Since the beginning, Christianity has been in dialogue with the cultures in which it finds itself. Although, this is not the kind of dialogue that people often imagine in contemporary society. Rather, Christianity’s dialogue with the world has always been missionary in nature. The believer enters into conversation with other religions, philosophies, and avenues of human inquiry to discover those elements which are in harmony with revealed truth and to show their greater fulfillment in the person of Jesus Christ. In this sense, our discovery of truth in non-Christian cultures always leads us back to Jesus Christ because he is the life, the truth, and the way.
The ultimate measure of a religion’s goodness, truth, and beauty is its conformity to the fullness offered in Jesus Christ. That does not mean, however, that Christianity has nothing to learn through dialogue.
In writing on the exchange between cultures, Pope Benedict XVI draws our attention to the example of St. Basil in his work on Great Christian Thinkers. Basil recommends that we should be like bees who take the pollen from the flower while leaving the rest. Thus the metaphor indicates that as we enter into dialogue with the wisdom of world, we must constantly practice discernment. This in turns helps us to understand those elements of the world which help us illuminate and penetrate the mystery of Jesus Christ, bringing greater understanding and clarity, and those elements which lead us farther away from him.
The goal is always intimacy with Jesus Christ and through him with the Father and Holy Spirit.
With that in mind, I believe that we need a renewal in asceticism which can help address the concerns of contemporary Americans. A popular trend in American society at this time is yoga. In the form in which it is most commonly practiced in the United States, yoga involves a series of postures connected with intentional breathing and concentration techniques. Despite what some detractors claim, yoga is not devotional in nature. The Yoga Sutras do not promote devotion to any one Hindu God, but were a part of a spirituality that was more complex and mystical. Yoga developed in a way somewhat similar to the contemplative traditions of Catholicism, and likewise plays a similar role. Within the larger Indian philosophical and spiritual tradition from which it comes, asana based yoga is a preparation of the body and mind for higher stages of spirituality and enstatic meditation. Likewise, in the Yoga Sutras, the spiritual goals are attained through meditation and physical discipline. Thus, Yoga spirituality is by nature Pelagian. By this I mean that it teaches that salvation is accomplished through human intentionality.
So we have to ask ourselves, “Why is it that so many Americans are being drawn into yoga for exercise and relaxation?” I think the key to understanding this is the difference between yoga and many Western forms of exercise. For the most part, Western exercise culture tends to be dominated by more rigorous and intense forms of training. In contrast, yoga is much gentler and relaxing. This in turn gives yoga the advantage when appealing to people who want a means of relaxing that does not tax the body like many of the other alternatives. Likewise, it can be an alternative for many people who are not able to do more intense workouts.
Studies on yoga always show that these kinds of physical conditioning have many health benefits and can help assist individuals in cultivating both physical and psychological well being.
So if yoga as exercise has many benefits for the mind and body, why is the Church concerned about it in many of documents that have been published in the past 50 years? The answer is not as simple as one might guess on first glance. While there is a certain caution about yoga in some of the Church documents, these documents do not explicitly say that Catholics are forbidden from doing yoga. Some Bishops have made strong statements in that direction, but at the same time there are clergy in India and the United States who promote yoga and have not been formerly censored by the Church. Thus, to be fair, we would have to say it is a question open to discussion.
What is condemned and is clearly not Catholic is some of the thoughts about the human person and the divine which can be found both in the primary texts of yoga and in some spiritualities which have spun off of it. The biggest philosophical and theological principle found in yoga which is not harmony with Catholic thought is the notion of tapping into and controlling “divine energy.” In its Indian roots, this notion is tied to an idea of the body in which the divine is liberated from the confines of the body.
Furthermore, there are many components of Hindu Mysticism that are what is traditionally referred to as esoteric. Esoteric beliefs in this sense would point to the view that “spiritual” or “enlightened” people posses a variety of magical powers and abilities, and these claims are made quite specifically in most of the major texts of yoga and East Asian religions in general. At best, these esoteric beliefs can inspire people to a moral code and encourage virtuous living. At worst, they seem to border on elements which a Christian perspective would find unhealthy.
It is precisely an unhealthy esoteric spirituality of which the Church is most cautious.
Within this context, yoga is taken up by many New Age spiritualities which likewise combine this idea of tapping into divine energy with all manner of troublesome beliefs. New Age spirituality is likewise not in harmony with Catholic and Christian thought and it presents a vision of reality that often leads one away from Jesus Christ.
At worse, all of this can lead to demonic possession. Let’s be clear about that, esoteric beliefs can lead to demonic possession. I will leave it up to others to write more clearly about that.
That being said, I believe that the key to moving forward is navigating a middle ground between two different extremes. To do so, we must recognize that Yoga spirituality is fundamentally distinct from Christian spirituality, and the differences between the two must be recognized. That being said, however, we should not fall into our first extreme which is a reactionary stance in which we simply try and forbid yoga and ignore the many benefits and insights it has given contemporary culture. Going back to our previous metaphor, we must be like the bee who takes out what is good and leaves the rest of the flower.
We also must avoid the other extreme, which is a syncretist adaption of everything that comes with yoga. There are clearly elements in both the exercise culture associated with yoga and in its Indian roots that need to be purified and elevated by Christian dogma and anthropology. Our goal in dialogue is not simply to haphazardly adapt every trend that surfaces in our culture, but through a process of discernment consider all that is true, good, and beautiful in other cultures and show how they are fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
I believe that Eastern Christianity has a lot to offer us in our discussion. In particular, the spirituality of Hesychasm. In this spirituality, there was a particular concept which can both provide an opportunity for dialogue with yoga and help us in a quest for a renewal in Christian asceticism. In their spirituality, they believed that the goal of our intentional efforts was to cultivate stillness, or apatheia. Along these lines, through meditation and physical discipline, one was able to still the mind and body and thus be available to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit.
In our contemporary society, many of us are sedentary for most of the day. As physical labor is being replaced by technology, there is becoming a need to understand the role of exercise both in physical health and the spiritual life. The Hesychasts teach us that a balanced approach to exercise would not be a quest for the perfect body or to constantly maintain an ideal weight, but rather to cultivate that stillness in the body which allows the individual to be available to God and neighbor.
Along these lines, our interior life is tied to the body. Thus, by gently guiding the body through fasting and exercise, one likewise educates and guides one’s thoughts, feelings, and desires. A renewal of asceticism would not seek to punish or destroy our human nature, but to guide it in such a way that we could truly flourish.
We also must keep in mind that physical stillness and psychological equilibrium must be accompanied by moral development and virtuous living. Without the necessary guidance of objective morality and sound reason, any such asceticism would soon fall into pride and egocentricity, and instead of leading us to Christ, it would only enslave us in illusions.
Furthermore, we must also recognize that asceticism is merely a response to God’s initiative. We do not earn our salvation either by virtuous living or through self-actualization. Asceticism helps us to deepen our response to Jesus Christ and it helps us to penetrate the Divine Mysteries. Through our intentional efforts, we prepare ourselves for that illumination which is contained in the grace offered through the sacraments and in the Word of God.
I believe that all Christians must integrate some forms of exercise into their lives in order to be available to Jesus Christ. A balanced exercise program involves stretching, strengthening, and endurance. Likewise, intentional breathing can help calm the mind and body and to assist us in concentration. Thus, there is a lot we can learn from the world that can help us to deepen our relationship with Jesus Christ.
With that in mind, let us be like the bee that St. Basil described. Let us learn what we can from yoga and from the exercise culture in general, and use it to help us be available to Jesus Christ.