Friday, January 23, 2009

Catholics and Yoga

I've noticed a debate going on in one of the online groups I subscribe to. It boils down to: is yoga a legitimate practice for Catholics, or is it irredeemably associated with pagan and even diabolical practices? Can believers in Christ use yoga's postures and movements, maybe even "converting" them to relate to Christian themes, or are they irretrievably linked to demonic spirits? I heard a personality on Catholic radio opine the latter so vigorously that I was taken aback. It makes me wonder if we as Catholics have lost our sensibilities in such matters.
The early Church had no trouble recognizing that things which arose in different cultures, even when tainted with superstition, could be "baptized." The Church of Rome even moved the date of the feast of All Saints from May to November, to coincide with the Celtic New Year, which had more than overtones of superstition involving pacifying the spirits of the dead. The feast of Christmas "claimed" the Roman feast of the Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun. It is a basically Catholic attitude to assume that what arises from human culture is more likely to be essentially good than essentially depraved, much less demonic. To look at things from a vantage point of anxiety about their innate depravity is an approach more inspired by Calvinism than Catholicism.
And yet so many Catholics, particularly in the United States, are taking on this Calvinist-style presumption. I suspect it largely is a result of being in the United States, with its strongly Protestant roots. Our culture did not spring from Catholicism! It may also be that many very active Catholic apologists and others spent years within the Protestant churches, and are unconsciously bringing some of that heritage into their Catholic lives (along with so much that is eminently helpful, particularly in terms of familiarity with biblical prayer).

Any thoughts?


Anonymous said...

I think you've hit a few nails on the head.

I also detect in that Calvinist/Catholic interchange general fear of the culture. "Culture wars" is not a Catholic mentality. Separatism is not a Catholic mentality. Yet, that strain is out there and it is vocal.

Also, some things can just be neutral, not 'fer us or agin us.' Yoga, I contend, is one of those things.

But, we had an associate pastor who went ballistic that we had offered 'Catholic yoga' which struck more as a close-minded attitude than something about which to be concerned.

And I am hardly a syncretist. If I never see liturgical dance again, I'll die content. I just dumped in the trash a poster to put in the parish inviting women to a retreat where they could 'encounter the Divine.' (Gee, why encounter an adjective when you could get to know the person?) So, not a yoga apologist speaking here.

Jeff Miller said...

There is quite a difference of Yoga taught as pure exercise and all the flavors of Yoga out there that have various false spiritual underpinnings. Mostly it is taught with some underpinning.

That is where the distinctions need to be drawn and certainly people can be drawn into false spirituality via Yoga, especially if there own faith is not very strong.

Can the exercises be taken out of their spiritual background? Certainly, it can be done- but there is certainly prudence involved in discerning this.

Katie said...

Hi Sr. Anne...
I know this has been out here for awhile but I love this topic of conversation because I don't ever understand this really strong reaction against yoga. I've practiced it for almost 10 years (you'd think I'd be better at it but no) and if anything, it's actually enhanced my ability to pray and meditate.

At its core, its a series of postures intended to prepare the body for deep, transcendental meditation. As far as I know, there's no inherent prayer connected to the poses themselves--only the directive to clear the mind and focus on breath as a life force. This only allows me the freedom to insert my own meditations. I wonder how much the knee-jerkers really understand about yoga itself.

But the larger issue for me here is that in general we seem to be losing perspective. You mention common sense and I agree...people are starting to lose touch. But I also think we generally are losing the ability to employ imagination and innovate. I see it as a problem born of a lack of critical thinking. When we demand and official ruling on everything it's generally a sign that we want someone to tell us what's "right" instead of relying on our own sensibilities to judge it for ourselves. Furthermore, if it's not to the letter of the law (which we often treat as its own god), then it's immediately evil. C'mon. I seem to recall the discussion of "intention" being pretty central for every type of action we stop to evaluate. No action or, in this case posture, comes with a built in value. We assign those values and meanings. If I use yoga to further my own devotion to and understandings of the messages in scripture, then yoga is Catholic. I bring that to the action. I make it meaningful in that way.

In these arguments, Yoga becomes the determining factor of faith. I think that's absurd. If we start with faith, then our actions bear out the faith. Yoga is not a world religion for this reason. It's not a meaning system in and of itself...therefore, it's merely a form and can be fitted with whatever meaning we want it to have.

Just like most of our other non-ritualized actions.