Are Yoga and Catholicism Compatible?

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Is it possible to practice yoga as a faithful Catholic?(photo source)

I struck out to find the Catholic Church’s official teaching on yoga, and found some information from the Vatican, some views from Christianity, and a lot of folks’ opinions along the way.

Is Yoga a Pagan Hindu Religious Practice or Just Exercise?

If one is to discuss this subject with any degree of intelligence, one must first determine if the physical motions of yoga can be separated from the spirituality that often comes with it, and which may be the foundation of the practice in Eastern religions.

It is clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that any dabbling in New Age or Hindu religious practice, any opening up of oneself to “Gaia” or Mother Nature or centering one’s soul with the collective consciousness or connecting with the earth, is counter to the Christian faith. Any practice that worships a pagan god, a god of “nature” or a god within oneself is intrinsically evil and against Christianity, where there is one God and one God only.

The fundamental question when a person of Christian faith asks, “Can I do yoga?” is whether this tree pose necessarily worships a foreign god in the sun, sky or otherwise, regardless of the heart of the person, or whether it is just an exercise in balance and control, one that my 5-year-old son just identified as, “Is that ice skating, or what?”

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(photo source)

Yoga: Sinful or Just Fearful?

A sin is an act of the will, and to sin requires full knowledge of sin as well as full intent. If one’s intent is to exercise, and nothing more, and one guards one’s heart against the sort of yoga that would draw a soul away from God and open it to paganism, can there be sin? Can there really be an opportunity to give the devil a foothold?

To be so against yoga embodies a spirit of fear. Must we be fearful of anything in the world that is not explicitly of God? Must we remove ourselves from the culture to guard our faith and practice it properly (and safely)? Pope John Paul II would say no. He often talked of the importance of being “in but not of the world” in his encouragement to the “new evangelization” of faith.

We cannot share our faith with people we never encounter, and we cannot connect with people outside the world of the Church if we cannot understand the culture in which we live. We are called to live in the culture, while at the same time remaining above the culture in our faith and morals.

We can’t be afraid of falling into sin on accident, especially if it causes us to remove ourselves from a world which so desperately needs our faith. A world which desperately needs to receive our faith shared, in love, from people who can see eye to eye with them.

In The Bearer of the Water of Life, the pontifical councils say, “The beginning of the Third Millennium offers a real kairos for evangelisation. People’s minds and hearts are already unusually open to reliable information on the Christian understanding of time and salvation history. Emphasising what is lacking in other approaches should not be the main priority. It is more a question of constantly revisiting the sources of our own faith, so that we can offer a good, sound presentation of the Christian message. We can be proud of what we have been given on trust, so we need to resist the pressures of the dominant culture to bury these gifts (cf. Mt 25.24-30).”

I am not afraid of yoga. It has no power over me. I choose to believe in the power of God’s grace, to root myself in prayer, to trust that God is so much bigger than an exercise and never allows Satan control over His people, unless they choose evil.

I believe that our bodies are created for good, to image God, to demonstrate His love. I also know that any creation can be used for good or for evil. A body can be used to embrace a loved one or strike someone in anger. A body can be used to toil to support a family or plunder time away at a casino. A body can be used to image the trinitarian love of God in the marriage embrace or in the exact same action, to stain two souls in an act of extramarital lust and spit in the face of God’s beautiful plan. (See the reflections on the Theology of the Body, here for Lent.)

A body can be used to worship God, and a body can be used to worship Satan, but the difference is in the intent, in the act of will. It is not the action that defines the intent, but the intent that defines the soul and guides the action.

That’s my honest evaluation of the whole issue. But more importantly, here is what I found in my research so you can begin your own informed, prayerful discernment process.

Arguments Against Yoga from a Catholic Perspective

Here are some of the resources and thoughts I was sent to and found myself:

  • You simply cannot separate the movements from the meditation; any pagan practice opens yourself to demonic influence.
  • An analogy from this site: if an atheist took Eucharist, the true Body of Christ, and simply said “I don’t believe it,” it’s still real and he still blasphemes the Body. We can’t just say “I don’t believe it” or “I’m thinking of God” and practice yoga safely. “Yoga is by its very nature a Hindu religious practice. Yoga is not primarily about limbering up the body; it is about using physical means to achieve a spiritual end. So the question of separating the physical from the spiritual in Yoga is really a contradiction in terms.
  • This short article is by Fr. John Hardon, of whom I’ve known for years and do greatly respect, but he really only addresses the spiritual form of yoga. “Although the psychic element is far more important in yoga than the body, the latter is more characteristic of this method of Hindu liberation. Its purpose is to secure the best disposition of body for the purpose of meditation. The practice begins with a simple device for deep and slow breathing.” Fr. Hardon goes on to describe yoga practices of meditation, but I don’t see a clear argument against doing a posture without entering into the mindset.
  • Finally this Catholic TV show with a priest as a guest puts forth many points, including:
    • Yoga cannot fit with Christianity – we live in a world of relativism where people think they can make true whatever they believe. If you say ìI can do the exercises of yoga and not believe that it’s leading to me “god” and then it’s not true or not harmful,î then the world tell you it’s all good. However, that would be like an atheist taking Eucharist and saying “I don’t believe it’s the body of Christ so it’s not,” and that’s not true. (Katie here: I can’t get behind this analogy. The Eucharist is an entity, a physical thing changed miraculously into the Body of Christ. If an atheist eats a bowl of unconsecrated hosts for breakfast, it may be weird, but not sacrilegious. It is the transubstantiation, which cannot be done on accident, that makes the Eucharist holy. If a consecrated host falls on the ground by accident, we make reparation for the disrespect to Christ. Our bodies, however, are created for many purposes, both good and ill. More on that below)
    • Practitioners and teachers of yoga especially are often afflicted with demonic spirits, etc. Not everyone, but it’s like playing Russian roulette, and we’re not called to do that with our faith.
    • Sometimes demons come in b/c we’ve opened the door, even if we don’t think we’ve invited them in. Fr. Gabriel, the exorcist in Rome, speaks unabashedly that Catholics cannot do yoga, that it’s dangerous stuff.
    • Stretching exercises are a dime a dozen and they all work; you don’t need something that opens yourself to potential temptation.

Arguments for Yoga

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(photo source)

The yoga I have done personally has been in two places: one at a studio that was certainly New Age and often made me think, “Well, this is frou frou junk, mother earth and all that. Better pray to the real God instead.” I imagined myself teaching Christian yoga instead of the transcendental nonsense my ears were filled with. Would I go back there? No.

The yoga I’ve done most recently was via P90X videos with Tony Horton, the buff guy making men in the armed forces kill their abs in the photo above. He says yoga is essential for flexibility and overall fitness and highly recommends it, but he’s much more likely to talk about not eating butter in your mashed potatoes or “standing on your tippy toes” than he is a heart center or a collective consciousness. He’s no Hindu shaman, believe me.

That’s my background, and here are my thoughts on Catholicism and yoga:

  • Many practices have been shifted from or shared with pagan religions and made holy: the Rosary (using strings of beads to count prayers was Hindu and Buddhist long before the 13th century when Mary taught us to use it), fasting, meditation, ritual sacrifice (for Old Testament Jews), holidays and traditions like a Christmas tree and countless others that we’ve commandeered and made holy. Just because a pagan does it does not automatically make a practice or movement intrinsically evil; why can’t a Christian simply focus on God while doing yoga?
  • Any motion can be done without intent – my kids can genuflect and it means nothing, if I haven’t taught them correctly. How many people enter a church and just go through the motions? Are they more holy because they did the motions or less holy because they were at church and not focused on God?
  • Although our bodily posture certainly can affect our prayer, can deepen its impact within ourselves, can demonstrate honor and respect, posture is not necessary for prayer. I pray in my car. I pray while walking. I pray while kneeling. I pray while lying in bed. No form of prayer is necessarily deeper, more powerful, or more effective than another based solely on posture, but it is the focus of my mind, my soul’s communion with God, how intensely I am praying, and how open I am to God’s work in me that makes the difference.

Catholic Church Teaching and Documents that Mention Yoga

Here is the important part of the post, where I find the only stuff that counts for beans when asking what God wants us to do. Clearly one cannot find yoga in the Scriptures, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church also came up empty on the subject itself. The closest I could find is this:

  • Mention of the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me,” which of course disallows the religious practice of yoga, but I still can’t tell if we can do the exercise without the turning of the heart.
  • Superstition, idolatry, divination and magic are all forbidden (2111-2117). The Ouija board is clearly included in divination, because its sole purpose is to ask about the future and nothing else. I was trying to find a direct link between the occult practice of Ouija and yoga, and I just can’t make any analogies quite work.
  • “Many martyrs died for not adoring “the Beast” refusing even to simulate such worship.” If we do a sun salutation or a downward dog, are we adoring Satan in our posture?

The document most related to the practice of yoga and its effect on the Catholic faith is called “Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life,” a Christian Reflection on the “New Age” from the Pontifical Council for Culture and Interreligious Dialogue, found here. Many use the fact that it mentions yoga in a footnote as one of the Eastern religions in question to prove that yoga is intrinsically evil and should not be dabbled in.

However, a thorough reading of the entire document demonstrates that the Church is concerned about Catholics being swayed by the New Age theory that “recognizes no spiritual authority higher than personal inner experience.” Again, I simply cannot pinpoint a section that prohibits the exercise of yoga as exercise. Some key points include:

  • “Some stages on the way to self-redemption are preparatory (meditation, body harmony, releasing self-healing energies). Psychology is used to explain mind expansion as ìmysticalî experiences. Yoga, zen, transcendental meditation and tantric exercises lead to an experience of self-fulfilment or enlightenment. Peak-experiences (reliving one’s birth, travelling to the gates of death, biofeedback, dance and even drugs ñ anything which can provoke an altered state of consciousness) are believed to lead to unity and enlightenment.” (I definitely didn’t participate in any of THAT nonsense when I did yoga!)
  • “It is difficult to separate the individual elements of New Age religiosity ñ innocent though they may appear ñ from the overarching framework which permeates the whole thought-world on the New Age movement. The gnostic nature of this movement calls us to judge it in its entirety. From the point of view of Christian faith, it is not possible to isolate some elements of New Age religiosity as acceptable to Christians, while rejecting others. Since the New Age movement makes much of a communication with nature, of cosmic knowledge of a universal good ñ thereby negating the revealed contents of Christian faith ñ it cannot be viewed as positive or innocuous.” (This is the closest I come to being convinced that we cannot separate the movements of yoga from its religiosity. But. Read on.)
  • Some practices are incorrectly labeled as New Age simply as a marketing strategy to make them sell better, but are not truly associated with its worldview. This only adds to the confusion. It is therefore necessary to accurately identify those elements which belong to the New Age movement, and which cannot be accepted by those who are faithful to Christ and his Church.” (Here we go. Is most secular yoga simply a New Age marketing gig and not at all related to the paganism found in true New Age practices?)
  • The following questions may be the easiest key to evaluating some of the central elements of New Age thought and practice from a Christian standpoint. ìNew Ageî refers to the ideas which circulate about God, the human being and the world, the people with whom Christians may have conversations on religious matters, the publicity material for meditation groups, therapies and the like, explicit statements on religion and so on. Some of these questions applied to people and ideas not explicitly labeled New Age would reveal further unnamed or unacknowledged links with the whole New Age atmosphere.” (The key to asking the question: is the practice of yoga for exercise, without the Hindu or pantheistic viewpoints, really related to any of the points listed above? I certainly don’t think so. Yoga fits better into the following category:
  • There is no problem with learning how to meditate, but the object or content of the exercise clearly determines whether it relates to the God revealed by Jesus Christ, to some other revelation, or simply to the hidden depths of the self.” (It’s all about intent of heart!)

Last Words

When mentioning yoga, it would seem important to counsel folks away from the very spiritual yoga teachers and at least mention its pagan foundations with a caution not to participate in the soul-opening sense of the practice, just the exercise. Is it possible that, especially for those more shaky in their faith, that the practice of yoga could be a slippery slope into loss of faith? Could just doing it for exercise, particularly if the teacher is spouting all the ìone with natureî and ìsoul-centeringî and whatnot, give Satan a foothold into one’s mind, even if they don’t think it will?

Catholicism is a faith that requires total allegiance to the magisterium (the pope) on matters of faith and morals. If and when the Vatican says that yoga goes against our faith, I would stop doing it, renounce any of this post, and write a rousing argument against yoga being practiced anywhere outside a Hindu temple. But I’m just not seeing it right now.

There is not an official, faith and morals based, Catholic Church teaching on practicing yoga. Many holy priests and holy people can all weigh in, but the fact remains that yoga is a matter for an individual to discern how it affects them.

Yes, practicing yoga could be a sin. Yes, practicing yoga could be a pathway down which one could fall into pagan worship and away from God. However, doing a yoga pose is not an automatic pathway to Hell.

One must use Catholic teaching about the spirit to make certain that they’re using their body and mind for the purpose of seeking holiness and not seeking spiritual enlightenment, oneness with nature, or opening their heart to anything other than the Lord, who is God.

Be a person of prayer, remain in a state of grace, and let us focus our prayers on the salvation of souls and the good of the world. May we turn our minds to Eastern religions only to pray for the Light of Christ to shine in the East, particularly in Japan, where there are so many more dire physical and spiritual needs than in an American yoga studio.

Time to weigh in: do I even need to ask what you think of all this information? Can a Christian person practice yoga for exercise without putting their immortal soul at risk?

This article was originally published in full form here at Kitchen Stewardship. Check out the 150 comments if you want a little more debate!

Copyright 2011 Katie Kimball

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