To say that yoga has become popular in our Western culture would be a gross understatement. Not only is yoga offered at practically every exercise facility in North America, you’ll also find it at community centres, churches, and perhaps even your kids’ Catholic school. What are we to make of all this? What is it about yoga that has made it so popular? And, more importantly, is it okay for Catholics to practice it?
I’m sure I’m not the only one to ask these questions, but unfortunately, it’s not always easy to find good answers. Some Catholics practice yoga and think it’s perfectly acceptable. Yet others are staunchly opposed and believe that yoga has no place in the life of a Christian. Is each of us left to decide for ourselves? What exactly does the Church have to say?
Is There a Catholic Position?
To be honest, not a lot has come from the Vatican on this topic. Only two Church documents address yoga specifically: a 1989 letter to bishops written by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (in his role as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) and the more lengthy and thorough analysis of New Age ideas and practices called “Jesus Christ the Bearer of the Water Of Life: A Christian reflection on the New Age.”1
What makes reading and sifting through Church documents even more challenging is that you’re not likely to come across the words, “Yoga is okay,” or “Don’t do yoga.” There’s nothing as cut and dried as that. And some Catholics may find that a bit frustrating. I mean, if there’s all this controversy about yoga, why doesn’t the Church just come out and put its proverbial foot down?
Reading Between the Lines
Simple. Because that’s not how the Church operates. She speaks with authority, but is never authoritarian. As Saint John Paul II said, “The Church always proposes, never imposes.”2
Contrary to what many people believe, the Catholic Church isn’t out to micro-manage your life or kibosh all your fun. When it comes to the day-to-day living of our lives, the Church respects our individual freedom and wants us (expects us, actually!) to make good, rational choices. But that doesn’t mean Holy Mother Church doesn’t have an opinion.
When it comes to something like yoga, which has its roots in a completely different spirituality – Hinduism3 – the Church most certainly cares what we do. We mustn’t be so quick to let ourselves off the hook and assume that just because it isn’t forbidden it must be okay. If we take our faith seriously and desire to grow closer to Christ, we must carefully consider all our actions. What are the implications of practicing yoga? What message does it send to our children and others in the community? Are the naysayers crazy alarmists, or is there potential for real danger here?
Big Pot of Stew
When you live in a cultural melting pot like many of us do, chances are you’ll come into contact with people from a wide range of backgrounds and belief systems. On any given day, you’re likely to encounter customs and practices that, while containing elements of good, may not be compatible with your own.
But we don’t always see it that way. We are intrigued by the “new and exotic”4 and are eager to believe that whatever is new must somehow also be better. Of course there’s nothing wrong with adopting new words or phrases, trying new foods and dishes, and borrowing ideas from other countries and peoples. We do it all the time and, generally speaking, it enriches our lives and makes for more diverse communities.
But when it comes to religion and other deeply held beliefs, this ‘anything goes’ attitude can be problematic. This mindset is a symptom of our relativistic culture, and we need to be wary. Though we may think rather optimistically that we’ve got a handle on things – that we’re grounded in our faith and nothing could possibly lead us astray – we’re all human. I can’t help but think of the Israelites living in Egypt and how quickly they became comfortable with foreign ways, not realizing it would ultimately lead them to turn their backs on God.5 It’s no different for us. In our secular and diverse culture, sometimes it’s hard to “see clearly what is and what is not consistent with the Christian message.”6
One of my biggest hang-ups with yoga is that so many people have jumped on board without even giving it a second thought. It’s easy to get caught up in the ‘everyone’s doing it’ mindset, but isn’t this one of those areas where we should err on the side of caution? If for no other reason, the fact that society has so wholeheartedly embraced yoga (a practice rooted in another faith) should make us stop and think.
As followers of Jesus, we are called to be like Him – countercultural in all we say and do.7 I once heard it put this way: If the world accepts something, we should probably reject it – or at least approach it with caution. And that goes for even something as seemingly innocuous as yoga. Like my mom used to say, “If everybody jumped off a bridge, would you do it too??”
Not My Spirituality
Now I know what you’re thinking: Yoga is just stretching and toning, a way to relax, but it’s not my spirituality. And I get that. Apparently not all yoga is created equal. Some classes touted as ‘yoga’ aren’t really yoga at all; it’s just a marketing ploy – a chance to jump on the yoga bandwagon and cash in on its popularity. These types of classes might be pretty harmless because there’s really not a spiritual component. But the problem lies in knowing what you’re signing up for. What happens when you find yourself sitting on the floor in your yoga pants and the instructor begins to chant?
Even if we can’t decipher the words we are chanting or try to pray Hail Mary’s in their place, we could be accessing and opening ourselves up to things we can’t control. There is real power in our words: we take vows and legal oaths; there are blessings and curses. In other words, sometimes your good intentions don’t matter! New Age practices – such as yoga – can impact us in ways we may not expect or want.
The Ripple Effect
And there’s another aspect to consider. Whether we like it or not, people are watching; they notice how we act and what we say and do. If Christians – particularly Catholics – behave in ways that are inconsistent with what we profess to believe, we are inevitably going to be called to task, regardless of what ‘everyone else’ is doing.
Being a Christian is a big responsibility. We’ve been entrusted to be Christ’s witnesses in the world – walking billboards, 24/7. For good or bad, we are held to a higher standard, and because of that, not only do we lend credibility to the things we are a part of, but our actions can also more readily cause confusion and scandal. Jesus himself cautions us not to be a stumbling block to anyone.8
No one has said that yoga is intrinsically evil, but is it the wisest thing to do? Since the very beginning, yoga poses have been a means of honouring polytheistic Gods. How can that be a good thing for those of us who profess and believe that Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life,” the only way to the Father?9
Pearl of Great Price
I can appreciate what prompts most Christians to want to try yoga: a genuine desire for health, fitness, and overall well-being. And that’s a good thing. God has given us our bodies, and we must do our best to take care of them. But our spiritual well-being should never have to suffer or take a back seat to our physical well-being. It’s not an either/or proposition; there needn’t be any conflict between the two.
When you look carefully at the Church’s approach to this issue (and others like it), you will see a great delicacy and sensitivity in dealing with people, a healthy respect for our gift of freedom. Silence on particular issues can sometimes be misconstrued as consent, but ultimately the question is whether our actions help us to grow in love and in our relationship with the Lord. The Church, our Mother, prefers to gently guide us toward what is good for us and steer us away from what might bring harm.
That being said, Pope Francis actually came out recently and made one of the most definitive statements to date. He said, “Yoga doesn’t lead us to God.”10 In the final analysis, isn’t that what it really gets down to? As Christians the entire focus of our lives should be directed towards God and our destination of heaven. Anything that does not lead us in that direction, well… perhaps we should think long and hard about. As our Holy Father pointed out so eloquently:
“ ‘Who teaches us how to love? Who frees us from this hardness? … The Holy Spirit alone’ can do so. ‘You can take a thousand courses in catechesis, a thousand courses in spirituality, a thousand courses in yoga, Zen and all these things. But all of this will never be able to give you the freedom of the Son’. Only the Holy Spirit ‘moves your heart to say ‘Father’; He alone ‘is capable of casting out, of breaking this hardness of the heart’ and of making it ‘docile to the Lord. Docile to the freedom of love’.”11
Although there may not be any definitive answers about yoga, I hope to have given you some things to think about. Perhaps it’s time to consider our motivations and ask ourselves whether those same benefits might be found elsewhere.12 If we don’t want to give up practicing yoga, we might even question whether yoga has more of a hold on us than we do on yoga.
Let’s face it. Dabbling in yoga or any New Age practice can slowly begin to dilute our Catholic faith. We then risk losing what’s most important in our lives: that pearl of great price, a treasure beyond all telling.13 In my mind, that’s a risk not worth taking.
– Kelley Holy
1 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Letter to Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation; October 15, 1989; available from http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19891015_meditazione-cristiana_en.html; Internet; accessed 9 September 2015.
2 Cf. Pope John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, 39; available from http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_07121990_redemptoris-missio.html; Internet; accessed 28 September 2015.
3 Even Hindus plainly state the connectedness between yoga and Hinduism: “…like two sides of the same coin. One doesn’t exist without the other.” Quoted from
4 The Church Fathers recognize “a growing obsession in Western culture with Oriental religions and the paths of wisdom” and the “lure of the exotic…”(5); available from http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/interelg/documents/rc_pc_interelg_doc_20030203_press-conf-new-age_en.html; Internet; accessed 29 September 2015.
5 As told in the book of Exodus…
6 Pontifical Council for Culture/Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue; Jesus Christ the Bearer of the Water Of Life: A Christian reflection on the New Age, 1.1; available from http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/interelg/documents/rc_pc_interelg_doc_20030203_new-age_en.html; Internet; accessed 22 September 2015.
7 Cf. Luke 2:34
8 Mark 9:42
9 John 14:6
10 Pope Francis, “Hardened Hearts”; Morning Meditation in the Chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae for Friday, 9 January 2015; available from http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/cotidie/2015/documents/papa-francesco-cotidie_20150109_hardened-hearts.html; Internet; accessed 28 September 2015.
12 Apparently there are some good alternatives! Check out these links: http://pietrafitness.com/
13 Cf. Matthew 13:46