What about yoga and mindfulness?
The recent controversy surrounding the use of yoga and mindfulness in a Christian context, specifically Catholic schools has moved me to contribute to the discussion.
I am basing my reflections on the work of two experts in this field, Fr Louis Hughes OP and Rev Prof Jean-Marie Gueullette OP. Louis Hughes spent six years in India and this experience “marked the start of an enduring involvement with the religious culture of that great land.” He published a book Yoga – A Path to God? after 25 years of reading, research, field work and experimentation.
He affirms that he practices yogic awareness techniques to prepare for and to facilitate Christian meditation. Fr Gueullette OP is Professor of Theology at Lyons University. He is a doctor in theology as well as a medical doctor (an osteopath). He has researched extensively and written very useful books on meditation techniques and Christian prayer.
Both Hughes and Gueullette ask why so many Christians have turned to meditation practices from the East. These traditions offer a practical teaching on the inner journey, the practice of silence and the experience of meditation which many fail to find in a Christian environment. The official Church does notoffer practical or concrete approaches to prayer and does not address the hungers experienced and the practical difficulties encountered. It is often the case that such going abroad on a spiritual quest has led to a journey home and recognition of the riches to be found in the Christian tradition. .
It perfectly in order for Christian believer to note that yoga has its roots in a different religious and cultural context. Yoga is at home in Hindu theology and worldview. To day exactly what yoga is a challenge because there are so many schools. Hughes suggests paying attention to the word yoga itself which is described as the process of “fixing one’s mind to obtain union with the Universal Spirit.” Such processes operate at the levels of body, mind, senses and spirit. The goal is to achieve union with the Universal Spirit or Absolute, The Wholly-One, the central and unifying concept of the Hindu faith.
In essence, Hinduism may be viewed as pantheistic and as such it is not compatible with Christianity. The Christian faith proclaims the unique dignity and identity of every person, who is created in the image and likeness of God. This unique identity of every person will reach its full potential or fulfilment in the new life of resurrection with Christ. A doctrine such as reincarnation contradicts this reverence for the individual and teaching of absorption into the Absolute One effectively negates the distinction between the Creator and human being. There are, in other words, real tensions.
Both Hughes and Gueullette ask if it is possible to integrate into Christian prayer methods developed in other cultural contexts and religious systems. Is there no risk in sitting in a lotus position for prayer when one is a Christian? Does this imply adherence to another religious system? They acknowledged that it would be very reductive to make yoga a simple body technique. We must respect the fact that yoga was born in a very particular religious context.
Do we risk becoming part of this religious system and thereby risk abandoning the Christian vision? Their responses are informed and persuasive. They argue that the body as such lacks meaning when viewed apart from a particular culture. For example the lotus position in itself does not imply adherence to Buddhism or Hinduism, but that Christians can take advantage of the wisdom of the bodily experience of the East, knowing how to draw from it what can help them in their Christian practice.
Gueullette reminds us that the early Church fathers and indeed medieval theologians, such as the great Thomas Aquinas OP, were able to borrow from Greek, Jewish and Arabic philosophers whatever concepts they needed without subscribing to their philosophy and theology. Both authors admit that things may indeed go wrong but remind us that this is no reason not to take paths potentially fruitful for Christian faith, especially if such a journey brings a person home to the Christian faith.
Many of the new practices and movements are succeeding because they engage their followers the heart level, the level of experience. Yogic techniques and the practice of mindfulness can enrich the Christian’s faith and prayer by engaging it at the experiential level and move it from purely head-knowledge.
Yogic exercises, which involve bodily postures, movement, breath control etc., can dispose one to a richer more experiential level of Christian prayer. Fr Louis Hughes and Fr Gueullette believe that they can: “With proper discernment there is much that can safely and beneficially be practiced.” This view is supported by Pope Benedict XVI. As Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (no slouch in identifying risks to the faith!) he stated that practices of meditation, even from the great non-Christian religions, can be a suitable means of helping the person who prays to come before God with an interior peace.”
Mindfulness as such is not yet (Christian) prayer, which takes us into the presence of God, an I-Thou experience. Nevertheless, the hungers registered can take the meditator forward into Christian prayer.
In that sense, Bishop Cullinane is not wrong when he points out that yogic and mindfulness practices in themselves will not lead one to God. He challenges Christian educators to go beyond the practices and to lead pupils into an authentic experience of Christian meditation and prayer. But the practices as such are not detrimental to the faith—on the contrary!
While keeping that in mind, many Christians find the practice of yoga very beneficial to their health and wellbeing and that it can help them rediscover silence and the richness of solitude in their lives. Paradoxically, it can lead them to a deeper Christian spiritual life and even to a more meaningful participation in the Eucharist.
Why not take advantage of the current cultural acknowledgement of the hungers of the heart and go on to teach Christian spirituality in Catholic schools, aspirituality based on the Christian vision and values? Both Hughes and Gueullette think this is the way forward.