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Yoga gods Divine Manifestations? Catholic Perspective (Pt III)

May 7, 2014 by  
Filed under Fr. Sullivan, New Age, Yoga

In the first post we discussed “What is Yoga?” In the second post, we learned about the Hindu roots of Yoga. We found that there are certain Hindu gods that have been understood to play a role in teaching and promoting Yoga. We looked at Shiva, Vishnu, and Shakti, and said hello to Ganesh. The post concluded by noting four different positions on how to understand the gods of Yoga:

  1. The gods don’t exist; they are mere fables.
  2. The gods do exist; they are good and can be helpful to us.
  3. The gods do exist; they are evil and can harm us.
  4. The gods do exist, but only as personifications or manifestations of the divine, Supreme Reality.

Here we will discuss claim number 4, since this is the understanding adopted by the general Yoga tradition that continues even in our day. St. John tells us that we should not believe every spirit, but test them to see if they are from God (cf. 1 John 4:1). It’s going to be an enlightening experience, so set your intention and come join us as we explore yoga from a Catholic perspective.

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The ancient philosopher Aristotle famously said that the human is a being who desires to know. Wonder is not merely a Western attitude, he asserted: it is a human impulse. It is natural to us. In this light, it is perfectly reasonable to ask about the nature of Yoga. The thing is, when I talk with practitioners about it and try to figure out its deeper meaning, I often receive messages like this one:

The most important thing is to practice Yoga. We can discuss the theory for hours and hours. But it’s best to practice and then decide. Change your clothes, open your mind, and fix your attention while performing the postures and pranayama.

The more I investigate Yoga, the more I realize that this advice is not simply saying, “Try it and see if you like it.” It reveals the essence of the Yoga. It is saying that experience is more important than understanding, practice is more important than prudence. In other words, the mind of Yoga is: “Never mind.” Let’s see what this means and why it matters.

One of the central problems of  an essential philosophy common in India concerns the relation between illusion, temporality, and human suffering.[1] The goal of all Indian philosophies and techniques, especially Yoga, is liberation from these. Liberation entails, not merely relief from physical suffering such as a sore back, but emancipation from the suffering that comes from existing in this world. You can transcend the suffering that comes from karma, the law of universal causality, which condemns man to transmigrate through the cosmos. Through Yoga, it is said, you can enter absolute reality, beyond the cosmic illusion, mirage, or unreality known as maya. No longer will you be imprisoned in becoming. You would be united with pure being, the Absolute, known under different names: Brahman (the unconditioned, immortal, transcendent); atman (ultimate self); nirvana.

Recall that Yoga means “union” or “to bind together.” In a previous post, I asked, what does Yoga bind us to? A preliminary answer was supplied: to the Hindu gods, who teach Yoga techniques. Another answer, however, is as follows. Yoga is meant to bind a person to ultimate reality. The system of Yoga teaches the individual how to be yoked or indissolubly united to that Universal Absolute (Brahman) and to become undifferentiated from it.

Isn’t this a contradiction? Does Yoga unite us to Hindu gods or to the Absolute?

Here we should distinguish between two forms of Hinduism, namely:

i)  A popular level of Hinduism and
ii) A higher level of philosophical and religious Hinduism.

According to the popular level, believed in by the masses for the most part, the world is populated by tens of thousands (or is it millions?) of gods and goddesses, myriads of genies, demons, and evil spirits. Those spiritual beings are propitiated and can be manipulated with sacrifices along with Yoga practices and disciplines. In this respect, Hinduism bears features that are common in most other pagan religions, including those of Greece and Rome. If it accepts Jesus, it is because it sees him as one god among many.

According to the higher level, the spirit beings are illusions. Instead of renouncing the gods, this philosophy redefines them. They are considered different aspects of the one supreme Absolute, which some Hindus refer to as “God.” This Brahman or God – it must be emphasized – is not God in the Judeo-Christian sense. It has no personality. It is not the One Creator, distinct from the universe, who created humans in order to have a personal relationship with them. It is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is not Jesus Christ, God Incarnate. Or rather, according to this point of view, it is Jesus and it isn’t – at the same time. It is as much Jesus as it is Vishnu, because both are representations or instantiations of the supreme reality, the impersonal Absolute existence, of which each human is a part, that permeates everything.

From the perspective of the higher, more subtle Hindu thought, Yoga’s role is to help the practitioner to be dissolved into this “higher reality.” B.K.S. Iyengar, the renowned Yoga practitioner and theorist, explains it this way: “Dualities like gain and loss, victory and defeat, fame and shame, body and mind, mind and soul vanish through mastery of the asanas [Yoga postures].”[2] This is the doctrine of monism. It claims that there are no distinctions among things, that all is one and every difference is a harmful illusion, holding a person back from perfection. Once a person masters Yoga, “He is then free from birth and death, from pain and sorrow and becomes immortal. He has no self-identity as he lives experiencing the fullness of the Universal Soul.”[3] This is supreme ego-centrism under the guise of self-realization. “I am Brahman!” the Yoga practitioner can exult; “I am GOD; I am ALL!” But they should equally declare, “I am NO ONE. I am ILLUSION.”

People often claim they’ve “found themselves” through Yoga. What an irony. If they looked deeper, Yoga would tell them that they’ve found nothing.

In my next post, I will explore how Hatha Yoga, the physical postures and breathing techniques, is meant to help a person achieve union with the Absolute – and what that means for the soul.

Important Editors Note: In past posts on this topic, we have allowed a broad range of discussion and even arguments against the post or testimonial commentary. In this post we will return to our normal approach and that is to teach, from an authentically Catholic perspective. This means that interaction should be constructive and focused on learning and absorbing the content through discussion. All are welcome to engage but please review the FAQ‘s for our posting policies regarding how you might effectively engage in this discussion.

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[1] See Mircea Eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), xvi-xx.
[2] B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Yoga (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1966), 42.
[3] Iyengar, 48.

Art: Yoga Meditation Position, Cornelius383, own work, 25 April 2012, CC; Brahma Preaches to Sages, Ramanarayanadatta astri, PD-US copyright expired; both Wikimedia Commons.

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About Fr. Ezra Sullivan

Fr. Ezra is a Dominican friar of the Province of St. Joseph.

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  • Jeanette

    I am so glad to have these articles on yoga because I can share them with people in my life who practice yoga but do not have a full understanding of what they are ‘practising.’ Thank you.

    • LizEst

      …and thanks for sharing about your sharing, Jeanette! I’m wondering: How are they received when you share? Are these people in your life open to listening to these truths?

      • Jeanette

        Hello Liz! For example, a week ago Monday, on a pilgrimage to Divine Mercy Shrine, during lunch, a Catholic woman who was with the pilgrimage said that she practices yoga. I told her that yoga is not something for a Catholic to practice and that every time she does yoga moves, she is calling down a Hindu god. Fortunately, there was a woman beside me, from Renewal Ministries, who believed the same thing and said that she is calling upon evil beings. The woman we were speaking to, whom I did not know, did listen but she never said anything and I believe she was hearing it for the first time. At least it gave her something to think about and hopefully she will explore it. I would have loved to have these articles with me to share at that time so she could ponder upon it. At least I can refer people, who are open, to this site for further clarification. Yoga is so pervasive and most Catholics do not realize the danger inherit in practising it.

        There was also a Catholic woman on the pilgrimage that I knew who read the horoscopes which is putting superstition above following our God and when told by one other and myself that Catholics should not do so. She said to me, “I didn’t know. The priests from the pulpit should tell us!” I answered, “Yes, that would be nice but it is our responsibility to study our faith.” I suggested that she get the Catechism of the Catholic Church. We can learn so much from this about our faith.

        We need to pray abundantly for parish renewal. Come Holy Spirit!

        • Junebug

          How about if you practice it or do it for exercise but not for the spiritual part? The exercises do help a lot in stretching but by no means do I agree with the practice of calling on your “light within” prayer.

          • MarcAlcan

            I suggest steering clear of it altogether. There are many stretching exercises that do not pay homage to Hindu gods.
            Our faith is too precious to compromise.

            Also, read parts 1 and 2 and the discussions as this question has been well discussed there.

        • LizEst

          Thanks for sharing…and for sharing the link to our site. The Catechism is also a great gift to pass along. It’s interesting to find out how these things are received. Even if the person we are speaking with doesn’t respond positively, there may be someone within hearing distance whose heart the Holy Spirit opens to the truth. God bless you, Jeanette!

          • Jeanette

            Yes, our conversation about yoga was at a table of about 8 people, so you never know who may have opened their hearts to the truth. It is also surprising how many Catholics have not read part of or all the Catechism…like my friend about whom I made mention. At our Church, we are blessed with a large Lighthouse Catholic Media kiosk with CD’s, books and booklets and we have a bookstall…both carry Catholic magisterium faithful books, CD’s and booklets, the Catechism and the Holy Bible, and much more. These were just started at the beginning of this year and we have had an amazing response from the parishioners. It is all part of faith development and evangelization which we clearly need in our Church today. God bless!

  • Guest

    can you write something on the ‘practice’ of mindfulness also. I believe it is similar to yoga in that the Buddhist ‘religion’ is found in the ‘practice’ of mindful meditation as opposed to a catholic ‘belief’ in God.

  • Ma. Grace

    This article enlightening although I am practicing you yoga there several young people whom i know they are practicing yoga. I have been trying to find answers about this topic. I am grateful my prayers has been answered. Praised be Jesus Christ!

  • Hayden

    Hi, I have been given the ‘Gift of Healing’. Whilst I have tried to enrich this experience within the Church there has been no group I can really talk to. I have experienced being taught healing within Reiki and …

    • http://www.spiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

      Dear Hayden, out of love and concern for your soul it cannot be true that you are working with God or the forces of good in your experience with healing. Reiki has been formally condemned by the Church as being completely incompatible with Catholic teaching and practice. You would do well to read the Vatican document, “Jesus Christ – the Bearer of the Water of Life” and other related documents in order to gain a better understanding of the Holy Spirits leading in these matters through Church teaching.

      • Hayden

        Many thanks will have a look
        God Bless
        Hayden

    • MarcAlcan

      I suggest you google the following:
      Fr Joseph Verlinde A Guru or Jesus

  • Mary P

    Hi Jeanette,

    The Vatican document “Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life” is a
    good document to go to. We had yoga classes once in our parish. That’s
    when I became troubled and found the document online.
    MP

    • Jeanette

      Thank you. I just sent a friend a link to this so that it may help her understand why the New Age Movement beliefs are contrary to Catholic beliefs. God bless!

  • Kay Castaneda

    Hi Father Sullivan,
    Do you have Spanish translations of this article? My sister-in-law in Mexico practices Yoga. She is a life long Catholic. I have tried to tell her why Yoga is wrong for Catholics. I try in Spanish to explain these concepts, and it would be easier for her to read something in her own language. She is a big reader, but most religious books in Mexico are just popular ones that promote “spirituality” instead of teaching about the truth of Catholicism. Of course, there are pamphlets and booklets available at Catholic churches, but these are too simple, and written for readers with a lower level reading skill or education. I do not mean to talk bad about anyone. This is also a problem with Spanish-speaking people in the US. I suspect this is also an issue in other Spanish-speaking countries as well. Yoga’s popularity is everywhere.
    There are few Catholic bookstores in Mexico or any bookstores for that matter. If you do find books in Spanish, they are overwhelmingly horror, witchcraft, voodoo, “angels”, demons,sexual and pop psychology. I have looked online for American publishing companies, but they concentrate on saints (this is wonderful though as everyone deserves to learn about holy people).
    Thanks for listening.

    • http://www.spiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

      Dear Kay – thank you for your note. Fr. Ezra might not reply as his schedule is challenging. We are hoping to translate the contents of this site in the future into Spanish. Right now we don’t have the time or resources to do so… prayers appreciated.

    • http://Pameladoiron.com/ Pamela Renée Doiron

      Hi Kay! You can copy and paste the article at Google translate. That is what I do when I get emails from Dutch family or I need to write something longer to my Belgian sister-in-law. Here is the link: https://translate.google.com

      • Kay Castaneda

        Thanks Pamela! I will try this.

  • prashant tirkey

    what about use of yoga in TANTRIK HINDUISM?? I HAVE NEVER HEARD ANYBODY TALK ABOUT IT

  • Iamachildofgod

    What about T’ai Chi? It seems to me to be more about a metaphysical conception of human biology than a supernatural philosophy. It operates from the premise that a life force, or Chi, exists in the natural world and during the execution of the T’ai Chi Chuan forms it harnessed and mapped .With yoga, T’ai Chi shares the dictum of ‘ just do it’…… Don’t question or seek to understand how it works.

  • Sarah in WA

    “I am Brahman!” the Yoga practitioner can exult; “I am GOD; I am ALL!” But
    they should equally declare, “I am NO ONE. I am ILLUSION.”

    It seems like yoga may lead to a complete annihilation of reason. It is not possible to simultaneously state, “I am all” and “I am nothing” unless all = nothing.

  • Kanga 13

    This is a very useful summary. I was having a discussion with some dear relatives who are deeply into yoga, and they were expressing these concepts, but less succinctly and less clearly. Now I can better understand what they were saying. Jesus as an avatar, one of many guides sent to us from on high … sigh. The soul as a spark from heaven fallen into the mud of existence. So totally gnostic. So dependent on guides teaching hidden knowledge to carefully formed initiates. They need our prayers. I’m looking forward to the next installation in this series. Thanks for this well-written exposition.

  • Tina Larin

    It takes some circular thinking and contemplation to arrive at these conclusions an ability that takes patience and perseverance. Thank you for leading us through it.

    • LizEst

      You read fast! I posted a response to your previous question in part II of the series…where you asked it!

      • Tina Larin

        You are an early riser too! Thank you for your comment. I agree, best not to put ourselves in harms way.

  • http://www.bookreviewsandmore.ca SRMcEvoy

    I wrote my own piece on the risk of yoga for the Maccabee Society page. You can find it here: http://bit.ly/NoYoga1

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