Friday, July 30, 2010

Can I Practice Yoga if I am a Catholic?

I stop by my old friend Joseph Fromm's blog - Good Jesuit, Bad Jesuit - from time to time to see what new nugget he has mined from the Internet. On my latest foray into the thicket, I came upon this little gem:

Father John Hardon, S.J. On the Incompatibility of Yoga and Hinduism with Catholicism

Joseph has taken this post from the website of Patrick Madrid. I have no idea who Patrick Madrid is, but he does seem to have a nice blog and I appreciate his focus on the topic of atheism and its proponents.

That Mr. Fromm finds this an important nugget is not surprising. In an exchange with Joseph several years ago, he decried my practice of Yoga. Now, citing the backing of Father Hardon - a Jesuit of my own Detroit Province - he surely sees this as a ratification of his own position concerning the incompatibility of Yoga practice with the Catholic Faith.

Father Hardon begins with a pretty circular statement: "Yoga is incompatible with Catholicism because the best known practice of Hindu spirituality is Yoga." I don't know about you, but this seems like a pretty vacuous statement: I understand the subject of the sentence but it seems that the predicate is a rehash of the subject. No new information has been added!

A little bit later in the essay, the venerable Father Hardon writes:

Indian spirituality is perhaps best known by the practice of yoga, derived from the root yuj to unite or yoke, which in context means union with the Absolute. Numerous stages are distinguished in the upward progress toward the supreme end of identification: by means of knowledge with the deity; the practice of moral virtues and observance of ethical rules; bodily postures; control of internal and external senses; concentration of memory and meditation–finally terminating in total absorption (samadhi), “when the seer stands in his own nature.”
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. 
In my bedroom, where I have my collection of Yoga DVD's (in addition to the Insanity workout), I have three crucifixes hanging on the walls. I hung these on the wall in such a way that, regardless of the pose I'm holding, I'm facing one of them. When I am holding poses for one to three minutes, I find that my mind relaxes and I'm able to contemplate the cross and the person upon it. My stress-relieving exercises becomes, each day, a time of profound meditation on the cross. When my body aches or my muscles burn, I breath more deeply and unite my physical discomfort with the cross: the health of my body and the health of my spirit are ineluctably intertwined.

Let me say two things about why I think that Yoga is an excellent physical practice that, done well, is profoundly helpful for an authentic Catholic/Christian spirituality.

  • Recall the dictum of Saint Thomas Aquinas: Anima mea non est ego (my soul is not me). We are embodied subjects! The Christian life is not about saving the souls bereft of the body - we do profess the resurrection of the body, after all - and our future lives in the eternal city of God will be fully embodied. The practice of Yoga helps to integrate the mind and body and brings about a heightened level of focus and awareness. After even the most tumultuous day, I find that thirty minutes of Yoga practice restores balance to my life, eases tension, and enables me to enter into prayer fully and openly.                                                                                                                  
I mention this because, very often, people interpret Christianity in a quasi-gnostic manner where we think that all that matters is the soul and that the body is irrelevant. Plato might have agreed with this, as well as the Cathars, but an orthodox Catholic cannot. Do recall that the first confession of faith comes from Saint Thomas who cries out, "My Lord and my God" only after he touches the wounds of the Risen Christ. 
  • Drawing from my own Ignatian tradition, I might recall that Ignatius dedicates Annotations [73-90] to talk about the role of the body in our prayer. Ignatius was profoundly sensitive to our embodied natures and offers sage counsel in regard to the role of the body in prayer. 
These are two simple points, to be sure, but I think they're valid and important to make.
Let me conclude by noting that I am not advocating that a Catholic subscribe to the panentheistic worldview decried by Father Hardon. I think it is entirely possible - and I use myself as an example - that one can engage in the physical practice of Yoga as a form of exercise without having to subscribe to any of its spiritual tenets. If you go to Target, you can purchase Rodney Yee's DVD's and you'll find not a single mention of Hindu spirituality: what you get is a really good workout, not a form of proselytizing.

I do, however, think that any type of physical activity has tremendous spiritual benefits and that, of the ones I've engaged in, Yoga does incline me more toward prayerful meditation than, say, football. Perhaps here my Jesuitical nature, born of the Spiritual Exercises, blossoms. Ignatius, in the First Principle and Foundation [23] uses the Latin phrase Tantum Quantum ("to the extent"). "To the extent" that Yoga helps a person to enter more deeply into the mystery of the Christian faith, I think it is wholly appropriate for Yoga to be practiced. If it leads person away from the cross, cripples the ability to pray, effaces the radical transcendence of God, or negates the dogmatically held beliefs of the Church, then it should be avoided.
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