As a Catholic priest with some expertise in New Age matters, I am often asked to comment on the appropriateness of Catholics engaging with yoga. This is not an easy subject, and the best answer partly depends on why the question is being asked. So choose the appropriate link for your situation:
- I’m a Catholic thinking of trying yoga.
- I have to make a decision about someone or something under my authority. (For example, should my child take part in yoga at school? As a parish priest, should I let a yoga group hire my hall?)
- I want to speak to someone I know about their involvement in yoga.
- I regret taking part in yoga. What should I do?
Whichever situation applies, there is one thing which will apply consistently throughout this article: the word ‘yoga’ will be used as a shorthand for hatha yoga, which is the discipline of assuming certain postures (asanas) following the ancient tradition developed in India. There are other forms of yoga which deal less with bodily posture and more with mental meditation, but that’s not what’s usually implied when a Westerner talks about ‘doing yoga’.
Why does yoga propose the particular asanas (postures) which are used? In its original culture, certain postures were associated with particular Hindu deities. Many yoga teachers believe in the flow of spiritual energy, or prana, and in particular the sexual energy known as kundalini – postures may be chosen because of their supposed effect on this energy flow. The Catholic Church has no official position on whether such spiritual energy exists; but whether real or supposed, the Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly states that any attempt to manipulate such energy, even for a good purpose, is forbidden.
Now, while yoga has its roots in Hindu beliefs and practices, the Catholic Church ‘rejects nothing that is true and holy’ (#2) from other world religions. So is there anything which is ‘true and holy’ within yoga? There’s nothing wrong in principle with breathing and posture exercises in themselves, and these things can be positive for health. So the question is, why does a particular teacher promote particular exercises?
There are three possible reasons for promoting a particular exercise:
- Blind faith that it works.
- Empirical evidence showing that it has a beneficial effect on health.
- The use of the posture in the yoga tradition.
Blind faith is not a good reason for doing anything. To give authority to any practice without good reason is to make an idol out of it; that would be the sin of superstition.
Empirical evidence that a practice is good for health is a valid reason for undertaking the exercises. There is some published evidence that a form of yoga is good for reducing high blood pressure and marginal evidence for promoting good back function.
Of course, the most common reason for promoting an exercise as ‘yoga’ is because of its direct connection to the yoga tradition dating back 5,000 years in India. A yoga instructor may not be fully aware of the heritage behind a particular posture, but there will be a train of trust and acceptance which ultimately roots what is being taught in beliefs in Hindu deities and the flow of prana and kundalini energy.
Is it possible to Christianise yoga? Yes, but it’s not easy. An instructor would need to look at all the possible poses and exercises, and ask which ones should be used for valid, scientific reasons. Then, when teaching, both the instructor and the pupil would need to make an explicit, prayerful, intention thanking God for the good wisdom contained in these exercises while explicitly renouncing any link to the spiritual heritage which brought those poses to consideration. This is necessary to eliminate the possibility that adopting the pose could constitute honouring a false god, which would be a sin against the First Commandment.
Arguably, if you distanced an exercise regime from its Hindu roots in this way, what you would have is not any form of yoga worthy of the name, but merely an exercise regime inspired by it – at which point you might ask whether it doesn’t make more sense to take an aerobics class, work with a physiotherapist, or try Pilates, which doesn’t have a spiritual heritage.
I’m thinking of trying yoga.
OK. So what are you looking for? Some people turn to yoga because they want to keep their body well-toned. Others are seeking meditative exercises which link mind and body in unity. Obviously caring for our bodies and calming our minds are two good goals. That doesn’t mean that we can follow such practices unthinkingly.
Above, I suggested that it was possible to Christianise yoga, but the resulting exercises would hardly be worthy of the name ‘yoga’ at all. Perhaps you can find an instructor consistent with what I outlined above, but it won’t be easy – and you should also make a mental intention to distance yourself from the spiritual heritage of the exercises. Even if you manage to do this, by engaging in something that’s identified as ‘yoga’ you may still still lead others to think that all kinds of yoga are OK (compare St Paul’s argument about why he won’t eat meat sacrificed to idols, even when it’s been blessed in Christ’s name, in I Cor 8). Further, it’s likely that you will be doing your yoga class in the midst of people who aren’t making that same renunciation of spiritual heritage, and who by their implicit or explicit intention to submit to the authority of ‘yoga’ are breaking God’s law.
Our Catholic understanding of deliverance is that even an ill-informed act of consent to a foreign spiritual practice can open up a person to the level of demonic influence known as obsession, and being in the midst of such people even with a personal intention not to consent can expose a person to oppression. That doesn’t mean these things will always happen. It does represent a risk.
So if you are considering trying yoga as a member of the Catholic Church personally committed to be a disciple and witness to Christ, my simple answer is: DON’T. It’s just too difficult trying to engage with yoga in a way which places sufficient distance between yourself and the spiritual consequences, and there is always the risk of being a counter-witness who will lead others into danger. No-one is forcing you to do yoga, even if your best friend is nagging you to go along with her. So find an unproblematic form of exercise – there are plenty of alternatives!
I need to make a decision about yoga happening ‘under my authority’.
Is your child being invited to do yoga in school? Does a yoga group want to hire your parish hall or advertise in the parish magazine? This needs careful handling. Yoga is very slippery when it comes down to offering a coherent reason why Catholics should avoid it. To explain why there may be a problem (which you’ll understand by reading the section above) requires a deep understanding of spiritual warfare and demonic influence. This won’t make sense to the yoga group who want to hire your hall, and may be miles beyond he understanding of many Catholic schoolteachers.
If I had to give a reason to a school why I didn’t want my child to do yoga, I would use the same line as St Paul on meat sacrificed to idols – “If we do Yoga, we could give the impression we are supporting Hinduism, so it would be more appropriate to do aerobics or Pilates.” Ultimately, if that approach fails, I would assert your right to withdraw children from religious activities, and if they say yoga isn’t religious, I would challenge them to demonstrate that the form of yoga being offered has no connection with Hinduism. You should ask for an exhaustive list of the postures and meditations being taught, and for the reasons and heritage behind each one.
If it’s a question of hiring out your hall, great care is needed to avoid falling foul of equalities legislation. You might not want it to happen in your hall but have difficulty ejecting an existing group. Given the great difficulty of purging yoga of its spiritual meanings, you might explain that under charity law, you can only use Catholic property for the advancement of the Catholic faith (which under our respect for the rights of other religions and hospitality to refugees might occasionally mean hiring out our halls for another religious group to worship in as long as this is clearly labelled as such). So we might want to ask the instructor and pupils to either sign a declaration that they acknowledge what they are doing comes from a religious tradition incompatible with Catholicism, or a declaration that they explicitly renounce the Hindu heritage of what they are doing – plus asking the instructor for an exhaustive list of what is being taught and the rationale behind it.
My friend is trying yoga…
You may be concerned for the spiritual health of a friend or colleague who is trying yoga. You are right to be concerned, but proceed carefully. It is very difficult to draw someone to change moral behaviour until they have a Christian motive. So your first steps will be to draw the person through the thresholds of conversion to Christ outlined in Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples. Once your friend is in the Commitment Zone, you can begin a conversation about whether they see any problem with yoga for a follower of Christ, and if not, invite them to find out about the spiritual heritage of yoga.
Help! I’ve done yoga and I feel bad about it. What should I do?
Don’t panic. You’ve made the most important step, which is realising there’s a problem. As a Catholic, you should go to a priest and make a good confession. You might find that the priest doesn’t think yoga is a problem. Nevertheless, insist that you believe you have honoured foreign gods by practicing yoga, and given a bad example to others, and seek absolution.
If you’re a Christian in a tradition which doesn’t practice confession, then at least make a prayer of confession directly to God.
Once you have repented of your sin, pray thus:
Lord Jesus, I renounce yoga. I take back all authority I have given to any foreign spirits by opening myself to yoga. In the name of Jesus, I take back all authority which I gave to my yoga instructor. I renounce the power of prana and the spirit of kundalini. (Feel free to make the prayer more specific for the names of particular exercises which have bothered you.) I command any and all evil spirits which I have renounced to leave me now, in Jesus’ name.
You might have a prayer-companion, or a sympathetic priest, who will pray with you as you offer this prayer, but you can do so alone. This act will be an important step in your spiritual journey as a follower of Jesus Christ who chooses to give no authority to any other spirit in your life. May God bless you for your desire for spiritual singleness of heart! Walk in the light of Christ, and do not be afraid.