Commentary by Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
U.S. Catholic magazine has published an article encouraging Catholics who wish to improve their prayer life to try yoga.
Written by freelance writer, M. M. Hubele, the article entitled “Om-schooled: How Yoga can influence your Catholic prayer,” tells Catholics that they can “take a lesson from the Hindu tradition of yoga when it comes to praying with body, mind and spirit.”
The basic premise of her article seems to be that in order to understand the importance of the body’s position in prayer, one needs to practice – or at least learn – yoga.
“As Catholics we believe that externals matter,” Hubele writes. “What we do with our bodies impacts what we experience within our souls. We might not be trying to rein in unruly thoughts so as to reach liberation, but we certainly can benefit from a physical response to those things we point to as sacred. Our bodies can be used to bring our thoughts into line…But perhaps by learning from our Hindu brothers and sisters we can rediscover an element of our tradition that is as old as the religion itself. Whether it’s leaping with joy during worship or extending our arms during a benediction, letting our bodies form our prayer can breathe a freshness into our faith. I may not be thinking of the mountain pose when I’m standing during Mass, but through my study of yoga I’ve come to rethink what I’m standing for.”
The author explains how she originally learned the importance of physical position in prayer from a Franciscan Friar, then claims it was “providential” that it was at the same time that she began to practice yoga at the local gym. “The appeal of yoga lay in the benefits to my posture and the definition added to my abs and arms. Considerations of the real meaning of the spiritual exercise never crossed my mind. That is, until I found myself in a Hindu theology class five years later.”
From this point, Hubele embarks on what appears to be a full-scale study of Hinduism that led her to India and a guru who taught her how to focus on breathing until he saw “the snot flying.”
It all taught her to be mindful, she writes, and helped her to discover that “Forming those exotic contortions with one’s body is not the goal. The goal is to be able to focus one’s mind while forming those exotic contortions. The postures of yoga are meant to lead the mind beyond the postures. They’re the method, not the goal.”
Her article, which was published by a magazine that was once the subject of an inquiry by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for an article appearing to endorse female ordination, does contain some notable contradictions.
For instance, the author claims to have been raised as a devout traditional Catholic “with a healthy smattering of New Age,” but concludes the article by saying she doesn’t “support the syncretism of religions or New Age.” One cannot help but wonder why she would be against something that she desribes as “healthy.”
The article would have achieved balance had it had included a very sensible warning by the Church about becoming too interested in the physical aspects of Eastern prayer forms. In the CDF’s 1989 “Letter to the Bishops on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation,” then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger warns that body positions coupled with breathing techniques and meditation can have a calming effect on people that can be misinterpreted as spiritual wellness rather than just the relaxation exercise it is.
“Some physical exercises produce pleasing sensations of quiet and relaxation, perhaps even phenomena of light and warmth which resemble spiritual well-being,” he wrote. “But to take such feelings for the authentic consolations of the Holy Spirit would be a totally erroneous way of conceiving the spiritual life . . . (W)hen the moral condition of the person concerned does not correspond to such an experience . . . this would represent a kind of mental schizophrenia which could also lead to psychic disturbances and, at times, to moral deviations.”
Of course, none of this is mentioned, which is why Hindus are applauding the article. Noted Hindu statesman Rajan Zed, in a statement made to DNAIndia.com, said Yoga, “a ‘living fossil’ introduced to humanity by Hinduism, was a world heritage, and we are pleased when it helped other faith traditions achieve their goals.”
He goes on to explain what Hubele’s article leaves out – that yoga is actually a mental and physical discipline by means of which the human-soul (jivatman) unites with the universal-soul (parmatman).
It is interesting to note that the reader’s comments about the article were surprisingly negative, with most people weighing in against the promotion of yoga for what can easily be discovered without it.
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