Want to Start an Argument? Just Say “Yoga”

Patti Maguire Armstrong - Yoga

Yelling “fire” in a crowded theater can get you into trouble. So can saying “yoga” in a group of Catholics.

I just do it for the stretches, I don’t do anything religious.

It’s evil…the work of the devil.

Oh please! The next thing you’ll be telling me is the number 13 brings bad luck.

Practicing yoga breaks the First Commandment; it’s pagan worship.

And so it goes. And goes. And goes.

Three years ago, I did an article titled “To Yoga or Not to Yoga.\” Initially, I wrote it then put it aside for around a year. I was not sure I was up for putting my head into a hornet’s nest. When the time seemed right, I posted it. The hornets came. So did a number of radio interviews in which the listener lines lit up the whole time. “Can you stay on for another half hour,” I was asked by host Drew Mariani at Relevant Radio. “This happens every time we talk about yoga.”

Why the Controversy?

There are a lot of issues that come with controversy—contraception, supposed same-sex marriage, and abortion, being among them. The difference is that the Church has spoken definitely on those issues. People can agree or disagree with the Catholic Church but they cannot pretend the Church is in favor of any of those issues. With yoga, interpretations abound. Debates can get heated, with both sides convince that yoga for exercise is either harmless or evil.

In a definition from About.com, yoga is described as, “ . . . a disciplined path for purification of our attachments to the temporal world of form (bodies and objects) and the ever changing world of energy and mind, to experience the bliss and unity of consciousness as the unchanging, ever permanent, immortal and infinite Being.” Wow. Cool. Wait, what’s that about the immortal and infinite Being? Is that God? Or the devil? Or is it nothing if I just show up with a mat and stretch pants ready to limber up?

Just the Exercise

Yoga is considered a whole body experience originating in Hinduism as a means to reach enlightenment through exercises and meditations that unite the body, mind, and spirit. For Catholics, worshiping or becoming one with a yoga deity breaks the First Commandment. No one argues that point. The question is, can we claim to just be there in pursuit of physical fitness alone?

Hatha yoga, the one used in exercise classes, prepares the body for enlightenment through physical postures. Some people say they don’t participate in the meditations or postures that could be religious. After all, if an atheist folds his hands, he’s not praying. So if a yoga posture used for worship means nothing but a balance exercise to you, then is that all it is?

Putting your body into a particular posture does not automatically turn it into a form of worship. But what if that is the purpose of the pose as many of the yoga postures are? Can you remain neutral even if the instructor is not? Isn’t the intent of the person what matters most?

The Problem with Yoga

The controversy with yoga goes beyond a person’s intent. No one is accusing Catholics of going to yoga class specifically to worship a Hindu God. The problem is that yoga holds that all existence is one; there is no distinction between God and the universe. Through enlightenment a person becomes one with all of existence.

Having taken a yoga class myself many years ago, I know that the stretches, relaxation meditations and poses, all mesh together. It would be hard to discern the instructor’s meaning behind everything. For instance, a classic yoga mantra: “So’ham” means, ‘I am the universal Self,’” which is often used repetitively, timed with your breathing.

A friend who took a yoga class told me everyone was supposed to fold their hands and bow before they began. She said she did not do that but upon considering that yoga exercise is one part of a bigger pagan spiritual practice, she decided to quit. “Why take a chance?” she said. “If parts of it are wrong, then I’m not going to participate in any of it.”

In part 1 of the 3 part series, “What is Yoga? A Catholic Perspective,” Fr. Ezra Sullivan O.P., a Dominican Friar of the Province of St. Joseph pointed out that one indication of yoga’s spiritual nature even in exercise classes is the way it affects practitioners over time. “The International Journal of Yoga published the results of a national survey in Australia. Physical postures (asana) comprised about 60% of the yoga they practiced; 40% was relaxation (savasana), breathing techniques (pranayama), meditation, and instruction. The survey showed very significant results: although most respondents commonly began yoga for reasons of physical health, they usually continued it for reasons of spirituality.

“In addition, the more people practiced yoga, the more likely they were to decrease their adherence to Christianity and the more likely they were to adhere to non-religious spirituality and Buddhism. In other words, whatever their intentions may have been, many people experience yoga as a gateway to a spirituality disconnected from Christ.”

Regardless of the warnings or information, there are always Catholics who say they will not give up their yoga because it makes them feel good and they personally don’t use it for religion. But there is a further consideration with yoga. By participating in yoga, or when a school or church sponsors classes, it gives the message of blanket approval. If yoga is okay with the Church or with Sally Stretchy, then it’s obviously okay, is the impression. So, if just part of it is wrong, is it still okay to practice some of it? What do you think?

(To read all three parts of the yoga article or for daily spiritual direction go to: http://spiritualdirection.com.)

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213 thoughts on “Want to Start an Argument? Just Say “Yoga””

  1. My name is John Immel. I am devoted to my Catholic faith but also an Ayurveda practitioner and a graduate of Harvard University.

    I read your recent article, “India’s Christian schools embrace yoga despite religious warning” and want to thank you for the opportunity to discuss the issue of yoga and Catholic faith.

    I have spent 2 years developing a very simple, easy to understand presentation of yoga’s spiritual beliefs for priests, lay Catholics, and yoga teachers. The presentation is a simple review of yoga philosophy, its benefits and drawbacks.

    My hope is that the presentations will aid priests in their discernment of yoga and highlight some of the ways the philosophy affects the everyday practice.

    Here is the link to the presentation for your review:

    I would be very grateful if you would provide feedback on these videos, by emailing me, or even better by leaving a comment on the video itself.

  2. Do you really want to know what I think? I think that this Yoga fearing conspiracy net of beliefs drives people away from Christ.

    But you don’t care about people leaving Christ. You care about people leaving the instiuition of Church. You have turned it into your own little private shop of suppossed healing and scare people into staying by dogma so you don’t have any competitors. But this is not God’s way. God wants us to LOVE and forgive and the only heresy here is saying that your way is the only way. Only God has the right to judge who’s wrong and who’s right. So let us leave the judgment and blame-bashing to Him shall we? Excuse me for my fiery writing but this is truly sad to witness. The corruption and destruction of church from its own members and hands.

    May God Bless our Souls.

    1. Kali Devi’s comment is obviously not from a Catholic standpoint, but from some kind of syncretist, “invisible church” Protrestant standpoint.

    1. Very good point, however this injunction should
      only apply to serious Catholics and not casual
      ones ( the majority ) who are able to handle the revealed dogma of relevant Hindu truth.

    2. Casual Catholics are even less capable of handling Hindu “truth” because they don’t even realize that it is not (a) revealed or (b) truth. Hinduism is nonsense. Even many Hindus recognize this – there’s an entire school of Hinduism that is essentially atheistic.

    3. Steve, the only “relevant” truth that eastern deism offers is the surety of the transmigration of souls – reincarnation. And don’t be so flippant
      about what God revealed to the Buddha who sat under a tree until the
      answer he – ask and you shall receive – wanted was “revealed” – desire. The Hindu Bahagavad-gita
      is on par with the bible in every way and parts of the gospels are easily interpreted to reflect the aforementioned truth.
      Something tells me you are areligious – a
      nowhere person.

    4. God didn’t reveal anything to Buddha. It isn’t even clear that Buddha actually existed. He could very well have been a Paul Bunyan like character created out of convenience.

      I don’t know why you pick the Gita out of the whole Mahabharata as something special. It’s just a way to justify the dharmic caste system, specifically in requiring soldiers to kill people. You think the caste system is divinely inspired? Seriously? if so, you really should cut down on your soma intake.

  3. I have to say I think this approach to yoga by catholics is pushing people towards yoga and away from Catholicism. I’ve already practiced yoga before I came completely back to the church so telling me that it is dangerous and so on seems silly. I do it purely for the physical aspect and the calming of my mind. Most of my instructors leave the religious part out of it but even the ones who didn’t never made me want to become Hindu or believe their religion. I studied religion in college so I already know what Hinduism is. But more than that when you tell someone who has physically suffered and been helped and even healed by their physical practice of yoga it sounds very contrary to what Jesus would tell us. That you Santan can not drive out satan. What do you tell people who have not been able to walk, lost partial mobility or some other physical ailment only to have it healed after their yoga practice? Not saying it is some Hindu god that healed them but that the physical aspect of yoga is truly good for us and God wouldn’t withhold that out of fear we would desert him. I would instead tell people why Hinduism is wrong then how they could make yoga a catholic meditation.

  4. Christians have long taken things of other religions and incorporated it into their own. They would take holy buildings of other religions and make them into Catholic Churches. Christmas was the date of a pagan holiday that we now use to celebrate Christ. And so many other examples. Just because something has roots in something we don’t believe, doesn’t mean we can’t take the good in it and apply it to our lives.

  5. I agree with Phil. All the times I have taken yoga, I have never heard any of the words or phrases you are all talking about. It has always been taught my slim white women telling me to stretch, lift, breathe, stretch. A lot of poses one would usually do at the gym [think quad stretch, bridge poses etc] are done in yoga. Besides the ending greeting, which i never say, I have never heard any spiritual or Hindu related phrases or anything being uttered in yoga. And whenever its time to relax and unwind at the end, i’ve had 20 something year old women, again white and I’m positive not Hindu, explain how to relax your thoughts, your mind, eliminate clutter. I have never let it affect my Catholic beliefs. As a matter of fact sometimes I’m thinking about Jesus during the parts where we relax our minds and meditate.

  6. I feel it’s important to dialogue on this topic, especially amongst Catholics, so I applaud Patti in taking a
    stab at the topic – and more than once. To add, however, I’ve yet to hear a non-yoga-practicing person accurately reference the true spirit of the practice (or wisdom) of yoga. And it’s no wonder! There are hundreds of different versions and aspects of yoga, dating back to 3000 BCE or more. It’s a little
    like trying to define types of worship, its so varied. And from what I’ve observed, it’s this very fact of fluidity in definition and practice of yoga that challenges so many people, especially those who prefer neatness in their spirituality and religion – with the added labels of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. For starters, yoga is not doctrine nor is it an organized religion (although those in religions use it). It can be best expressed as a set of practices, which support each persons’ (obviously) unique inward journey, that may aid them to their own personal participation with God. What is more clearly defined in ‘classical’ yoga (circa 250 BCE) are the ‘tools’ or structure of the practices – and not what the experience should be. Your experience is yours, and yoga is much too humble to attempt to define what that is for you. What I love about raising the topic of yoga amongst Catholics is that ultimately it coaxes us to practice our
    catechism – that of examining our own conscience to come to our own understanding of whether yoga is right for us or not. And to this extent – the philosophical premise of yoga is baked right into our own catechism – that of coming to our own understanding, through our own rigorous application of

    What I can suggest regarding this practice (having been a cradle Catholic, and yoga practitioner for many years): is that it is wonderfully life-giving for some, and not so inspiring for others. As for quantitative ‘field research’on any possible dangers, I offer this: of the hundreds of yoga practitioners I’ve met, worked with, and known over the last two decades, I’ve never encountered anyone experiencing harm to their soul. On the contrary, I’ve seen numerous people led from dismay, addictions or lack of aliveness, to a movement toward a higher level of consciousness, health, kindness
    toward others, and openness to God. Considering this, I sometimes find it more fruitful to turn the question of yoga around and ask the following instead: Is it not the same God that inspired the revelation of the New Testament…or the wonders of the rosary (which was sourced from the prayer beads of Islam, and prior to that, from the prayer beads of Hinduism) that also inspired sacred wisdom and practice in all its different forms across the world – to all those that sought Him with a virtuous heart? And if your answer may be no – I suggest the beautiful teachings of our Catholic constitution for guidance – that of Nostra Aetate.

  7. I feel it’s important to dialogue on this topic, especially amongst Catholics, so I applaud Patti in taking a stab at the topic – and more than once. To add, however, I’ve yet to hear a non-yoga-practicing person accurately reference the practice (or wisdom) of yoga. And it’s no wonder. There are hundreds of different versions and aspects of yoga, dating back to 3000 BCE or more. It’s a little like trying to define types of worship. It is so varied, one cannot clearly define specifically how people worship. And from what I’ve observed, this very fact of fluidity in definition and practice of yoga is difficult for many people, who prefer neatness in their spirituality and religion – with labels of ‘right way’ and ‘wrong way’. For starters, yoga is not doctrine – it’s a practice, and it has everything to do with supporting each persons’ (obviously) unique journey inward (or not), which may (or may not) include their encounter with God. The only thing truly outlined are the ‘tools’ or structure of the practice. Your experience is yours, and the wisdom of ‘classical’ yoga is much too humble to describe much more than that. It does not attempt to define your understanding for you. What I love about raising the topic of yoga for Catholics is that it nearly forces us to practice OUR catechism – that of examining our own conscience to come to our own understanding. And to this extent – the philosophical premise of yoga is baked right into our own catechism!

    At best, I can say the following (having been a cradle Catholic, and yoga practitioner for many years): the practice of yoga is wonderfully life-giving for some, and not ideal for others. As for quantitative ‘field research’, I can offer you this: of the hundreds of yoga practitioners I’ve met, worked with, and known over the last two decades, I’ve never encountered anyone experiencing something ‘dangerous’ to their souls. On the contrary, I’ve seen numerous people led from dismay and addictions and toward the light of God. I would prefer to turn the question of yoga around and ask the following instead: what are we truly afraid of? Is our fear imagining a snake that is actually a rope in the light of more understanding? And can we also remember that it is God that directs and inspires us all if we truly seek Him out? And finally, who do you think inspired prayerful practices across the globe? To me it’s clear: it’s the same God that abolishes the fear in our hearts so that we may open ourselves up to the wisdom, in whatever form, that graces our world, as outlined in our beautiful Catholic constitution of Nostra Aetate.

  8. I would think that after all the ( sometimes ) hard words and feelings germane to this post you
    might want to try to contrast it with : If you want to start a peace process …

  9. The hands together with slight bow is not only used for worship. It is the standard greeting on the Indian subcontinent, with the salutation “Namaste.” It has religious origins, but then, so does the word “Goodbye.” If you have lived there, as I have, you will find yourself using these in your daily life. I expect all Christians there do.

    Hinduism is not just what we think of as a religion, it is a culture, a caste system, a language, and so much more. What some people are suggesting is that we banish the Indian culture from our lives – which would be a shame. It is rich and beautiful, from the Mahabharata to ancient Hindu sculpture to palak paneer.

    I have attended yoga classes off and on since I was eleven. The one I am in now has no chants, no religious content, or anything that calls into question my religion, unless you consider intentional breathing and relaxation compromising to your religion.

    The positions may have had religious origins – everything in the culture did – but they are no more (necessarily) involved with the practice today than “Goodbye” means “God be with ye” every time people here say it.

    Yoga, as well as Hinduism is general, is thousands of years older than Western exercise practices, and as a consequence has more overall knowledge of the human body. It works to harmonize functions (e.g., exercises that help the right functioning of kidneys, liver, that increase balance, coordination, flexibility, etc.), not just develop muscles, make your heart beat fast, and “work off calories.” That is it’s chief value to me. I seem to have that in common with everyone else in the class.

  10. Interesting to see this article. My mother years ago took a yoga class taught by a nun at St. John Vianny Church in Walnut Creek. I thought it was odd that they taught Yoga at a church, since it was fundamentally a Hindu ritual. This was at a time when I did not attend church regularly, but my mother did. At any rate, years later I started to participate in a free Yoga class at work. I enjoyed it because it was with a group of friends and it focused on stretching and not the spiritual aspects of Yoga. One day, we had a guest teacher. Now, if you have ever taken yoga, you might know that during the poses, the teacher often goes around and “adjusts” you so that you get into the position correctly. The regular teacher would always ask and then adjust you if you gave permission. The guest teacher just went around and did it. When she came to me, she touched me in two locations, and it was like I was hit with a cattle prod. I felt pain and then my upper back hurt for weeks. I could not explain this experience, but strangely, a few weeks later, in class, the regular teacher, presumably upset by the mix of people that came that day said “well, if you find this too hard, you should just not come”. These words hit me and that was the last time that I went.

    I share this story, just as one more perspective on this question. I can’t explain it, but by my assessment, something called me away from Yoga. At the very least, I find it interesting that in this supposedly harmless and gentle workout, I was physically injured.

    1. It is not “harmless.” No form of exercise is. There was a controversial article in the NYT a year or so ago about what happens to people who overdo yoga (e.g., headstands). You have to use commonsense as you would in any other exercise program, and it sounds like the teacher was at fault here. I’m usually sore after sessions, but that’s my fault for living such a sedentary life.

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