Thursday, May 15, 2014

Did The Vatican Say Yoga is Satanic?

[from December 2011]

The other day I saw an article, “Vatican says:  The Devil Does Yoga” with a subheading, “The Vatican's chief exorcist says that yoga is the work of the Devil as, it leads to Hinduism and a false belief in reincarnation.”  The video featured Father Gabriele Amorth, who stated that not only yoga, but also Harry Potter, are Satanic tools.  The video also showed a yoga class in which people were doing asana in the specific style of Heart of Yoga – of which I am a practitioner and teacher!

I suppose I needn’t have taken it personally.  After all, I am Episcopalian and therefore don’t have to worry about what the Vatican says.  On the other hand, some of my relatives, friends, fellow teachers and potential students are Catholic and I wondered how this might affect them.  But I do take it personally.  As a Christian this is just one more instance of a sadly misinformed person claiming to speak on behalf of the rest of us, thereby giving non-Christians that much more reason to believe that we are all a bunch of ignorant bigots.  Moreover, if Harry Potter is satanic then I would assume Lord of the Rings is now also satanic (both written by Christians, by the way), and my studio is named “Lothlorien.”  Finally, the music I use in my Rockin’ Yoga and Pilates class includes Ozzy Osbourne, the alleged “Prince of Darkness,” a title bestowed on him by a fundie preacher which Ozzy affectionately kept, as he found it amusing.  So according to the Church, I am satanic on several counts.  I can live with that.  But, how dare he call yoga – a sacred gift from God, a devotional practice – satanic?!

I debated whether I should even write this blog.  “Just let it go, James,” I said to myself.  Nobody but me and a handful of other bhakti-crazed, God-intoxicated people even CARE about this – yoga practitioners who are Christian and/or who give a shit what the Vatican says.

Let’s face it, bhakti yoga – devotion to and relationship with a personal God – has become rather passe’ in our sophisticated modern culture.  It’s just not hip anymore.  As one of my fellow yoga teachers put it, “Screw union with the divine.”  Modern people are awfully busy with their jobs, families, mortgages, stock markets, and such, and don’t have time for God anyway.  Most people do yoga simply to get in shape, feel better and be able to enjoy their life.  Well, as a former monastic, personally I need union with God more than ever now that I am a householder dealing with a relationship, a mortgage, taxes, insurance and all that stuff.  But maybe I’m just old fashioned.

Anyway, after reading the article I posted to Facebook, “On my way to Rockin’ Yoga and Pilates Class at City Arts Cooperative.  The Vatican can kiss my ass!”

I have no particular grudge against Catholicism.  In fact, many years ago, I seriously considered joining the Catholic Church, primarily for the Sacrament and Liturgy, the frequent opportunities for Mass, and its support of vocations, as I felt called to the contemplative life.  I did have serious disagreements with the Vatican regarding sexuality, but I would have been willing to overlook that and just agree to disagree, since I was going to be celibate anyway and I figured it didn’t concern me.  However, I learned that applicants for conversion to Catholicism (as opposed to cradle Catholics) are required to agree with its doctrinal positions.  “But what if I simply don’t agree?”  I asked.  “I mean, I can’t go against my own conscience and make myself believe something I don’t believe.”  I was told that your own conscience cannot be trusted unless it is “formed” – which is to say, you have been brainwashed to agree with the Church.  It was this untenable requirement, even more than the particular issues in dispute, which prevented my becoming Catholic.  Thankfully, I soon discovered that I could have the same Liturgy and Sacrament, and support for vocations, in the Episcopal Church – without all the strange rules.
I guess I owe the Vatican an apology.  OMG, I never in a million years imagined myself saying those words!  LOL!  But, at the suggestion of a Catholic friend (thank you, Thomas), I looked into this further and discovered to my great surprise and relief that no, Father Amorth was NOT in fact speaking as a representative of the Vatican.  He had retired years ago.  The article did not make that clear.  I decided to go to the source and find out what the Vatican actually had to say about yoga.

There was not a whole lot.  I found essentially 2 official documents which address yoga:
Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life, A Christian Reflection on the New Age” 2003, and
Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation,” 1989.

The former did not discuss yoga specifically, but only lumped it together with other practices popular with the New Age.  Frankly my eyes glazed over reading this document, as I find the New Age rather boring and tedious, and the arguments refuting it equally so.  I also feel that yoga, being a most ancient tradition, has little relevance to the (perhaps legitimate) concerns about the New Age.  The latter document, however, was a great read and actually covered many technical considerations about spiritual practices which we also address in the yoga tradition such as body postures, breath control, energy phenomena, grace, and keeping one’s focus.  There was also some theological discussion reminiscent of the Personalist versus Impersonalist debate in Hinduism, but I will not go into these technical discussions here.  The upshot of the document is that such practices as yoga can, indeed, when used wisely and carefully, promote intimacy with God in the context of Christian contemplative prayer!  I was pleasantly surprised to find that the tone of the document was, at worst, neutral and cautious about such practices.  So, the Vatican does NOT say yoga is satanic.  Not at all.

HOWEVER – when I did a Google search on “Catholic Church position on yoga,” the results were overwhelmingly negative and much more consistent with Father Amorth’s view, not only on the part of laypeople, but also, from priests who ought to know better. 

For example, an article in Our Sunday Visitor “Is It Too Much of a Stretch?”   Nov. 2003, Marianna Bartholomew states:  “Like St. Teresa, Catholics seek union with God in each moment, whether paying bills, visiting a neighbor or flexing in an exercise class…” 
But, yogis do exactly that!  She goes on to say,
“The Church is calling Catholics to firm up their faith and consider whether New Age influences like those in yoga are subtly eroding their intimacy with God.” 
Eroding?  Yoga IS intimacy with God!  Interestingly, Bartholomew refers to the above-mentioned Letter, which does not, in fact, support her position.

Another article, “Are Yoga and Catholicism Compatible?” is by a Catholic mom and yoga practitioner who undertakes the same research that I did, including these same Vatican documents, and likewise finds no problem.  Her article was aggressively attacked by many laypeople and priests alike who scolded her for daring to challenge the Church’s wisdom and guidance in this matter and warned her against all manner of dangers including demonic possession. 

The most “positive” Catholic commentators said that it was ok to do the physical postures for exercise so long as you do NOT involve the spiritual aspects.  Which, of course, kind of defeats the whole purpose, IMO.

The harshest critique of yoga that I found comes from “Most Holy Family Monastery” which equates yoga with idolatry in that it involves union with a god other than the Christian God.  Interestingly, this is on the basis that the god in yoga is omnipresent, both in ourselves and in nature, which they state the Christian God is NOT.  I found this peculiar since I was sure I remembered in my theology classes that one of the attributes of God is omnipresence – that God is both immanent and transcendent.  Not according to the Most Holy Family, in whose opinion God is distant, separate and aloof, having created the world and then left us to our own devices.  How sad.  On reading further, I also learned that the MHF considers Vatican II an abomination and Pope John Paul II “the antipope” and a “pantheist.”  They equate “the omnipresence of God” with “pantheism” and say that John Paul II’s teachings about Christ lifting all of creation into divinity is blasphemy…

I have already addressed this, and related issues, in my previous blog post, “Is Yoga Un-Christian?” which was a response to a fundie preacher whose main objection to yoga – which surprisingly never came up in the Catholic arguments! – was that yoga is “sexual.”  But let me again touch on the omnipresence issue, because I think it is important theologically.  First of all, “omnipresence” is NOT the same as “pantheism.”   We’re not saying that God is one and the same as the physical universe, but merely that God is present throughout the creation; and this is supported by scripture (“where can I go to hide from Thy presence?”... etc.)  If anything, the creation is in God and nothing can exist apart from God.  But all created things could disappear (be resorbed back into God) and God, the Source Reality, would still exist.
Ok, I hear the yawns, nobody cares about these nit-picky theological distinctions.  But here’s how it relates to yoga and the above arguments:  The MHF as well as most Christian opponents of yoga argue that you can’t commune with God within yourself because God is not in you.  Never mind that “your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit.”  Let’s look at something very concrete here:  the most holy Sacrament of Communion.  Catholics believe (as do I and many other Episcopalians) that the bread and wine are in fact the body and blood of Christ.  Ok.  You have just attended Mass and received the Sacrament – at this moment in time, if at no other point, God is definitely in you.  There is no way around it!  So if you do yoga and meditation after Mass you most certainly can commune with God in yourself.

What about the other argument – that yoga leads to Hinduism which leads to a false belief in reincarnation and worshipping other gods?

First of all, let’s be clear, yoga does not belong to Hinduism or any other particular religion.  Yoga is a physical/spiritual technology, a devotional practice, whole body prayer, which can be used by persons of ANY faith.  If you are a Christian your yoga is devotion to Christ.  Doing the asana and pranayama is not going to turn you into a Hindu or cause you to be possessed by “other gods,” especially since you are praying to Christ.  Do you really think He would let them do that?

By the way, IMO there are no other gods.  There is only one God having, perhaps, many manifestations; same God, different costumes.  Like when I was a child, my parents left me with a babysitter and went out to a Halloween party.  I was awakened late at night by a pirate and a gypsy who came in to kiss me goodnight, but I knew it was my parents.  Hindus understand this.  All the Hindus I have ever met believe in God and most regard Jesus as avatar.

Secondly, if you really DID believe in the Hindu version of reincarnation it would have you on your knees begging for Jesus to save you, because inexorable karma will bring you back again and again, like Purgatory only millions of times over, to endure the suffering of existence until you become enlightened, i.e. until your desire for God is greater than your desire for worldly things.  You cannot pull yourself up by your bootstraps; it is a gift of grace.  Only God can liberate you.  Fortunately, He has already done so, as Krishna states in the Gita:  “The Supreme Lord is situated in everyone’s heart and is directing the wanderings of all living entities… Surrender unto Him utterly and by His grace you will achieve transcendental peace and the supreme and eternal abode.”

Finally, I ought to mention that when I began doing yoga 35 years ago I was an atheist, having rejected the church due to my fundie mis-education.  Yoga enabled me to experience something “divine.”  But I never would have become a Christian were it not for Hinduism.  I thought the idea of a personal God was really lame until my Hare Krishna friends helped me to appreciate God in a new light.  In fundamentalist Christianity and also in Catholicism we too often get the impression of an angry God ready to smite us for our many sins.  And Jesus is sweet but he’s suffering – for our sins.  So we feel guilty.  He loves us, kind of because he has to.  It’s his job.  We focus so much on sin and redemption that we forget the beauty of creation; God created us out of love, and took on our human nature and became one of us, and even died, for love.  The Hindu scriptures remind us that God enjoys our company.  This was a new concept for me and one which totally transformed my relationship with the divine and allowed me to appreciate Christ.

So, yoga is not satanic.  Nor is Hinduism.  We have nothing to fear from other religions.  But, nowadays I’m not that concerned about religion as such.  I just love God.  And do my yoga.

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