Tuesday, September 05, 2017

What's wrong with Yoga? Part 2

Liturgical prayer: a High Mass of Requiem
In the first post of this pair I explained that Yoga, as typically experienced today in the West (and, for that matter, elsewhere in the world) is not helpfully described as an ancient practice, as a specifically Hindu practice, or as a practice with a basis in a single Indian philosophical tradition. It is is, unfortunately for our purposes in trying to dissent and assess it, too new and too complex for such generalisations.

What can one say, then, about Yoga and the Faith? Are Catholics wrong to feel uncomfortable, as they sometimes do, with Yoga being presented as something for people of 'all faiths and none', to take place in the parish hall like a cake-making demonstration?

I think the easiest way for Westerners to think about Yoga is as related to the New Age. Yoga is such a huge movement that it has a distinct identity from the New Age; also the physical exercise side of Yoga claims to be scientific and medical, and (at least to a degree) is genuinly so. But on the other hand, Yoga derives from many of the same attitudes and aspirations as the New Age, and fits it very comfortably with it. The New Age is full of attempts to use techniques to transcend and to heal; Yoga is one such technique.

What I have said elsewhere about the New Age is applicable in some part to Yoga: that it is the spirituality of the modern world. When modern, secular people want to be spiritually serious, instead of reverting to some dimly remembered Christian confessional practice, as they would perhaps have done fifty years ago, they may start babbling about all religious traditions leading to self-realisation. Reading books, meditating, and meeting up with like-minded people to advance the goal of global self-realisation is something serious New Age people do, but for a much larger group of people, that is what they feel they might do if they felt in a more spiritually serious mood. It is what 'spirituality' means to them.

In the case of Yoga, the goal of self-improvement is focussed on the body, but the door to a parallel self-improvement of the mind and spirit through meditation and changes of attitude is, generally, left very clearly open. And who is to say, in any case, that the improvment of the body is not itself a quasi-religious goal for materialistic people?

It is possible to find doctrinal incompatibility between Yoga and Catholic teaching, when you look at the philosophical views of the higher-level gurus. This invites the response, however, that only a tiny number of the people sitting on Yoga mats have heard of that stuff, and few would understand a word of it if they did. And come to that, the exercises themselves aren't intrinsically connected with the philosophy. On the contrary, people tell us, Yoga practicioners typically think (and are told by their teachers to think) that everything they do in the studio is compatible with any possible religious faith.

The place I would locate the problem, instead, is here: that what we are dealing with is a body of practice which takes place in a culture dominated by New Age attitudes which are incompatible with the Faith, such as the attitude that all religions are basically one, or true, and that spiritual progress can be made through the self-realisation of the body. If you enter the world of Yoga, you enter this atmosphere. There's nothing wrong with bending and stretching. Holding to some myth about how these bends and stretches are related to ancient Hindu polytheism is not, exactly, edifying. Saying 'Om' when you have no idea what it means is clearly spiritually reckless. But even if you avoid those things, I would never recomend a group of Catholics to go to Yoga, because even if they start with the least spiritually-focused Yoga class, there is a good chance that the Yoga world is going to draw them in, and the attitudes of the Yoga world are not theologically sound attitudes.

If that sounds weak, think of some parallels. Suppose there is some perfectly harmless card game which is typically played in the context of gambling for high stakes. Do we need to exercise caution about encouraging Catholics to enter the milieu of such a game? Suppose there was a group which went on bracing country walks, and this particular group tended to attract racists. Would we need to exercise caution in recommending it? The fact that bending and stretching are not spiritually dangerous in themselves does not absolve us from responsibility to ask about who we are going to be bending and stretching with, what kind of attitudes and views are in the atmosphere while this is going on, and what happens to that minority who want to take it a bit further.

However, there is more. The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, under Cardinal Ratzinger, produced a very balanced and sane document in 1989 about non-Christian methods of meditation. Not all Yoga is meditation, but a short period of meditation is included as the conclusion of many Yoga classes, and one attitude one may take to the postures (taught, for example, by one Yoga franchise) is that they are prayers.

Now, the kind of meditation encouraged and facilitated in this context can be problematic. Not all attempts to reach out to the divine within or to the spiritual realm outside of ourselves are well considered. It is easy to say to a person with basically Christian understanding of prayer that they should pray more, and we say that prayer is an obligation on all rational creatures, but if the prayer is being directed in the wrong way, and is informed by the wrong attitudes, then it can be spiritually dangerous.

Actually, all prayer has the potential for danger. Times of intense prayer can be opportunities for temptation, to spiritual pride for example. Prayer is a battle, and we forget that at our peril. The formal and especially the liturgical prayer of Catholics is protected in countless ways from many perils, but it remains a battle. Intense contemplative prayer outside those contexts is highly recommended, but the practioner would do well to do this in the context of competant spiritual direction. It is worth noting that Eastern traditions of meditation can be even more emphatic about the need for the guidance of a mature spiritual teacher, for those undertaking this path. And indeed you can take this point even if you don't think there is anything at all 'out there', because there is still plenty of stuff, not all of it bright and cheery, 'in there'.

(Here's an article about people getting mental health problems from meditating. Yes, seriously.)

Saying 'Om' and clearing the mind of all distractions, in the context of Yoga, simply in order to get in touch with who-knows-what, is not something any sensible person should recommend. One of the key characteristics of the New Age to be relentlessly optimistic about the spiritual life. This optimism is not shared by the authentic Eastern traditions from which it claims inspiration, and is not well founded. As Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote:

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there.

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  1. Interesting. One conclusion to draw from this is that the yoga milieu is spiritually hazardous, but that many physical acts linked to yoga are in themselves harmless when detached from the milieu and practised in isolation from it.

    For example, I tend to do some stretching when I go rock-climbing and when exercising at home, and I learnt some of those stretches from a yoga class some years ago. I would not hesitate to use the same stretches in future or to recommend them to others, but I wouldn't go back to a yoga class if you paid me.

  2. Hm - Dr Shaw, just to alert you, I merely pressed the preview button to read my comment, and it vanished: whether into the 'published' category or into the ether, I know not! :-)

  3. Ah, that latter 'alert' was published when I pressed the Publish button without previewing, so presumably the 'Preview' button is deleting comments typed in the Edit panel...

  4. Dear Mr. Shaw:

    Thank for your two part report on yoga. By default, I have had to learn about yoga and had some idea of the history but found your work a deeper explanation. However, the connection to Hinduism seems stronger to me than what you point out. The more a yoga practice focuses on the spirit, the greater the connection to Hinduism. This comes in the form of mantras, mudras and deeper/longer periods of mediation over physical practice. In addition, yoga can become a gateway drug for further eastern/new age practices such as reiki and wicca. I know this from personal experience, which leads me to my second point. Yoga can destroy a marriage. Image you are a practicing Catholic, in the best sense of the term, and your spouse begins Yoga and moves further and further away from any form of traditional Christianity? How does God’s grace act in this scenario?

    With appreciation for your clear thinking and informative blog,

    1. Thanks. You are right that Yoga can lead to other things. What form exactly they take will depend on the teachers and other students. But since Yoga is part of the New Age milieu, and has these connections with Eastern religions, it is likely to be in one of those directions you mention.

    2. Important point I neglected to mention is that adherents often call upon Hindu deities especially in the so-called dead man's pose. We knew these are no gods but malevolent spirits.