Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Why Catholics Should Never Do Yoga

Springtime in my Diocese is what I like to call Mission Season. It’s when the larger parishes put on missions, retreat weekends and single days of reflection in the hopes of igniting the faith of the many lukewarm. At one of the parishes, the team planning their women’s retreat decided that, rather than having Evening Prayer, they wanted to do a session of yoga. Yes, you read that right. Yoga rather than Evening Prayer. Their Spiritual Director, a very devout Deacon and one of my dearest friends in this world, said, “Absolutely NOT.” Disturbing as this was to my friend the Deacon, many Catholics don’t seem to share his grave concern. Maybe not for a retreat weekend, some may say, but yoga’s a great form of exercise. This would have been my response only a few years ago. I realize now just how incorrect this is, but yoga has been sold to the West as such, and we are paying a terrible spiritual price for it.

My checkered history with yoga is one of the reasons I’m excited about the seventh season of RealCatholicTV.com’s The One True Faith, hosted by Michael Voris, which promises to focus on the occult. The season's first episode, “Black and White Magick” (embedded below if you're interested) is mostly about the practice of divination, casting spells and witchcraft, but there was an audience question about the practice of yoga. Voris’ typically direct response was right on the money: “The point is to free the mind from the body…the spirit is all that matters, and matter doesn’t matter.”

Once upon a time back around 1995 or 1996, before I started working at a Catholic bookstore (I have a lot of great books in my private library from that wonderful little place), I was hearing a lot about meditation, and several people told me that I should try it. I had no idea how to meditate, so I went down to the  Diocesan library. They had fewer materials than I thought a Diocesan library should have, but I managed to find a set of tapes (the title completely escapes me) by a Catholic priest and checked it out.

Having been born into the Post-Concillar Church, my parents spent a small fortune on Catholic grade-school with a faith formation program consisting of little more than the infamous "Hi God!" programs. My mother did save her old Maryknoll Crusades magazines from her childhood, and I read those back in grade school, but proper faith formation requires much more than a couple dozen issues of an old Bible study magazine from the 1950s meant to supplement what should be thorough Catechetical training. I was utterly unprepared for what I now know is New Age, progressive thinking. I was also stupid, so I popped the tape in my stereo and went through the meditations.

I had a hard time with this priest's meditations because he kept saying to empty the mind, focus on the sound of his voice, place the self into the scene he was describing. He spent a lot of time talking about breathing and did a few breathing exercises. I really couldn't get into the tapes. I couldn't concentrate. My thoughts kept churning in circles. I gave up on the tapes themselves pretty quickly, but there was this insert with the tapes that talked about the similarities between the world's religions; how God knows our hearts and our intentions; how being open-minded to new and different ideas helps us to understand God; how Eastern philosophies use meditation techniques from which Catholics could benefit. What I now recognize as New-Age philosophy from that insert is what planted some serious errors in my mind and opened the door to my ten-year affair with the practice of yoga.

It was around 1997 when I caught this fitness bug, and was introduced to yoga through workout programs on cable fitness stations. I actually started with the programs that mixed yoga with dance, and thanks to my High School and College dance training, I picked it all up very quickly. There were full yoga programs as well, with the instructors talking about balance and muscle control. Every once in a while they'd throw in key phrases like, “find your center”, “focus your breath”, “clear the mind”, “feel your inner warmth”. Today I would clearly recognize these phrases as being in the danger zone; but to me "the center" was a dance term, and the rest, well, I knew what I believed, and it was pretty clear that this was all exercise. I deftly rationalized that the terminology wasn't important, and I started to believe that the meditating priest might not have been wrong. What I was failing to grasp, as I believe do many people, is that ultimately yoga isn't at all about health and fitness, but more on that later.

For nine years I was an on again-off again yoga student. I wasn’t faithful to it by any means early on, but I always came back to it, because the physical results were unmatched. I could maintain my figure with a no-impact workout program that in a very unique way relieved my stress, which was a real bonus when I took a new, demanding job in 2006. I decided then that it was time to get more serious about my yoga practice. I found Yoga Journal online which contained some very compelling articles about the physical benefits of yoga, along with tutorials on the poses. I felt great about my decision, and bought myself two books at the beginning of 2007: Light on Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar and Richard Hittleman’s Yoga: A 28-Day Exercise Plan. I also started looking for an instructor, but (luckily) they all overcharge and I’m cheap.

I flipped through Hittleman’s book, which was for beginners, and decided that I should save the easy book to loan out to someone that might be interested, and just dive right into Iyengar's more challenging Asana sequences instead. I casually read the Introduction titled, “What Is Yoga?”, perused the photographs of the poses and found the section containing the sequences. It took quite a bit of study, and within 5 months I was advancing quite quickly. I couldn’t get my foot behind my head, but I was able to complete a solid 40-minute “workout”, was getting stronger and more flexible, and was even starting to pick up the Sanskrit terminology.

As I progressed, though, I was still having trouble with the whole "empty your mind" thing. I tried to pray my traditional Catholic prayers, but they actually interfered with my ability to hold a pose. Then there was the breathing. Getting the breathing down is very important. There is this term, Pranayama, which in its simplest definition means breath. To practice Pranayama, as I understood it, you lie on the floor on your back in what is called “corpse pose” and breathe very deeply and deliberately. From what I’d gathered from Iyengar's directions, I should have been able to complete ten minutes of this breathing every session, but I could barely get through two. My mind just continued to wander, just like with those meditation tapes over a decade before. It was then that I went back into the introduction of the book to maybe gain some insight into what I might have been doing wrong, and read the following:
‘The emptying of the mind of the whole of its illusion is the true rechaka (exhalation). The realization that “I am Atma (spirit)” is the true puraka (inhalation). And the steady sustenance of the mind on this conviction is the true kumbhaka (retention). This is true pranayama,’ says Sankaracharya. (Iyengar, p 44)
I gulped rather loudly as it suddenly dawned on me why Light on Yoga is subtitled “The Bible of Modern Yoga”. Iyengar went on to claim something that I immediately knew was wrong: that every living creature inhales the statement God is Me and each exhale I am God. I continued reading the introduction much more intently, which is how I discovered the true purpose of yoga, which is, simply put, to help the yogi properly die.

According to the Bhagavad Gita, from which Iyengar quotes and calls “the most important authority on Yoga philosophy”, the whole purpose of yoga is to “escape pain and sorrow” (p. 19). There are eight “limbs” to yoga. Pranayama, the breath, is actually the fourth limb. The goal is to reach the eighth called Samadhi, which is when the yogi relinquishes the body for a state of transcendental perfection in union with the universe, or essentially an altered mental state. One of the beliefs behind the practice is that each person is granted a fixed number of breaths, and yoga will lengthen each breath for the purpose of extending the amount of time a soul can exist in the altered state before the body dies, thus the higher state when it reenters this world upon reincarnation.

What we think is exercise is actually Asana, the third limb of yoga that is supposed to purify the body to be a proper vessel for the soul, to help the yogi gain mastery over the body for the sake of deep, sustained inhales and exhales, which we now know are prayers to the self as God. Here in the West, because we think Asana is exercise we skip over the first two limbs, which promote indifference toward the world and others. Indifference would certainly help quiet the mind loaded with worries and cares, but it should set off serious alarms in any properly formed Catholic. Isn't Christ's great commandment to love one another? Also, the deep breathing of Asana poses allows the yogi to achieve such a deeply relaxed physical state. Recall that the purpose of yoga is to escape pain and sorrow. I believe that the intense relaxation is the primary reason why so many people find themselves seeking out a more disciplined yoga practice, as I did. The racing mind disturbs relaxation, and if determined, the yogi will break his or her mind,  move on through the remaining limbs, deepen the rift between the body and soul, and turn the mind in on itself.

This is why I had such a hard time getting any further than I did with Pranayama. In a practice that is  thousands of years old, every single particle of it is meant to achieve a defined purpose. My mind, formed in Catholic theology far more intensely than in yoga, knew better and was outright rebelling against what I was trying to make my body do. I pulled the Hittleman book off the shelf which claimed to be about exercise in the title. Could I have been overthinking all of this? I read the following in the introduction on page 9: “Yoga is concerned with the health and beauty of the organism as a unified whole.” The organism? I continued to read through Hittleman and after finding references to union with the universe, decided to put both books in storage. My practice waned and eventually stopped altogether.

After doing some more reading and investigating over the past few years, it's quite clear to me now what yoga is all about, and why that priest’s meditation tape was so terribly misleading. What saddens me now the most is that in my ignorance I've turned a few people onto yoga, bought yoga sessions for a family member as a gift, and have supported a very dear friend in her becoming a yoga instructor. Sadly, she’s been pulling away from the Church, and I fear that it’s her yoga practice that’s responsible. Over the years I've also had a few crises of faith, and have wondered on more than one occasion if, in my utter ignorance, my yoga practice, haphazard as it was, had a hand in any of them.




This program is from RealCatholicTV.com

12 comments:

Robin Marie Therese said...

Thanks for the post Gina! Confirms my decision I made some time ago. I was in the midst of a rough pregnancy and struggling terribly with anxiety. I looked into yoga. I decided after reading a bit not to even go there. Although people can make the argument that it is only exercise, I felt there was a deeper danger. Some of the poses had faith contrary meaning to them. I thought I already had enough anxiety without skating on a slippery slope and said no to the yoga at the investigative level. I am glad that God had my back on that one, because I certainly couldn't have took more anxiety! There seems to be a lot of people though who believe that if you just do it for fun, or exercise, etc. It opens a door I would rather keep shut!

Robin Marie Therese said...

Forgot to add..meditation is a great practice for Catholics. That's why we have the Rosary. Meditating on the Gospel mysteries is enough to mediatate on for the rest of our lives....

Gina said...

Robin, thanks for reading! This is exactly what I think many people miss. Our first commandment is: "I AM THE LORD YOUR GOD, YOU SHALL HAVE NO GODS BEFORE ME." If you're doing something that BY DESIGN is an act of worship to an idol, you're outright disobeying the 1st commandment. You can't rationalize it away, either, any more than you can rationalize away any other sins.

You were very wise to NOT get involved in yoga.

Gina said...

Robin, what you say here about meditation is right on the money.

Thomas said...

Excellent piece. I just had a conversation with a coworker about Christians practicing yoga and other forms of Eastern meditation, and this post ties in quite nicely with our talk.
I had a friend in college who dabbled in Eastern practices (Zen meditation and Tai Chi, specifically). He initially tried to incorporate Christian spirituality into these Eastern practices, but in the end he left the Catholic Church and became Buddhist.
It is very difficult to separate the spiritual dimension from these disciplines. It would be like a Buddhist praying a rosary for the aesthetic appeal. There would always be a spiritual disconnect between he action and the end result. Words, symbols, movements, rituals all having meaning, and we should understand their origins before we get carried away too far.

Gina said...

Thomas, thank you for reading, and I hope you took something from this piece that will help you in future discussions.

I'm not sure if it's due to poor Catechesis or what, but humans simply don't understand their own nature. "God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him" Gn 1:27. Just as Christ had a dual nature, human and divine, we also have a dual nature, human and spiritual (not divine, though, as we are the creation). There really is no "disconnect" between our bodies and our spirits, because that's not how we were built. Whatever happens to our bodies has a direct affect on our soul, because that's how we've been created. It's why we baptize--to remove the stain of original sin from our soul. Do we bathe the soul? No, we bathe the BODY. They're connected at birth, and are so through our whole lives, until the body dies.

Thus if we're doing something with or to our bodies that BY DESIGN will destroy our soul, we're going to destroy our soul.

Anonymous said...

This is pathetic, first of all... yoga is great for spiritual, mental, physical health! I believe it is very important for us. It is very healthy for our well-being.

Gina said...

Anonymous: I don't agree with you, and neither does the Catholic Church. Yoga is a religious practice, one that is in opposition to Catholic teaching, and therefore NOT good for your eternal soul.

L. Schweiz said...

I had a friend post this article on her facebook page so I decided to read this funny article. Our souls are DIVINE, our souls where given to us by a G-d that knows no separation between us. All of our souls were at one point in creation one soul. We are all connected to each other. We are all bodies of energy that effect each other. It is because of this thinking You are Catholic and I am Muslim and they are Jew and he is Buddhist and they are Jehova that has gotten us into trouble. Many wars have been started because of this thinking , many wars have been started because of religious intolerance such as this article. The body's consciousness is all 1% level of reality, it's physical, the soul connects us to our creator. Our souls have all the answers they are the spark of light that is G-D within us. Who are we if we don't have G-d on board? What are we doing here if we dont connect to that higher power within that will guide the way towards oneness. Quieting the mind and quieting the needs of the body will help connect us to that spark of divinity that resides within. Yoga helps some people get in touch with that, others just go for exercise, when will people understand it's all about our consciousness. Just like going to church. Why do you go to church? To connect with G-d? Or do some go because it's just what they do? Do some go because their wives want them to. Do some go because they have nothing else and they feel they have to teach their kids soemthing so they endure the hour of church. Still others go just to judge others and look at what so and so is wearing and to buy the donut at the end of it. There are different levels of consciousness and our thoughts matter more than matter. We must know this! So if you don't practice Yoga because you feel letting go of your mind and breathing are cultish than don't go. Quit creating more seperation in the world by thinking your Catholic G-D has saved you from a lower form of worship. Yoga is what you make of it. If it's dangerous because you think that than it is. I would incourage all of you to ask questions and try to figure out where all your rituals come from and why they are done. There is such a deeper meaning than what you know.

Gina said...

L. Schweiz: Since refuting your comment point by point would be a poor use of my time, and because it's my blog, I will only reply to your first two sentences.

You write: "I had a friend post this article on her facebook page so I decided to read this funny article." Welcome, and thank you for taking the time to read and comment.

You write: "Our souls are DIVINE, our souls where given to us by a G-d that knows no separation between us." Which is it? Are our souls divine, or were they given to us by God? It cannot be both.

The first commandment: "I AM the Lord your God. You shall have no gods before ME."

There is no God but God. We are his CREATIONS, given a HUMAN soul, not a piece of divinity.

New Age Mess said...

Hi Gina,
thank you so much for posting your reflections on how spiritual yoga really is.
I would add to that the fact that not so many people know that yoga was brought to the West by the key occultists that have even lived on that planet: Olcott and Blavatsky (they created Thosophical society that even tofay has got a very important influence of so many New Age groups) ... Their one of the first publication was called Lucifer and mentions yoga ... you can read on my post below ...
God bless

http://newagemess.blogspot.com/2011/08/yoga-was-introduced-to-west-by.html

Gina said...

New Age Mess: Thank you for reading, and commenting with a link. Yes, I am aware of the influence that Blavatsky, Olcott and their diabolical progeny have had on the world. The more I read about the "New Age Mess" (as you so aptly refer to it) the more shocked and horrified I become.

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