Christian yoga?

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Yoga has surged in popularity among members of many faith traditions or members of no religion at all. Yoga is a set of physical and spiritual practices originating in Eastern religions. Many equate yoga with other forms of exercise and do not know of its link with non-Christian spiritual practices. Originating chiefly in Hinduism and Buddhism, yoga is seen by its Eastern practitioners as a path to spiritual enlightenment or union. Yoga, meaning “yoke,” is the process of union with the divine — or more popularly today, the union and integration of body, mind, and spirit. 

Not surprisingly, since Eastern religions are so diverse, there are many forms of yoga. A popular type of yoga is hatha yoga, which emphasizes the psychophysical, the relationship between the body’s movements and spiritual growth. Hatha yoga is attentive to controlled breathing, concentration, and maintaining certain physical postures. Specific bodily postures are sometimes joined to mantras, statements that are repeated to help focus the mind. The reported psychological and physiological benefits of hatha yoga include a reduction of stress, increased focus, muscle tone, flexibility, balance, and better cardiovascular health.

Yoga is seen by its Eastern practitioners as a path to spiritual enlightenment.

The practice originated in the East, but often the practice of yoga in the United States has become distant from its spiritual roots, and indeed, many versions of yoga as practiced in this country have no meditative component, claim no spiritual benefits, and do not include any form of mantras or spoken prayers or affirmations, leaving only the physical aspect. For many who practice it, the health benefits are the sole purpose of yoga and do not indicate a desire to substitute yoga for Christianity or to meld Eastern religions and Christianity. 

While yoga — at least in its largely nonreligious form — is widely practiced by Christians, many wonder whether it is compatible with Christianity. The Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in other religions, but non-Christian practices or their blending with Christianity present difficulties, including subtle adjustments to a person’s spiritual outlook, even if not intended. 

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Though it is considered by many to be harmless to one’s faith, because of its Eastern spiritual roots, yoga should be approached cautiously. It may seem to propose a sure method of union with the divine, one that can be mastered if one follows the proper technique. Salvation, according to this understanding, can be equated with a form of self-fulfillment or self-actualization. But in emphasizing the self, yoga lacks any reference to salvation through Jesus Christ and the spiritual communion of the Church, thus supplying a false notion of the path to spiritual union. 

Further, yoga as a spiritual path can make it appear that we ourselves bring about a connection with the divine through our actions and merits, not God’s gift. And the positive bodily experiences and results of yoga can be falsely equated with spiritual progress, leading to a kind of idolatry of the body (see Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Oct. 15, 1989, 

But in emphasizing the self, yoga lacks any reference to salvation through Jesus Christ.

Not all agree on whether yoga is suitable for Christians. Some consider yoga’s postures neutral; others believe they are a participation in non-Christian prayer, even unintentionally. Among those who believe yoga can be Christian, some have attempted to adapt yoga, providing overtly Christian content and symbolism to its techniques, postures, and mantras. The rosary or other Catholic prayers, for instance, have been substituted for the mantras.

Whether it is beneficial for Christians, the practice of yoga witnesses to two important aspects of physical and spiritual well-being: care of our bodies, including exercise, and the desire to draw closer to the divine. Yoga is popular today in part because it helps satisfy an increasingly common difficulty: the need to find quiet spaces in our busy lives for recollection, prayer, and meditation. 

If yoga’s practice, often for physical benefits, can be separated from its Eastern spiritual roots, it could be seen as religiously neutral and beneficial to one’s physical health. But the practice of yoga cannot substitute for the life of grace through Jesus. The Christian is called not merely to integrate body, mind, and soul, but to enter into an amazing union with God himself. That God became man in Jesus so that man might become more like God is a form of union that yoga neither promises nor can envision. 

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