What is the Catholic position on Yoga?

I have received a couple inquiries about Yoga by e-mail, and heard of others by word of mouth.  It seems that a lot of the faithful are wondering what a Catholic is supposed to think about Yoga.  Many even desire an outright condemnation from the Church.

That such a condemnation has not yet occurred is an important factor for anyone seeking to honestly answer this question.  Despite registering certain concerns, the Vatican has not felt compelled to tell Catholics that yoga is totally out of bounds.  Why not?

Many arguments Catholics tend to use against the practice of yoga are, in fact, unCatholic – even superstititous.  Those who argue that the practice of putting one’s body into certain positions automatically opens one to malign supernatural forces are making the same mistake that St. Paul criticized in 1 Corinthians 8 when he told those in his congregation who were concerned about eating food that had been offered to idols (much of the available meat in Paul’s time would have come from pagan temples) that “we know that no idol in the world really exists.”

The physical positions of yoga have no more spiritual power of themselves than meat from a pagan temple differs from any other meat.  Consequently, there is no problem with a Catholic using various stretches and exercises that may help her or his bad back just because they happen to be yoga poses.

But if you read the rest of 1 Corinthians 8 (seriously, go read it), you will see that this is not the whole story.  Even if the physical postures of themselves are morally neutral (and physically beneficial), there are further considerations.  Both the eating of food offered to idols and yoga happen within social contexts, and we must take care that we are not using our actions to communicate something to those around us that will scandalize them – or, perhaps, even to deceive ourselves.

Those who critique yoga with the superstitious argument that the postures themselves open us to dark forces seem a little less silly when we recognize that some Catholics (and certainly a very many non-Catholics) who use yoga believe that those same postures open us to forces of light.  Superstition can go both ways and, while those who think yoga is bad because it automatically leads to the occult are wrong, they are only as wrong as those who intentionally use yoga as a spiritual practice.

Any Catholic practicing yoga, therefore, needs to be clear that they are merely exercising.  For the Christian, yoga can function as prayer only in the sense of consecrating every act to God in our attempt to ‘pray without ceasing.’  In other words, if yoga is a spiritual act for a Catholic, it is so in just the same way that weightlifting or swimming is a spiritual act.

This balance can be hard to strike because of the social factors mentioned earlier.  While very few of our contemporaries are likely to see swimming laps as engaging in a spiritual exercise, many will see yoga in that way.  And this is to be expected, given that the original practitioners of yoga understand it to be a spiritual practice.

For this reason, I am not inclined to support the practice of Holy Yoga, or other ways of trying to harness yoga as a spiritual discipline for Christians.  Such labeling makes it more difficult to distinguish the physical postures of yoga from the superstitious possibilities inherent in its practice.  It also transgresses the advice of Paul to the Corinthians to honour the tender consciences of those who may still harbor superstitious beliefs.

There can be nothing inherently wrong with exercises that enhance our health and wellbeing.  But we cannot afford to overlook the possibility that the social and historical context of yoga may be a stumbling block to using these exercises as mere exercises or to our brothers and sisters in Christ.

For a further Catholic consideration of the issues that arise with yoga, I highly recommend  Michelle Arnold’s excellent treatment for Catholic Answers.  She highlights two things in particular that will supplement my comments here:  first, she looks at some of the actual spiritual beliefs present in yoga (and compares them with orthodox Christianity); second, she puts the question of yoga in the context of the Catholic Church’s attitude toward non-Christian spiritual traditions in general, recognizing that the Catholic Church’s approach is quite different from that of fundamentalist Protestantism on such questions.\


Note: This blog elicited feedback the led to a further clarification.  Kindly follow the link for more.  http://archregina.sk.ca/blogs/31427/3945/2015/4/clarification-re-holy-yoga

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