FEBRUARY 20, 2014
What is yoga? A Catholic perspective
From: Catholic Spiritual Direction <firstname.lastname@example.org> Sent: Wed, 19 Feb 2014 15:34:35
What is Yoga? A Catholic Perspective (Part I)
By Fr. Ezra Sullivan O.P., a Dominican friar of the Province of St. Joseph, 141 East 65th Street, New York, New York 10065
Tel: (212)-737-5757 Fax: (212)861-4216 February 19, 2014
Yoga is hands-down — toes-up — one of the most popular forms of exercise in the world, including the United States.
It is also controversial, eliciting strong reactions from enthusiasts and denouncers alike. Among Christians, perhaps the most commonly-heard question is, “Can I practice yoga?” or, said with a different emphasis, “I can practice yoga, right?” With a nod to modern practicality, in order to do justice to the question as well as to the questioner, we ought to consider a number of different issues.
This series is meant to address these issues head on, beginning with the nature of yoga and ending with a discussion of how Christians can exercise their souls and pray with their bodies. St. John tells us that we should not believe every spirit, but to test them to see if they are from God (1 John 4:1). It’s going to be an enlightening experience, so set your intention and come join us as we explore yoga from a Catholic perspective. -Editor
I – What is Yoga?
There is something funny about yoga. It is one of those things that can prompt double-speak, as I have found over and over again. Here is a typical conversation:
“So, Father, what do you think about yoga?” someone will ask.
“Well, I have some misgivings about it,” I’ll say.
“But what’s wrong with yoga,” they will press. “It’s just exercise.”
“Then why not try Pilates?*” I reply.
“I wanted something more holistic, something that focuses on body and soul. I like yoga because it’s spiritual too.”
“Then it’s more than physical exercise.”
To get beyond this impasse in the Tibetan peaks and valleys of conversation, let’s begin by analyzing a portrait of the typical yoga practitioner.
A 2012 Yoga in America study shows that 20.4 million Americans practice yoga. This was an increase of 29% since 2008. In addition, 44.4 percent of Americans could identify as “aspirational yogis”—folks interested in trying yoga. Among these millions, the most common yoga enthusiast is a youngish, upper-middle class woman.
Yoga is a thriving industry: practitioners spend ten to twenty billion dollars a year on yoga classes and products, including equipment, clothing, vacations, and media.
In and around the popularity of yoga stretches and twists, a vocal portion of the population nevertheless regards yoga as a way to become spiritually bent out of shape. Questions and misgivings arise, and people begin to wonder: what is this thing that some of my friends practice and so many celebrities preach – what is this thing called yoga?
At first glance, yoga is simply a great form of exercise. The top five reasons for starting yoga are: to improve flexibility, to aid general conditioning, to further stress relief, to improve overall health, and to promote physical fitness.
Doctors and practitioners both agree that, when practiced moderately, yoga can strengthen a person, help her lose weight, and give her more energy. It is also often associated with positive emotional well-being: because yoga calms the body, it often soothes the feelings. Adding on to the individual benefits, there are often attractive cultural aspects of yoga: it helps people meet beautiful people, so that they can become more beautiful themselves; it is often convenient; at a base level, it doesn’t hurt the wallet.
Yoga, however, is more than a physical exercise with social benefits.
One indication of yoga’s spiritual nature is the way it affects practitioners over time. The International Journal of Yoga published the results of a national survey in Australia.
Physical postures (asana) comprised about 60% of the yoga they practiced; 40% was relaxation (savasana), breathing techniques (pranayama), meditation, and instruction. The survey showed very significant results: although most respondents commonly began yoga for reasons of physical health, they usually continued it for reasons of spirituality. In addition, the more people practiced yoga, the more likely they were to decrease their adherence to Christianity and the more likely they were to adhere to non-religious spirituality and Buddhism.
In other words, whatever their intentions may have been, many people experience yoga as a gateway to a spirituality disconnected from Christ.
Doing justice to the complete nature of yoga, therefore, requires a more well-rounded definition: “A comprehensive system of human culture, physical, moral, and [psychological], and acting as a doorway on to the gently sloping paths that gradually lead up to yoga proper,” that is, the spirituality of yoga founded in Hinduism.
Its aim is to control the body and the various forms of vital energy, with a view of overcoming physical impediments standing in the way of other, spiritual, forms of Yoga. Its object is to ensure a perfect balance between the organic functions. Its ultimate goal and true end is to prepare man for the acquisition of that repose of spirit necessary for the realization of the “Supreme”, or for “experiencing the Divine.”
Yoga’s religious and spiritual end is often forgotten or denied in a Western context; most people see it simply as a physical form of exercise. Such a simplification is unwarranted and dangerous. As we will see, reducing yoga to a mere beautifying technique frequently creates ugly effects.
Editors Note: We work hard to keep the posts and the comboxes of this site charitable, constructive, and faithful to the Church. If you disagree or struggle with the conclusions of this series and would like to engage to learn more, we wholeheartedly welcome your constructive comments and questions. However, comments that lack charity, attempt to advance teachings that contradict those proposed by the Church, or provide similar links to other sites, will either be edited or deleted. Please review our FAQ page to ensure you understand our comment policies.
 For the following statistics, see http://blogs.yogajournal.com/yogabuzz/2012/12/new-study-find-more-than-20-million-yogis-in-u-s.html. And http://www.statisticbrain.com/yoga-statistics/
 The majority of today’s yoga practitioners (62.8 percent) fall within the age range of 18-44. Women compose 82.2 % of the cohort. 68% of all yoga practitioners make more than $75,000 a year.
 Penman, Cohen, Stivens, and Jackson, “Yoga in Australia: Results of a National Survey.” Int J Yoga. 2012 Jul-Dec; 5(2): 92–101. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3410203/. The typical Australian yoga practitioner of yoga is comparable to the American parallel: typically a 41 years old, tertiary educated, employed, health-conscious female (85% female).
 J.-M. Déchanet, Christian Yoga (New York: Harper, 1960), 31.
Art: Yogin with Six Chakras, India, Punjab Hills, Kangra, late 1700s, National Museau, PD-US, PD-India, PD-Art; Bhyragai [Vairagya] and 1. Pooruck Pranaiyam [Puraka pranayama]. 2. Kumbuck [Kumbhaka]. 3. Raichuck [Recaka] (Mirror Image), both Day & Son Lithographer, 1851, PD-US; all Wikimedia Commons.
What is Yoga? A Catholic Perspective (Part II)
By Fr. Ezra Sullivan O.P., a Dominican friar of the Province of St. Joseph, 141 East 65th Street, New York, New York 10065
Tel: (212)-737-5757 Fax: (212)861-4216 February 19, 2014
In the first post
on Yoga, we explored studies that showed a couple of important facts: Consistent practice of Yoga is correlated with a diminishment of Christian belief. Practitioners typically begin Yoga for physical reasons but stick with it for spiritual reasons. We concluded with a basic definition of Yoga: Yoga is both a comprehensive system of human culture—physical, moral, and psychological—and it acts as a doorway on to the gently sloping paths that gradually lead up to Yoga proper, that is, the spirituality of Yoga rooted in Hinduism.
In this post we will take a look at the Hindu foundations of Yoga in light of the gods found therein. St. John tells us that we should not believe every spirit, but test them to see if they are from God (cf 1 John 4:1). It’s going to be an enlightening experience, so set your intention and come join us as we explore Yoga from a Catholic perspective. -Editor
Part II – The gods of Yoga
I’m not much of an exercise person. The practice of pumping iron or toning my body with a machine has never excited me: it seemed meaningless at best and slightly narcissistic at worst. This is one of the reasons why Yoga appealed to me. It seemed to be exercise with a real meaning. What I didn’t expect was what that meaning actually is.
The word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit yuj, which indicates “to yoke together,” “union,” “to join, to bind.”
Someone who practices Yoga as a way of life is called a yogin or a yogi. Because Yoga indicates binding, we must ask: what does Yoga bind us to?
My jaw almost hit the floor when I found the answer.
To learn about Yoga, at first I avoided classes and went to a local bookstore. I wasn’t ready to squeeze into Yoga pants. The first paperback I purchased, chosen almost at random, was full of helpful photos of postures along with explanations and commentary. It explained what Yoga “yokes” or “binds” us to: Hindu divinity or divinities. “Awaken the goddess within,” it suggested. Frightening for me as a Christian and as a male. It also invited me to consider Ganesh, the “loveable” elephant-headed god, along with his friends who populate India’s pantheon. That sounds pagan, I thought. So I set the book aside and looked elsewhere. To my dismay, I discovered in a local Yoga studio something that confirmed the book’s approach: a little bronze statue of a Hindu god, presiding over the people within. It was too much even for this California boy.
Was my experience typical?
Clearly not every book on yoga promotes Hindu gods, and not every Yoga class has pagan statuary. But many do. The classical Yoga tradition argues that all Yoga should associate with the gods of India. In order to understand why this is the case, we must uncover the Hindu roots of Yoga.
For Westerners who like everything, including religion, neat and tidy, boxed up and labeled, sitting on a shelf ready for inspection from a discerning customer, Hinduism poses difficulties. “What we think of as one religion,” one writer notes, “is a multifarious collection of sects, traditions, beliefs, and practices that evolved from the Vedas, the world’s oldest sacred texts, and took shape across the vast Indian subcontinent over the course of many centuries.”
There is real difficulty in pinning down a precise doctrine of universal Hindu belief because “Hinduism has no central authority, no founding figure, no historical starting point, no single creed or canonical doctrine, and many holy books rather than one.” Because of this, Hinduism has been called “the world’s largest disorganized religion.”
Nevertheless, Hindus have generally recognized six principle schools that represent authentic developments of the Vedic scriptures. Yoga is one of them.
Yoga, along with the religious beliefs and practices sheltered under the large umbrella called “Hindu,” honors many gods. “Hinduism is a perfect polytheism,” says a highly-respected scholar. In a real sense, this can also apply to Yoga. The gods are the ultimate gurus of Yoga.
Shiva has prominence among the gods of Yoga. He is the “patron” of all Yoga practitioners: “He is the deity of yogins par excellence and is often depicted as a yogin.” Around his neck is a serpent, symbolizing his power over death; on his forehead is a third eye, through which he gains mystical vision and knowledge. His drumbeat is said to create the OM which reverberates in the heart and throughout the universe. In some depictions Shiva assumes the lotus posture in deep meditation. In other cases Shiva juggles fire while he dances with one foot in the air, indicating release from “earthly bondage.”
Some traditions include Shiva in a Hindu triad or trinity of gods, with Brahman as the “creator”, Vishnu as the “sustainer” or “preserver.” Shiva is said to be “the destroyer,” the one who annihilates the illusions of the ego and therefore gains liberation into ultimate reality:
While of course many Hindu deities are associated with different paths of yoga and meditation, in Shiva the art of meditation takes its most absolute form. In meditation, not only mind is stopped, everything is dropped.
Vishnu is another important god for Yoga; he is said to preserve and maintain the cosmic order dharma. Like Shiva, he is depicted with blue skin and four arms and is accompanied by serpents. It is said that Vishnu was incarnate nine times, the last two being the most significant: as Krishna and Buddha. Here I will focus on Krishna.
The Bhagavad-Gita, part of an ancient Hindu religious epic, portrays Krishna as the perfect Yoga guru to his disciple, the human hero Arjuna. Chapter 6 of the Gita contains material that would be familiar to many modern Yoga practitioners. Krishna defines Yoga negatively as “renunciation” of illusion and positively as “yoking oneself to the Supreme Consciousness” (6:2). For him, a yogin is one “established in self-realization” (6:8). Through elevating himself through his own mind (6:5), a Yoga practitioner attains the abode of Krishna, perfect happiness, “by cessation of material existence” (6:15). The means to acquire this is by practicing control of the body, mind, and activity with specific postures and meditation techniques (6:11-18).
The Yoga goddesses should not be neglected in our account. Here we can turn to the chief goddess, Shakti or Durga, known under different aspects.
Shakti is seen as the divine force that destroys evil and restores balance: she “represents the cosmic energy of destruction of the ego, which stands in the way of spiritual growth and ultimate liberation.” In some instances, Shakti assumes the role of Parvati, the energy and consort of Shiva; in other instances, the role of Lakshmi, the energy and consort of Vishnu. The most fearsome role Shakti plays is as Kali, the “Dark Mother” goddess, who, standing naked, wears a garland of skulls around her neck and a belt of heads around her waist, wielding a bloody sword and clutching a severed head. It is not uncommon for Yoga teachers to recommend tapping into this feminine-divine source of empowerment. Here is one account:
Ellen is a medical student, and thinks of herself as a rational person who doesn’t go in for mystical experiences. But one day as she closed her eyes and relaxed in Savasana, Ellen felt a powerful maternal energy around her and “saw” the Hindu goddess Durga, whose picture graced the yoga studio’s back wall. For a moment, the many-armed goddess’s face lingered in front of her, looking alive and full of compassionate love. Then the image disappeared—though the sweet, strong energy stayed with Ellen for hours.
Later Ellen asked Sally what the experience might mean. Sally replied: “Just sit in meditation and ask the Durga energy to be with you. Then notice how you feel.” This is what Sally calls “deity yoga,” which she claims “isn’t specific to the Hindu tradition.” She says it could be practiced by anyone interested in Yoga, even Christians.
Is Sally right?
What are we to make of the pantheon of Yoga gods?
It seems to me that there are four basic positions:
1. The gods and goddesses do not actually exist. They are only metaphors, imaginative fables meant to inspire the Yoga practitioner. Some people may believe this, but I think it is insufficient and reductive; it does not adequately explain the cultural and experiential data available.
2. They do exist and are benevolent: they may be invoked in order to obtain energy, power, good fortune, etc. This is the position of a number of simple Hindu believers.
3. They do exist but are evil, and should not be invoked. This is the position of traditional Christianity (and perhaps Islam and Judaism). “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image; you shall not bow down to them or serve them” (Exodus 20:2-5).
4. They do exist, but not in the way one might imagine. They are all manifestations of the one supreme being, the all-encompassing reality, which one could call “God.” This is the position of the more developed understanding of Hinduism, an understanding that has been adopted by Yoga.
In our next post we will explore the last position: that the gods exist, not in themselves, but as manifestations, personifications, or realizations of the divinity.
 Mircea Eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), 4.
 Philip Goldberg, American Veda (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2010), 3.
 See Georg Feuerstein, The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice, 3rd Ed. (Chino Valley, AZ: Hohm Press, 2008), 72-78.
 Jean Varenne, Yoga and the Hindu Tradition, trans. Derek Coltman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 26.
 Feuerstein, The Yoga Tradition, 84.
 http://www.sanatansociety.org/hindu_gods_and_goddesses/shiva.htm#.UvpGMLQkgf8 For a retelling of the Shiva legend, see Sadhguru, “Yoga Originated from Shiva”, The Times of India 19 March, 2009. http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2009-03-19/vintage-wisdom/28031005_1_shiva-yoga-intimacy
 Feuerstein, The Yoga Tradition, 87.
Art: Ganesh Idol from Belgaum, Karnataka, 10 September 2013, Kirti Krishna Badkundri, CC, Wikimedia Commons; Shiva (A Gopuram in Karnataka), 23 May 2012, Foliate08, CC; “Vishnu in his form as Pandharinatha or Vithoba worshipped at Pandharpur (Maharashtra). He stands facing to the front, blue-skinned, naked to the waist, wearing a jeweled yellow skirt, royal jewellery and a conical crown. He also wears a garland of tulsi flowers. He is four armed – two hands rest on his hips, whilst the other two hold a disc and a conch (the symbols of Vishnu)”, 1820-1825, author unknown, PD copyright expired; Krishna [Rasamañjarî-Manuskript des Bhânudatta (Erotische Abhandlung), Szene: Liebhaber], ca 1690, PD-Worldwide; idol of goddess Lakshmi Devi, in the temple at Hebbal (N) near Mouje Nandgad, District Belgaum, Karnataka, India, 2 January 2008, own work, Rajivhk; Kali (Shyama at a Sarbojanin Kali Puja pandal at Shakespeare Sarani), Kolkata, 2010, own work, Jonoikobangali, CC; Sculpture of goddess Durga at Durga temple, Burdwan, 3 October 2011, own work, Joydeep, CC; all Wikimedia Commons.
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