Monday, September 04, 2017

What's wrong with Yoga? Part 1

Physical Culture: from Wikipedia Commons
I have been doing a bit of thinking and reading about the New Age, and a talk at the Roman Forum in Gardone this year stimulated me to do more of each about the phenomenon of Yoga: a talk by the Swedish academic Clemens Cavellin, which is available on his website here.

Yoga is one of those hot-button issues which arouses strong feelings in Catholic social media, and as much of the discussion is not very well informed, I thought I'd try to inform it a little.

Before my full assimilation into traddie-land I did a bit of Yoga myself for a few years; accordingly I have my own impressions of the general atmosphere and attitudes of Yoga classes, books, and personal practice. However it must be said that my experience was fairly superficial; I never entered any inner circle of Yoga adepts. The spiritual aspects of Yoga was part of the reason I stopped: I got fed up with being told to say 'Om', for example. Another was doubts about its physical efficacy. I don't deny the health benefits, but there is a natural tendency in Yoga to want to advance to the more perfect performance of more difficult postures, and, in short, become really really bendy, and while being a bit bendy is probably a good idea, I don't think it is particularly beneficial to be really really bendy. However, I'm not qualified to comment further on that.

In this post I want to talk about the philosophico/religious presuppositions of Yoga, or rather why it is so difficult to talk about such presuppositions. Having cleared this ground, in the next post I'll say what I think can be said about Yoga as a phenomenon, and its relationship with the Catholic Faith.

Yoga is typically characterised as a set of physical practices, of ancient origin, associated with Hinduism. This needs to be qualified in a number of ways.

First, we need to distinguish 'physical' Yoga from way the term 'yoga' is used in ancient Indian texts. The term is in fact extremely broad; it can refer to any kind of practice or technique (and various other things). From now one I'll take for granted that we are talking about 'postural' Yoga unless I specify otherwise.

Secondly, a distinction between Yoga as we know it today and pre-modern (pre-20th century) Yoga, insofar as it is useful to talk about pre-modern 'Yoga'. The money quote is this (from Andrea Jain Selling Yoga):

In other words, today’s popularized yoga systems are new, not continuations of some static premodern yoga tradition from which practitioners and nonpractitioners alike often claim they originate. Even postures and breathing exercises were marginal to the most widely cited sources on yoga prior to the twentieth century, and the forms of postures and breathing exercises that were present in those sources dramatically differ from those idiosyncratic forms found in postural yoga today.

Jain cites many academic sources on this topic and goes into some detail about what kinds of postures are mentioned in pre-20th century texts: basically, just sitting still and comfortably for prolonged meditation; and what kind of breathing exercises they mention: basically, holding the breath, in or out, for periods of time. Anyone bamboozled by talk of the 'Yoga Sutras' and other ancient texts or artifacts should read her book. In a word, the claim that Yoga as practiced today has ancient origins, except in the loosest possible sense, is completely false.

Thirdly, ancient and modern Yoga alike (acknowledging that they are two completely distinct things) are not the property of Hinduism. Ancient Yoga is found in the context of the Jain religion, Islamic Sufism, and Buddhism, as well as Hinduism, the last being itself a vastly complex collection of religious beliefs and practices and philosophical ideas. Modern Yoga is found in the context not only of Hinduism, but versions have been developed and promoted by a Jain sect, and obviously also by every imaginable shade of syncretist, secularist, and even Christian guru or organisation.

The question is complicated by the fact that some Hindu groups in India would like to appropriate ('authentic') Yoga as their possession, and minority religious groups have responded in kind, by resisting, for example, the inclusion of Yoga as a compulsory school subject in Indian schools. The limited historical connection between modern Yoga and Hinduism does not mean that Yoga cannot become a badge of identity for Hinduism in certain contexts.

So, where does modern, postural, Yoga come from? It derives from a serendipitous meeting of Hindu nationalism with the early 20th century European/English speaking physical culture movement. All the stuff about exercising by bending and stretching in unison comes from Western sources. Just do an image search for 'physical culture' and you'll find lots of black-and-white photos of (mostly female) fit-looking individuals in taxing-looking poses in sync, from the 1930s; the one above is an early example, dated 1913. If it looks a little fascistic, obviously the fascists thought this stuff was great, but you didn't need to be a fascist to do it. It was picked up by Hindu nationalists in the 1940s, who connected it with Hindu spirituality and the concept of 'yoga'. This then re-entered the West in time for a craze for Eastern wisdom connected with the New Age movement, in the 1960s. (This, essentially, is the thesis of Jain's book.)

Now obviously anyone can pick up where the physical culture movement left off, but the spirituality and philosophy of its Indian incubation has had an impact on what Yoga is all about. The trouble is that this spirituality and philosophy is extremely complex, and movements and individuals can evolve and be as syncretistic as they wish.

There is a basic distinction which needs to be made in Indian thinking, between dualistic and non-dualistic approaches. By Dualism is meant a distinction between the body and the spirit, which leads to asceticism as a route for the spirit to subdue and ultimately escape the body and the physical world. Non-dualistic views, which can be pantheistic, see this distinction as itself an illusion, so are more open to the idea of using the body in spiritual exercises. Now, it is possible to see postural yoga as an ascetic exercise, along with a vegetarian diet and celibacy; confusingly, it is also possible to use postural yoga on the basis of a non-dualist philosophy, the most famous manifestation of which is Tantra. Everyone knows Tantra's connection with sex: not only do some Tantric practices promise enhanced sexual performance, but sex itself can be a practice of deliberate norm-violation to free oneself from false ideas about the distinction between the body and the spirit.

Different strands of Yoga can in principle be lined up with this distinction. The Jain religion is firmly dualistic, and one Jain sect has developed and marketed a version of Yoga. On the other hand, Bikram Choudhury, founder of Bikram Yoga, ended up in a scandal about inappropriate relationships with female devotees, something connected with the interest he developed, as his career progressed, in Tantra; something similar happened to John Friend, founder of Anusara Yoga. Tantric theory is a bit like Freudianism, in giving support - real or imagined - to some unfortunate personal choices.

Having made this distinction, one has to ask whether it makes any difference to the experience of Westerners going to a yoga class. The philosophical views of the class teacher, or the school in which the teacher trained, may make some difference to the way he or she goes about the task of teaching Yoga, but most of the people in the class are there for the goals of physical health, beauty, and fitness. The titillating possibility of enhanced sexual powers is a nice touch of course, but you can spend a lot of time doing Yoga without that coming up.

Given Yoga's debt to early 20th century Western ideas about physical culture, and given its extremely successful adaptation to the modern interest in fitness and beauty, debates raging back in India about dualism and non-dualism seem of very slight importance. As I have described them neither view is compatible with the Catholic Faith, but then again you can find Yoga teachers with zero interest in any version of Indian religious and philosophical thought, and come to that you can find Catholic priests teaching Yoga.

So to conclude this first post of the two-part series, I think it is important to avoid trying to solve the problem of the relationship between Yoga and the Faith in too simplistic a way, by saying for example that Yoga is a body of ancient Hindu spiritual or even latreutic (worship) practices: it isn't. Nor does it have an indelible connection with any single set of philosophical views.

The problems with Yoga need to be approached in a more subtle way.

Support the work of the LMS by becoming an 'Anniversary Supporter'.


  1. It was my understanding, and I know very little about yoga, but that the positions were prayer positions, and one was "praying" to something or someone, just by putting oneself into that known prayer position. Each movement or posture has a meaning, even if we do not know it, it would be recognized as such by those who are serious about yoga. That alone would be reason to avoid yoga like poison, since it would leave a Christian open to inviting someone into their sphere by a postural position. It is similar to the Christian prayer position, hands folded with fingers pointing up. We are petitioning God with this position, and it is understood by Christians and others, that this is so. We do not want to get into positions of prayer that speak to entities that are foreign to us. To me, this is to be avoided. That this is taught to children in many, many venues including public schools, is a disaster. The same people who abhor any sign of Christianity, welcome these Buddhist or Hindu or New Age practices for children with open arms. A sign of a fairly lost generation.

    1. That claim is interesting, but once you realise that the positions derive from Scandinavian fitness-fanatics in the 1920s it becomes less convincing.

    2. cf (for example) from Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit (1954), in which Stilton Cheesewright is reported to do 'Swedish exercises in the nude each morning before breakfast.'

  2. ” The two first monosyllabic words are primarily sacred sounds that can be given many
    meanings, and Cotreau’s flowery interpretation is as follows:
    OM – radical affirmation of the whole of reality.
    HRIM – the humbling experience of one’s own Heart as containing the seed of the whole
    universe. -Clemens Cavallin,Roman Forum 2017,Gardone, Italy, July 2017

    Wednesday, December 28, 2011
    Hirim is a word known to Freemasonary and is associated with Satan according to Fr. Paolo Siano F.I in the recent issue of the weekly Il Settimanale di Padre Pio. Hirim is mentioned in the official list of mantras of Transcendental Meditation.

    I was reading an article on Freemasonary in the magazine Il Settimanale di Padre Pio of the Franciscans of the Immaculate. It mentions a name for Lucifer. This article is one of a series on the same subject. The word 'hiram' is connected with Satan. The word seemed familiar to me.I was wondering if it was the same word used as a mantra in Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's Transcendental Meditation.

    I was a teacher of Transcendental Meditation(TM) and completed a five months course for teachers at Pattaya, Thailand. We had to sign a document saying that we would keep the mantras secret . The mantras are given out according to a persons age. When someone would come to learn TM they would have to fill a form with personal details. They would be asked their age.Then according to their age I would give them the mantra during the ritual of initiation the puja.

    Many of the TMers I knew were Freemasons and members of the Theosophical Society, which projects itself as a liberal,open minded, tolerant organisation but it is evil and their members hate the Catholic Church.

    Last night I checked the list of mantras of Transcendental Meditation at an internet shop. The mantras are no longer a secret. I found the list of TM mantras. It is the same list which I used as a TM teacher

    One of the mantras given out is hiram.

    Fr. Siano F.I an Italian priest with the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, who offer the Traditional Latin Mass has done excellent studies on Freemasonary.He shows in well referenced articles the Masons link with Satan. Last Sunday at the Church Santa Maria di Annunziata in Rome I browsed through the recent issue of Il Settimanale di Padre Pio which I read regularly. Again Fr. Siano mentions the word hiram and Lucifer in the headlines of the article.

    I recall on my teachers training course the German instructor saying that the mantras are meaningless words but they have a value at another level of consciousness.

    I recall seeing a video on the course in which Maharishi is asked his opinion about a person's strange actions. He said that perhaps the spirit who is in that meditator prefers to act likewise. So he was aware of spirits.

    In another video Maharishi also praised a meditator who had experiences which definitiely were related to a Hindu deity and the realm linked to the deity.It was not Christian.


    1. One of the ironies of history is that Madam Blavatsky was strongly opposed to postural Yoga. She thought it insufficiently spiritual.

      'Hiram' in the context of Freemasonry is not a name for Satan, it is one of the allegorical heros of their play-acting, Hiram Abiff:

      Any connection with Hrim in Sanskrit is extremely fanciful.

    2. One of the ironies of history is that Madam Blavatsky was strongly opposed to postural Yoga. She thought it insufficiently spiritual.
      Madame Blavatsky's Theosophical Society promotes Yoga in all its forms.

      Play acting only?

      Reminds me of something in this report I read today

      The Austin-based Lilith Fund for Reproductive Equity announced Thursday it created the fund for those affected by the storm who are also seeking abortion care. The organization said it has raised close to $4,000 as of Friday afternoon. “In the days and weeks before the storm, Lilith Fund heard from many callers who had appointments scheduled in Houston — but when Harvey hit, clinics had to temporarily close and appointments had to be cancelled,” said executive director Amanda Williams, reached via email Friday.

      [Spirit Daily note: “Lilith” is well-known to exorcists as the name of a major demon; see below]

      [For Full Story]

      From Bible History Daily:

      For 4,000 years Lilith has wandered the earth, figuring in the mythic imaginations of writers, artists and poets. Her dark origins lie in Babylonian demonology, where amulets and incantations were used to counter the sinister powers of this winged spirit who preyed on pregnant women and infants. Lilith next migrated to the world of the ancient Hittites, Egyptians, Israelites and Greeks. She makes a solitary appearance in the Bible, as a wilderness demon shunned by the prophet Isaiah. In the Middle Ages she reappears in Jewish sources as the dreadful first wife of Adam. In most manifestations of her myth, Lilith represents chaos, seduction and ungodliness. Yet, in her every guise, Lilith has cast a spell on humankind. The ancient name “Lilith” derives from a Sumerian word for female demons or wind spirits—the lilītu and the related ardat lilǐ. The lilītu dwells in desert lands and open country spaces and is especially dangerous to pregnant women and infants. Her breasts are filled with poison, not milk. The ardat lilī is a sexually frustrated and infertile female who behaves aggressively toward young men.

      It was just another name for a clinic?

  3. An interesting phenomenon to me is why traditionalists get so worked up about things like yoga and freemasonry. They come round regularly in blogs this and are regularly denounced for not being Catholic or for being anti-Catholic. I know very little about freemasonry, have no interest in it and don't believe for one moment that it is any kind of threat to genuine Christian or even Catholic faith - why bother about it? As for yoga, I imagine most Catholics who practise it do so because they find it aids their physical health - is that a bad thing? - but if their Christian faith is secure will have no concern for any spiritual or theological implications it may have have.
    So why does the topic come round so often? I can only assume it is because for traditionalist Catholics the really important thing is being right - believing the right things, doing the right things. As someone said, for Catholics the Ten Commandments reduce to one, 'Thou shalt be correct.' And if you think like this you will have always have to assert your correctness against what you see as incorrect. So for example traditionalists favour the Tridentine Mass in opposition to the reformed rites. And anything else that threatens correctness will likewise need to be opposed.
    People who really know God (as opposed to knowing about him, knowing what are the correct things to believe about him) always seem to have a lightness of being. They know that God alone is right about everything, so they don't have to bother being so. That is very liberating and frees one from a lot of anxious worry: oh my God, if I do yoga will the devil get at me? etc. (Curious how very religious people always seem to find the devil far more real than God ever manages to be).
    May I therefore, Dr. Shaw, out of my concern for your wellbeing, make a suggestion in a spirit of fraternal charity?
    Forget about yoga, liturgical abuses, the iniquities of Vatican II. Give us a long screed about God and what he means to you - NB God, not correct Catholicism!!

    1. This is your response to a post which contradicts hysterical anti-yoga claims? Or did you only read the title?

      If you want to know why I think Yoga remains problematic, you need to read the follow up post.

    2. It's only problematic if you have the mindset that finds it so: you don't seem to have to read my piece very carefully. Remember Heraclitus: human beings find some things just and others unjust, but to God all things are beautiful and good and just. If you know this only real God you don't need to get hysterical about anything, but can take what helps wherever you find it in a spirit of true Catholicism (= universality, all-inclusiveness) and let alone what does not help. But you don't need to oppose it. Why am I not surprised, Dr. Shaw, that instead of writing about God you prefer to continue proving how correct you are about the difficulties with yoga?

    3. You live in a very simple world, where everything can be settled in advance of looking at the evidence or the arguments.

  4. Replies
    1. But you aren't God, and neither is the world.

  5. But when you know God (and know that you are not God, but can know him) the world become simpler, because you know that in the end God simply is and everything can be seen in that light. Evidence and arguments belong to theological text-books. God is much more interesting.

    1. No, Savoranola, you are NOT God. Down here we have to use the senses and the reason God gave us to make our way in the world.

      This is taking anti-intellectualism to an extreme. And you started off criticising people getting 'worked up'. If you don't have reason, what else is there but feelings?

  6. Did I ever say I was God or that I don't think we have to use our senses and reason for certain purposes? Far from being anti-intellectual I believe these are very important, but surely you can acknowledge that reason and the intellect only take you so far and that God must go beyond all our thinking and intellectualising. Over and over through the Christian tradition great teachers will say you cannot know God in the mind by thinking, you can only know him in love, i.e. what you call feelings.
    What I was criticising, or rather wondering about, is why some people need to demonstrate the correctness of their thinking about God and show that other ways must be suspect, as if you can have certain knowledge of the things of God and that having such certain knowledge is what really matter. Is it not knowing God that matters most, not just knowing what are the right things to believe about him?

    1. If you wanted to know the answer to your question, you need to read the posts and engage your brain. But it seems you only want to throw insults at people you prefer not to understand.

  7. As usual you don't engage your brain either by addressing questions put to you on what you say, but prefer to insult the questioner. I understand you perfectly and where you are coming from, but you don't want to understand anything that questions your self-assured certainties. Wishing you every blessing.

    1. What a blessed state you are in Savoranola. How we mere mortals can only marvel.

  8. So again all you can do is insult! I don't know what sort of state you are in, but whatever it is I wish you well in it. You can't even do that much, so I won't take any more of your time.