By Marianna Bartholomew
It's an ancient religious practice full of meaning and significance. At the same time, it's a hip workout touted by celebs and everyday exercisers alike.
As many as 20 million Americans practice yoga, according to the Yoga Research and Education Center in northern California. Hospitals, YMCAs and park districts offer classes; dance studios blend ballet and yoga, even at the preschool level.
Sixty schoolteachers in San Francisco received yoga training through the nonprofit U. S. Yoga Association based there. Seven public schools offer a 'yoga break' along with "typical school rituals like recess and the Pledge of Allegiance," writes Patricia Leigh Brown in a March 22, 2002, article in The New York Times.
Catholics even find yoga at church. One Chicago-area parishioner helped organize a "Yoga Night of Rejuvenation" for her Catholic Council of Women. Asked whether this Eastern, non-Christian tradition should come to her otherwise orthodox church, she laughed.
"We're not out to make people Buddhists," she responded. "We'll have an evening of stretching -- and I have wonderful exfoliating cream to share."
As yoga's popularity increases, however, the Church urges caution. Along with exercise, yoga blends non-Christian meditation. New Age ideas often permeate classes.
A new Vatican report (see sidebar) joins other Church resources in helping Catholics to discern when these New Age influences are detrimental to Christian life.
Some people take up yoga as a hobby or for exercise, only to encounter instructors promising "greater unity with the divine."
"I loved yoga, and people said I never looked better," said one Catholic woman from New Lenox, Ill. As she deepened her faith through Bible study and a prayer group, however, she "began feeling strange" when her yoga class assumed its lotus position to meditate. She dropped the class and began walking for exercise instead.
Another instructor's discussion of astrology and horoscopes prompted a 70-year-old piano teacher from Hinsdale, Ill., to quit.
Certain types of yoga downplay the mystical elements and focus on the physical workout. "Power yoga" is one such vigorous American adaptation.
Still, underpinning yoga is the "Srimad Bhagavad-Gita," Hindu writings describing creation and 27 incarnations of the four-handed deity Vishnu, in particular the Lord Krishna.
The teachings of yoga "are infused with many concepts that have a Hindu, Buddhist or Jaina flavor," writes Yoga Research and Education Center founder Georg Feuerstein on the group's website. Concepts such as karma -- the Hindu teaching that one's present life is the result of an action from a former existence -- reincarnation and belief in many gods often can be a "stumbling block for Westerners," writes Feuerstein.
Hindus not only worship many gods, they believe all things are god. The goal of Hinduism is "an inward quest to discover the 'true self,' who is god," writes Johnnette S. Benkovic, a Catholic author and television producer who appears on Mother Angelica's Eternal Word Television Network. In her book "The New Age Counterfeit: A Study Guide for Individual or Group Use" (Queenship, $7.50), Benkovic describes the Hindu view of yoga as a path leading to "god-realization."
Yoga styles seek altered states of consciousness through manipulating the body and central nervous system, chanting a mantra and exploring psychic experiences and powers through six psychic centers along the spine called "chakras."
The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is "true and holy" in non-Christian religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, explains Benkovic, citing the Second Vatican Council's Nostra Aetate, the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions.
However, while this document acknowledges that "a ray of truth which enlightens all men" may be found in non-Christian religions, "the declaration does not state that Catholics are free to engage in religious practices and rituals of these religions, nor adopt aspects of their religious beliefs and philosophies," Benkovic writes.
Worldwide, "New Age has seeped into mainstream society and even figures in some Catholic Church groups and seminaries," writes Father Roy Cimagala for The Freeman newspaper in Cebu, Philippines.
"It's a strange creature, this New Age," he mused. "Despite good and legitimate elements, there are dangerous and even clearly erroneous things in it."
It is hard to argue against a yoga program that makes schoolchildren calm, focused and physically flexible. Yet a telling story in Brown's New York Times article describes what one girl advised her mother after the mother had received bad news in the mail. "Do your cocoon," said the girl, referring to a yoga position learned at school. She instinctively turned to a yoga technique instead of prayer in a time of crisis. In an age when prayer is banned from public schools and yoga is seeping in, this seems a logical development.
Christian faith "flees from impersonal techniques or from concentrating on oneself," states the 1989 "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation" from the Vatican's Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.
"Position and demeanor of the body" do have a place in prayer, states the letter, and Eastern Christian mysticism addresses this well. For example, repeating the name of Jesus in rhythm with one's breathing can help in entering into prayer.
However, physical exercises "automatically produce a feeling of quiet and relaxation . . . which resemble spiritual well-being," says the letter. Gauging one's intimacy with God based on such feelings is a mistake even first-century Christians made. Erroneous methods of prayer led people to a "cult of the body," instead of a focus on Christ, the letter said.
Few think they are stepping into dangerous territory when they attend yoga classes. Many say they are just "stretching the stress out." Others like the mind-body-spirit connection of yoga. They may feel let down by Church institutions, so are seeking something new, says the 1989 letter on Christian meditation. And many Christians are "caught up in the movement towards openness and exchanges between various religions and cultures." While dialogue between cultures is good, people are accepting elements of these cultures with a non-discriminating eye.
Pope John Paul II cautions "those Christians who enthusiastically welcome certain ideas originating in the religious traditions of the Far East" in his book "Crossing the Threshold of Hope" (Random House, $15).
"First, one should know one's own spiritual heritage well," he writes, "and consider whether it is right to set it aside lightly."
Part of the problem is education. People might not know their faith thoroughly because parishes are not effectively teaching them, states "Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life," a Vatican document released in February 2003.
Written primarily to educate pastoral workers, the report explains how New Age differs from Christianity and appeals to people's "spiritual hunger."
Parishes and church groups may not be covering issues on people's minds, the report says, such as integrating spirituality into every aspect of life, exploring the link between humans and creation and seeking personal and social transformation.
As the third millennium dawns, people are unusually open to how Christianity addresses such issues, asserts the report:
"Emphasizing what is lacking in other approaches should not be the main priority. It is more a question of constantly revisiting the sources of our own faith, so that we can offer a good, sound presentation of the Christian message."
One important tool is the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the report advises. The faithful should also explore the Church's heritage, including artistic and musical traditions, and saints and mystics.
In a November 1982 homily, Pope John Paul II spoke of St. Teresa of Avila's rejection of prayer methods that "set Christ aside in preference for a mental void which makes no sense in Christianity." St. Teresa did not seek mystical experience through technique. She remained focused on God, and mystical experiences occurred because God willed them. Like St. Teresa, Catholics seek union with God in each moment, whether paying bills, visiting a neighbor or flexing in an exercise class.
The Church is calling Catholics to firm up their faith and consider whether New Age influences like those in yoga are subtly eroding their intimacy with God.
Marianna Bartholomew writes from Illinois.
Although yoga is said to date back some 5,000 years, it is also part of the so-called New Age movement. A 90-page provisional report from the Holy See released last February explores aspects of New Age and how it affects Catholics.
"Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life: A Christian Reflection on the New Age" lists traditions that flow into New Age, including ancient Egyptian occultism, medieval alchemy and yoga. As such practices are "imported piecemeal" and "reinterpreted to suit Westerners," says the letter, a new culture and spirituality emerges:
This article is from the November 16, 2003 issue of OSV Newsweekly.
Please note: Comments left online may be considered for publication in the Letters to the Editor section of OSV Newsweekly.
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