I was picking up food from McDonald’s when I heard a conservative evangelical Christian radio host say, “I would not touch yoga with a ten foot pole.” He and his guest host then went in depth about the the spiritual dangers of yoga for Christians. I thought, “Oh my! I’ve been in involved in a dangerous practice for over ten years.”
I remembered an article I wrote about yoga and Christianity. It was originally published by The Chaldean News. http://www.chaldeannews.com/staying-centered/
Here’s a reprint of the article:
An unfounded belief that yoga is against the Catholic faith persists, though experts say it’s not true.
“Since the term yoga is used in Hindu, it conjures up images in people’s mind,” said Fr. Peter Fennessy, one of six Jesuit priests at Manresa Jesuit Retreat Center in West Bloomfield. “But there are different ways of approaching yoga, one of which focuses on the physical. On that level, it is not religious. It’s a way to relax and become centered. It is then a nice way to pray, because praying without words is a much deeper form of prayer than praying with words.”
For the past eight years, Manresa has offered Christian yoga classes that today are held every Monday from 5:30-6:45 p.m. at a fee of $12 per class. Instructor Grace Seroka, who has been practicing yoga for 40 years, helped start the class when she found she couldn’t relate to other classes’ Indian, vocal music or new-age reflections that were played during the relaxation periods.
“That type of music was not where my heart and spirit were at,” she said. “It was not of my culture.”
Instead, Seroka uses spiritual and sacred Christian music, scripture readings, and weekly Christian themes.
“Yoga is a prelude to meditation,” she said. “On a personal level, over the years it has helped me to slow down, focus, deeply stretch my muscles, and gradually bring me to a stillness.”
Janice Bahura, whose father is Chaldean and mother is American, has been doing yoga since she was 13. She has been teaching classes at Lifetime Fitness in Troy for more than 11 years and also runs classes at the Wellness Training Institute in Sterling Heights. There she works therapeutically by integrating yoga and meditation with elderly, post-surgery patients or those with injuries, to get them to live a healthy lifestyle.
Bahura is impressed by Seroka’s classes. “During meditation, Grace played a tape of Assyrian chanting, the type you hear when you go into church.”
“In my class, I’m paralleling breathing and posture with Christianity,” said Seroka. “That has helped me see the gospel for today, not 2,000 years ago.”
The yoga instructors and the priests at Manresa agree that yoga is healthy to the mind, body and spirit and is not in conflict with Christianity or its belief system.
Where then does the conflict come in?
“Long ago higher-ups in the church would meditate, but politically they tried to keep the regular people from meditating for fear that they would lose respect and power and would no longer be needed,” Bahura said.
Those who are against yoga are an isolated group, but nonetheless, that group does exist.
“I’ve heard some Christians say they don’t believe it is right for a person to connect to God through meditation rather than through Jesus,” said Bahura.
To that, Fr. Fennessy responded, “We say ‘Our Father’ three times a day without mentioning Jesus. We go directly to God.”
Some fear each posture in yoga is specific to some Hindu god, such as when one is standing with arms over their head or sleeping with arms by their side.
“Well, right now, I’m sitting with my legs crossed,” said Fr. Fennessy, “and my arms are on the desk. Does that mean I’m invoking a certain god?”
“I’ve spoken to women who say their church does not allow it and so they’re going to follow orders,” said Bahura. “But they won’t know what’s dangerous about it because they’ll never ever try it.”
Her mother was not such a woman. A Catholic, Bahura’s mother was a practitioner of transcendental meditation. One day the priest at her church questioned whether that contradicted with Christianity, to which she replied, “It has actually strengthened my Christian faith.”
“People are afraid that yoga will lead them into a different religion or away from Christianity,” said Seroka. “But what they fail to realize is that as Christians we meditate too.”
“Christians can profit, can learn from, various Eastern disciplines,” said Fr. Fennessy, but added that one should be careful not to practice syncretism – the combining of different beliefs. “Yoga is a spiritual practice. If it works, use it. If it doesn’t work, don’t use it.”
Fr. Fennessy also noted an interesting contradiction. Hindus don’t believe that the body is real, that it is in fact an illusion, and one must transcend it to the spiritual to get enlightened. Yet though they think the world is an illusion, they put enormous time into the body through yoga, bodily cleansing, eating and breathing.
“We Christians say God created the material world and we focus on the body, yet the only thing we do about it is kneel and stand,” Fr. Fennessy said. “We neglect the body so much and yet theologically we say it’s important. For Christians, the body, the incarnation of Christ, should be very important.”
The official documents of the Catholic Church contain just two references to yoga. They allow that methods of prayer deriving from non-Christian religions can help Christians in their prayer, but warn that discretion needs to be exercised to avoid syncretism and to see that elements do not creep in that are contrary to the fundamental nature of Christian prayer and practice.
“Spirituality is universal and that’s what I bring to my classes,” said Bahura. “It’s where all speak the same language, just using different words. This is the key to getting along and understanding people.”