There’s been lots of debate over the years regarding Yoga and it’s incongruity with Catholic/Christian philosophies. Some think, reasonably enough, that Yoga is a spiritual practice that is derived from Pagan origins. That’s true. But essentially so is Christmas, All Saints, and Easter to name a few. The question for the catholic is not one of where did this come from, but rather, where can this go?
We often have the unfortunate tendency, not to judge a tree by its fruit as Christ suggests, but we judge trees by their root. I would hope we realize by now that good roots do not necessarily equal good fruit. Conversely, regardless of where the tree had been, it might be an amazing producer at harvest time. The idea that Jesus talks about of the Mulberry Tree in the sea comes immediately to mind. Good fruit, at the end of the day is all we really have to go on. Much like the horse industry here in the Bluegrass of Kentucky, the pedigree doesn’t always win the race, and equally true a horse with little pedigree might become a superstar.
So what does this have to do with the dreadfully pagan Yoga? Well, first please realize there is no prohibition from Catholics participating in the practice. Compare this to the very obvious prohibition of receiving communion in a community outside of the Catholic Church, for instance. The Code of Canon law says the only licit form of communion is within the Church administered by a minister of the Eucharist. This is a very clear delineation because of the importance of the witness the Catholic makes in receiving exclusively in the proper from and matter. This is true of any Sacrament in the Church. Form and matter must always be according to prescription. This prescribed concept of the matter and form echoes the prescription of the Seder Meal as is was prescribed to the Israelites.
So back to Yoga... Prayer, while crucial, is not confined exclusively to the sacraments. If you find yourself getting more focused on your knees in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, then by all means do so. I used to train for half-marathons by praying an entire four volume set of the rosary while running. There was something very connective about focusing on the mysteries of the rosary while pounding the pavement for a couple of hours that made it really connect for me. Nothing says you can’t do this, and nothing says it has to be a certain way in a certain place.
Look at the 1989 document from then Cardinal Ratzinger who would later become Pope Benedict XVI. In his role as the Prefect for the Doctrine of the Faith he took a critical look at Eastern Meditation in this document titled, Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation. Love that title. That’s a marketing dream come true, right there. Everyone is going to read that, right? Well, maybe bishops did in 1989. But few laity even know it exists. So then, then they hear their faithful mass attending Catholic friend tell them that Yoga is a sin, all they know to do is be shamed for thinking it wasn’t.
In this document Cardinal Ratzinger is undoubtedly critical of accepting the tenets of any other spiritual practice and cautions against mistaking the feelings derived from certain movements and postures, which we can only assume meaning Yoga, and mistaking those feeling for some sort of Holy Spirit experience. However, after several more paragraphs, and still no outright mention of Yoga, we see him essentially saying that the benefit derived from Eastern mediation can be of value if we know what we’re doing in our prayer. He mentions the ancient Jesus Prayer of early monasticism, which is a breathing prayer of inhaling and exhaling in union with the thoughts, “Jesus Christ son of the living God, have mercy on me a sinner”. This is meditative, but highly focused on the grace and mercy of God through Jesus that can be incorporated into any breathing prayer, including that of Yoga.
Scripture talks about talking up serpents and not being bitten. Not that I think Yoga to begin with is serpentine like, but this is an example of the faith of a believer being stronger than any outside influence. If we have faith we won’t be bitten by a “new” prayer form, or a spiritual practice, that seems antithetical to Christianity. Why? Because nothing can bite through that type of faith. Now, it’s true we need that kind of faith, but if more faithful Catholics would embrace the concepts of Eastern meditation and posturing in prayer, and of the benefit of that was real growth of self-awareness and mindfulness in the understanding of loving God and loving neighbor, then wouldn’t that essentially “Christianize” anything you do in prayer whether it’s Yoga or a walk in the park? And again, this has been the way Christianity has grown traditionally. We used to do a great job of looking at what the culture had embraced and then embracing it even more with the deeper understanding of why we do what we do.
Look at Halloween that we just celebrated as the perfect example of this. It was in the Fifth-Century when All Saints Day was moved to coincide with the harvest festivals and the pagan celebrations for the God of the harvest. By clearing intimating that the real harvest is the harvest of souls for all eternity we began to Christianize what was previously totally pagan. We see this example as well in the Celtic Cross. The circle behind the cross is the representation of the Sun God of the Druids. This God was superseded through the amazing missionary nuance of St. Patrick. Sure, he could have tried to stop their pagan practices by force, but instead he affirmed them in it and added the deeper understanding of the mercy and grace that the Son of God has to offer.
What if we could do that? What if we could enter into any practice, regardless of how Pagan it is? And by doing so, show that we bring to the table an even deeper experience by connecting the Sun Salutation to the Son of God. Or our Child’s Pose becomes the pose of complete submission, like that of a little child as Jesus says, a Child of God. Our Mountain Top could be like that of a Mt. Tabor. There are so many opportunities to open ourselves to a deeper experience and by doing so offer a real witness that we’re here to connect and experience what others are connected into. Then, instead of being on the outside waiting for others to come to us, we could truly enter in and begin experiencing the love for others that Jesus says is essential to our expressing our love of God.
So, read the document and decide for yourself. But everything is lawful, according to St. Paul. But he does say that not everything is going to lead himself and others to a deeper connection in Christ. But my guess is there’s a lot that could, if we’d only give it the chance to take us, and others, there.