Category Archives: Spirituality

Catholic view of yoga (1 of 5)

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“Yoga is the journey of the self to the self through the self.” –The Bhagavad Gita
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” -Mt 16:24, Lk 9:23, Mk 8:34

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-by Rev Ezra Sullivan, OP

“Yoga is hands-down — toes-up — one of the most popular forms of exercise in the world, including the United States. It is also controversial, eliciting strong reactions from enthusiasts and denouncers alike. Among Christians, perhaps the most commonly-heard question is, “Can I practice yoga?” or, said with a different emphasis, “I can practice yoga, right?” With a nod to modern practicality, in order to do justice to the question as well as to the questioner, we ought to consider a number of different issues.

This series is meant to address these issues head on, beginning with the nature of yoga and ending with a discussion of how Christians can exercise their souls and pray with their bodies. St. John tells us that we should not believe every spirit, but to test them to see if they are from God (1 John 4:1). It’s going to be an enlightening experience, so set your intention and come join us as we explore yoga from a Catholic perspective.

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I – What is Yoga?

There is something funny about yoga. It is one of those things that can prompt double-speak, as I have found over and over again. Here is a typical conversation:

“So, Father, what do you think about yoga?” Someone will ask.

“Well, I have some misgivings about it,” I’ll say.

“But what’s wrong with yoga,” they will press. “It’s just exercise.”

“Then why not try Pilates?” I reply.

“I wanted something more holistic, something that focuses on body and soul. I like yoga because it’s spiritual too.”

“Then it’s more than physical exercise.”

To get beyond this impasse in the Tibetan peaks and valleys of conversation, let’s begin by analyzing a portrait of the typical yoga practitioner.[1] A 2012 Yoga in America study shows that 20.4 million Americans practice yoga. This was an increase of 29% since 2008. In addition, 44.4 percent of Americans could identify as “aspirational yogis”–folks interested in trying yoga. Among these millions, the most common yoga enthusiast is a youngish, upper-middle class woman.[2] Yoga is a thriving industry: practitioners spend ten to twenty billion dollars a year on yoga classes and products, including equipment, clothing, vacations, and media.

In and around the popularity of yoga stretches and twists, a vocal portion of the population nevertheless regards yoga as a way to become spiritually bent out of shape. Questions and misgivings arise, and people begin to wonder: what is this thing that some of my friends practice and so many celebrities preach – what is this thing called yoga?

At first glance, yoga is simply a great form of exercise. The top five reasons for starting yoga are: to improve flexibility, to aid general conditioning, to further stress relief, to improve overall health, and to promote physical fitness.[3] Doctors and practitioners both agree that, when practiced moderately, yoga can strengthen a person, help her lose weight, and give her more energy. It is also often associated with positive emotional well-being: because yoga calms the body, it often soothes the feelings. Adding on to the individual benefits, there are often attractive cultural aspects of yoga: it helps people meet beautiful people, so that they can become more beautiful themselves; it is often convenient; at a base level, it doesn’t hurt the wallet.

Yoga, however, is more than a physical exercise with social benefits.

One indication of yoga’s spiritual nature is the way it affects practitioners over time. The International Journal of Yoga published the results of a national survey in Australia.[4] Physical postures (asana) comprised about 60% of the yoga they practiced; 40% was relaxation (savasana), breathing techniques (pranayama), meditation, and instruction. The survey showed very significant results: although most respondents commonly began yoga for reasons of physical health, they usually continued it for reasons of spirituality. In addition, the more people practiced yoga, the more likely they were to decrease their adherence to Christianity and the more likely they were to adhere to non-religious spirituality and Buddhism.

In other words, whatever their intentions may have been, many people experience yoga as a gateway to a spirituality disconnected from Christ.

Doing justice to the complete nature of yoga, therefore, requires a more well-rounded definition: “A comprehensive system of human culture, physical, moral, and [psychological], and acting as a doorway on to the gently sloping paths that gradually lead up to yoga proper,” that is, the spirituality of yoga founded in Hinduism.

Its aim is to control the body and the various forms of vital energy, with a view of overcoming physical impediments standing in the way of other, spiritual, forms of Yoga. Its object is to ensure a perfect balance between the organic functions. Its ultimate goal and true end is to prepare man for the acquisition of that repose of spirit necessary for the realization of the “Supreme”, or for “experiencing the Divine.”[5]

Yoga’s religious and spiritual end is often forgotten or denied in a Western context; most people see it simply as a physical form of exercise. Such a simplification is unwarranted and dangerous. As we will see, reducing yoga to a mere beautifying technique frequently creates ugly effects.”

Love,
Matthew

[1] For the following statistics, see http://blogs.yogajournal.com/yogabuzz/2012/12/new-study-find-more-than-20-million-yogis-in-u-s.html. And http://www.statisticbrain.com/yoga-statistics/

[2] The majority of today’s yoga practitioners (62.8 percent) fall within the age range of 18-44. Women compose 82.2 % of the cohort. 68% of all yoga practitioners make more than $75,000 a year.

[3] http://blogs.yogajournal.com/yogabuzz/2012/12/new-study-find-more-than-20-million-yogis-in-u-s.html.

[4] Penman, Cohen, Stivens, and Jackson, “Yoga in Australia: Results of a National Survey.” Int J Yoga. 2012 Jul-Dec; 5(2): 92—101. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3410203/ The typical Australian yoga practitioner of yoga is comparable to the American parallel: typically a 41 years old, tertiary educated, employed, health-conscious female (85% female).

[5] J.-M. Déchanet, Christian Yoga (New York: Harper, 1960), 31.

Joy vs happiness – “Joy always endures. Joy comes from Love.”

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I have met joyless Catholics. I keep meeting them. They seem the most obsessed with rules, regulations, compliance, and everyone else’s lack thereof. They scare me the most of all the Catholics I meet.

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-by Br Nicholas Schneider, OP

“Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation ‘Evangelii Gaudium’ has produced significant reaction and commentary, both positive and negative. Many in the media have focused on the social, political, and economic implications of the document. Sadly, most commentators have looked past the obvious: the second word of the text and the title: joy. “The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus” (EG 1).

Joy is such a central aspect of our faith. Unless we are filled with joy, we have no message of Christ to bring to the world. The accounts of the martyrs throughout history are full of descriptions of them going to their deaths with great rejoicing and full of joy. Joy reorients us away from our self-focused lives and onto what is really important. Mother Teresa used the acronym JOY as an aid to remind us of the proper ordering of the importance of things: Jesus, Others, You.

Joy is thus an important aspect of living out our faith, but as St. Thomas Aquinas notes, joy is not a virtue in itself.  Referencing St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, St. Thomas comments that joy is “an act, or effect, of charity” and thus is one of the Fruits of the Holy Spirit (Summa Theologica II-II, q.28, a.4). Joy proceeds from and is caused by love. One could even say that joy is the external expression in our lives of our love for Jesus Christ. Our joy is what others see and experience through our attitude and actions. Pope Francis notes that “joy always endures” even if parts of our “lives seem like Lent without Easter” (EG 6). Our joy depends not upon the external circumstances of our life, but only upon our love of Christ.”

Love,
Matthew
Happy New Year!

silencia est pater praedicare = silence is the father of preachers

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St Peter of Verona, Dominican priest & martyr, encouraging Dominicans to observe silence at all times.

I learned this Dominican expression in college as I was getting to know them.  Think about it. 🙂

Find time for intentional silence.  That means no books, no media, no noise or distraction of any kind.  And, yes, that means no reading voluminous emails from Matt.  I knew you were waiting for that one.  🙂

Catholicism has the practice, highly recommended, of retreat – spending dedicated, intentional, focused, valuable time in spiritual reflection.  Catholic or not.  Sinner, saint, or other.  Come and see. Jn 1:39.  I was caught with magazines by Fr. John Haughey, SJ when I was supposed to be on silent retreat!  The temptation of a too active mind that too rarely finds quiet time for reading and reflection. Ooops!  Don’t be hungry or tired.  Get your bathroom functions out of the way.  Turn off all electronics.  That means OFF!, away.

Give this silence your best time of the day.  Half an hour before the day begins, works well for me, or on a long drive, no radio.  Showered, shaved, dressed, coffeed, alert, awake, ready to go, but silent for a period of time.

I’m too tired at night.  Cannot concentrate.  Whatever’s left at the end of the day is not my best offering.  Attend a brief, convenient, early morning Mass during the week if you can.  Make it a habit.  It’s wonderful.  The “others” will wonder where you are when you are not there and will worry about you.  Buy the Divine Office app on iTunes!  Brilliant.  Does wonders if you get in the habit (no pun intended!). 🙂

Even for short periods, moments.  Always be aware.  Awareness is a form of prayer I like and have found, all throughout the day.  I pray constantly throughout the day, mostly by intentional awareness, paying attention.  Sometimes more formally.  Paying attention, in every aspect of life, is so important, wiser persons than I have told me.

I feel like I have ADHD when I try to be silent, find time for silence.  Silence is counter-intuitively difficult & can be unnerving, which is why I think most Americans do their best to try and avoid it.  You might hear yourself think, the voice of conscience.  Unnerving.  Discomforting.  Honest.  Can you handle the Truth?  I try.  I really do try.  I have a problem with the Truth.  I like it too much.  Didn’t say it was easy, just said it leads to eternal life.  That’s all.

Refuse to structure silence or to bring an agenda.  Be open.  Empty yourself.  The Holy Spirit does wonders when we are open, attentive, listening, and silent.  Shut up & listen.  This works with God, too!

Use silence as a form of healthy and invigorating mortification/discipline, like the athlete who trains his body, the scholar who trains his mind.  God wants to fill us up.  How can He do that when we are full of ourselves and our cares and worries and racing thoughts, emotions?  Believe in the possibility of grace and peace; empty yourself, and it will come to you.  I promise.

With it, I have found I have time and peace for everything else, even my abounding shortcomings.  Without it, nothing works. Before the day begins, after prayer & silence, I say “Ok, Jesus, let’s DO this thing!  Be with me ALL throughout the day!  Be constantly by my side!  Amen!”  “Play like a Champion!” and slap the overhead door frame as you run out of the house yelling “Yeahhhhhhhhhh….”  Oh, that’s Notre Dame.  Got carried away.  Sorry.  You know what I mean.  🙂

How can you hear God talking if you’re not listening?  Who (even God) wants to talk to someone who isn’t listening?  It’s about relationships, isn’t it?  All about relationships?  What about that One, most important relationship?  Lk 13:27/Mt 7:23.
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-by Br. Tomás Martín Rosado, OP, who writes about silence, developing St. Catherine of Siena’s image of religious life as a ship based on his experience with sailboats.

St. Catherine of Siena, O.P., describes (professed) religious life as a ship “ready to receive souls who want to race on to perfection and to bring them to the port of salvation. The captain of this ship is the Holy Spirit, who lacks nothing. His religious subjects who violate his orders can hurt only themselves, never this ship.” This goes not only for the ship of religious life, but also for the barque of St. Peter, the Church. The ship can never be sunk, though it can be steered into hurricanes.

Growing up around sailboats, I learned the cardinal rule that one would never guess from pirate movies: silence is key. This is true for three major reasons. First, without silence you can’t hear the captain’s orders. Silence is not only a lack of external noise, but internal listening. Without it crucial directions can be missed. The Holy Spirit is not usually a yeller.

Secondly, you need to hear your shipmates. They have specific duties that cannot be explained in the midst of a storm. They may need your help with one of their tasks or they may need to get by you to reach their station. At times, it is through your shipmates that you hear the orders of the captain.

Thirdly, you need to hear your ship. The external structures of the ship require attention and the creaks of the ship communicate to the sailor. St. Catherine describes the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience as ropes that hold up the sails of the ship. Terrible consequences come of a frayed rope in the midst of a hurricane…

In this extended metaphor, silence is correctly seen as a positive aspect of the religious life and of the Christian life in general. It not only provides the space to listen to God, but it is a weapon of the Christian life. As St. Faustina wrote: “Silence is a sword in the spiritual struggle. The sword of silence will cut off everything that would like to cling to the soul.” Storms are not the only danger to a ship, but sea serpents roam the waters too.

We must be prepared to listen past the winds of the world, struggle against the noise of our hearts, and fight the demons of the depths. Silence is the weapon with which we fight the world, concupiscence and demons. It is in the silence of the cross that the ship sails into safe harbor.”

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-Fra Angelico, “St Peter Martyr, O.P., enjoining holy silence”

Silence is rare for parents, but we must try.  Find it where/when we can. 🙂
1 Kings 19:11-13

I have always been awestruck how silent the world is at dawn after a fresh snowfall.  Awestruck.  Absolute silence.  Outside.  I lie in the new snow, look at an azure sky, and “listen” to the silence.  Listen.  Wonderful.  Wonderful…literally.  In this “quiet time” of year, as the din and distractions of the holidays fade, when it “might” be easier to enter into silence, if you dare-you might hear/find God, do so.  Do so.  Do so.

Love and silence, peace, profound peace and silence, powerful silence,
Matthew