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A caveat and a bit of a personal anecdote to kick things off in what I am certain will be a robust discussion about the activity behind suburban America’s favorite eponymous pants: I used to practice yoga, probably just as casually and non-spiritually as the next girl, and while I never had a punchcard or a regular spot in a studio class, I’ve participated in various classes over the years at rec centers, gyms, and from the relative discomfort of my own neck-craning laptop perched on couch in living room.
So I write this coming from a place of personal experience. And more on that at the end. But I wanted to introduce myself as someone who very innocently and very typically encountered yoga in a Seventeen magazine pullout as a teenager and dabbled in various iterations of it in the ensuing years.
And also, please please hear this: I am not writing this out of a desire to condemn anyone. I have plenty of friends who practice yoga, and I offer this piece as an examination of the concerns and potential dangers inherent within. I am not sitting here clutching my pearls and scanning through my friends list to see who was doing the devil’s stretches at Lifetime Fitness last weekend. This is meant to inform and spark conversation and deeper thought, not to start a brawl. If you had asked me a few years ago what my opinions on yoga were, I would have been confused. Was it necessary to have an opinion? (The priest I spoke with while I was preparing this piece told me yoga hadn’t even been on his radar until he was called by his bishop to begin working in healing and deliverance ministry five years ago. He got interested pretty quickly after seeing firsthand some of the effects.)
So I know it’s a process, and that some of you are going to read this and eye roll me hard, or slam your laptop closed in disgust or amusement.
And that’s okay.
I’m not on a crusade to change anybody’s mind here today. I’m just here to tell my story.
I knew I wanted to dig deeper and get some authoritative answers on the matter (at least as far as that’s possible in our skeptical internet age) because few topics are more divisive or more fraught with crazy online (and offline), and any time there’s such a kerfuffle of feeling I can’t help but wonder, why exactly is this such a thing?
Why the strong feelings? I’ve met plenty of people who don’t care for golf, but I’ve yet to see any kind of case being mounted against the potential evils of the putting green. And I’ve yet to hear anyone warning against the potential spiritual dangers of Pilates or kickboxing.
So what is it about yoga?
First, a little backstory. Historically, Yoga is considered to be a Hindu spiritual discipline (though some scholars debate whether it predates Hinduism. Nevertheless, Hinduism popularized the practice and considers it theirs) and an expression of worship of various deities. (In the Hindu sacred texts, scholars identify thirty three million different gods, some of whom are represented and worshiped in the various yoga positions.)
There are some fundamental differences between Hinduism and Christianity. Let’s focus on the big ones. The most basic differences are polytheism (many gods) vs. monotheism (one God), and annihilation of self for the pursuit of oneness with creation vs. a God who annihilated Himself to give Himself fully to His creatures.
The big question that always marks the yoga debate is, of course, if yoga has historically been a spiritual practice from another religion, can it be adopted and adapted in a way that strips the spiritual meaning and leaves behind only the physical exercises?
For that question, I turned to a priest who spends a good portion of his time doing deliverance ministry (and occasionally assisting on exorcism cases. Did you know every diocese has an actual exorcist assigned to serve the faithful?) and some real life testimonies from people who have practiced yoga, including yours truly.
I hope you will prayerfully and critically consider what you read here today, and that you’ll allow yourself to be challenged – perhaps to an uncomfortable level – by the idea that things may not always be what they seem. And I trust that we will all behave ourselves in the combox and on social media, even if we come to different conclusions. It took me several years to come to my own conclusions on yoga, and I respect that we are all in different places and on different timelines.
I lobbed my first question to Fr. Michael wanting to start at the beginning. Namely, does the Catholic Church have anything to say about yoga? He directed me first to a pontifical document born from a joint effort of the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue: Jesus Christ the Bearer of the Water of Life. It came to be under then Cardinal Ratzinger’s (now Papa B) watch, and I’d never heard of it, and it is absolutely fascinating. From section 2.1:
“Some of the traditions which flow into New Age are: ancient Egyptian occult practices, Cabbalism, early Christian gnosticism, Sufism, the lore of the Druids, Celtic Christianity, mediaeval alchemy, Renaissance hermeticism, Zen Buddhism, Yoga and so on.”
And again in section 2.134:
“Yoga, zen, transcendental meditation and tantric exercises are thought to lead to an experience of self-fulfilment or enlightenment.”
Okay, so it would appear that the Church lumps yoga in with New Age spirituality. But what about my kind of yoga? You know, the benign kind practiced at 24 Hour Lifestyle or my kid’s school? Fr. Michael asked if I really believed that my intentions could strip the inherent meaning away from a thing. He made the analogy of going to Mass as a nonbeliever, mimicking the poses of genuflecting, making the sign of the cross, and perhaps even doing so out of a desire to mock the Mass. “Would it change what was happening on the altar? Isn’t there some spiritual reality taking place there, whether or not the nonbeliever admits to it?”
Well, yeah. Yeah, I suppose there is. I had to admit he had a point. But I have a lot of friends who practice decidedly non-spiritual yoga, sweating it out in studios where not a hint of Hinduism exists, whether in their fellow classmates or the instructor.
Okay, I get it, there’s some controversy about the more spiritual side of yoga – I can imagine some of you thinking – but if you’d ever been in that class I take at my gym, you’d see that it was 100% about stretching, about sweating, about relaxing, about stress relief and a cleared mind.
Which brought me to a second question: So what about a purely physical form of yoga, when all parties involved are truly seeking and practicing exercise alone?
His answer remained firm. That you can’t alter the intrinsic meaning of something simply by willing it to be different. Our physical bodies express spiritual realities, which is at the heart of St. John Paul II’s message of the Theology of the Body. You can’t lovingly punch someone in the face, no matter how earnestly you believe that you are punching out of love and gentleness.
I knew his take wasn’t going to be a popular one, so I asked a follow up question: could someone practicing yoga with absolutely zero intention of worshiping a false god or engaging in any alternative non-Christian spirituality still be negatively affected by practicing?
The answer was, unequivocally, “yes.”
I knew from my own experience that it would be, but I was curious to hear his accounts of other people who had experienced ill effects of completely benign participation in non-spiritual yoga.
He reminded me that in his opinion, there was no such thing as non-spiritual yoga.
Okay, next question then: What makes yoga different from other cultural practices or arts that the Church has adopted and “baptized.” like certain holiday traditions and music forms?
“It’s different because it’s Hinduism.” It’s not a Christmas tree. It’s not a matter of integrating a beautiful cultural tradition or art form into Christian worship, it is worship. Of other gods. And there is one God, and He is the God of Isaac and Abraham and His only begotten Son is Jesus Christ. To practice another form of worship is to break the First Commandment.
Heavy stuff, right? And if it’s true, then why have I never heard it from my pastor?
I asked Father Michael that same question, and he told me that if I’d asked him about yoga 5 years ago, he probably wouldn’t have had an opinion on it. It wasn’t until he started practicing deliverance ministry that he realized the impact of yoga on people’s souls, and the dangers that it was introducing into their lives. “It wasn’t even on my radar, as a priest, five years ago. And I’d bet it isn’t on most priest’s radars, if they’ve never seen stuff like this.”
At this point I feel that it might be helpful to include a bit of my own story, since what we’re getting into is perhaps unfamiliar territory for much of my audience. Deliverance ministry is a kind of catch all term for anything from attending an Unbound retreat to working in a one-on-one capacity with a priest and a prayer team to address deeper spiritual affliction, up to and even including demonic oppression.
Most people are familiar with exorcisms and demonic harassment, if only on a pop cultural level. What is less well known is that demonic harassment and oppression – not possession – are also afflictions which people can suffer from, whether from the result of past involvement in the occult or from being cursed. I’m sure this is verging on the fantastical for some of you, but yes, in the 21st century the Catholic Church still very much affirms the reality of our Enemy – the Devil – and his capacity to inflict injury on human beings.
But where does yoga fit into this?
Well, in my own story, it fit in almost as an afterthought, a forgotten experience from the ancient past (college days, precisely) only coming to light after months of praying with a priest and team of prayer ministers through some heavy stuff in my family history. (I won’t go into all that detail here, but perhaps at another time.) I hadn’t practiced yoga in years. The last time I did was during my second pregnancy, using a prenatal yoga DVD at home for workouts. I don’t remember having any strong reaction or “aha” moment indicating that I needed to stop. I just started to notice more and more chatter in the news and in books I was reading that made me start to wonder if maybe something about it was off, and then I decided, eh, better safe than sorry. So I tossed the DVD and switched to Pilates. (Though of course, stretching in a way that resembles some yoga poses out of the context of yoga is a different matter entirely. I stretch before bed most nights in a position that looks very much like child’s pose, but it’s just me, stretching my body. Context is key here.)
Now in the ensuing years, I’ve read a lot about yoga. I’ve read various commentary (some more reliable than others) attributed to Fr. Gabriele Amorth, the now deceased former chief exorcist of the Diocese of Rome, where he is explicit in identifying yoga with demonic activity. I’ve read the aforementioned Vatican document and have discovered a handful of other sources, including this 1989 Vatican document: Letter to the Bishops on some aspects of Christian Meditation, which mentions yoga in an endnote.
But I still feel a hesitation, a sheepishness in putting this out there. I mean, the Church doesn’t seem to have spoken super clearly and with one voice on the matter. Go to a different priest and you’ll get a different answer. Plenty of people practice yoga every week and are doing just fine…
And yet. I can’t help but think that perhaps there are other people out there who, like me, never had any intention of worshiping false gods or putting anything into their hearts other than Jesus, and have still been – are still being – harmed by this.
So I’m going to tell you my story.
When I was a sophomore at CU Boulder, I took a yoga class at the rec center there. It may have even been a single class, if my memory serves me. And though I’d taken various classes before, both in person and by video, there was something a little different about this one. The instructor was into it. There was a tangible spiritual presence in the room, detectable even to a borderline pagan like 19-year-old me. I distinctly remember him beginning to chant towards the end of the class and immediately starting to pray Hail Mary’s in my mind. I may have been a falling away Catholic at that point in my life, but I was still aware enough to perceive that there was a malevolent element present in that class, and that when the instructor was calling out poses and chanting meditations, he was worshipping something. And it wasn’t God.
I never went back to that class and to be honest, I haven’t thought about it for more than a decade. But during one of our last prayer sessions with the priest who was leading us through deliverance prayers, he looked at me and asked if I had ever practiced yoga. I was a little surprised, but I figured it was a lucky guess since I was a 34 year old white girl living in Denver, and I said yes.
There is a spirit afflicting you that has some kind of affiliation with eastern spirituality, some kind of curse associated with yoga. Does anything come to mind when you think back on times when you’ve practiced yoga in the past?
Immediately my mind flashed back to the rec center at CU, to the instructor chanting, and to my visceral reaction of interior defensive Hail Marys. I offered Father my recollections and he nodded, “yep, that’s it. Let’s break that attachment.”
(Now, if you’ve no familiarity with spiritual warfare, deliverance prayer, or healing ministry, I’ll link to some resources at the end of this ever-lengthening piece. But hang with me for a minute longer.)
And so, in Jesus’ name, we did. We renounced any attachment and broke any curse surrounding that encounter, and there was an immediate and perceptive lightness in the atmosphere of the church where we were praying. Even my husband, sitting beside me, and the members of the prayer team sitting in chairs to either side of us, could perceive it. Father smiled at me and nodded, “that was something big.”
Something big, and yet something that I had scarcely remembered, had never thought about since the day it happened, and had not consented to in any way. How could this be?
I asked Father as we were walking to the parking lot afterwards about that, how I could be negatively influenced by something that I hadn’t agreed to in any way, hadn’t entered into with any intention of participation.
He said that when there are spiritual dangers present, there is always a risk of becoming afflicted through some kind of opening, the enemy prowling about like a roaring lion and all that. He asked me “would you say you were in a state of grace that day, or was there an opening in your life where the Enemy could have gained a foothold?
I blushed, because, well, college. Where to even begin? Sufficient to say no, I was not in a state of grace. Far from it. And that would prove, in my case, to be the danger.
The months since this experience have been marked by a new lightness of heart, a deeper awareness of the movements of the Holy Spirit, and a much larger appetite for prayer and spiritual reading. It’s almost as if I was fighting a persistent, mild allergy to prayer before, to reading the Scriptures, even to the Mass. I had to force myself, drag myself. I didn’t hear the Lord, and I was angry about it.
Well, I can hear Him, now. And it’s making all the difference in the world. And I want that for every person on this planet.
If sharing this story can be helpful to even one person, then it will have been worth it. Even if I look like a total idiot.
I’ll leave it at this for today: Pray about it on your own. Speak with a trusted spiritual director or your pastor. Read the documents I linked to and spend some time in Adoration. Ask Him what His thoughts are on the matter. And maintain your spiritual defenses. A battle rages around us, whether we realize it or not.
I heard a priest say at the end of a talk on spiritual warfare and defense: “Jesus wants your whole heart. If there’s a chance that something else has a piece of it – even a small piece – wouldn’t you want to take that territory back for Him? Jesus wants your whole heart.”
(Some people have emailed saying they’re having trouble with the links throughout this piece, so I’ve included them all here in order of appearance:)