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The Exercise of Religion: Yoga

by Susan Brinkmann

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This article by Susan Brinkmann is the tenth in a multi-part series dealing with various New Age philosophies. In this installment the author examines the widely popular practice of yoga and whether or not Catholics may include yoga as part of an exercise program.

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Colorado Catholic Herald

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Diocese of Colorado Springs, November 16, 2007

A question that comes to mind for Catholics when it comes to the practice of yoga is whether it is okay to use yoga as part of an exercise program.

A simple and concise answer to this question was given by the apologists at Catholic Answers.

"Two factors are relevant here: First, it depends on whether the yoga is being presented in a manner that is free of religious elements — that is, purely as a system of physical exercise.

"If it is coupled with elements of Hindu spirituality — talk about moving kundalini, or energy, around your body — it is not appropriate for Catholics to use it as part of their exercise routine."

The reason for that caution is because, in real life, yoga classes often go beyond simple exercise routines. They are likely to be similar to what one blogger describes on Amy Welborn’s popular site, "Open Book":

"I have been practicing yoga for two years now and I absolutely love it!" the blogger states. "Yes, my teacher drops little hints now and then about Hinduism and Buddhism, but nothing overt."

Some yoga instructors, themselves, acknowledge that fact.

"There are so many little seeds of doubt and suggestion that you can plant in a yoga class," said Laurette Willis, a former Hatha yoga instructor who left the practice after a powerful conversion experience.

"I used to do it all the time," Willis said. "That was my opportunity to proselytize. I’d say things like 'All is good — all is God,' or 'get in touch with the god within.'"

This seems to be borne out by Swami Sivasiva Palana writing in the January 1991 issue of Hinduism Today: "A small army of yoga missionaries . . . beautifully trained in the last 10 years, is about to set upon the Western world. They may not call themselves Hindu, but Hindu knows where yoga came from and where it goes."

An adult who is firm in his or her faith might be able to go to an "iffy" yoga exercise class without danger of being attracted to Hindu spirituality, Catholic Answers advises, but notes that not all Catholics are firm in their faith.

That is why the best way to approach yoga is to learn as much as possible about the exercise you are considering in order to make a fully informed decision.

What is Yoga?

According to Iyengar Yoga Resources, yoga comes from the Sanskrit word yuj meaning to yoke or unite.

In India, yoga is considered one of the six branches of classical Hindu philosophy and is referred to in ancient Indian scriptures, the Vedas. Its goal is to reach kaivalya — "ultimate freedom" — by releasing the soul from the chains of cause-and-effect [karma] which tie the person to continual reincarnation. Yoga uses physical exercises, powers of concentration and breathing techniques, as well as meditation, to achieve that end.

Father James Manjackal, a popular retreat master in India, described yoga to Catherine Maria Rhodes of the Catholic Media Coalition in this way: It is a spiritual discipline purporting to lead the soul to samadhi, the state in which the natural and divine become one.

"It is interesting to note that postures and breathing exercises, often considered to be the whole of yoga in the West, are steps three and four towards union with Brahman in the East," Father Manjackal said.

Ignorance of the non-Christian religious disciplines and beliefs that underpin the practice of yoga can lead to further variance from Catholic teachings. In fact, the Vatican document, "Jesus Christ the Bearer of the Water of Life," lists yoga as one of "the traditions that flow into New Age."

According to Johnnette Benkovic, in her book, "The New Age Counterfeit," a number of yoga variations have gained popularity in the United States, including Hatha yoga, which professes salvation through physical exercise, and Japa yoga, which employs the repetitious use of a mantra — often the name of a Hindu god — to create an altered state of mind called pure consciousness or transcendental consciousness. More bizarre forms of yoga include Tantra yoga, which means salvation through sex, and Kundalini yoga, which means salvation through the serpent [life force].

'Christian' yoga?

Many Western yoga practitioners claim yoga transcends religion and can be practiced independent of its Hindu roots — or that it can even be "Christianized," becoming, in effect, "Christian yoga."

But many experts don’t believe such a thing is possible.

"Yoga renamed is still Hindu," said Subhas R. Tiwari, a professor at the Hindu University of America, who holds a master’s degree in yoga philosophy.

Tiwari finds "Christianizing" yoga suspect, as well as wrong-headed. "This effort to extricate yoga from its Hindu mold, and cast it under another name, is far from innocent. Newly minted 'Christian yoga' is really yoga," he said.

"The simple, immutable fact is that yoga originated from the Vedic, or Hindu, culture," Tiwari added. "Its techniques were not ‘adopted’ by Hinduism, but originated from it."

Attempts to 'Christianize' practices that are fundamentally incompatible with Christianity are never successful, says Archbishop Norberto Carrera.

"The result is always a hybrid form with a slight Gospel basis," the archbishop writes in "A Call to Vigilance: Pastoral Instruction on New Age."

"However much proponents insist that these techniques are valuable as methods, and imply no teaching contrary to Christianity," he writes, "the techniques in themselves . . . in their own context, the postures and exercises, are designed for their specific religious purpose.

"Even when they are carried out within a Christian atmosphere, the intrinsic meaning of these gestures remains intact," Archbishop Carrera said.

(This article originally appeared in The Catholic Standard and Times, the Philadalphia archdiocesan newspaper.)


Other articles in this series:

PART I: Popular Movement Is One of the Most Pressing Challenges to Christian Faith

PART II: Divinization: Consulting Psychics and Mediums

PART III: Reiki and Healing Touch

PART IV: The Enneagram: What's Your Number?

PART V: Is Acupuncture Acceptable for Catholics?

PART VI: Bewitched by Wicca

PART VII: Ouija Boards and Tarot Cards

PART VIII: Energy Medicine: Part One — The Science

PART IX: Energy Medicine: Part Two — The Theology

PART X: The Exercise of Religion: Yoga

Ten questions to help you determine 'Christian or New Age?'

© The Catholic Diocese of Colorado Springs

This item 8763 digitally provided courtesy of CatholicCulture.org