I find many people take the politically neutral, albeit incorrect and unthinking position, regardless of what the position is, as long as they don’t have to think or exert any effort forward : warm fuzzies. Not really thinking is always easier. Preferring “peace in our time” is nothing new; never solves anything. Our enemy is the prince of lies. Jer 6:14, 8:11. “What is Truth?”, Pilate retorted. Jn 18:38.
“So far in this series, we have discussed the nature of Yoga in general (1 of 5), and we have learned that it is rooted in hindu beliefs about gods and goddesses who want to influence us (2 of 5). Through further research we saw that a philosophic yoga suggests that the goal of the practice is union in a “higher reality” where distinctions among all things disappear, and even the individual is lost in nothingness (3 of 5). There are, of course, many, many different traditions and styles of yoga, but nearly all blur the distinction between physical exercise and spiritual excellence, making the postures or asanas the first step toward self-transcendence (4 of 5).
In this post, I will address the claim that yoga is not a religion and that it is compatible with any religion. After considering claims to the contrary, we will find that we can meaningfully assert that yoga is religious – especially because of important parallels it has with Catholicism. St. Paul advises us: “test everything; hold fast what is good, abstain from every form of evil” (1 Th 5:19, 21-22). Let us turn our minds to the truth, ask the Lord to bend our hearts according to His will, and explore yoga from a Catholic perspective.
“It’s not a religion, dude. It’s a way of life.”
We hear this claim about yoga all the time. It is meant to distance yoga from the negative connotations bound up with religion. If you get too caught up in religion, people commonly think, you will become narrow, doctrinaire, and maybe even violent. This is why many people like to say, “I am spiritual but not religious.” Within this context yoga is seen as an attractive alternative to formal religion while offering some kind of spiritual benefit. There are, however, compelling reasons to hold that yoga is religious though it may not be a religion.
Before explaining why yoga may be considered religious, it would be helpful to discuss why it is often thought not to be a religion. A basic definition of religion is this: religion consists in a belief about (a) a higher power or powers upon which we are dependent, and (b) that it is possible to enter into a sort of relationship with the power or powers. The relationship involves (c) an association of people, with (d) ritual acts that are specific to the group and (e) a way of regulating one’s life in order to maintain good relations with the higher power or powers. A child of ten could see that some of these elements do not apply to yoga. Most importantly, yoga does not embrace any belief that the individual is dependent upon some higher power. From the perspective of yoga, as we have seen in previous posts, gods and goddesses and a separate divinity are only illusions. There is no krishna or shiva; there isn’t even Jesus. Those persons may or may not be historical figures, but at most, they are only manifestations of a supreme reality that is above and beyond them. yoga does not inculcate love of Jesus or obedience to God. yoga does not lead practitioners to act morally upright so that they might get along with krishna, shiva, or Jesus. Instead, yoga aims at what one scholar calls “self-deification”: the postures and breath control are a means toward enlightenment, “the expansion of the self to the point that one’s body or self becomes coextensive with the entire universe.”
So yoga is non-religious, right? It is compatible with every religion or no religion at all, isn’t it? Sure, the historical root of yoga is hinduism, and yoga remains a powerful symbol for the culture of India, but in itself yoga is free from dogmatism, moralism, superstition, and all that religious jazz, wouldn’t you say?
Not so fast.
To compare the concepts of yoga and religion at a fundamental level, it will be useful to compare the meaning of the two words. The word “yoga” comes from the sanskrit yuj, which means, “to yoke together,” “union,” “to join, to bind.” What is the essence of religion? St. Thomas Aquinas explains the concept of religion by discussing the origin of the word: “religion may be derived from religare [to bind together], wherefore Augustine says: ‘May religion bind us to the one Almighty God.’” This analysis by one of the Catholic Church’s greatest theologians leads to an astonishing result. The essence of yoga and the essence of religion are exactly the same. yoga and religion both aim at joining the individual to divinity.
One can hardly deny that yoga has significant religious elements. A number of yoga communities, whether in studios and ashrams, are dedicated to connecting with a higher power. They do so through prescribed rituals led by a person who has a closer connection with the divine, that is, a guru or yoga instructor. yoga rituals include not only the physical postures and breathing techniques. They also include words and gestures that echo words and gestures found in religion. In the beginning and the end of Holy Mass, a priest says, “The Lord be with you.” The congregation responds, “And also with you.” Then the priest blesses the congregation with the sign of the Cross. Paralleling this structure, at the end of a typical yoga session class (and sometimes at the beginning), the yoga instructor says, “namaste.” And the students, “hands together at the heart charka, close the eyes, and bow the head,” responding, “namaste.” The sanskrit word literally, “I bow to you.” In the context of Yoga, it signifies “I bow to the divine in you” or, more accurately, “the divine in me greets the divine in you.” The purpose, we are told, is “to increase the flow of divine love.” A significant difference between the Catholic ritual and the yoga ritual is the understanding of the meaning of a blessing. For Catholics, a blessing comes from Christ who works through the priest. For yoginis, a yoga blessing is not imparted by the teacher; rather, it is initiated by the teacher and shared among all participants. The other is only a mirror of one’s own divinity that deserves honor.
Another religious element integral to yoga is the importance of sound and song. In the Christian religion, singing is an act of worship, as indicated in the adage attributed to St. Augustine, “To sing is to pray twice.” Pope Benedict XVI revealed the cosmological profundity of singing with his observation: “the culture of singing is also the culture of being … it is about vigilantly recognizing with the ‘ears of the heart’ the inner laws of the music of creation, the archetypes of music that the Creator built into his world and into men.” yoga parallels these religious impulses by suggesting that the divine can be reached through sound and song, but it also diverges from them for it lacks a divine person to sing about, one who could listen to the song of worshippers. Here we recall that mantra yoga is often combined with hatha and other types of yoga. yoga practitioners chant “OM,” which is to help awaken them to higher reality. OM is not a word so much as a prayer, a mantra that, when intoned correctly, sounds throughout the body to the depth of the soul. In this way, the mantras of yoga honor the divine and make it more fully realized in the life of the yogini. When a person chants “OM,” she attunes herself to the cosmic vibration and she can enter the state of trance, in which her individuality is transcended and merged with the Infinite divine self.
yogic ritual and chant point to the deepest intention of yoga: to honor and to find union with the divine. Thus far, yoga may be considered a sort of religion. What makes yoga distinct from other religions is how divinity is understood. Within most religions, the divine is a power or person or persons distinct from the self. Within yoga, however, the divine is not a being or a person outside of the self. The divine is identical with the self. Rebirth through brahman is not through a personal God; rather, it a rebirth of one’s mind so that you realize that you are divine, and the divine is everything. Through the yoga disciplines, the person is supposed to discover an ontological identity with everything. With this achieved, she loses her individuality and is dissolved into the divinity that she always was. Thus, yoga is far from being a stranger to the religious realm, for it inculcates a tendency toward self-worship.
Admittedly, there is an important way in which yoga is not a religion. Worship, as noted above, indicates a relationship between persons and/or powers. As long as a yogini is imperfect and has not mastered Yoga, she may still experience herself as a being distinct from others. In this case, she is capable of worshipping herself. But this does not hold in perfect yoga mastery. To help the practitioner obtain perfection, yoga instructor calmly suggests, “Some might get in touch with ganesh or krishna or shiva; others might call upon Jesus. Wherever your spirit leads is where you should go.” In other words, it doesn’t matter what you are praying or to whom you are praying, so long as you are doing yoga. The practice of yoga is primary and all relationships disappear. Even the self disappears. All that is left is the supreme reality, in which all is one. Thus, the perfect practice of yoga does not bring about the fullness of worship, for it is the absence of all relationships. This is why one of the classic studies of yoga insisted: “The method [of yoga] comprises a number of different techniques (physiological, mental, mystical), but they all have one characteristic in common–they are antisocial, or, indeed, antihuman.”
In light of our study, we can make some observations. The fool says that there is no God, but the devil wants to be equal to God. pantheistic yoga unites both of these trends, saying both (a) that there is no distinct personhood in God and (b) that the self is equal to the non-personal “divine” that encompasses the universe. If Yoga is a religion, its rituals incline practitioners to worship the self, which is both divine and created, both nothing and everything. This is the epitome of Satanic pride. But when Yoga moves beyond worship, it ends in the annihilation of the self. This is the epitome of nihilistic despair.
Many yoga practitioners evidently do not believe this. A number simply reject pantheism. Others reject theism. Still others do not think about God at all or do not realize the deepest meaning of yoga. From these various perspectives, people argue that yoga is not about honoring the divine anywhere. Its real purpose, they say, is self-improvement through the self-discipline of physical exercise. I will consider this claim in my next post.”
 For a more scholarly version of the assertion, see Theos Bernard, quoted in Paul G. Hackett, “Theos Beranard and the Early Days of Tantric Yoga in America,” Yoga in Practice, ed. David Gordon White (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 355.
 Bl. John Henry Newman elaborates on this modern mindset: “Is not religion associated in your minds with gloom, melancholy, and weariness? … It is so; you cannot deny it. The very terms ‘religion,’ ‘devotion,’ ‘piety,’ ‘conscientiousness,’ ‘mortification,’ and the like, you find to be inexpressibly dull and cheerless.” John Henry Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons vol. VII, no. 2: 17.
 See Morris Jastrow, The Study of Religion (New York, 1901), 170.
 David Gordon White, “Yoga, Brief History of an Idea,” Introduction to Yoga in Practice (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 12, 8.
 I noted this in my second post. The quotation is from Mircea Eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), 4.
 Summa Theologiae II-II, q. 81, a. 1.
 See http://www.abc-of-yoga.com/yoga-dictionary.asp
 The actual quote from St. Augustine is the following: “For he that sings praises, not only praises, but praises with gladness: he that sings praise, not only sings, but also loves him of whom he sings. In praise, there is the speaking forth of one confessing; in singing, the affection also of one loving” (Commentary on Psalm 73, 1).
 Benedict XVI, Address in Paris at the CollÃ¨ge des Bernardins, 12 September 2008. http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/206663?eng=y
 See post number four.
 See Mircea Eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), 126.
 Eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, 95.
 Ps 14:1, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’”; Is 14:12-15, “I will ascend into heaven … I will be like the Most High.” For an analysis of Satan’s pride, see St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I, q. 63, a. 3.
“In the first post we discussed “what is yoga?” In part two we learned about the polytheistic, hindu roots of yoga. And, in the third installment we saw that philosophic yoga teaches that the goal of yoga is union with a supreme reality, that is, it leads the practitioner to become dissolved into a “higher reality.” Once a person perfects her yoga practice, her individual self disappears, along with all distinctions among things.
In today’s post, I would like to show three things:
- There are many traditions of yoga.
- Practically all types of yoga practiced by Westerners are in the tradition of hatha yoga.
- hatha yoga is the first step to the other traditions of yoga.
In other words, the yoga that the West knows best is only the first step on a spiritually dangerous and morally unacceptable path.
St. Paul advises us: “Do not quench the Spirit … but test everything; hold fast what is good, abstain from every form of evil” (1 Th 5:19, 21-22). Let us turn our minds to the truth, ask the Lord to bend our hearts according to His will, and explore yoga from a Catholic perspective.
To the newly-initiated, the varieties of yoga may be overwhelming. At first a person might think that yoga is yoga wherever you go. But she soon discovers that the yoga offered at the local gym may not be the same as the yoga offered in a boutique studio. She might even meet connoisseurs who claim to practice “real” or “traditional” yoga. Perhaps she comes across aficionados and their flow-charts to help a person make their way through this jungle. Perhaps she reads an internet article with the leading question, “Which type of yoga is tight for you?” The implication is that everyone can find at least one of the dozens of options that fits her lifestyle. But there is another possibility, namely, that no type of yoga is right for anyone.
Since the goal of this post is not to sell yoga but to explain it, it may be useful to distinguish between traditions of yoga and styles of yoga. A yoga tradition is like a branch on a tree; a style is like a leaf on the branch. The major classic traditions of yoga are these:
- raja yoga, the yoga of mind control: the “original” yoga, focused on disciplining the mind in pursuit of union with the absolute.
- karma yoga, the yoga of action: liberation from the law of karma and reincarnation through good works performed with complete detachment.
- bahkti yoga, the yoga of devotion: offers nine means of maintaining a connection with the divine; often practitioners worship a guru as an embodiment of the divine.
- jnana yoga, the yoga of hidden knowledge: a discipleship period with a guru prepares a person to engage hindu-yoga literature directly.
- tantra yoga, the yoga of dynamism: instead of classic Yoga’s insistence on self-denial, the dominant form suggests salvation through the practice of sexual yoga.
- kundalini yoga, the yoga of awareness: aims to unlock the “goddess energy” of the root chakra, seen as a serpent coiled around the base of the spine. It is called the “master”, the “mother”, and the “bestower” of yoga.
- mantra yoga, the yoga of sound: uses sounds and songs, especially “OM”, in order to help the mind find union with universal divine. It is typically combined with other kinds of yoga.
- hatha yoga, the yoga of opposing forces: focuses on physical postures and breathing techniques.
It is important to note that these varieties generally are not opposed to each other. In fact, many people employ more than one form of yoga at the same time. Nevertheless, one tradition of yoga has gained dominance in the West and, subsequently, wherever the West has had cultural influence. It is the tradition of hatha yoga.
There is a smorgasbord of styles that shape the basic techniques of hatha yoga. In this realm one finds ancient-sounding names, such as vinyasa and kriya yoga. Then there are styles named after famous founders including bikram or iyengar. “gentle” yoga caters to the elderly and injured, “hot”, “rocket”, and “power” yogas appeal to business types, and laughter yoga is touted as a cure for sad sacks.
What is the essence of hatha yoga? What do all the various styles have in common? The etymology of the word gives us a clue. In sanskrit, ha — tha means “sun – moon”, such that hatha yoga denotes the union of two opposite forces, something accomplished only by personal effort. The union of opposing forces occurs on different levels: on one level, physical postures unite with conscious breath; on another level, one’s body unites with one’s mind; on an even deeper level, the mind unites with the absolute. These levels of union are intelligible in light of the fact that hatha yoga aims at “self-realization” by building on the taja structure, often uniting it with mantra and other types of yoga.
Experts tells us that hatha yoga is the “foundation” for the other traditions of yoga, the first step along the path of the truest yoga. What is the first step of hatha yoga? The asanas, the physical postures. How do physical postures do this? By means of bodily postures and breathing techniques, the body is tensed and relaxed, the mind is emptied, and then follows meditations with pantheistic or polytheistic content: “melt into the ground,” “become one with the universe,” “awaken the goddess within,” etc. A disciple of the yoga master patanjali explains the meaning of the asanas:
Posture becomes perfect when the effort to attain it disappears, so that there are no more movements in the body. In the same way, its perfection is achieved when the mind is transformed into infinity.
In other words, through yoga postures a person begins by being hyper-conscious about her body as she tries to perfect her positioning. But if she perfects her posture, she gains control over her limbs, her breathing, her organs, her entire body as a complete whole. Then she is able to suppress all natural efforts of the body and to lose all conscious awareness of the body. This exercise is meant to facilitate, even make real, a union, a bond, a yoking with the infinite consciousness. The deeper union is supposed to take place during the feeling of expansion that occurs in deep relaxation. Because yoga postures calm the emotions, they help to empty the mind. The practitioner is easily led to assume that her physical experience also involves a spiritual experience.
A summary evaluation of the effects of hatha yoga is as follows. yoga postures often have physically beneficial effects, but we should not be fooled: feelings of quiet and relaxation, pleasant sensations, perhaps even phenomena of light and warmth, and even deeper insights into reality are not the same as deep union with God, nor are they signs of spiritual progress.
If a person calls upon gods during the practice of yoga, as in performing postures in the presence of hindu statues or in chanting mantras to a god or goddess, then she has practiced idolatry and her spiritual condition is worse than when she began. If a person accepts a philosophy that denies the distinctions between body and mind, gain and loss, good and evil, God and the self, then she has embraced falsehood and her spiritual condition is worse than when she began. If she believes that yoga is not dangerous or thinks that it is simply exercise, then her misunderstanding indicates that there is room for improvement. Probably her heart longs for deep spirituality.
The saints teach us the path to true holiness. From them we learn that the evidence of a deep spiritual life necessarily includes the love of God and neighbor, a regular prayer life, fidelity to the commandments, a real and abiding faith in the saving power of Christ, and obedience to the voice of God speaking through the Church. Without these, union with God is little more than a passing breath of hot air.
 For a helpful and accurate summary of the interconnecting branches of Yoga, see: http://theyogaposter.com/.
 See David Gordon White, “Yoga, Brief History of an Idea,” Introduction to Yoga in Practice (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 16. “Without a doubt, hatha yoga both synthesizes and internalizes many of the elements of the earlier yoga systems.”
 The classic text Hatha Yoga Pradipika by Swami Svatmarama begins with this dedication: “Reverence to Shiva, the Lord of Yoga, who taught Prvati hatha wisdom as the first step to the pinnacle of raja yoga.” Following this tradition, see B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Yoga (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1966), 23.
 Swami Svatmarama, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, verse 17: “Asanas are spoken of first, being the first stage of hatha yoga.”
 Quoted in Mircea Eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), 53.
“In the first post we discussed “What is yoga?” In the second post, we learned about the hindu roots of yoga. We found that there are certain hindu gods that have been understood to play a role in teaching and promoting yoga. We looked at shiva, vishnu, and shakti, and ganesh. The post concluded by noting four different positions on how to understand the gods of yoga:
- The gods don’t exist; they are mere fables.
- The gods do exist; they are good and can be helpful to us.
- The gods do exist; they are evil and can harm us.
- The gods do exist, but only as personifications or manifestations of the divine, Supreme Reality.
Here we will discuss claim number 4, since this is the understanding adopted by the general yoga tradition that continues even in our day. St. John tells us that we should not believe every spirit, but test them to see if they are from God (cf. 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.
The ancient philosopher Aristotle famously said that the human is a being who desires to know. Wonder is not merely a Western attitude, he asserted: it is a human impulse. It is natural to us. In this light, it is perfectly reasonable to ask about the nature of yoga. The thing is, when I talk with practitioners about it and try to figure out its deeper meaning, I often receive messages like this one:
The most important thing is to practice yoga. We can discuss the theory for hours and hours. But it’s best to practice and then decide. Change your clothes, open your mind, and fix your attention while performing the postures and pranayama.
The more I investigate yoga, the more I realize that this advice is not simply saying, “Try it and see if you like it.” It reveals the essence of the yoga. It is saying that experience is more important than understanding, practice is more important than prudence. In other words, the mind of yoga is: “never mind.” Let’s see what this means and why it matters.
One of the central problems of an essential philosophy common in India concerns the relation between illusion, temporality, and human suffering. The goal of all Indian philosophies and techniques, especially yoga, is liberation from these. Liberation entails, not merely relief from physical suffering such as a sore back, but emancipation from the suffering that comes from existing in this world. You can transcend the suffering that comes from karma, the law of universal causality, which condemns man to transmigrate through the cosmos. Through yoga, it is said, you can enter absolute reality, beyond the cosmic illusion, mirage, or unreality known as maya. No longer will you be imprisoned in becoming. You would be united with pure being, the absolute, known under different names: brahman (the unconditioned, immortal, transcendent); atman (ultimate self); nirvana.
Recall that yoga means “union” or “to bind together.” In a previous post, I asked, what does yoga bind us to? A preliminary answer was supplied: to the hindu gods, who teach yoga techniques. Another answer, however, is as follows. yoga is meant to bind a person to ultimate reality. The system of yoga teaches the individual how to be yoked or indissolubly united to that universal absolute (brahman) and to become undifferentiated from it.
Isn’t this a contradiction? Does yoga unite us to hindu gods or to the absolute?
Here we should distinguish between two forms of hinduism, namely:
i) A popular level of Hinduism and
ii) A higher level of philosophical and religious Hinduism.
According to the popular level, believed in by the masses for the most part, the world is populated by tens of thousands (or is it millions?) of gods and goddesses, myriads of genies, demons, and evil spirits. Those spiritual beings are propitiated and can be manipulated with sacrifices along with yoga practices and disciplines. In this respect, hinduism bears features that are common in most other pagan religions, including those of Greece and Rome. If it accepts Jesus, it is because it sees Him as one god among many.
According to the higher level, the spirit beings are illusions. Instead of renouncing the gods, this philosophy redefines them. They are considered different aspects of the one supreme absolute, which some hindus refer to as “god.” This brahman or god – it must be emphasized – is not God in the Judeo-Christian sense. It has no personality. It is not the One Creator, distinct from the universe, Who created humans in order to have a personal relationship with them. It is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is not Jesus Christ, God Incarnate. Or rather, according to this point of view, it is Jesus and it isn’t – at the same time. It is as much Jesus as it is vishnu, because both are representations or instantiations of the supreme reality, the impersonal absolute existence, of which each human is a part, that permeates everything.
From the perspective of the higher, more subtle hindu thought, yoga’s role is to help the practitioner to be dissolved into this “higher reality.” B.K.S. Iyengar, the renowned yoga practitioner and theorist, explains it this way: “Dualities like gain and loss, victory and defeat, fame and shame, body and mind, mind and soul vanish through mastery of the asanas [yoga postures].” This is the doctrine of monism. It claims that there are no distinctions among things, that all is one and every difference is a harmful illusion, holding a person back from perfection. Once a person masters yoga, “He is then free from birth and death, from pain and sorrow and becomes immortal. He has no self-identity as he lives experiencing the fullness of the Universal Soul.” This is supreme ego-centrism under the guise of self-realization. “I am Brahman!” the yoga practitioner can exult; “I am GOD; I am ALL!” But they should equally declare, “I am NO ONE. I am ILLUSION.”
People often claim they’ve “found themselves” through yoga. What an irony. If they looked deeper, yoga would tell them that they’ve found nothing.
In my next post, I will explore how hatha yoga, the physical postures and breathing techniques, is meant to help a person achieve union with the absolute – and what that means for the soul.
 See Mircea Eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), xvi-xx.
 B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Yoga (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1966), 42.
 Iyengar, 48.
“In the previous post on yoga, we explored studies that showed a couple of important facts:
· Consistent practice of yoga is correlated with a diminishment of Christian belief.
· Practitioners typically begin yoga for physical reasons but stick with it for spiritual reasons.
We concluded with a basic definition of yoga: yoga is both a comprehensive system of human culture–physical, moral, and psychological–and it acts as a doorway on to the gently sloping paths that gradually lead up to yoga proper, that is, the spirituality of yoga rooted in hinduism.
In this post we will take a look at the hindu foundations of yoga in light of the gods found therein. St. John tells us that we should not believe every spirit, but test them to see if they are from God (cf 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.
Part II – The gods of yoga
I’m not much of an exercise person. The practice of pumping iron or toning my body with a machine has never excited me: it seemed meaningless at best and slightly narcissistic at worst. This is one of the reasons why yoga appealed to me. It seemed to be exercise with a real meaning. What I didn’t expect was what that meaning actually is.
The word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit yuj, which indicates “to yoke together,” “union,” “to join, to bind.” Someone who practices yoga as a way of life is called a yogin or a yogi. Because yoga indicates binding, we must ask: what does yoga bind us to?
My jaw almost hit the floor when I found the answer.
To learn about yoga, at first I avoided classes and went to a local bookstore. I wasn’t ready to squeeze into yoga pants. The first paperback I purchased, chosen almost at random, was full of helpful photos of postures along with explanations and commentary. It explained what yoga “yokes” or “binds” us to: Hindu divinity or divinities. “Awaken the goddess within,” it suggested. Frightening for me as a Christian and as a male. It also invited me to consider ganesh, the “loveable” elephant-headed god, along with his friends who populate India’s pantheon. That sounds pagan, I thought. So I set the book aside and looked elsewhere. To my dismay, I discovered in a local Yoga studio something that confirmed the book’s approach: a little bronze statue of a Hindu god, presiding over the people within. It was too much even for this California boy.
Was my experience typical?
Clearly not every book on yoga promotes hindu gods, and not every yoga class has pagan statuary. But many do. The classical yoga tradition argues that all Yoga should associate with the gods of India. In order to understand why this is the case, we must uncover the hindu roots of yoga.
For Westerners who like everything, including religion, neat and tidy, boxed up and labeled, sitting on a shelf ready for inspection from a discerning customer, hinduism poses difficulties. “What we think of as one religion,” one writer notes, “is a multifarious collection of sects, traditions, beliefs, and practices that evolved from the Vedas, the world’s oldest sacred texts, and took shape across the vast Indian subcontinent over the course of many centuries.” There is real difficulty in pinning down a precise doctrine of universal hindu belief because “hinduism has no central authority, no founding figure, no historical starting point, no single creed or canonical doctrine, and many holy books rather than one.” Because of this, hinduism has been called “the world’s largest disorganized religion.” Nevertheless, hindus have generally recognized six principle schools that represent authentic developments of the Vedic scriptures. yoga is one of them.
yoga, along with the religious beliefs and practices sheltered under the large umbrella called “hindu,” honors many gods. “hinduism is a perfect polytheism,” says a highly-respected scholar. In a real sense, this can also apply to yoga. The gods are the ultimate gurus of yoga.
shiva has prominence among the gods of yoga. He is the “patron” of all yoga practitioners: “He is the deity of yogins par excellence and is often depicted as a yogin.” Around his neck is a serpent, symbolizing his power over death; on his forehead is a third eye, through which he gains mystical vision and knowledge. His drumbeat is said to create the OM which reverberates in the heart and throughout the universe. In some depictions shiva assumes the lotus posture in deep meditation. In other cases shiva juggles fire while he dances with one foot in the air, indicating release from “earthly bondage.”
Some traditions include shiva in a hindu triad or trinity of gods, with brahman as the “creator”, vishnu as the “sustainer” or “preserver.” shiva is said to be “the destroyer,” the one who annihilates the illusions of the ego and therefore gains liberation into ultimate reality:
While of course many hindu deities are associated with different paths of yoga and meditation, in shiva the art of meditation takes its most absolute form. In meditation, not only mind is stopped, everything is dropped.
vishnu is another important god for yoga; he is said to preserve and maintain the cosmic order dharma. Like shiva, he is depicted with blue skin and four arms and is accompanied by serpents. It is said that vishnu was incarnate nine times, the last two being the most significant: as krishna and buddha. Here I will focus on krishna.
The bhagavad-gita, part of an ancient hindu religious epic, portrays krishna as the perfect yoga guru to his disciple, the human hero arjuna. Chapter 6 of the gita contains material that would be familiar to many modern yoga practitioners. krishna defines yoga negatively as “renunciation” of illusion and positively as “yoking oneself to the supreme consciousness” (6:2). For him, a yogin is one “established in self-realization” (6:8). Through elevating himself through his own mind (6:5), a yoga practitioner attains the abode of krishna, perfect happiness, “by cessation of material existence” (6:15). The means to acquire this is by practicing control of the body, mind, and activity with specific postures and meditation techniques (6:11-18).
The yoga goddesses should not be neglected in our account. Here we can turn to the chief goddess, shakti or durga, known under different aspects. shakti is seen as the divine force that destroys evil and restores balance: she “represents the cosmic energy of destruction of the ego, which stands in the way of spiritual growth and ultimate liberation.” In some instances, shakti assumes the role of parvati, the energy and consort of shiva; in other instances, the role of lakshmi, the energy and consort of vishnu. The most fearsome role shakti plays is as kali, the “dark mother” goddess, who, standing naked, wears a garland of skulls around her neck and a belt of heads around her waist, wielding a bloody sword and clutching a severed head. It is not uncommon for yoga teachers to recommend tapping into this feminine-divine source of empowerment. Here is one account:
“Ellen is a medical student, and thinks of herself as a rational person who doesn’t go in for mystical experiences. But one day as she closed her eyes and relaxed in savasana, Ellen felt a powerful maternal energy around her and “saw” the hindu goddess durga, whose picture graced the yoga studio’s back wall. For a moment, the many-armed goddess’s face lingered in front of her, looking alive and full of compassionate love. Then the image disappeared–though the sweet, strong energy stayed with Ellen for hours.
Later Ellen asked Sally what the experience might mean. Sally replied: “Just sit in meditation and ask the durga energy to be with you. Then notice how you feel.” This is what Sally calls “deity yoga,” which she claims “isn’t specific to the Hindu tradition.” She says it could be practiced by anyone interested in yoga, even Christians.”
Is Sally right?
What are we to make of the pantheon of yoga gods?
It seems to me that there are four basic positions:
1. The gods and goddesses do not actually exist. They are only metaphors, imaginative fables meant to inspire the yoga practitioner. Some people may believe this, but I think it is insufficient and reductive; it does not adequately explain the cultural and experiential data available.
2. They do exist and are benevolent: they may be invoked in order to obtain energy, power, good fortune, etc. This is the position of a number of simple hindu believers.
3. They do exist but are evil, and should not be invoked. This is the position of traditional Christianity (and perhaps Islam and Judaism). “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image; you shall not bow down to them or serve them” (Exodus 20:2-5).
4. They do exist, but not in the way one might imagine. They are all manifestations of the one supreme being, the all-encompassing reality, which one could call “God.” This is the position of the more developed understanding of hinduism, an understanding that has been adopted by yoga.
In our next post we will explore the last position: that the gods exist, not in themselves, but as manifestations, personifications, or realizations of the divinity.”
 Mircea Eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), 4.
 Philip Goldberg, American Veda (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2010), 3.
 See Georg Feuerstein, The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice, 3rd Ed. (Chino Valley, AZ: Hohm Press, 2008), 72-78.
 Jean Varenne, Yoga and the Hindu Tradition, trans. Derek Coltman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 26.
 Feuerstein, The Yoga Tradition, 84.
 http://www.sanatansociety.org/hindu_gods_and_goddesses/shiva.htm#.UvpGMLQkgf8 For a retelling of the Shiva legend, see Sadhguru, “Yoga Originated from Shiva,” The Times of India 19 March, 2009. http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2009-03-19/vintage-wisdom/28031005_1_shiva-yoga-intimacy
 Feuerstein, The Yoga Tradition, 87.
 Sally Kempton, “Oh My Goddess,” Yoga Journal Online. http://www.yogajournal.com/wisdom/1980 See also “Goddess, Where Art Thou?” http://www.yogajournal.com/wisdom/2617
“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
“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.
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. 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. 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. 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. 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.”
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.”
 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/
 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.
 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).
 J.-M. Déchanet, Christian Yoga (New York: Harper, 1960), 31.