". . .the heart of a Catholic Yogi"

In 1989 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith delivered a Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation.

In Section V of that document, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) wrote:

“Just as ‘the Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in [the great religions]‘ neither should these ways be rejected out of hand simply because they are not Christian. On the contrary, one can take from them what is useful so long as the Christian conception of prayer, its logic and requirements are never obscured.”

As an increasing number of Catholics are exploring the health benefits of yoga, there is a growing debate among church members that suggests a genuine need for additional teaching and clarification from the Bishops. With that in mind, Patheos will occasionally present on the question, from a variety of perspectives. First up to bat: Catholic writer Mary DeTurris Poust shares her thoughts.

“. . .when it came time to meditate on a mantra, I didn’t want anything Sanskrit. I wanted Christian scripture, because that is my core. As I sat in half-lotus position with many other yogis-in-training, I breathed in and out to the words: “Be still, and know that I am God.” At a time of personal confusion and chaos, yoga gave me a peaceful place to reconnect with God, a way to listen to what He had to say above the din of my life, and an open door that led back to the richness of my own Catholic faith.”

This is an exceedingly interesting piece, and I think it is going to be a portal to some rich discussion and debate, as we anticipate further clarifications from the bishops.

About Elizabeth Scalia
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  • Joseph Marshall

    If I may say so, I think Christians, and particularly Catholics worry far too much about separating out what is “true and holy” in everybody else’s religion and would be better served by cultivating more confidence in what is “true and holy” in their own. For a religion that requires “faith”, Christians seem tremendously bothered by doubt.

    Hinduism is the religion, Hatha Yoga is merely the technique. Buddhism is the religion, zazen or shamatha [to give it the Sanskrit name] is the technique.

    As far as I know, not many yoga studios teach any serious Hindu doctrine or foster any serious Hindu beliefs. And in my own Dharma Center, we teach the technique to anyone who wants to join the open silent meditation [where we use no liturgy], and we teach Buddhist ideas separately, making a clear distinction between the two.

    There is no particular conflict of doctrine involved with focusing your attention on the breath going through your nostrils [our most common technique] nor is there anything particularly “true and holy” to be separated out from it.

    The point of our technique [at least initially] is to become aware of what is actually going on in your mind [most of us haven't a clue about this], rather than to make anything in particular go on in there, such as a belief in this or that or the other.

    Buddhists traditionally do little, if any, evangelizing, and we remain pretty confident in the truth of what we think without having to worry all that much about the truth of what anybody else thinks. This is so because what we think derives almost wholly from what we experience watching our own breath going through our own nostrils. Just like Shakyamuni Buddha did. It goes beyond that, of course, but it always comes from that, ultimately.

    I think the most shocking thing to Christians when they get to know us is that we care a great deal about truth, but really very little about holiness, and most of what a Christian means by “truth and holiness” holds very little interest for us. We not only have some different religious answers, we ask almost totally different religious questions.

    Though it is not totally absent, we really rely very little on “faith” as a Christian uses the word, so we are seldom troubled by faith’s shadow, “doubt”.

  • bt

    I think that if it had a lot of benefit, it is probably something that would have been handed down by the Church Fathers or Saints. Saints are still being canonized today. I have not heard of any of them practicing yoga.

  • http://jscafenette.com/ Manny

    And I thought Patheos wasn’t supposed to be New Agey…LOL (only kidding).

    Aren’t Catholics (or perhaps all Christians) supposed to meditate on “Maranatha” (“Come, O Lord”)? Do a quick google if you don’t know what I’m referring to. I can’t say I meditate it for any extended period of time like a yoga exercise, but I do pray it.

    Wait a second. Isn’t prayer meditation? What’s the difference between some new agey meditation and praying the rosary? Seems like they accomplish the same psychological benefits, and you embrace Mary and Christ at the same time.

  • Carolyn Schuster

    “Yoga” in its original form is a form of worship and if done as prescribed, opens practitioners to some decidedly occultic influences.
    But aspects of Yoga are beneficial and healthful when done as a Christian using Christianity to influence your state of openness its meditations can produce. We have Christian yoga sessions that use christian music and prayers while stretching and using the Yoga positions.
    Leave it to Christianity to take what is in the world around it and transform it into something better and truer for mankind to be blessed with!

  • dancingcrane

    I spent many years studying world religions after an indifferent American Episcopalian upbringing. I was drawn back to Christianity by my search for Truth. Though I avoided Catholicism, as that ‘couldn’t possibly be true’, I had to study it too, as all the rest of Christianity seemed to be in reaction to it.

    What I discovered, to my shock, was that all that seemed ‘true and holy’ in all the other religions, including the various Christian ones, could be found in their fullest flower only in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. I now call the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church my home. I work for, and long for, the reunion of, as John Paul II called them, the two lungs of the Church.

    I am sad that I and so many, felt they had to search in Hinduism, Buddhism and such, for what they could have found right here all along. Maybe it was so we would recognize how precious real Truth is, and mourn all the ways that Truth was obscured in our own sinful lives. If nothing else, it gives us more compassion for all those lost and searching…

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  • http://ampontan.wordpress.com/ Ampontan

    It’s interesting that the practitioner’s choice for an English language mantra is compatible with Hinduism/Buddhism. I can understand her interest in an English mantra, but the Sanskrit mantras I’m aware of would be just as compatible with Catholicism as this one, and would not violate the first commandment. Some are chosen not for the inherent meaning of the words, but for the internal effect of the sound itself on several subtle levels.

    Besides, if one were to pursue this path, one might wind up in the same place as Meister Eckhart.

    A further note–there are many different kinds of meditation, but it seems to me the primary purpose in yoga is not to use the conscious mind, but to detach oneself from it. In other words, to be still and know that one is God.

  • Hantchu

    I’m Jewish, I do yoga with a bunch of Jews with a teacher who deals with concentration, focus, and physicality, No Hinduism there, but you can find that if you want it, even here in Jerusalem.

    When I do mantra meditation (which has no relation to my yoga class), I use a Hebrew mantra. As Rabbi Arye Kaplan points out in his excellent manual, “Jewish Meditation”, there are traditions of many types of meditation within Judaism.

    Meditation has been more mainline in Christianity; I assume it wouldn’t be hard to find sources on which one can depend.

  • SteveM

    I think Thomas Merton plowed this ground 50 years ago.

  • http://breadhere.blogspot.com/ Fran Rossi Szpylczyn

    I will simply copy the comment that I put on Mary’s post here. Yoga, as prompted and led by my Catholic faith, has brought me a tremendous amount of healing and grace. Thanks be to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. With that – my comment from the linked post:

    Mary, thank you so much for this piece, it is outstanding and elucidates one of the most important elements of our Catholic Christian faith… we take it all out into the world with us, not away from the world.

    As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse with no shortage of body issues and in the midst of a huge relapse in PTSD after 9/11 , I took my first yoga class in 2002. It was life changing in that yoga, in an answer to my prayers crying out for healing and peace. I remember taking a class on the first 9/11 anniversary, in the peaceful studio that looked out over the Hudson, the same river the hijackers used as a navigation tool as they flew on their dark mission. As I moved and as I sat, as I prayed to Jesus Christ, I felt a wave of peace that was part of our incarnational faith.

    I like you have always had Scripture and my Catholicism at the heart of my yoga practice. It was always more than just exercise but it never was idol worship or evil.

    It has been awhile since I have hit the mat after having moved and more. You remind me that it just might be time to try again.

  • http://yheard.me Burke Ingraffia

    Elizabeth,

    Thank you for this article. I have tried to address this same issue here:

    http://yheard.me/2009/01/27/yoga-and-catholicism/

    God bless you and may you examine everything carefully and hold fast to that which is good.

    Here’s to good health!

  • francesca

    Yoga is good exercise and good stretching. Aren’t we called to “pray always”? We should pray wherever we are and within whatever we happen to be do-ing. Great to take yoga classes at the local y or gym or at home or studio. One thing I would hesitate in doing would be if I ran a Christian retreat center I would not offer yoga, either with or without Christian slant. It is not imperative that all say the rosary or traditional devotions but nor should yoga be somehow offered in their place.

  • Klaire

    I was really disappointed to see this article on Patheos.

    While I don’t want to come off as over rightous, I can tell you first hand, having lived in the “Yoga capital of the US”, Southern CA, that yoga is very dangerous to the soul.

    IMO, it’s one of satan’s easiest “gets”, again, highly deceptive with “pretty packaging”, in this case, feeling good and staying destressed.

    Even if mentally one thinks he/she isn’t being deceived, trust me, you are! The body postures alone are a type of prayer, opening portals for the occult. Also remember there are TWO spirits, one holy, one not.

    I suggest anyone who can’t grasp this read Johnette Benkovic or Father Pacwa, as well as the Vatican documents on it.

    Even worse, to think that as a Catholic we can “combine” this with prayer is the epitome of deception. Authentic Catholic prayer is anything but “emptying”, it’s about “filling up”, with Jesus Christ.

    For me it took major sacraments to finally get out of the grips of “feel good” yoga. Nothing can compare to sitting next to the Blessed Sacrament, the Real Presence, a “stress reducer” ” yoga couldn’t touch in a million years. Lastly, there are a million non occult stress reducing exercie options, starting with simple “bend and stretch” and walking.

  • Teresa D.

    Klair said it best. I would add that I have never met a yoga practitioner that has not, first and foremost, concentrated on the self exclusively, which to me is anathema to my faith.

  • http://sorryalltheclevernamesaretaken.blogspot.com/ Robert

    Most Yoga enthusiasts want you to believe that they’re practicing an ancient tradition. Truth is, many of the asanas (poses) evolved from the British introduction of gymnastics during the colonial period.

  • Kathy

    I was very dismayed to read the Poust article on yoga. Although I, as a former practitioner, can understand why the stretches and poses would seem healthy and not at all harmless, please keep in mind the ultimate aim of yoga, which is the union of the self with Brahman, or the absolute that is impersonal, although within oneself. The intention that is intrinsic to the postures themselves is the dissolution of the ego, even, one might say the individual personality. Also, chanting om involves the invocation of millions of Hindu deities, even if one is not intending to do so. I suggest that you look at the writings of Fr. Rufus Pereira, an Indian exorcist, who has described the dangers of such practices, or the pertinent writing by Father Mitch Pacwa and Johnette Benkovic. It is also important to note that the postures and breathing exercises are designed to bring energy upward, which can result in strange and even terrifying symptoms called kundalini effects. There was much wisdom in the Vatican caution.

    [Precisely why we're talking about it, Kathy. I think it's better to talk about these things, and learn, then to pretend they don't exist, don't you? -admin]

  • Schot

    The DeTurris Proust article isn’t a responsible use of Catholic media. It confuses tranquility for prayer, and seems to advocate a position that co-opting pagan spiritualism can help us *feel* closer to God. It is described as something that turns one inward to onesself, not reaches our souls to obey or love Jesus. Folks talking about Thomas Merton or the quote from St. Francis to “pray unceassingly” are simply trying to brand something morally indifferent as prayer.

    Imagine if this article were justifying the Catholic adoption of the physical and spiritual aspects of the Kama Sutra. Yoga is no different.

    There were also a few comments in her article about fusing eastern prayer traditions with Catholicism. That’s not what we are called to do as Catholics! We are called to actual communion with the Triune God, not to meditate and stretch out and put the stamp of Christianity on it.

  • Klaire

    Amen to Kathy!

    Elizabeth, I agree it’s good to talk about it, the only problem is, there aren’t really enough people to talk about the dark side of yoga, consequently, articles like this attract a lot of like thinkers and can falsely mislead/confirm.

    I don’t think anyone here is intentionally trying to mislead, including the author, but she appears as clueless as most Catholics, which is why I too was very saddened to see this article on Patheos.

  • Kathy

    In light of the CDF admonitions, the insights of such priests as Fathers John Hardon, and the preternatural realities involved, I think don’t think it’s helpful to initiate such a discussion while framing it so neutrally.

    [I must be neutral because I cannot presume to know more than His Holiness on this issue. Hence, I hope the bishops will say more; but don't be too worried. As I said in the intro, I'll be publishing other pieces down the road, from other perspectives. -admin]

  • Jennifer

    Yoga Body
    The Origins of Modern Posture Practice
    Mark Singleton

    According to the above author, modern day yoga is a confluence of British Army calisthenic and stretching exercises, gymnastics and observing Indian stretching exercises that were popular during the colonial period in India. The development of the camera also had a big influence on it’s popularity.

  • jeff

    I do hot or bikram yoga. It is very hard but you feel great when it’s over. No efforts are made to force hinduism at all. Combine yoga with confession penance and communion, and you should be in great overall shape.

  • Joseph Marshall

    “IMO, it’s one of satan’s easiest “gets”, again, highly deceptive with “pretty packaging”, in this case, feeling good and staying destressed. Even if mentally one thinks he/she isn’t being deceived, trust me, you are! The body postures alone are a type of prayer, opening portals for the occult. Also remember there are TWO spirits, one holy, one not.”

    “The DeTurris Proust article isn’t a responsible use of Catholic media. It confuses tranquility for prayer, and seems to advocate a position that co-opting pagan spiritualism can help us *feel* closer to God.”

    “Elizabeth, I agree it’s good to talk about it, the only problem is, there aren’t really enough people to talk about the dark side of yoga,”

    “I was really disappointed to see this article on Patheos.”

    How ready we often are to see evil in mere difference–as if we did not have plenty of genuine evil to measure it by, as twenty minutes reading or watching news will show.

    I drop by here occasionally because Elizabeth has been my friendliest political adversary since the election of 2004. But I was pleased to see that her move to Patheos gave her a context of genuine spiritual curiosity and a real spirit of inclusiveness:

    “Founded in 2008, Patheos.com is the premier online destination to engage in the global dialogue about religion and spirituality and to explore and experience the world’s beliefs. Patheos is the website of choice for the millions of people looking for credible and balanced information or resources about religion.”

    Now, as far as Buddhism goes, Patheos hasn’t quite achieved “credible and balanced information or resources”. It suffers from “secondarysourceitis” and has yet to tap into the rich vein of American Buddhist literature and genuine, living teaching in English by scholars who are Buddhists–mostly but not entirely Buddhist monastics–that has emerged in the past 20 years. But it has only been two years and, taking what they have to say at face value, I expected the Buddhist portal to grow in depth and sophistication over time.

    Apparently I have been deceived. Patheos is actually an outlet of “Catholic Media” . If so, I can say without prejudice that its editorial staff is guilty of false advertising.

    I hope this isn’t truly so. It certainly makes a non-Catholic feel very unwelcome.

    One of the differences from the transition from Pope John Paul to Pope Benedict has been Benedict’s firmly expressed opinion that the first thing Catholics have to say in any “interfaith dialog” is that the teachings of the Catholic Church are true.

    That Catholics think their teachings are true really comes as no surprise to the rest of us. But we do wonder what to say next to continue the dialog.

  • Klaire

    With all due respect Joseph, “truth” without “holiness” is wothless, as few if any know the truth of Christ more than satan.

    To do anything AWAY from that truth, as in body positions in prayful poses toward the Eastern gods, is a major step towards “unholiness”, knowingly or unknowingly.

    FWIW, “holiness’ is the meaning of a Catholic’s life, to be one with Christ, not “self.”

  • Joseph Marshall

    Oh, come on Klaire, you don’t have to give me “due respect”. Everyone here is my friend and I’m so flaky much of the time that I’m not sure I’d even give me due respect. As to “self”, the novice monk once said to the Zen Master, “How do I get rid of my “self”?” and the Master replied, “What would you do with a “self”?”

    If I have a “self”, I’ve yet to find it, and as a Buddhist, I’ve spent about thirty years looking carefully and hard for it. That’s exactly the sort of thing that interests us.

    I can watch my emotions get all bent out of shape that my “self” might somehow be threatened by something, and I can watch my intellect try to appease my emotions by working up some way or other to defend my “self”, but when I go carefully looking for where to build the good strong wall, I can’t find anything to put it around.

    What color is your self? What shape is it? Does it live in your head, your heart, or your stomach? Is it the same thing as your “mind”, your “soul”, your “spirit”, your “memory”, or your body as a whole?

    If your self is in possession of your emotions, where does it put them when it isn’t using them? Where does anger go when you are happy? Where does envy go when you are content?
    What is your mother’s maiden name? And just where was this information hiding when you started reading this comment?

    Who are you praying to if you are standing on your head? And just who is it that is doing the praying? Have you made a vow never to stand on your head because it’s idolatrous? Will you ever lie down and completely relax [like a "corpse" as they say] since you are praying to who knows who when you do?

    Is Christ truly inaccessible if you are sitting on the floor with your legs crossed? If so what does He prefer His sheep to sit in? A Laz-I-Boy?

    If you’ve found holiness and it fulfils you, great. If you are one with Christ, wonderful. Keep taking the Sacraments, confessing, and repenting your sins. Be the best Catholic you can be.

    But when you come back from disappearing in Christ, where have you come back from? And what prevents anyone, anywhere, at anytime from opening their heart to Him, even if they are sitting cross-legged on the floor?

  • Luth

    I heard that the different postures represented a diety…

    True or not… don’t know… But it’s not impossible..

  • Juliekbittinger

    Fr Mitch Pacqua did a radio program on Yoga. He is one of the Catholic presenters that I trust to be true to the Faith, and not water it down or mix it up with New Age practices or philosophies. He discussed Yoga and the poses at length, explaining that the poses were originally developed in honor of deities, and due to this–though he wouldn’t say it should be forbidden, he thought it was advisable to stay away from it.

  • Juliekbittinger

    Klaire,
    Kudos for standing up for your Faith! I would like to introduce you to the writings etc of MAtthew Kelley- a very faithful, traditional Catholic man. You can find him at Matthewkelly.com–or just google him—I have found his ‘crusade’ to discover the genius of Catholicism and to be the best Version-of-yourself you can be– to honor God–to be very encouraging and grounding to me in a world gone a little mad. We need to recapture our vibrant Catholic Faith and share it lovingly with the whole world.


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