During a confession in 2008, a priest challenged me in my prayer life and directed me toward the Magnificat magazine. This booklet contains the daily readings for mass, prayers for each morning and evening, and illuminating spiritual writings that are slightly more than a 144 character tweet and less than a newspaper article. I never know how God will speak to me through these readings, but He was blazing bright on April 19, 2018, when I read the reflection by Father Peter Semenenko, C.R., a Polish theologian. Father Peter says:
“O man, God has directed your soul with all its faculties to himself, to union with him; he holds all the strings of your heart; you can tear them out, but you will not be able to connect their small ends to anything.”
This is a powerful image for me because I realized that through my own free will, I have disconnected my heart strings from God. As I took time to reflect on this image, I discovered those disconnections were ways such as judging others, doubting God’s love, losing my patience, and even practicing yoga.
Now this may come as a surprise. Indeed, it surprised me when I came to an intellectual decision about how yoga might be hurting my relationship with God. I marvel that I have been exposed to and practicing yoga exercise for 19 years. Very few things in my life boast such longevity. There are important ones like my 25 years of marriage, being a Roman Catholic for 46 years, having sons who are 22 and 20; otherwise, not much else competes with that duration. I haven’t even been a nurse for very long, just seven years. So what is it about yoga exercise that initially enticed me and then kept me connected to the practice, even while moving amongst several states and at different times in my life? Initially it was for the exercise. Yoga was a means to build my strength, increase my flexibility with stretching, and to connect with a community of people and hopefully, friends. An added bonus was a quiet setting with instructor-led breathing and mental meditation.
I could have received all the physical benefits from many of the other classes offered at the gym, yet I continued to attend yoga for the experience of transcendence. At that time in my life, I did not call it transcendence, but as my yoga exercise journey has progressed and I have been exposed to a plethora of instructors and different flavors of yoga, I realize that the end goal is the same: a connection with something or someone beyond the limits of ordinary discovery.
Through several months of intense, internal scrutiny, I have concluded that the end goal of yoga is spiritual connection. I may have started for the exercise but I stayed for the transcendence. Connecting to God who is unlimited while I tried to push my body toward unlimited stretching and strength was a grand gesture and a challenge that I enjoyed. Because transcendence is a key aspect of both Christianity and Hinduism, some instructors believe in error they can swap out the Hindu religion in the yoga exercise with Christian religion. In both instances the instructor wants to lead the class spiritually. The difference between the two religions lies in the journey. As Christians our journey to God is through his Son Jesus Christ. Hindu’s do not profess the resurrected Lord.
One may argue that many classes, especially in America, do not stress a Hindu form of transcendence. One can connect to whatever deity or spirit of their choosing. A Jew can connect to Yahweh, a Catholic can connect to Jesus, and a Hindu can connect to their many gods. However, yoga is, intrinsically, a Hindu spiritual exercise. A policy paper from the Hindu American Foundation website addresses yoga and the inability to redefine yoga apart from its Hindu spiritual roots. The full policy paper defines Hindu basics and quotes Pattabhi Jois in Namarup Magazine in the fall of 2014 when he writes:
“But using it [yoga] for physical practice is no good, of no use - just a lot of sweating, pushing, and heavy breathing for nothing. The spiritual aspect, which is beyond the physical is the purpose of yoga.”
Though people may try to change yoga to fit their needs, yoga remains by its very nature, a spiritual exercise for Hindus. They are taking something inherently religious and using it for their own ends.
Some may say that we can understand and appreciate our Catholic religion better by having knowledge of and participating in other religions. I probably felt this way in the past, but history has given me a better outlook. I listened to a recent podcast through iTunes, published on April 9, 2018, by the Thomistic Institute. Led by Dr. Matthew Mehan and Dr. Chad Pechnold it is titled, “Politics, Augustine and the City of God.” The doctors discussed the book City of God, where St. Augustine debates Cicero’s ideas of the Roman gods. Augustine clearly understood Greek and Roman thought and mythology, expounding on them in his writings; however, he did not indulge in their pagan practices. St. Augustine is now honored as a Doctor of the Church.
As I mentioned earlier, I practiced yoga exercise for 19 years. During that time, I sought out better instructors, looked for classes in unique and beautiful locations, and was always trying to improve my yoga skills. Each class that exposed me to something new and different became a challenge that I wanted to dominate. When the instructors led meditations using “ohms” and helped free our minds of any thoughts, I believed that I could shift my thinking toward Christ. In my mind it didn’t matter what the other people were doing. I knew that I was a practicing Catholic. But with each class I became desensitized to the worship aspects. It was like being in a room full of smokers and thinking the second-hand smoke would not affect me.
It was not until September 2017, while attending a class in Michigan, that I realized my soul was in a dangerous spot. The class was outside, near a beautiful lake, with perfect weather and lovely robins singing around us. I had been led along so quietly and deceivingly that when the instructor focused our attention toward a deity statue, began to wave smoking sage over the participants, and then led us in breathing that sounded like we were angry reptiles, I knew that something was strange. However, I did not realize exactly what I was being exposed to until the following month.
In October of 2017, I attended a National Association of Catholic Nurses conference. We had an intellectual lecture and discussion concerning yoga exercise and the ramifications that are visible in all parts of daily life, and even within hospitals and church parishes. I am forever grateful to the nurses at this conference who opened my eyes through rational, logical discussion and philosophical discovery to the subtle dangers of yoga exercise. It closed the door to my old way of exercising and opened the door wide as a witness for Christ.
This shift in exercise and witness was not immediate. It has been revealed to me over several months and in consultation with holy priests and other Catholics, some of whom have participated in the past or who still engage in yoga exercise. In matters of stretching, breathing, bringing quietness and meditation to our day, these actions are not exclusively owned by yoga exercise. They are human characteristics that can be used to bring health, clear thought and transcendence.
If one wishes to exercise in a way that will include a time of transcendence through prayer, there are Catholic options available at SoulCore.com, Cathletix.com and PietraFitness.com. Each of these have been developed by Catholics who were exposed to yoga before realizing that they were seeking a regimen to integrate body and soul into prayer. Their hearts were stirred to the need for change and created exercise routines to answer the request. Similarly to St. Paul who used a statue to an unknown god to witness to Christ, these modern day apostles have used concepts created by God and shared by yoga to fashion a new Christian creation. If an exercise routine is called yoga then it inherits the definition which includes the spiritual aspects. If an instructor leads a class in stretching and isometric exercises but doesn’t espouse the concepts of Hinduism, then why call it yoga?
My goal in writing this is not to discredit the Hindu religion, or yoga as their exercise. I am writing this paper as a witness. Yoga in the United States is a type of exercise that is hidden away in quiet, dark rooms usually of females. There is no opportunity for spectators, and as many men would be sexually enticed by viewing the poses and stretches, classes rarely comprise married or celibate men. Men and women who are not involved do not know what is happening in yoga classes. And those who are involved, like me, do not fully recognize what is happening without the witness of others. For this reason, I am sharing my personal experience as to why exercise that purports to be yoga and thereby Hindu, is counterproductive for those seeking the light of Christ.
Hinduism and yoga exercise are quietly pervasive in our modern world. Many popular stores with home décor sections carry Hindu statues of elephants and other gods, clothing is now referred to with titles such as “yoga pants” and marketing images of yoga poses are prolific in television and internet advertisements. Hinduism through yoga exercise is woven into our contemporary cultural fabric. It is so main stream that it fits in well with modern relativism where nothing is right or wrong and each person is entitled to his or her own truth.
I have dear friends who are yoga instructors and practitioners. It is with filial love and deep care for them that I share my experience on this topic. I am grateful to the ones who showed me the path I was on and how it was leading me away from Our Savior. Ultimately God gives us all free will and I will love and respect my friends and their choices, though I hope to witness to Christ’s love and God’s moral demands.
Now that I have made a freewill decision to look at exercise in my life and to be reborn in the knowledge of Christ, my final internal question is, “Should spiritual practices like yoga exercise be offered in a Christian setting such as a parish, school, community center, hospital or retreat center?” If I am attending an event at one of these Christian locations my expectation is that the event conforms to the teachings of Christ and the Church He developed. It seems deceptive toward the participant if the event has polytheistic roots and such an event is given credence by the Christian authority precisely based on the location.
Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, advises his archdiocese away from yoga in a 2017 article titled, "Yoga trades union with Christ for union with the cosmos." His final statement reads, “If you want to decrease the chances of your son or daughter from becoming a “none,” then do not sign them up for yoga class.”
As we are called by God to continually be reborn in our relationship and understanding of the Trinity, I challenge Christians to bring this topic of yoga exercise to their daily prayer; seeking God’s understanding and having the courage to do His will.
I am no longer vulnerable to yoga exercise and its artificial means of wholeness toward God. Yoga exercise did not lead me toward stronger connections with God. It deceived me in using meditations to turn inward on myself instead of linking me with the Holy Spirit. It may have provided me increased flexibility and strength while it blindly weakened my relationship to the Trinity. If this quiet yoga coercion occurred in me while participating in the Sacraments and attending Mass, I shudder to think how this would have affected my faith journey if I did not have these supernatural tethers.
I have been enlightened and am a witness for Christ.
©Janet C. Munday, BSN, RN