If I said I’m Christian and I do some exercises of stretching, strength and balance, that help to improve flexibility and control my breathing, and that allow me to relax and energize, I’m sure everyone would think that’s cool. However, if for convenience of the language I want to reduce 13 words to 1 and say I do yoga, the problems start.
Yoga as exercise
You must have noticed that above I’ve reduced my definition of yoga to purely corporal aspects. That’s because for me, firstly, yoga is just another kind of exercise. A series of poses and movements that we can do with our bodies as part of our training. For sure, a especially profitable form of training, since it brings us tons of benefits. Among them:
It’s a remedy for back pain
When I started doing yoga I noticed an evident and immediate improvement in my back problems. It helps to unload and stretch it, and it also teaches you to maintain a good posture the rest of the time.
It allows to stretch the muscles
That’s why it comes in super handy after a hard training session, or when you’re feeling a bit stiff.
It helps to relax body and mind
A lot of times we live stressed out, so we have our heads always full of things and about to explode, and that passes on to our bodies, making us feel more rigid and tired. Yoga is a moment to stop, disconnect and release those tensions.
It helps to make silence
In our culture it seems like silence is boring and it’s avoided at all costs because it isn’t “productive”. When it’s not music,TV, a podcast, etc., it’s mentally looking over our to-do list. That’s all very good, but silence is also a human need and yoga provides a great chance to take care of it.
It improves flexibility and balance
This isn’t only good for health and we’ll surely be thankful for it when we’re old, but it will also be super useful when we practice other kinds of exercises, improving our ability and performance.
It teaches to breathe
We don’t usually pay attention to our breathing, but it’s important to harmonize body and mind, especially in stressful situations.
It recharges us with energy
This, even if is seems contradictory, happens in general when we exercise since it releases endorphins. Now, take away the tiredness caused by exercising and add all the previous benefits. Boom. Energy shot.
Of course, one could use other poses to get all of that, or new systems could be invented but, why search new things if there are already ones that work? This time I will settle with the law of minimum effort.
One of the most common objections from Christians to yoga is that in its culture of birth, the Hindu, it’s a sacred practice, and that’s why we can’t use it. However, this argument doesn’t convince me. Christianity has always assimilated cultural things, and even those who had a spiritual meaning (if it hadn’t, we wouldn’t have Christmas trees, for example). It has admitted what was good and true in those practices and taken it to its fulfillment. From St Paul to missionaries in far away lands, acculturation has been very frequent.
What does the Church say?
It’s worth the effort to read the Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on some aspects of Christian meditation, written by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1989, which is the only official declaration from the Vatican about this topic that I’ve found. Here we’re going to examine the most significant passages:
16. The majority of the great religions which have sought union with God in prayer have also pointed out ways to achieve it. Just as “the Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these 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. It is within the context of all of this that these bits and pieces should be taken up and expressed anew. -> This point is key, since it invites us not to reject outright practices as the one we’re talking about, we shouldn’t be closed and think there’s only one right way to pray and we can learn nothing from other traditions. It’s not about copying them acritically, but about assimilating them, making them ours.
19. On this topic St. Augustine is an excellent teacher: if you want to find God, he says, abandon the exterior world and re-enter into yourself. However, he continues, do not remain in yourself, but go beyond yourself because you are not God: He is deeper and greater than you. -> in this world we often live outside ourselves. Yoga helps us enter in ourselves, and it’s in our intimacy where we can listen to God’s voice.
The body in prayer
26. Human experience shows that the position and demeanor of the body also have their influence on the recollection and dispositions of the spirit. […] In prayer it is the whole man who must enter into relation with God, and so his body should also take up the position most suited to recollection. Such a position can in a symbolic way express the prayer itself, depending on cultures and personal sensibilities. -> we’re body and soul and, therefore, we can also pray with our body, in the way that helps us more.
27. Eastern Christian meditation has valued psychophysical symbolism, often absent in western forms of prayer. It can range from a specific bodily posture to the basic life functions, such as breathing or the beating of the heart. -> All the mentioned aspects are covered by yoga, so it’s a practice that predisposes us adequately to prayer.
28. That does not mean that genuine practices of meditation which come from the Christian East and from the great non-Christian religions, which prove attractive to the man of today who is divided and disoriented, cannot constitute a suitable means of helping the person who prays to come before God with an interior peace, even in the midst of external pressures. -> Nothing else to add. Yoga isn’t prayer, but it can be of help to prayer, because it contributes to making man come back to his inner self and clear up his mind from so many noise and stress.
We must say that this same letter includes a warning against “not sufficiently prepared” people (26). For them, “understood in an inadequate and incorrect way, the symbolism can even become an idol and thus an obstacle to the raising up of the spirit to God” (27). It’s important not to confuse gratifying physical feelings as experiencing the Holy Spirit (28). Therefore, to start with, we need a solid Christian formation. Moreover, you should only use yoga as much as it really helps you, like it helps me, to get closer to God. If it doesn’t serve you, get rid of it. And of course, be careful: what you can’t do is go practice it to a new age center, recite strange things, etc.
Another remarkable aspect is the greeting that’s usually done at the beginning and end of a yoga session: namaste. Nama means bow, which is the way of respectfully greeting someone in Asia; as means I and te, to you. But it isn’t merely bowing to the other person. They say this greeting because of the belief that the divine spirit dwells in the other. Therefore, it would be like saying: “the divine in me greets the divine in you”. Despite not in the same way as them, we Christians also believe that God is inside us, inside each one of us (and especially after the Eucharist). Namaste christianized would mean acknowledging the other person as a human being with an immortal soul, created in the image and likeness of God and in whom Christ Himself is present.
Yoga in ED recovery
When I was at an extremely low weight, a little of yoga was all the exercise I was allowed to do. It helped me at the beginning of my recovery to learn to look at my body in a different way, to treat it well and act in cooperation with it. To value it because of what it was and what it could do and not only because of how I saw it in the mirror. To understand that the purpose of exercise wasn’t to burn as many calories as possible.
Nowadays, yoga is for me a moment to give thanks to God after my workout routine, realizing what a wonder it is that I have healthy and strong bones and muscles that allow me to do those things, feeling accomplished because I’m taking good care of this body that God has lent me and it’s His property, after mistreating it for so many years; giving thanks also because now I know how to use exercise well, not as a form of punishment, and that the next thing I’m going to do is keep respecting His creation by eating adequately taking into account the physical effort I’ve made.
Tips to transform yoga into prayer time
We Christians are called to pray without ceasing, and our yoga practice shouldn’t be an exception. How can we use that moment to invite God into our soul? These are some strategies:
Offering it up
That’s what makes all the difference, as in the rest of things we do in our lives. Studying isn’t the same as studying for the Lord, working as working for the Lord. It isn’t so much about what we do, but about how, why and for Who we do it. Every worldly reality is then transformed. (Please note: obviously we should only offer up good things. I’m taking for granted that yoga is, based on what I’ve explained above).
It’s a extraordinary moment to do contemplative prayer. We usually pray by talking, telling what’s happening to us, asking for things, giving thanks, meditating on a text… but it’s hard to make enough silence to contemplate. When I pray while doing yoga, I often don’t say anything, just that sentence that a humble man told the Cure of Ars: “I look at Him and He looks at me”, and I know that He knows all the stuff that I’m thinking about.
Associating the poses to Christian realities
We can also meditate about mysteries of our faith taking advantage of the pose we’re doing. For example, in the tree pose we can think about the Tree of Life, in the chair pose about the Chair of Saint Peter, in the boat pose about Noah’s Ark, in the locust pose about the plagues of Egypt, etc. In general, in all the poses named as natural elements we can meditate about Creation, and my favorite: child pose to surrender completely to God and feel like a small child in the arms of her Father.
Praying with breathing
Invite the Holy Spirit in with every inhalation, and expel all that isn’t from God in us (selfishness, resentment, lack of faith and trust, etc.) with every exhalation.
The one I recommend the most is the Rosary because of the contemplation content in every mystery. It’s also a great idea to repeat a prayer, the Our Father for example, as a “mantra” and delve into the words more and more each time, getting to their essence (this is what brought Tatiana Goricheva to conversion!-She speaks about it in her book Talking about God is dangerous).
In short, yoga, besides being a beneficial practice for physical health (it is, and a lot!), when we assimilate it properly, can also be very fruitful for our spiritual health as Christians, creating a favorable outer and inner attitude to be alone with God in prayer. Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it!