20 FEBRUARY/25 MAY 2014
What is yoga? A Catholic perspective
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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 January 29, 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.
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 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., 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 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.
Are Yoga gods Divine Manifestations? A Catholic Perspective (Part III)
By Fr. Ezra Sullivan O.P., May 7, 2014
In the first post we discussed “What is Yoga?” In the second post, we learned about the Hindu roots of Yoga. We found that there are certain Hindu gods that have been understood to play a role in teaching and promoting Yoga. We looked at Shiva, Vishnu, and Shakti, and said hello to Ganesh. The post concluded by noting four different positions on how to understand the gods of Yoga:
The gods don’t exist; they are mere fables.
The gods do exist; they are good and can be helpful to us.
The gods do exist; they are evil and can harm us.
The gods do exist, but only as personifications or manifestations of the divine, Supreme Reality.
Here we will discuss claim number 4, since this is the understanding adopted by the general Yoga tradition that continues even in our day. 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.
The ancient philosopher Aristotle famously said that the human is a being who desires to know. Wonder is not merely a Western attitude, he asserted: it is a human impulse. It is natural to us. In this light, it is perfectly reasonable to ask about the nature of Yoga. The thing is, when I talk with practitioners about it and try to figure out its deeper meaning, I often receive messages like this one:
The most important thing is to practice Yoga. We can discuss the theory for hours and hours. But it’s best to practice and then decide. Change your clothes, open your mind, and fix your attention while performing the postures and pranayama.
The more I investigate Yoga, the more I realize that this advice is not simply saying, “Try it and see if you like it.” It reveals the essence of the Yoga. It is saying that experience is more important than understanding, practice is more important than prudence. In other words, the mind of Yoga is: “Never mind.” Let’s see what this means and why it matters.
One of the central problems of an essential philosophy common in India concerns the relation between illusion, temporality, and human suffering.  The goal of all Indian philosophies and techniques, especially Yoga, is liberation from these. Liberation entails, not merely relief from physical suffering such as a sore back, but emancipation from the suffering that comes from existing in this world. You can transcend the suffering that comes from karma, the law of universal causality, which condemns man to transmigrate through the cosmos. Through Yoga, it is said, you can enter absolute reality, beyond the cosmic illusion, mirage, or unreality known as maya. No longer will you be imprisoned in becoming. You would be united with pure being, the Absolute, known under different names: Brahman (the unconditioned, immortal, transcendent); atman (ultimate self); nirvana.
Recall that Yoga means “union” or “to bind together.” In a previous post, I asked, what does Yoga bind us to? A preliminary answer was supplied: to the Hindu gods, who teach Yoga techniques. Another answer, however, is as follows. Yoga is meant to bind a person to ultimate reality. The system of Yoga teaches the individual how to be yoked or indissolubly united to that Universal Absolute (Brahman) and to become undifferentiated from it.
Isn’t this a contradiction? Does Yoga unite us to Hindu gods or to the Absolute?
Here we should distinguish between two forms of Hinduism, namely:
i) A popular level of Hinduism and
ii) A higher level of philosophical and religious Hinduism.
According to the popular level, believed in by the masses for the most part, the world is populated by tens of thousands (or is it millions?) of gods and goddesses, myriads of genies, demons, and evil spirits. Those spiritual beings are propitiated and can be manipulated with sacrifices along with Yoga practices and disciplines. In this respect, Hinduism bears features that are common in most other pagan religions, including those of Greece and Rome. If it accepts Jesus, it is because it sees him as one god among many.
According to the higher level, the spirit beings are illusions. Instead of renouncing the gods, this philosophy redefines them. They are considered different aspects of the one supreme Absolute, which some Hindus refer to as “God.” This Brahman or God — it must be emphasized — is not God in the Judeo-Christian sense. It has no personality. It is not the One Creator, distinct from the universe, who created humans in order to have a personal relationship with them. It is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is not Jesus Christ, God Incarnate. Or rather, according to this point of view, it is Jesus and it isn’t — at the same time. It is as much Jesus as it is Vishnu, because both are representations or instantiations of the supreme reality, the impersonal Absolute existence, of which each human is a part, that permeates everything.
From the perspective of the higher, more subtle Hindu thought, Yoga’s role is to help the practitioner to be dissolved into this “higher reality.” B.K.S. Iyengar, the renowned Yoga practitioner and theorist, explains it this way: “Dualities like gain and loss, victory and defeat, fame and shame, body and mind, mind and soul vanish through mastery of the asanas [Yoga postures].”
This is the doctrine of monism. It claims that there are no distinctions among things, that all is one and every difference is a harmful illusion, holding a person back from perfection. Once a person masters Yoga, “He is then free from birth and death, from pain and sorrow and becomes immortal. He has no self-identity as he lives experiencing the fullness of the Universal Soul.”
This is supreme ego-centrism under the guise of self-realization. “I am Brahman!” the Yoga practitioner can exult; “I am GOD; I am ALL!” But they should equally declare, “I am NO ONE. I am ILLUSION.”
People often claim they’ve “found themselves” through Yoga. What an irony. If they looked deeper, Yoga would tell them that they’ve found nothing.
In my next post, I will explore how Hatha Yoga, the physical postures and breathing techniques, is meant to help a person achieve union with the Absolute — and what that means for the soul.
Important Editors Note: In past posts on this topic, we have allowed a broad range of discussion and even arguments against the post or testimonial commentary. In this post we will return to our normal approach and that is to teach, from an authentically Catholic perspective. This means that interaction should be constructive and focused on learning and absorbing the content through discussion. All are welcome to engage but please review the
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 See Mircea Eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), xvi-xx.
 B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Yoga (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1966), 42.
 Iyengar, 48.
Art: Yoga Meditation Position, Cornelius383, own work, 25 April 2012, CC; Brahma Preaches to Sages, Ramanarayanadatta astri, PD-US copyright expired; both Wikimedia Commons.
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