Whenever I say that I practice yoga I am met with disbelief and often a word of judgemental warning. Don’t I know better than to do something that opens me up to bad spirits? Given that I’m known to remember what I forgot in the shops in the middle of Mass, I’m not persuaded that assuming a position associated with prayer makes me automatically any prayerful. For me it’s a matter of a common fitness practice that is kind enough on my body, and none of the spiritualism that originated with it. If they changed the name to something else, like “Contemplative Calisthenics”, I’d still have an issue with the contemplative part: I’m too busy trying not to hurt myself to contemplate anything other than the possibly imminent proof of my own mortality. It would be more accurate to call it stretching to be honest, as even the entirely catholicised version offered by Petra Fitness (which is not yoga because they believe yoga is inseparable from its spiritual dimension) is probably something that is way too spiritual for me. And while I get the idea of physical beings praying through their body (we kneel in submission, we raise our hands in praise and remember King David dancing like a mad man in 2 Samuel 6?), I’m not in a position to be focused on anything other than the physical. In fact, I probably need to be so focused on the physical to get past the physical limitations I have (my back is almost inflexible, and I’m having an MRI scan this afternoon), and there is an inherent spiritual dimension to it anyway.
A Fr Sullivan has written a series on a Catholic perspective on yoga, and in his first article he recollects the average conversation as going:
“So, Father, what do you think about yoga?” Someone will ask.
“Well, I have some misgivings about it,” I’ll say.
“But what’s wrong with yoga,” they will press. “It’s just exercise.”
“Then why not try Pilates?” I reply.
“I wanted something more holistic, something that focuses on body and soul. I like yoga because it’s spiritual too.”
“Then it’s more than physical exercise.”
Except that, for me, the answer is nothing about being holistic: all forms of exercise are holistic to me. They focus me on something other than my problems. When I run, I let the music take my mind away and often miss the clues of the change of pace because I’m distracted. When I do gymnastics I focus on the number of repetitions and how well I’m doing the movements. When I was going through CBT I was told that when I walk I should focus on my steps and not my worries. Clearly focusing your mind on something other than thoughts is good for the mind? So my answer is definitely not that. My answer is, pilates is harder to find outside of a studio and I don’t have money, and this nice app called Asana Rebel gives me a free 5 minutes video every day, and I can do that at home or in the park or on the corridor floor of a hostel at 4am if they don’t throw me out. So yes, if the case is of someone who is using yoga as a spiritual practice by all means the position of the Church is the right one, but how many in the West who don’t have an interest in Eastern spirituality do yoga if we take it in its more correct definition? Back in 2012 I wrote about a controversy that surrounded people criticising those who don’t do yoga the proper way, so clearly it wasn’t many. At the end of the day, people are looking for a form of exercise that makes them feel good, that makes their bodies stronger and that doesn’t make them look bulky while at that: if anyone wants to push for the purism of yoga then make alternatives not called yoga, and equally readily recognisable, as easy to access as what we call yoga now. You can only go as far with mat-only pilates, so I think that’s why the bias towards machine-based studios.
I mentioned that there is a spiritual dimension to taking care of one’s body, and that’s because we are honouring God’s creation, as well as taking care of the temple of the Holy Spirit and, without diminishing the important spiritual role that many ill and disable people have played in the Church (often through their suffering), a good body is a tool we can use to be, quite literally, the hands and feet of God on earth. I’m happy with that. I’ve never been to a yoga class that had any chants, or mantras, unnatural breathing techniques or talks of energy and chakra. As far as I’m concerned, the objections raised are against a straw man. I give them the benefit of doubt that they had a difference experience to me, as Fr Sullivan seems to have had (he recognises that it is not universal, which I greatly appreciate). To give credit to the spiritualist position, the group Christians practising yoga seems to agree, to an extent, on the spiritual dimension, and christianise it instead of distancing themselves from yoga the way Pietra Fitness does. Whichever stance one takes, it’s impossible to deny that a discipline that is holistic about body and soul, however one understands it, has a lot of parallels with the theology of the body of Pope Saint John Paul II. Someone else has gone into a great deal of details on the topic here. However, it reminds me of the argument that C.S. Lewis made about the truth of Christianity being found in everything in imperfect form, and only perfect in Christianity. The repetition of tropes in mythology is not, like many say, a reason why Christianity is false, but the tropes are true and pointing to Christ, Who fulfil them. I find it’s a pretty strong argument, after all Christianity is the revelation of something to a world that was created by God, all metaphorical corners of it. So, to me, the parallels with the theology of the body, which I hold to be true, are not accidental. They’re people having an intuition of the truth without having the revelation of the fullness of it. For this reason, I will continue my yoga practice as exercise for as long as it’s convenient. When I have $20 to spare I will buy a routine from Pietra Fitness and see if I can manage to incorporate prayer in it, but it’s out of interest about it rather than concerns about yoga. Nobody really has the copyright on the moves, but God, and to me the moves are all there is to it.