A common question I get in Pasadena is, “Father, can Catholics do yoga?” I am always a little hesitant to answer. It seems like such an innocuous practice. People do it for health, for balance. It can’t be that bad, right?
I hesitate because I feel that the answer is not as simple and straightforward as the question purports to be. There are a few things to keep in mind.
Yoga is essentially a religious practice, with health benefits. It is true that it reduces stress. Yoga is known to improve circulation and flexibility. And yet, yoga is not an exercise routine with religious roots. It is a religious practice with health benefits. A lot of good people do yoga. I would give yoga instructors the benefit of the doubt, assuming that they are trying to help their students. They have probably seen life transformations many times over. So, how can it be bad?
The Church lists yoga along with other New-Age practices in Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life.
Many go to yoga, searching answers to the questions put forth in the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate.
Men expect from the various religions answers to the unsolved riddles of the human condition, which today, even as in former times, deeply stir the hearts of men: What is man? What is the meaning, the aim of our life? What is moral good, what is sin? Whence suffering and what purpose does it serve? Which is the road to true happiness? What are death, judgment and retribution after death? What, finally, is that ultimate inexpressible mystery which encompasses our existence: whence do we come, and where are we going?
Contacting the Divine
Any religious practice has the goal of contacting the divine. In the case of yoga, this is an Eastern spirituality open to a pantheistic, many-god system based in Hinduism. This is very different from the Christian concept of God. For Christians, God is One and Three. He is one Divine Being, in Three Persons.
“Can Catholics do yoga?” The short answer is no. However, Catholics can do stretching and breathing exercises, improving flexibility, circulation, and well-being. I think it is interesting to keep some degrees of separation from yoga, however. Many yoga studios will have a strong emphasis on the scientific side of yoga, how the breathing and stretching improves health. However, the mantras and prayer positions are still straight out of the yogi manuals. So, it is still a practice of another religion.
Now, I have met some people that like to switch out the mantras for something more Christian. So, they will repeat the name of Jesus or some saint and think that by so doing, they are in the clear. This, unfortunately, is not the case.
Every act of worship is directed towards God, or towards something else. If the gods of the Hindu religion are not real, yet have power, we can only assume that they belong to the realm of the demonic. So, to practice yoga invoking the Hindu gods is essentially to worship false gods and risk entering into the demonic realm. It is very serious business.
Physical and Moral Health
Even if the intention is to focus merely on the health benefits, you are putting yourself at risk. If you enter a yoga studio and do the exercises, even if you are doing your best mentally to stay away from the religious aspect; the person next to you may be praying to these false gods. This invites a demonic presence into the space and if you are next to it, you are at risk of being contaminated. Especially if you are not in a state of grace, you could soon be suffering from demonic oppression or even possession.
What if you want to get the health benefits without the risk? There are other workouts that offer similar benefits without the religious aspect. If you really like following a workout inspired in yoga, I suggest following it in a book or on a video, without being in the presence of others who are practicing an Eastern religion. Avoid the yoga salutation of “Namaste” as it is clearly part of the religious practice.
If you have gotten involved in yoga or other New Age practices, don’t beat yourself up. Go to confession to a priest, confess your sins, and move on with your life.
Saint Paul invites us to test all things and keep what is good. (1 Thes. 5:21) Breathing and stretching are good for our health, but yoga is not.