Mercy Me! I've got work to do.

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Christians practicing yoga- why get bent out of shape?

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I got bent out of shape last week when I happened upon a blog post written by a priest regarding the controversy of Christians practicing yoga.

Maybe I have spent too much time in shavasana, the deep relaxation pose that means corpse in Sanskrit, but I had no idea of such a controversy.  So when I read his post explaining that yoga is more than physical, but leads practitioners toward non-religious spirituality and Buddhism, I was stunned.

Over the years I have tried many forms of yoga – Bikram , Vinyasa, Baptiste and Hatha. Regardless of how much I sweat, stood on one leg, wrapped my limbs like wet noodles, folded myself in half, balanced, breathed, backbend or stood upside down, never once did anyone bring up Buddhism or spirituality.

Not once.

So I was confused.

I reread his article. I read some of the comments of people who had enjoyed yoga practices, but gave it up to avoid being led away from Christ.

This controversy about contorting your body seems twisted.

I guess it’s plausible that one day a Christian spends too much time in downward dog and the next he is down with the devil. But really, evil, temptation and false gods are everywhere not just in the yoga studio.

It’s the value we assign things, including our relationship with God that is most significant.  If I saw that practicing yoga was interfering with that relationship, I would need to acknowledge it and deal with it in the same way I do the rest of my sins.

While I feel uncomfortable disagreeing with a priest, I am just as uncomfortable not speaking up about his misgivings, which seem far-fetched and alarmist.  I would not choose the practice of yoga over my faith. But why should I be asked to choose?

Yoga is an hour of my day that I don’t think, plan, fret, speak, work, check email, or take care of other people.  Do you have any idea what a blessing that is? Wouldn’t you stand on one leg to have an hour like that?

It is place where I can just be.   I am not stoned on incense or in some meditative coma.  I am not thinking of Buddha and his big fat belly, and how he looks like he has not been to a single yoga class in any of his countless reincarnations.

I am just there physically strengthening my body that I was taught to respect as a temple – a teaching that comes from my Bible not Buddha.  I am there restoring my body with the oxygen that fuels each cell that God carefully selected to make me unique.  I am there relaxing not with alcohol, Xanax, oxycodone or any other chemical concoction, but with the same breath that God used to create me. And to the Christians who believe that yoga leads to paths divergent from God, you may find it hard to believe that while I am there, I often pray.

I do not do this at the encouragement of the instructor, because I have never heard it mentioned, nor because I have been told to meditate, as I have not.  I do it because somehow it occurs to me to pray, just as it does at other points in my day.  I even assign the prayers to people in my life or in this world that I think may need them –meaning I am consciously praying.

I don’t credit yoga for that, but it makes the argument about the practice turning people away from Christianity all the more baffling to me.

I guess what frustrated me most and made me feel that it was not a subject I should even acknowledge, is that this controversy has nothing to do with living out the Gospel.

Jesus spent His life, His whole being showing us the way to live, the way to love, the way to care for one another.  I see suffering in so many places regardless of wealth or poverty.  Suffering all over the place.   God sent His son to show us ways to comfort one another.  This is what we should spend our lives doing.  We should be bent over backwards trying to emulate the examples of service that Jesus gave us because the needs are tremendous and whether you choose to practice yoga or law is really insignificant in the whole scheme of life.

Maybe Jesus never stood on His head, but I think He is less concerned with our physical posturing and more so with where we stand in our relationship with Him and others.

Yoga is referred to as a practice because it has nothing to do with perfection. It’s a lot like life that way.

Some days are simply easier than others. Sometimes we wobble on an unsteady path.  Sometimes we are balanced; sometimes we fall.  On really great days we stand tall and strong like a mountain.  But the best day of all, at least for me, are the days when I feel the peace of God’s love and am successful at sharing it with others.

Like yoga, it’s something I have to practice, but when I get it right its pure bliss.   And that’s got nothing to do with Buddha.

As always, I love your comments.  There is still so much work to be done to ease the lives of others so if you have an experience to share, I welcome the inspiration! Peace xo ~ Lara

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Author: Lara Patangan

Mercy me, I’ve got work to do… is a blog I started on my 40th birthday to chronicle my experiences spending the year doing corporal and spiritual works of mercy. No longer on the cusp of a new decade, I am still here finding that much work remains – in the world, my community, my relationship with God and perhaps most challenging, within myself. Please sign up and join me as we share the work that matters most – being better people. In hopes that when the decades cease to pass the world will still whisper of the graces left in our wake.

18 thoughts on “Christians practicing yoga- why get bent out of shape?

  1. Oh, girl, there you go again…getting deep and getting my attention! I too have heard that complaint and suspect it’s directed at those with weaker faith who may be swayed by the experience. The same can be said, though, of new-to-the-faith Christians who get caught up in “mountain top” experiences and then expect every day to be the same in their new walk with God. When it’s not, they quickly seek something else to replace it…perhaps Buddhism! We just can’t ignore the level places or the valleys in favor of the peak; they too are part of the walk.

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    • Kate, I have never heard about this controversy before so I it was really bizarre to me. I suppose yoga can be practiced as a religion as can materialism, vanity or any other person or thing we choose to worship. The people I know who practice yoga, do it for exercise not enlightenment. I love your point about the new to the faith Christians. I think it is profoundly true in life that too many of us are seeking the peaks and the highs of the world and often miss out on the peace and stability offered in the valleys. I really loved that!

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  2. Here is an article (you can find several of them on yoga, here, as well.). It speaks to the postures of yoga being ones of worship to gods despite one’s own intentions or personal focus. Let me know what you think of it, Lara. http://www.womenofgrace.com/blog/?p=17011

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    • Thank you for sharing April. I read the article, but just can’t wrap my head around the practice of yoga being postures to praise other gods – at least in the western world. Again, I believe if someone assigns that value to their practice, than yes, it makes it so. For myself, I don’t believe that the sun is a god. When I do a sun salutation I do it as a form of exercise – I don’t even think I have ever thought of the sun while practicing yoga. If the Hindu’s believe the sun is a god and practice yoga as a form of worship to that god – it has no bearing on my individual faith. I admit I know very little about the Hindu or Buddhist religions, but feel very confident that I believe in one God, the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.

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  3. Lara, sorry, we part company here. Yoga is a religious practice that originates in Hinduism. That’s a fact. if you read what Hindus say about it, they insist that it cannot be removed from its religious underpinnings. You’re right that positions in themselves can’t take you away from God. But one of the problems is that as people get deeper into yoga, they encounter more teachers and students with a New Age/Hindu outlook. I found the Australian study that Fr. Ezra referred to really interesting. It found that most people who continue with yoga do so for spiritual reasons, even though most people who start it do so for pure exercise. So there is definitely a danger.

    I know of one Catholic writer who is really into yoga. She now refers to God as “Spirit”–not the Holy Spirit, just Spirit. This is the Hindu term for the impersonal deity that we are all supposed to melt into (I know I’m not stating this the way a Hindu would). Why does this matter? Because Catholic formulations for the faith have been developed over centuries with the help of–the Holy Spirit. We can’t just start substituting other formulations from foreign religions and think they will lead us to the same faith.

    Since there are myriad ways of exercising, why put yourself in danger by choosing yoga?

    Fr. Ezra’s caution (and he has barely started his series and hasn’t really said that much against yoga yet) goes along with the standard view of most orthodox teachers of the faith.

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  4. Connie, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I will read the rest of Father Ezra’s series as it comes out. No disrespect to the Hindus, but I don’t really care if they think the religious meaning cannot be removed from yoga. For me, yoga has no religious meaning. I admit to being over-simple. But for me and other Catholics I know who practice yoga as exercise, it really is just that. I don’t get how people get “deeper” into yoga either. Maybe I practice incorrectly and am missing something but I just go to class and leave. Again, I realize anyone can be drawn away from there faith, but it seems like a stretch that yoga, at least the way it is practiced here, would lead to that. While my teacher is not Catholic, she is a practicing Christian. There are indeed other ways to exercise and I do exercise in other ways, but giving up yoga doesn’t seem reasonable to me as it doesn’t tempt me toward other religions, gods or practices. Truly, I had never heard of such thing and I guess if nothing else, at least I am more educated about the different interpretations of yoga. I look forward to reading the rest of his series and hope we can agree to disagree.

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  5. Connie is correct, Lara. I will provide further articles and links; I have a CRHP meeting and don’t have time to gather the resources right now. I’ll get back to you in the next couple of days. We must trust mother Church in her teachings; we cannot pick and choose those doctrines which are comfortable to practice, discarding those which don’t suit us. It seems to me the Holy Spirit is challenging you; will you submit to the Church and Her doctrines, or will you disregard Her teachings and negate your Corporal Acts of Mercy? It’s a difficult dilemma, dear friend.

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  6. Patti, thank you for taking the time to comment and for your willingness to pass along relevant information. I will be happy to look at it. I am not seeing it as a dilemma nor as anything that negates any works of mercy. There is no negating goodness. If I have done any good then its out there. I appreciate the perspective that others may assign to the practice, but as my chosen God- I stand by the same one I always have – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

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  7. Let me restate that last sentence, because it’s not a fair statement. Your works of mercy always count. It is the spirit in which you performed them that would change. In other words, your project was performed in the spirit of Church doctrine, along with the Gospel message. One is not a true Catholic if one does not accept transubstantiation. Or if one practices birth control. The Catechism is an excellent source for Church teachings and explains the “why’s.”

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  8. Lara,
    I am a “yoga” loving catholic. I put that in quotations because what you and I call yoga here in suburbia is much different from the real yoga they are doing in India. I don’t even say I “practice yoga” because I think that sounds so weird. I usually say, “I’m going to yoga, or I do old lady yoga, or I do old lady stretching.” I think somebody in the 60’s just starting substituting the word yoga for the word calisthenics. For me, it is just a way to stretch my body, calm down my mind, breathe deeply and I actually do some praying too! I have a chance to think about people I love and improve my posture. I think those terms like sun salutation, down dog, cat, cow, etc.. are used so you can visualize the positions. In sun salutation you visualize the whole front of your body and face feeling the warmth of the sun. Not worshipping it. I couldn’t find anything in the Catechism about yoga. I have to go drive the soccer carpool. What does this have to do with transubstantiation or birth control?

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    • Cecy, I don’t know what they are doing in India, but here I have never found a connatation of it being a religious practice. I read one article about someone who started a Christian yoga practice where they call poses different names. I think ultimately you and God know what’s in your heart. I guess I could get over my own vanity and say that I go to old lady stretching class too. I am glad to know that you pray in yoga.I like to pray for prisoners in yoga and those that minister to them. I feel like they are easy to forget.But sometimes I pray for us suburbanites too 🙂

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  9. Amen!!!

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  10. I think it’s important to point out that one priest’s opinion (or even a multitude of clergy, or established organizations) does not equal “Catholic doctrine.” I also think it’s interesting that many folks who are warning Catholics against yoga are also judging others on how “really, truly” Catholic they are. Interesting to me, at least, because I see Jesus warning the *established* religious folks against putting their rules above people when I read the New Testament.

    In any case, Lara, here’s an interesting book about Yoga and the Hail Mary- combining the two- written by a friend of mine: http://www.amazon.com/Hail-Mary-Rhythmic-Breathing-Illuminationbooks-ebook/dp/B005Z53DJK/ref=la_B001KHT3N2_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1392436524&sr=1-1

    I don’t get any benefit from “promoting” the book, but I found it really helpful. I had heard of this controversy a few years ago, and have spent some time thinking and praying about it. My conclusion (my personal conclusion and not official church teaching!)… is that I trust God to protect me in my simple-ness (as you say). I take a similar stance to people who object to wearing those Swartz-whatever crystals– in both cases, detractors say the activity or object has an energy that can lead me to the devil. But I believe that our God – the Divine Trinity- is stronger than any subtle or unacknowledged “energy” in mundane activities or objects. Obviously, the question is whether or not an object/activity is benign in and of itself (i.e. torturing an animal is never benign, but killing an animal to feed yourself or others could be).

    One other thoughts… many folks believe that the historical Jesus was born in the spring, and yet we celebrate in mid-winter because we Christians co-opted pagan rituals and celebrations (solstice/yule log). Is anyone saying we shouldn’t have Christmas trees, because once upon a time it was a pagan thing and so the pagan energy remains? There are some folks saying we ought not to celebrate so commercially, putting money or objects above the meaning of Jesus’ birth, but no one is saying we ought not to celebrate Jesus’ birth! How is yoga different, if it was a rite of another religion, but has since been co-opted by Christians to take care of the body temples God gave us (as you put so nicely in your post!).

    In any case- and sorry to hijack your comments with such a long response- If I do any yoga stretches, I begin with an offering/prayer of intention, adapted from St Francis de Sales, offering the activity to God and asking him to guide me to him through it, as well as helping me ‘behave in a manner pleasing to You’. (the You is God, not anyone else).

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    • Kristine,

      No apology needed! I appreciate your insights, thoughts and the points that you made so well. I think it does get complicated when we get too specific with what is inherently evil and what is not. Honestly, I think that is why for me, I have to focus on the simplicity of God as a powerful, wise, and loving God. It is easier for me to think of what I am suppose to do than not do and it seems more positive. “Love thy God with your whole heart, soul and mind. Love your neighbor as yourself.” Those are simple, powerful and pivotal commands that I try to follow. But I get that we are all different and have different ways of serving and showing our obedience to God. I had not heard of the crystal thing either, so I am sufficiently confident that I indeed live under a rock. That is nice that you begin your yoga stretches with a prayer intention. I can’t say I am that formal combining yoga and prayer. It really is just exercise for me. I pray as it occurs to me and it almost always does. I appreciate the good intentions of people’s warnings. While I hate to make myself sound like a total heathen, I indeed fail God in genuine ways often enough. That is what I need to work on, and I do. Blessed will be the day when practicing yoga is my biggest concern as it relates to my relationship with God! At the end of the day, I think we all just do our best and by doing so will be led according to His will.

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  11. Thank you for this article, well said!!! I am a yoga teacher and a follower of Jesus and I have never found them to contradict each other…I have been practicing yoga for 15 years and teaching for 8. Teaching yoga is one of the ways I show love to others & that’s what it’s all about:)

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    • Nan,

      I think it’s awesome that you teach yoga. It is such a gift to give people an hour that they can tune out the external world, exercise and relieve stress. I know my yoga teacher is a Christian also, and she has never said or done anything that made me feel uneasy. Physically uncomfortable, yes, but not spiritually! I ran for years and while I still run some, I find yoga a kinder, gentler way to exercise. I really like the strength building aspect. When I started I was so pitiful, my scrawny arms couldn’t even do a plank for more than 5 quick seconds. And sometimes when I think there is no way I can do a pose and then some how I do it – I love that! It makes me feel good, and not in a oh, my I am so much cooler than God way, but just in a Yay! I did it! happy way. So that is fun for me – not religious. But you are right life really is all about showing love to God and to others and there are so many beautiful and unique ways can we do this.

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  12. I am sorry I am finally just getting a chance to read this post. I enjoyed your post and am impressed with your conviction to your religion, to what Jesus said, and to following his commands. I remember discussing this issue with you and wanted to see what the comments said too because I knew everyone would not agree with you. I can not believe that anyone would suggest you were not a “true Catholic” or that your works of mercy do not matter. You are stong in your faith and working on making your body strong is not going to change that unless you let it. (I am not at all concerned that you would let it.) I felt compelled after reading all of the comments to open my Bible to the gospel. I know Jesus never said to not do yoga. I of course thought of the “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matthew 7:1) verse based on the fact that several of those who commented were quick to judge you, but found myself in Mark where Jesus was talking about the food people were taking into their bodies as well as how they ate it. In Mark, Jesus is talking to some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law and they are asking Him about his disciples eating with unclean hands instead of following the religious traditions. Jesus says “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” (Mark 7:8) “Listen to me, everyone and understand this. Nothing outside a man (or woman) can make him ‘unclean” by going into him (or her). Rather, it is what comes out of a man (or woman) that makes him (or her) ‘unclean.'” (Mark 7:14-16) He discusses this issue further with his disciples and says “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a man (or woman) from the outside can make him (or her) ‘unclean’? For it doesn’t go into his (or her) heart but into his (or her) stomach, and then out of his (or her) body.” (Mark 7:18-19) I thought that it was easy to see the parallels to exercise in these passages. Yoga may even make you a better Christian because you take the time to pray and to take care of yourself (which definitely makes it easier to be more Christ-like towards others). As long as you continue to keep Christ in your heart, and keep out the things that are unclean, you will continue to be the great person and Christian that you are.

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    • Cheryl – I appreciate that you understand that my intentions with yoga do not stretch into religion and most certainly not other gods. I like the passages of scripture you shared and impressed at how relevant they seem. In fairness, perhaps yoga can and is practiced as part of some people’s religions. However, in any class I have taken I have never heard or witnessed iras such. I would say it’s just a unique form of exercise but truly it’s no more unique than tennis or running. They are all different and appeal to people for different reasons. There are NFL players regularly attending yoga classes where I go and I think they are probably there to simply stretch and gain flexibility. What they get from it may be different than what I do, but I don’t think they are there for any other reason than the physical. They obviously consider a valid form of exercise since they are taking the time to be there as part of their professional regimen for staying in shape. There is a lot of uncleanliness in this world and I guess we all have to do whatever we can to protect our hearts from that. So I guess ultimately if anyone feels even a little bit uncomfortable about yoga leading them towards false gods or other faiths or any other deviation from the goodness that is in their hearts, absolutely they should avoid it. But I don’t feel that way. I’m not a great Christian either, although I sincerely appreciate such kind words. I fail God in all kinds of ways and never lose sight of that. But I think He likes me anyway, and I am certainly quite fond of Him.

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