The following is a paper I presented upon completion of spiritual direction training. Due to length it will be divided into several posts. You can read part I here.
It is not surprising, perhaps, that the best physical practice of integrating the body with the soul does not come from within the Western Christian tradition, given the long history of Platonic dualism throughout the church. Yoga is certainly the richest tradition in this area, and a thoroughly explored “applied philosophy,” not just acknowledging the conceptual truth of the body’s place in the soul, but also a tradition that seeks to “discover a resource of practical knowledge that will provide integration of body, mind, and spirit for fulfilling the purpose of life.”12 As well, despite what posh American yoga studios may try to convey, it may be the most approachable practice, physically speaking. There are forms of yoga for people of any age and physical ability. However, many Christians have shied away from yoga despite its growing popularity around the world, and despite the rich spiritual/bodily wisdom it offers.
We cannot discuss integrating yoga into a spiritual life without addressing the fear and denouncement by some Christians against this “New Age” and Eastern practice. Much of the antagonism comes with little knowledge or actual study of yoga, as is often the case with fear-based denouncements. The foreign nature of the practice and its connections with other religions are enough to scare many away. We’ll address a few of those issues before moving the focus to the many positive benefits that yoga can offer.
Yoga is an ancient physical and spiritual tradition historically employed by Hindus, though its origins predate Hinduism. ‘‘Yoga was not ‘made in India,’ it was preserved in India’ … Contrary to popular belief, the practices are not inseparably tied to the concepts peculiar to Hindu theology.”13 In fact, the nature of yoga is better understood as a science or wisdom heritage, rather than a religion, as Swami Rama affirms.14
Yoga, then, is not an Eastern import. It is not a religion, nor an ethnic custom. That its traditional ground for thousands of years has been the Himalayan mountain region was a geographical advantage to its founders and not a boundary to its universality. Yoga remains free of ethnic, religious, political, or social influence. Christianity shares an Eastern origin with yoga and likewise transcends both geographical and cultural boundaries that initially supported it.”15
Thomas Matus’ detailed account of early Indian history concludes with the statement: “The yogi’s quest for perfection was not bound to any particular system of dogmas, whether philosophical or religious.”16 The practice of yoga belongs to the order of means. He argues that yoga is closer to an art or wisdom than a science, comparing yoga to music, with its wide range of styles and forms. Just as music can lead someone deeper into worship or prayer, so can yoga be an effective means of ushering one’s soul into the presence of God.”17 Lest anyone remain unconvinced about the early history of yoga or its place as a practice inseparable with other religions, Tilden Edwards provides a simple and gentle clarification on another level: “What makes a particular practice Christian is not its source, but its intent. If our intent in assuming a particular bodily practice is to deepen our awareness in Christ, then it is Christian. If this is not our intent in any spiritual practice, then even the reading of scripture loses its Christian authenticity.”18
This may not be enough for some. Some people just may not be in a place to receive yoga as a spiritual practice. If a person is not able to receive yoga as a healthy spiritual practice, it is certainly best not to force it on anyone else. For some, it may be best in such a case to start with simple posture and other forms of sense engagement. With these types of concerns prevalent (and appearing broader than they perhaps in reality are, due to the nature of the internet), would it be better to avoid yoga altogether like a modern “food sacrificed to idols”—something that is permissible but not profitable? Some Christians have used this comparison as a defense against practicing yoga. There is a problem with this connection though. First, there is I Corinthians 8:8: “But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.” If yoga can be a practice that brings us closer to God, as we will see how further in this writing, then it cannot be considered on the same level as eating food sacrificed to idols. Furthermore,
Christianity finds itself in the awkward position of trying to develop a positive theology of creation without ever having rejoiced in the human body. In theory, we have the highest theology of the body among all world religions. In practice, we are still dualistic and suspicious of anything too earthy and sensual; we live largely in our heads. And yet we believe that, in becoming flesh, God honors skin, praises skin, enters it, caresses it, embraces it. Salvation for us is not a question of escaping this skin, but of having skin glorified. That is why Jesus never preached simple immortality of the soul, but insisted on the resurrection of the body”19
The incarnation and the resurrection are two of the most fundamental tenets of Christianity, yet we still reject the body’s place in spirituality. Growth in this area in knowledge and practice is something very profitable and worth pursuing. The fears and worries that have kept many Christians away from yoga should finally not deter us from introducing the practice in our own lives. The many benefits that the practice of yoga offers are too important and crucial to reintegrating the body into healthy Christian living to be dissuaded by fear, ignorance, and untruth. It is to these benefits that we now turn.
There are two levels of engagement between the body and the soul in regard to the practice of yoga. The first, and perhaps initial benefit that can be discovered through yoga and engaging our bodies in prayer is as a means of preparation. We don’t often think of preparation as a part of prayer, but perhaps we should. Common is the experience of one who simply just sits down to pray and does anything but. In silence, in the brief moment of stillness—perhaps the first found in some time—suddenly all these other things come rushing into the mind and heart. Henri Nouwen gives us a fitting picture: “Thoughts, feelings, and fantasies come to the surface. Soon we feel like a banana tree filled with jumping monkeys.”20 While much writing has been given to overcoming distractions in prayer, much of them remained focused on the mind. Thomas Merton looked at it differently. “Simply to neglect the senses and body altogether, and merely to let the imagination go its own way, while attempting to plunge into a deeply abstracted interior prayer, will end in no result even for one who is proficient in meditation.”21
Practicing yoga has the potential to be one of the most effective ways of not neglecting the senses, because it specifically addresses the body’s place in dealing with these distractions in a way that has been deeply lacking in Christian meditation and prayer. The earliest writer on yoga, Pantajali, describes it as “stilling the thought waves of the mind.”22 Here, yoga’s wisdom is as a method “which can help [one] to enter upon and travel safely on the way of silence … As traditionally understood, yoga is a discipline whose essential aim is to bring the mind to complete quiet and silence,” as the French Benedictine who changed his name to Abhishiktananda affirms.”23 He goes on to say, “Yoga in itself aims at arresting the mental process of forming ideas … such quiet and silence alone make it possible for the Holy Spirit to work freely in the soul.”24 Yoga helps to calm the distractions, to quell the monkeys, so to speak. This method has been tested and affirmed for thousands of years in the East. “Should we not be able, at their school, to reawaken our respect for exterior, bodily means of recollection, with a view to practicing prayer of a more elementary kind first, and then increasing in purity and depth later?”25
This may be hard for some, for it requires a beginner’s simplicity. It is important to come to yoga from a place of humility. When it comes to the body’s connection to the soul, it is best to acknowledge our amateur status—both physically and spiritually. We not only have to learn this new practice, discovering the postures and language, feeling out what our body can do and accept its limitations, but also accept that we are beginners in integrating our bodies into our spirituality. It will most likely take some practice before yoga takes on this benefit. The first few times certainly will bring about more distractions as the exercise must be learned, but the fruit does come.
And then, yoga becomes a great aid to prayer. “Its techniques aim at facilitating contemplative prayer by bringing into existence the most favorable conditions—quieting of mind and body—for attentiveness to God in an age when much else seems to be making this more difficult …Thus, yoga serves basically as a doorway into awareness.”26 This awareness, or attunement, yields many benefits in avenues less regularly employed in rationalistic Western culture:
The practical import of yoga is the evolution of awareness. One becomes more adept at understanding the meaning of life, not as a result of information or additional concepts, but due to growth in awareness through transformation. …The actual power to grasp the meaning of life and be transformed by that meaning emerges through the practice of yoga. Since this growth affects the mind-body relationship, it cannot but help one in understanding sacred scripture.”27
This is a picture of where yoga has the potential to take us.
But two potential hurdles exist here. The first is that many may have had previous experience with yoga in Western culture. While most are probably not unaware of the spiritual dynamics connected to yoga, the context in which it has likely been experienced is mostly physical. Yoga’s primary popularity in the West has been as a form of exercise. Its popularity in fitness centers attests to this fact, as well as the decidedly non-spiritual environment of many yoga studios. It was decided early on that the market in the West would be much larger if the health benefits of yoga were emphasized, while the spiritual components were allowed to fade in the background. “If we know anyone who practices it, the reasons ascribed would probably fall somewhere among the following: weight control, well-proportioned figure, firm muscle tone, increased flexibility, coordination, good posture, restful sleep, and an inner sense of well-being.”28 These are positive things, but it is necessary to grow our understanding of yoga beyond this common perception. “Physical exercises are but the skin of yoga; its sinews and skeleton are mental exercises that prepare the way for a transformation of consciousness which is always a gift of God and a work of grace.”29 The spiritual nature must return to yoga if it is to be seen as a part of the prayer process. This is essential. At the beginning though, we can rest in the knowledge that “the sages—wisdom seekers of old—point out that the physical exercises simply prepare the body and nervous system for the ensuing meditation.”30 The aid of yoga in prayer does not only come if the practitioner is aware of the body’s engagement with the soul. The nature of the practice itself is scientifically shown to relax the body and mind through physiological effects alone.31
These physical benefits certainly attract many people to yoga in the first place. This doesn’t need to be fought, though for some the thought of the physical benefits can be distracting during the practice. These can be acknowledged and not repressed. Let them pass along, but seek to keep them from being the central reason for the practice—much in the way of the relationship of fasting with weight loss. In most instances, the physical benefits should be extra incentive, especially in a culture that values exercise so much. “It is one thing, though admittedly an agreeable one, to enjoy good health; it is quite another to have the ambition of enjoying good health so as to pray better, to live more fully up to a Christian ideal.”32 Though a delicate balance, if health benefits encourage someone to a practice that also deepens prayer—all the better.
The second hurdle again brings us back somewhat to fear of the unknown or the “Eastern” nature of yoga. Some may be wary to “empty their minds” or to do anything of the like, possibly connecting back to latent fears of Buddhist or Hindu connections. Here we return to our distinction about origin and intent. Quieting distractions is not quite the same as “emptying the mind,” though that language can and will be present at times within various yoga practices. Yet with a Christian intention, the purpose of such a process is vastly different. “The primary aims of yoga are spiritual … Yoga seeks to cultivate a focused awareness of one’s deepest being, one’s Self, and in that Self, God.”33 This connects to a larger understanding of the value of meditation in prayer.
An important point to consider as well, in regards to prayer, meditation, and the use of yoga as a method to develop greater awareness and quell distractions, is to recognize what exactly we are working against. Or rather, to be aware of the cause and not just treat the symptoms. We are not just interested in simple pragmatism regarding distractions. Returning to another tenet of Patanjali’s, he says “Yoga means stopping the agitations of the heart.”34 Drawing attention to the word “stopping,” Matus goes on to say:
Yoga practice aims to stop the agitations of the heart, not so much to ‘control thoughts.’ ‘Distractions’ in meditation are there for a reason: to reveal what is just below the surface of our minds, that which we do not observe because we are indeed distracted by the much ado of our lives. Distractions do not break the intention, and both prayer and yoga are all about intention: why do you pray? (not: what are you praying for?); why do you meditate?”35
The distractions are not simply to be discarded by a clever technique, but ultimately, over time through prayer, lead us deeper into the heart of prayer and the depths of Christ within. “That is what yoga does for meditation. It is a way into it, an effective, time-tested and enjoyable bridge experience from one state of mind and being to another.”36 Here we are getting closer to the center and heart of prayer.
In this supreme calm wrought in us by the exercises and practice of Yoga, we shall be free, relaxed and at one in the centre of our being; we shall be ready to tremble at the touch of the Holy Ghost, to receive and welcome what God in his goodness thinks fit to let us experience … For us Yoga shall be the technique that allows man—when this is fitting—to establish himself in silence; not merely away from noise, but effectively in the silence of the senses, desires and human passions, in the silence of mind, banishing preoccupying thoughts and worries, accepting above all to remain silent so that the Holy Spirit of God may now and then make its voice heard, and the spirit of man be listening.” (Emphasis his)37
In this first level of engagement, the physical practice and movements are all leading to the period of time at the end of a practice, commonly referred to as savasana. The person lies flat on his/her back, all tension is released and the body is limp. The body has been worked in order to tire the mind. This is the place where distractions have been quelled and the soul is ready for meditation. The monkeys are gone. The tree sways gently in the calm breeze of your breath. You are ready to listen with your whole soul.
- Hughes, Louis. Body, Mind & Spirit: To Harmony Through Meditation. Mystic CT: Twenty-Third Pub, 1991. p. 34
- Ryan, Thomas. Prayer of Heart & Body. New York: Paulist Press, 1995. p. 132
- O’Brien, Justin. A Meeting of Mystic Paths: Christianity and Yoga. St. Paul: Yes International, 1996. p. ix
- Ibid., p. 28
- Ibid., p. 25
- Matus, Thomas. Yoga and the Jesus Prayer. Winchester, UK: O Books, 2010. p. 11
- Quoted in Roth, Nancy. An Invetation to Christian Yoga. Boston: Cowley, 2001. p. 12
- O’Brien, Justin, ed. Reclaiming the Body in Christian Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 2004. p. 34
- Nouwen, Henri. Spiritual Direction. New York: Harper Collins, 2006. p. 67
- Quoted in Ryan, Thomas. Prayer of Heart & Body. New York: Paulist Press, 1995. p. 57
- Quoted in Ibid., p. 137
- Dechanet, J.-M. Christian Yoga. London: Burns & Oates, 1965. p. 137
- Ibid., p. 138
- Ibid., pp. 23-24
- Ryan, Thomas. Prayer of Heart & Body. New York: Paulist Press, 1995. pp. 130, 8.
- O’Brien, Justin. A Meeting of Mystic Paths: Christianity and Yoga. St. Paul: Yes International, 1996. p. 101
- Ryan, Thomas. Prayer of Heart & Body. New York: Paulist Press, 1995. p. 131
- Ibid., p. 130
- Ibid., pp. 199-201, 203-204
- Dechanet, J.-M. Christian Yoga. London: Burns & Oates, 1965. p. 104
- Ryan, Thomas. Prayer of Heart & Body. New York: Paulist Press, 1995. p. 131
- Quoted in Matus, Thomas. Yoga and the Jesus Prayer. Winchester, UK: O Books, 2010. p. 109
- Ibid., pp. 109-110
- Ryan, Thomas. Prayer of Heart & Body. New York: Paulist Press, 1995. p. 129
- Dechanet, J.-M. Christian Yoga. London: Burns & Oates, 1965. pp. 58-59