
Yoga is problematic for Catholics because it makes us very comfortable with a New Age, cult-like practice that serves to draw us away from God. Spiritually it is incredibly harmful if the participant actually starts to fall into the nonsense espoused at many classes. Yoga is always referred to as a “practice”. This is a clear indication that it is a not for Catholics. Witchcraft and Wicca are also are also referred to as practice and everyone knows Catholics should not be joining covens for the interesting meetings. Were yoga truly just exercise it would be called a class or a program. I have never heard anyone call their treadmill a practice or refer to their practice of Zumba. They may brag about surviving it but it does not consist of an entire lifestyle, and a lifestyle yoga is, believe me. A profitable one for many, including that Marharishi, who became yogi to the stars and retired from public life living large on the proceeds of their foolishness.
Many argue that the physical benefits outweigh the spiritual dangers since the exercises are easy to do and build strength and balance. It is at this point that I must confess that I have taken yoga classes myself. I am a big fan of any exercise I can do laying down and yoga seemed like a lazy way to get fit. It is, in fact, pretty strenuous and since I have begun seriously researching the threat to our faith by the insidious arms of the New Age movement I realize how very dangerous the practice of yoga could be to people of faith. My own experience bears that out.
I had taken a few hot yoga classes (called Bikram yoga) and I didn’t really get into it because it was expensive and the class was at 6:00 am and I hate getting up early. Then I joined a gym (a popular chain) and noticed they gave yoga classes. The first class I took was given by a nice lady who merely guided us through the exercises, using meaningless to me, English names for them, focusing on strength and posture. I was impressed enough by the workout to show up for another class a few days later. This was taught by a man who had obviously bought the whole spiritual nonsense behind the practice and was not shy about showing it. He “OM’d” which is, I later found out, a sacred incantation to the god Omkara, he burned sage and waved it around and he spoke the Hindu names. He had a little gong that he hit an chanted to, it was very disturbing to me. I was outta there, long before the class ended. I have to tell you it was the creepiest feeling I had ever had and I was uncomfortable until I went to confession. I felt as if I were under spiritual attack while in that room with that man and whenever I see him I get the same creeped out feeling. I still go to that gym although I don’t take those classes anymore. I mostly work out alone now.
There is no physical benefit to be had from yoga that you could not achieve in any well run exercise class. All good excerise should begin and end with stretching and every trainer out there will focus on balance and building muscle tone. You could derive the same benefits from most classes given at most gyms without the whole “OM” praying to a Hindu god thing.
It is particularly important that young people, especially young women, be told that this is not a practice that will feed them spiritually. Like many New Age practices it is pretty and comfortable and given in lovely surroundings with nice music playing. It feels happy to be in a yoga studio and young people, whose lives are so frenetically paced, might find solace in such surroundings. The fact is that there are parts of the yoga movement which are actually cults that prey upon the young and uncatechized, stealing their time, money and eventually their souls. We must guard them against this, a difficult task, since it is so prevalent.
Not helping is the recent popularity of the book by Elizabeth Gilbert; Eat, Pray, Love which has young women seeking the kind of self centered peace that the author achieves in her narcissistic memoir. The power of her message is so compelling that, Julia Roberts, a Catholic, converted to Hindu while filming the movie version and had her children renamed with Hindu names. Seriously. This is such a shame and indicative of the culture we live in. It also does not speak well of Ms. Roberts intellect. Sorry Julia but people who jump into a religion because of an Oprah book club selection don’t impress me as being all that cerebral.
While the devout Catholic is probably not going to come to any harm going to a yoga class the question we must ask ourselves is why take the risk that the muck of a few thousand years of heresy settles in your soul? Especially when a good aerobics class will do your body just as much good.