Some Catholics say yoga is a helpful exercise regimen. Others say it’s the portal of hell. What’s going on here?
She told me her name was Janet and that she was in the office a couple of days a week. She was a trim, petite woman, probably in her early sixties, wearing a white coat and moving too quickly for me to focus on her name tag to catch her last name, or whether she was an MD or an RN, or something else. No matter, really, I was in my doctor’s office for my annual physical check-in, and if she was working there I was confident she knew her business.
Because she had never seen me before, we went through my health history and that of my parents, grandparents, and siblings. I got the usual scolding for never getting enough exercise, and then she asked me about my job. Her eyes lit up when I told her about Catholic Digest. And for a few minutes we talked about the pope, her parish, and her Catholic friends, and then somehow moved from that back to the deteriorating condition of my knees.
“Me too,” she said. “I’ve got bad arthritis. But, you know, I’ve been doing yoga for a few years and it really helps me.” Then she looked defensive, as if she had said something wrong. “I know the Church condemns yoga,” she added quickly, “but I don’t know why; it’s helped me feel a lot better.” I gave her as friendly and reassuring smile as I could, not knowing what else to say to someone who was at that moment attaching wires to my chest. And she seemed happy to have the conversation over as she fired up the EKG machine.
I don’t know what I would have said to her if she wanted an answer from me. Being unaware of whether or not the Church has condemned yoga, I guess I would have told her the truth. “I don’t know; I’ll have to look into it.” And I made a note to myself to do so.
If I needed a reminder, it came a couple of days later in an angry letter from a reader. Our article on migraines in the June issue of Catholic Digest had noted that a study had been done in which migraine sufferers got a measure of relief from yoga stretches. Didn’t we know, the writer said, that yoga has been explicitly condemned by the Vatican?
Since then, I’ve received a few more letters making the same point, so I figured it really was time to look into this. On the Internet I found lots of (unofficial) voices and blogs proclaiming that Catholics may not practice yoga, and that yoga is, spiritually speaking, extremely dangerous — many even using the colorful image of yoga giving demons a portal to enter our souls. When one blog reader commented that she didn’t know the Church had condemned yoga, another commenter replied, “What, have you been living under a rock?” and pasted in press coverage of a 1989 Vatican letter.
Before I get to that letter, I need to come clean: I don’t do yoga. I’ve never done yoga. I can’t imagine a time when I would do yoga. And despite warnings from both my doctor and my wife that age will rob me of flexibility to the point that my only hope will be to find a girl named Dorothy carrying an oil can, I don’t even stretch. I am truly neutral on yoga, and I am not here to encourage or condemn it. But I’m interested in what the Church actually says, not only because I would want to issue a correction and apology if we unwittingly published something that went against Church teaching, but also because I see a larger question here: We’re Catholics living in an increasingly pluralistic culture. What can we legitimately adapt from the culture around us? What can be “baptized” and brought into the faith, and what must we stay away from? This question confronts each of us every day, from the entertainment we choose to the ways we raise our kids and run our businesses.
So what does the Church say about yoga, and how strong is the case that Catholics should have nothing to do with it?
The document the blogger cited was “The Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation.” It was issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and I recommend you read it (Go to vatican.va and paste the title into the search box).
“The ever more frequent contact with other religions,” the letter says, “and with their different styles and methods of prayer has, in recent decades, led many of the faithful to ask themselves what value non-Christian forms of meditation might have for Christians. Some people today turn to these methods for therapeutic reasons. The spiritual restlessness arising from a life subjected to the driving pace of a technologically advanced society also brings a certain number of Christians to seek in these methods of prayer a path to interior peace and psychic balance… they wonder whether it might not now be possible, by a new training in prayer, to enrich our heritage by incorporating what has until now been foreign to it.”
To answer that question, the letter carefully lays down a foundation of “the innate nature of Christian prayer,” and says in the process that we need to be very careful about Eastern mysticism, because while we might find much good in it, there is also much in it that is not compatible with how Christians pray and approach God: “Just as ‘the Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions,’” it says, “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.” Yoga is not singled out. It is mentioned once, in a footnote, as being part of this Eastern mystical tradition.
Certainly the Church here is advising us to be very cautious when approaching Eastern traditions and to always stay true to Christian concepts of God, humanity, salvation, and prayer. It seems like very good advice to me. But I’m having trouble seeing where the bloggers and other voices are finding an absolute condemnation and prohibition of yoga here.
A further search of the Vatican website shows a few more scattered references to yoga. The clearest document (and, again, I recommend you read it) is “Jesus Christ: The Bearer of the Water of Life, A Christian Reflection on the New Age,” issued in 2003 by the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. Here, again, yoga is never addressed by itself, but as one of many Eastern mystical practices that feed into the New Age movement.
The Church is right to be concerned about the New Age. The New Age movement feeds off not just forms of Eastern spirituality and any other tradition it wants to, but Catholic ones as well. Too often Catholics don’t know enough about their own traditions to know where Catholicism ends and New Age forms take over. For example, I recently read a book about angels written by a woman who is a practicing Catholic and proud of spending all her educational years in Catholic schools. Some of her book is traditional Catholic angelology, but there are places where she starts to go astray, and many times she wanders straight into New Agey, The Secret-style craziness: “Visualize opening envelopes full of cash,” she tells the reader, “or envelopes full of checks all made out to you. Don’t think about bills and not having enough or you will get more of the same. Don’t think ‘This stuff doesn’t work.’ Because if you do, the Universe says ‘Your wish is my command,’ and your potential for abundance disappears.”
That is a great example of what the Vatican is afraid of: People who don’t know the difference between Catholic belief and this kind of nonsense easily wander off, from the former to the latter.
And I think this also shows the Church’s concern about yoga: it’s not the stretches and poses that the Church is worried about, it’s some of the Eastern mysticism that underlies them and is often taught with them. Some of that approach to God is really not compatible with our tradition, and if a Christian buys into it and, even unknowingly, blends it with their Christian faith, then that faith may end up in a syncretic mess — perhaps not the portal of hell, but not good for one’s Christian spiritual growth either.
If traditional yoga stretches are useful and one gets benefit from them, the Church wouldn’t seem to have a problem using them. But it would have a problem if one bought into some of the Eastern mystical theology that comes with it. As the key line from the 1989 letter put it: “One can take from them what is useful so long as the Christian conception of prayer, its logic and requirements are never obscured.”
Some Internet voices argue, however, that it is not possible to separate the stretches from the Eastern mystical theology, but that seems to be an extreme view not shared by many, including Cardinal George’s Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago, which regularly offers classes in explicitly Christian-themed yoga.
Like I said above, I don’t do yoga, and while studies have shown that yoga can be helpful in many situations — for example, for women going through treatment for breast cancer, and for migraine relief — I don’t know that it’s any more beneficial than Western types of stretching and any form of gentle exercise — all of which is generally good for us. Vatican documents also warn about exercise regimens that make an idol of the body (or any human activity or thought that makes something into an idol). That point is also well taken. There are all sorts of temptations all around us all the time. But on the whole, if you enjoy the stretches and stay away from the Eastern mysticism that comes with it, and unless your bishop has issued some directive against it, I haven’t been able to find the full-fledged prohibition against yoga that some Catholics proclaim and it’s hard for me to see how yoga can be the invitation to the devil that some claim it to be.
Like so much else in life, the answer about yoga is complicated. And it seems to me that those who seek unambiguous answers and try to bring it down to a simple, blanket yes or no are doing an injustice to both the people of God and to the teaching authority of the Church.
Those are my thoughts right now. I’d be delighted to hear yours!