In the early 1990s I was living a high-stress lifestyle: running a successful international business and raising three children. I had no particular religious practice to speak of, having given up Catholicism during my college years. At the same time, medical treatments for a debilitating injury had proven ineffective. One day, on my way home from physical therapy, I saw a sign advertising yoga classes. I called the number on the sign and found a teacher with whom I studied for four years.
Over months and years of yoga practice, my health improved, my body became stronger and more flexible, my injury healed, and my stress level decreased. These positive effects encouraged me to go further: I adopted vegetarianism, began to meditate regularly, visited ashrams and yoga centers, and became certified as an instructor.
I already had studied something of the world’s major religions. When I took up yoga I was curious about Eastern mysticism and embraced it eagerly as an exotic spirituality far different from anything in the Western religious tradition. Yoga, which claims to embrace all religions, seemed to promise the highest joy: a state of being beyond dogma and a direct experience of the realization of the Self (as it is termed in yoga) at the center of consciousness. In this state, it is said, one can remain in the world and yet be detached and undisturbed by it, enjoying peace, serenity, and freedom.
Was this really possible? I was diligent in my practice, and, over time, something began to shift. But the shift was not the one I expected. The deeper I got into meditation, the more it became clear to me that at the center of the silence was a longing for something—or, rather, Someone—beyond yoga. Ultimately, it was not an experience of myself, or even Self, I was seeking; I wanted to be connected again to Christ.
Theologian George Lindbeck has said that “your religion of origin has such a bone-deep hold on you that, as with a native language, it’s your only hope for true religious fluency.” Maybe my reversion was as simple as that. But the desire and longing for communion with Christ took me to a deeper spiritual place than I knew with yoga, and within a few years I was a Catholic again.
I picked up this Zen koan when I was serious about yoga: “You cannot find it by seeking, but only seekers find it.” I came to understand this to mean that we must be prepared for grace, but grace comes in God’s own good time. As I see it now, while yoga offers health benefits, there is a problem with it as a spiritual path for Christians. I did come across some discussion of Christ consciousness in yoga, but the descriptions were not specifically and uniquely of the second Person of the Holy Trinity. Christ consciousness in yoga is a more generalized sense of personal enlightenment, not worship of the all-powerful creator of the universe in the perpetual relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
To greatly oversimplify, yoga is meant to take us from the inhabiting of our coarse outer body to the experience of unembodied enlightenment. Through a series of postures (asanas) and breathing practices (pranayamas), we learn to let go of our attachment to bodily reality; we then can progress to deeper states of awareness, meditation, and, ultimately, union with the transcendent divine (the word yoga in Sanskrit means “union”).
Yoga teaches that we can release our attachment to the physical world and make spiritual progress by first fully inhabiting the body through stretching and strengthening exercises (and here, the health benefits are many). The postures, some of them exceedingly difficult, help us cultivate the stillness we need. Other practices, such as kriyas (cleansing and purification rituals) and pratyahara (sensory withdrawal), further encourage detachment from the world.
At one time this attracted me. When I had no religious commitments to support me, the peace and tranquility promised by detachment seemed the answer to the pressures of my high-stress life. But slowly I began to return to the Judeo-Christian view of the body: It is not an inherent obstacle to spiritual enlightenment but, rather, has dignity and value simply because God created it. Christians are meant to keep themselves healthy for the sake of others, moderating diet, exercise, and rest to better serve the needs of the greater community.
The deeper one gets into yoga, the tradition teaches, the less one is bothered by the distractions of the outside world. One of the purposes of this detachment from transitory things is self-mastery, and that also attracted me. In yoga self-mastery involves work on the self. In Christianity it is a prelude to self-giving; developing one’s unique talents is for the express purpose of giving them away—of making a gift of self. To me, yoga engaged in for the purpose of withdrawing from others, even for such a seeming good as being undisturbed by the acts of others, began to seem less and less Christ centered.
I have heard teachers describe the yoga mat as sacred space. We come onto the mat to offer ourselves up to the experience of whatever will unfold in that particular class. At all times we are the ones in charge of the experience. We may choose to participate or not in the various postures and pranayamas suggested by the teacher. Ultimately, it is up to us, and the sacred space of the mat is our own awareness.
And then there is the Mass—the re-presentation of Calvary, the Holy Sacrifice of Christ that redeems and restores. In that sacred space I receive the consecrated body and blood of our saving Lord and participate in that great prayer. Increasingly, as I turned back to the Church, the idea of a yoga mat as sacred began to sound spiritually dangerous.
Other aspects, however, of yogic practice seemed to remind me of something Christians once had understood: that what, how, and how much we eat has spiritual implications, and that disciplining our eating can bring spiritual benefits. In yoga fresh, wholesome vegetarian nourishment is considered satvic, or life-giving. Meat, tobacco, alcohol, and caffeine are considered tamasic, or toxic, and will interfere with the yogi’s attempt to meditate successfully.
Christ declared all foods clean: Diet itself does not make us virtuous. The body in and of itself is something holy and good, regardless of whether or not it sports six-pack abs. The body is not a distraction from reality. It is reality. And yet, from the beginning, the Christian tradition has understood the benefits of fasting and restraint.
Before Vatican II Catholics were required to abstain from meat on Fridays and fast for three hours before receiving Holy Communion. After these restrictions were lifted, the nature of the Friday fast was left to the discretion of the individual, and the time frame required for fasting before Communion was reduced to one hour. Today, these requirements seem to have all but been forgotten. Lent, formerly a serious season of penance and prayer, has been reduced to “giving something up.” When we wonder why people increasingly are drawn to Eastern disciplines such as yoga, we might begin by wondering what happened to the discipline that used to be a part of Christian life.
Similarly, although Christian meditation is an ancient tradition, well understood and practiced in the early Church, over the years it became remote and estranged from the manner in which most Christians lived out their faith. In the 1960s and 1970s, young people were leaving the Church in droves, impressed by the direct spiritual experience promised by Eastern mystics and practices such as Transcendental Meditation. No one in the Church talked about meditation. Catholics were encouraged to pray, to attend Mass, and to receive the sacraments. That was it. I wonder, now, whether I would have discovered the richness of the Christian meditation tradition without the practice of meditation I learned through yoga.
While the techniques can be similar (learning to sit quietly, turning down the volume on the mental chatter, emptying the accumulated impressions of the day), Christian meditation involves a focus on Christ. For me this became much more fulfilling than yoga. All the emptying gained from yoga practice now seemed to necessitate a filling up with something or, rather, Someone, who is Christ.
As Christians we believe we are born into a fallen world and require redemption. In yoga we save ourselves (I’m stretching a definition to call the yoga perspective salvation) through our own efforts. Yoga teaches the concept of Karma, the unresolved matter from previous lives that must be worked through before we can advance on the spiritual path.
According to Christianity we also are endowed with free will to choose or reject the path to salvation, which is Christ himself. The Church teaches that there is no such thing as a past life, nor is there karmic debt. Each of us is unique and unrepeatable, called by God from all eternity to inhabit this body at this particular time. Suffering can be redemptive. Jesus Christ suffered a death he did not deserve. Sacrifice and suffering align our lives with Christ’s for the gain of spiritual graces.
Where yoga specifically works on the self, Christianity is relational. As believers we do not focus solely on our own salvation. We are intimately connected with each other, and the prayers of the community strengthen each of the members. The Church encourages us to pray for particular intentions and to call on the saints—those holy women and men who came before us, uniting the faithful in prayer, intercession, and fellowship across the centuries. In yoga there is, instead, the idea that each individual doing the work on him- or herself will, by virtue of that effort, strengthen the community.
There are no sacraments in yoga because there is no redemption. Each of us is on his or her karmic journey. There is no heaven, and there is no hell; there is the karmic wheel of continuous life, death, and rebirth until such time as complete purification has occurred. And then we’re off to some nebulous state of union with the cosmic divine.
When I first got involved in yoga, I heard a lot about reincarnation. It was all rather exotic: People talked about their past lives; some even went for “past life regression” therapy. While I wasn’t a professed Christian at the time, I couldn’t make sense of it. I just went about my own experience of yoga and didn’t entertain too many thoughts about reincarnation.
Nevertheless, I began to realize that a belief in the cycle of life and rebirth makes clear the goal of yoga practice: renunciation. According to the Buddha, detachment is the answer to suffering. When we eliminate desire, we eliminate suffering. Nirvana, described as a drop of water returning to the ocean, is the equivalent of yogic bliss. After one has completed all “unfinished business” and removed all particularizing samskaras (accumulated impressions) through a series of lives and reincarnations, particularities are erased in the oneness of ultimate being.
The Christian view of the Resurrection began to seem much more hopeful: This is no drop of water returning to the ocean, but the possession of a unique and glorified body, a glimpse of which was offered to the apostles in the person of the resurrected Christ. In this glorified state, believers will experience the beatific vision, that perpetual state of adoration of God in which the faithful will be reunited with loved ones and join with the choirs of angels in hymns of eternal praise.
I continued teaching yoga for a few years after my return to the Church. But yoga’s philosophy became increasingly difficult to reconcile with my Christian faith. Ultimately, I could not go on with yoga teaching. I appreciate its health benefits and the techniques I learned for quieting the mind. Yoga does not, however, answer the deepest longing that I found at the core of all this work on myself: the worship of Christ.
Losana Boyd, a New York poet, is writing a book on healing and holiness.