Back in September I met a yoga instructor through a mutual friend. I was told she was a committed Catholic and was incredibly interested in hearing how she was able to reconcile the two. I have heard so much about yoga and how we as Catholics ought to avoid it. I had heard that yoga is a Hindu practice and through this the practitioner seeks enlightenment through union of the body, mind and spirit. I had heard that through this practice we are taught to distance ourselves from our feelings and almost separate our body from our feelings. I had heard that it is a practice which opens the doors to demonic forces. All in all it would be fair to say I was wary of this particular practice. At the same time I remembered a yoga class starting in my old school and really enjoying the practice so perhaps there was more to it than first appeared.
After chatting with the instructor I heard that she had a new class starting up the following week close to my hometown. I asked if she wouldn’t mind my joining and she was only too happy to accommodate this. I have been attending this weekly class since then and absolutely love it. In the hustle and bustle of daily life which seems to be getting more and more stressful I have found one activity which allows an hour and a half in my week in which I can exercise, in which I can breathe properly and in which I can really relax. It’s almost like a mini retreat for me. In that time I have found myself wanting to know more about this practice, because quite frankly if this is in fact a demonic practice then I don’t believe I’d be wanting to engage with it! As it turns out, there are quite a number of myths surrounding yoga and I believe the practice can be useful for Catholics. So many of these myths are an unfortunate result of modern society and where we as a society are heading.
The first myth surrounds yoga as a Hindu practice. While it is nearly impossible to pinpoint the moment yoga first began being practiced the general consensus is that it first appeared between 600BC – 500BC in India. Likewise, Hinduism has no singular figure who first began teaching its way and began to grow from around 500BC – 300BC again in India, along the banks of the river Sindhu. Because these concepts grew from the banks the teaching was labelled as Hindu. Yoga does not belong to the Hindu culture or identity. Just as Fr Georges Lemaître, a Belgian priest discovered what we now know as the Big Bang it does not mean that this theory is a Catholic one but rather a gift to the world.
Does yoga encourage us to try and separate ourselves from our feelings? No; quite the opposite in fact. The first thing which we will do in our practice is get into a habit of breathing properly. We will breathe deeply, all the way down to our pelvis and all the way up to our collar. We breathe to allow our lungs to expand to their fullest and stretch the intercostals muscles as much as we can. These are muscles which we generally do not exercise that often and so our breathing becomes shallow and sharp. Scientists agree that we should be able to get much of our energy from our breathing, but because we are so stressed in our daily life this does not happen. It’s no surprise that we have seen the increasing popularity of energy drinks, exercise ‘supplements’ and energy booster foods all around us. These are quick fix solutions which pump our body full of chemicals, do us more damage than good and offer no real solution. All the while we have the capacity within ourselves to get the energy we need. Through our practice we move into a series of asanas (poses/postures/holds etc.) There is a general perception that yoga is just about putting your body into weird shapes, which is no surprise given that our society has become so fixated on body, appearance and image. Rather these holds allow us to achieve balance. Our breathing becomes balanced as does our focus on what we are doing. If we exercise something on the left side of the body we will follow this by exercising the right side. Just like in the ancient Celtic tradition of walking a labyrinth the pilgrim would train both sides of their brain through said practice.
The final myth surrounds those pesky demonic forces. This is something which causes much fear in the minds of those considering yoga. Do the asanas represent deities or other forces? No. Then again if I kneel and place my two hands together am I praying? No, not unless I am making a specific effort to pray. Do we sit or stand while chanting mantras? No. If I were to be chanting anything then I am using my breath and not exercising the posture correctly. I wouldn’t be focussed on what I was doing.
Make no mistake; yoga is not something we do to get six-pack abs. It is not something I practice to achieve closer union with God. Rather this practice teaches me to breathe properly and to remember that my body is stronger than I believe at times. When I go through my daily life and meet stressful situations I remember to breathe properly and that I am stronger than I believe. I meet these stressful situations head on. Yoga is simply a discipline, much like prayer. If we have a healthy prayer life this will impact on our daily life when we are not consciously praying. When I enter my weekly yoga practice does anyone judge me because usually I am the only male there? Does it make me feel any less masculine? Do they sneer at my inability to maintain some of the postures? The answer to all three is no. Rather I have met some of the most wonderful people I could hope to who have helped me embrace my own self-esteem, self-worth and strength. To me this is a gift from God. If you as a Catholic decide not to do yoga, that’s fine. However, please don’t persecute those of us who do.