Yoga: a cautionary tale
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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:)
Thanks for such a great article Jenny! I just got back from an Unbound conference and experienced the same lightness you described. The memory I discussed with the prayer team seemed so insignificant to me that I was surprised to literally “feel it go”. I have a greater desire to pray now and I even went to mass today before work which I never usually get up early enough to do.
I felt like a “kook-a-doodle-do” before going to the conference.
I felt a strong sense of peace reading your article. Thanks for writing about this important topic. (Btw, my son is 25, but I still enjoy reading your blog!) God Bless, Alison
My sister lives in Denver and is a yoga instructor and fallen away Catholic. Please pray for her. Her name is Clare.
Thank you so much for this article. I currently minister the Unbound model. This has further confirmed what I have been reading. I will be asking this question in my prayer sessions for sure. I also took a yoga class in college. I will be renouncing any spiritual ties from that for sure. Thank You! May God bless you abundantly for your courage to post this article.
As always, great article, Jenny. So few people realize that the devil is NOT a gentleman–he never waits to be asked into your life but looks for every opportunity to sneak in the back way and yoga is one of those ways. Like the some things in the occult (remember the Ouija Board?), it seems like innocent fun, but is truly a spiritually dangerous activity. It’s good to remember that we are BOTH body and soul–you can’t separate one from the other–and what happens in the spiritual realm can and does affect our body and vice-versa (as your links to the healing ministry will attest to). There is so much power in the healing ministry too and I highly encourage everyone to read Unbound and seek out a good healing ministry conference/retreat/leader.
Because it’s going to come up, if people want an alternative: https://pietrafitness.com/pf-not-yoga/
Also http://www.soulcore.com/ uses various pilates based stretches and poses and prays the rosary.
Thanks for these references! I used to do Yoga years ago to lengthen my muscles as a runner. I found my stagnant during those years. Eventually, I realized that yoga was really messing with my mind. I never participated with the chanting (had no idea it was “bow down to..”!) but felt so uneasy. During one class I took the instructor went as far to make us read spiritual cards before we began. She even included a Jesus Christ one, how thoughtful (:P) Anyhow, I stopped all together and never found a replacement. Really appreciate these links, ladies!
Found my faith*
This was a very good thing to read. Having had experiences with Unbound and with yoga, Ican tell you that those seemingly little things are exactly the things the Enemy wants us to forget about and disregard. Thank you for putting this out there, accepting that there might be negative backlash, to help others. It’s apparent your faith is alive.
Hey! Have you read Dan Lord’s account of something a little similar? It’s not yoga-derived, but otherwise it parallels several parts..
Could only find it on the Wayback archive, though. Hopefully that doesn’t mean it’s meant to have been taken down, it had been published for a long time on a public site!
Anyway (three parts and an epilogue):
It is a little hard to find on his site currently. Here’s the link, though: http://thatstrangestofwars.com/resident-evil-how-i-made-friends-with-the-devil-part-1-of-a-3-part-series/ Thanks for sharing! It was an amazing journey for our family.
Hallie, please tell Dan that his boldness in sharing his story took my breath away a couple years ago when I read it. I never imagined I’d be asked to share my own one day, or that I’d have the guts to do it. But I thought of Dan when I was writing this.
To you as well, thank you for telling your story! The more people overcome their “weirdness” of attributing demons to demons, the more the weirdness will be whittled away.
Oh thanks! And I’m glad it’s not been taken down.
Echoing what Jenny said, very glad to have read what he wrote when he did, a wake-up call for sure!
Well, crap. Are you telling me Women of Grace got something right?
In all seriousness, thank you for this. I’ve read a lot of hysterical business against yoga and it never made sense to me but this does.
I started to post this on Facebook after reading through all those comments but then remembered I hate Facebook so I’m just coming over here to your lovely blog with a follow up to my other comment.
The thing I’m most grateful for is that you wrote this in a spirit of testimony, not as judgement. Women of Grace is always so hysterical on this subject (and many others) that it’s very easy to discount them. You posted this at great personal cost, and at the risk of alienating a lot of people. You did it with compassion and clarity. And, as someone with no skin in this game (I’m too lazy to do yoga, ha), I think you make fantastic points.
Finally, I’m super irritated for you that people are questioning whether what you experienced after deliverance was “real.” Like the priest somehow tricked you into having a better life afterwards? All the eye-rolling emojis. The lightness you described has happened to me a few times in my life and let me tell you, it is REAL. So I hope no one is making you second guess yourself (because I always do after a particularly spiritual moment… did I *really* feel that?) and that you know that for every person who’s angry with you there are as many or more who are edified.
Women of Grace, Johnnette Benkovic, she has SO many good things coming from Women of Grace! Perhaps it’s her manner which you find irritating- she is adamant on many subjects, yoga being one of them- but she is a revert, who perhaps sees her past errors and doesn’t want others to fall into, and that is why she sounds “hysterical” on certain subjects (I don’t think she does, by the way). Again, we all have a tendency to say, or think, “I know better, and what’s the big deal about xyz subject” but coming from someone who has ‘been there done that’, and who is now solidly Catholic, (speaking about Women of Grace/Johnnette Benkovic) shouldn’t be discounted as someone hysterical.
I wouldn’t call her hysterical either. She does come across as somewhat of an alarmist sometimes, but you can’t blame her for having a sense of urgency regarding spiritual warfare. And she backs up her claims with pretty strong evidence.
I thought of Dan Lord’s account while reading this as well, but couldn’t remember who it was or where I read it. Thanks for sharing it here!!
How do you know if you’re being harassed or have an attachment? I used to believe I was Wiccan, practiced Native American ceremonies, Reiki, chakras, chanted Buddhist mantras, practiced yoga, etc. I confessed all of this at my first Confession when I entered the Church but the priest kind of blew it off as part of my “pre-Catholic” life. But how would I know if these past experiences are affecting me now?
Yes, I would like to know as well! I dabbled in all kinds of New Age things in college too.
seek out Unbound prayer ministry in your area–they will help you. google Heart of the Father ministry by Neal Lozano.
I second the recommendation for “Unbound.” If there’s a retreat going on near you, go on it. Read the book too, it’s fantastic.
Another good read is “Be Healed” by Bob Schuchts.
I have never done yoga really, apart from a few stretches my husband suggested to me for my bad back. But this is timely because the college I attended (very devoutly Catholic) has recently been grappling with this issue and a statement was made by the president. As you can imagine the feelings and opinions about it vary wildly. I don’t know enough about it to weigh in except to wonder if we should be offering people alternatives that they don’t know about for the exercise benefit aspect of things? I guess I can see how an attachment to yoga as a purely physical exercise program could also indicate that it’s become an idol…it’s an inserting topic
Terrific article – thank you! Also, can I recommend Soulcore.com which is a fantastic stretching and exercise program that is done to the decades of the Holy Rosary and, most recently, to the Divine Mercy Chaplet. Finally, will you provide those links you mentioned in the article – thanks so much!
Soulcore is amazing!!! I was just going to recommend it too. 😊😊😊
I was wondering about this.. So it’s CALLED yoga, but is it not?
If relativism is at play here and the spiritual cannot in fact be removed from the physical, I wonder if/how SoulCore is different.
No opinions here yet, so no accusations for sure, just thinking “out loud”.
Thank you for this! It is nice to have another person’s take on this. I’ve been saying this for years due to personal experience as well. God bless you!
Thank you for this, Jenny! I had a similar situation of discomfort in a prenatal yoga class that I took a few years ago–the instructor was a little too into it. Your discussion really helped me see why this discomfort isn’t something to brush off! Thank you for bravely sharing!
That was really helpful. I have done some yoga and always said it didn’t seem like a big deal lacking the intention of worship, but over the years decided to avoid it just in case (especially since it was easy enough to find other things to do). This is probably the most coherent explanation I’ve heard, and probably because you were willing to be vulnerable. So thank you for sharing your story! If I could ask one question: I am on my apple laptop computer, but I can’t seem to find the links you shared… Could you put them in a comment so I could look through them? I seem to be able to see links in other comments, and your other posts you might like… not sure what happened to your links.
Thanks for running the risk of being the crazy church lady. Catholics, of ALL people, should be aware of the soul-body connection. Thank you for bringing Theology of the Body into this discussion too. That’s exactly the point. As Sharon Lee Giganti said once (she’s an ex-New Age practitioner and used to be on Catholic Answers), doing yoga just for the exercise is akin to using something like slavery or prostitution as a the real life money-exchanging examples to solve math problems with kids. Yes, you’re teaching them math, but why bring that into it? She advises strongly against yoga, and any exorcist would do the same. I recently read an article that there is a correlation between involvement in the Christian faith decreasing as yoga practice increases.
Thank you for writing this, especially for your straightforward, personal, yet heavily-researched and educated approach! I have a question about the following quote from above:
“(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.)”
What would you say the difference is in between stretches that “resemble” yoga, and the actual practice? Can I use stretches I’ve learned in yoga classes, or would those be considered “openings” for the Enemy? What exactly is the “context” of yoga that makes yoga yoga?
I’m asking because my mom loves yoga since it has helped her back and posture improve. I want her to know of the spiritual dangers of practicing it, but also want her to continue improving physically if possible (thank you for your link to alternative stretching programs above, as well!)
I think the context is “are you practicing yoga, or are you just moving your body in a way that stretches your muscles and feels good?” When I’m kneeling down to pick something up, I may be in the same posture as prayer, but I’m doing something totally different. I think you can move and stretch your body in ways that look just like a yoga pose, but are just ways the human body moves. (For example, there is one pose that is lying flat on your back. But we’re certainly not practicing yoga when we’re lying in bed at night.) The difference is intention and participation, so participating in a yoga class, being guided through postures and meditations by an instructor, etc. is a whole different animal from doing a few stretches recommended by your pt.
I’ve read the article twice to make sure I understand what various people are arguing, and I’ve lots of thoughts, but would like to keep it to this thread. I was wondering: if one’s intentions don’t matter, why is it not OK to practice yoga but OK to practice Pilates, which intentionally incorporates some yoga poses? And if Pilates is OK, what’s wrong with doing yoga stretches at home, outside the context of a class/instructor? Not trying to be belligerent, just thinking aloud, as others have said.
Great post, but I have to say it is so sad to see the extent to which you felt you had to preface what you wanted to say with such an extended number of paragraphs apologizing for the possibility of differing with others or somehow offending their sensitivity to the practice of yoga. Really, it is your blog, and you do have permission from your readership to express yourself fully without needing to defend your right to use your own blog to share your thoughts about life with others. Don’t let the culture do that censoring thing to you. Speak with simplicity and let God work the hearts of others in how they take it in. If you really feel a need to preface a blog post to keep people from slamming what you say, try to keep it down to one sentence. You really don’t need to undermine your own genuine love and concern for others expressed in this piece by apologizing for wanting to share what you learned about the spiritual dangers of yoga.
Besides, don’t you just have so much time in your day to do battle with the nay-sayers? ; )
Besides that, great points throughout, and I especially liked the point you made when you asked the priest: “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”– that is information worth sharing with everyone, no apologies necessary!
Interesting. Up until this school year, when the teacher retired, my kids’ school was big on teaching mindfulness, which included basic yoga poses. My daughter has a friend who’s father is a Christian pastor who flat out refused to allow his child to participate because of religious aspect. What’s interesting, is both of my older kids, who had this teacher (gr. 4), found the whole mindfulness thing highly uncomfortable and really, really didn’t want to participate and said that there were other kids who also found participating uncomfortable. Perhaps they were more sensitive and aware of what was going on.
Thanks for writing on this, Jenny! My alma mater is the one mentioned above that recently decided to end yoga class and have a similar stretching class with a different name. People went insane with the backlash. Absolutely insane. Most commonly, I see people say “well *I* practice it without any spiritual aspect” or that Catholics are just overly concerned. But the fact remains that these are positions of worship of false gods. I appreciate Fr. Michael’s point that our intention doesn’t change that. When we take the time to research, I think the concern is obviously valid. I actually took the yoga class mentioned in college and it wasn’t spiritual feeling. I didn’t feel a bad presence or anything like that. But I get it! And I appreciate you taking the time to explain. I haven’t done yoga since, and will continue avoiding it. There are so many options for how to exercise, it seems silly how fiercely yoga is defended sometimes.
Thank you for sharing your experience. I have been concerned about yoga for many years, and have to remind myself to keep checking to make sure it’s not being incorporated into my son’s PE curriculum.
I have been doing yoga about once a week for a few years. Some of the leaders at the studio I attend seem to be more spiritually attuned to the Hindu practices than others. I decided early in my experience with yoga that I like the stretches and that the stretches do help with the chronic pain I have from a diving injury of years ago. I thought about the Hindu aspects when I first started and I worried that it is like going to a ceremony that isn’t Catholic. I am going to give it more thought. I am going to talk it over with my very conservative Pastor.
I’ve been doing yoga off and on for a few years, ever since attending my midwife’s prenatal yoga classes. Recently for whatever reason, I did whether it is at odds with the Catholic faith. What I came away with is, if while doing the poses I am not being tempted by Eastern spirituality, then I’m OK. And that’s the last I thought about it until now.
My husband and I enjoy a short yoga video on YouTube every night as part of our wind-down routine. We would both like to increase our flexibility, and we both like how it keeps his back problems at bay. But then I read this post and I’m thinking about it again. One question that comes to mind is, when the priest compared it to attending Mass and going through the motions without believing in it; but that doesn’t change the reality of what’s happening… I thought to myself, ‘True, but that’s because what’s happening at the Mass IS actually reality. But false gods are not real. I just can’t see how the two are alike. I hope I’m explaining myself clearly enough.
Another thing I wonder about is, how many of the exercises are practiced as part of other disciplines, for instance dancing, gymnastics or pilates? Like you said, context is important. The YouTube yoga instructor is not being spiritual at all, and it’s more of just a fun, let’s improve ourselves kind of vibe. Does calling it yoga in itself make it the worship of false gods?
I will continue to prayerfully consider this and talk with my husband about it. Thanks for sharing your experience with us.
Please, please, please read the link above from Hallie Lord. This is one of Satan’s biggest lies, “This doesn’t really affect me since I’m not thinking about it spiritually. And those false gods don’t really exist.” Don’t buy it. Satan DOES exist and is only too ready to deceive you.
Just because they’re “false gods,” doesn’t mean they’re pretend. If you look at some Hindu rituals and realities it’s clear there is a spiritual reality going on that’s not of God.
I recently learned that the Church Fathers saw a definite connection between pagan false gods and demons. So while false gods aren’t real in the sense that they’re not actually gods, some–maybe all–of them are very real spirits and very much our enemies. Jean Danielou’s book The Angels and Their Mission is a great resource for more in what the Church has said throughout history about angels and demons.
The problem I have with the comparison is that I think it mis-classifies yoga as “some spiritual reality.” Transubstantiation is a reality because it doesn’t matter how many people are in the congregation and whether they are believers, if a valid consecration has happened, the real presence is there. Contrast that with yoga; even though it is done in a group, yoga is still an individual activity. There is no spiritual reality happening independent of the practitioners, they are the actors. This is not true in the mass.
I’m not saying that his premise is incorrect, I just don’t think that yoga should be compared in that way to the mass. I also think that clarity is needed between practices that are occult, physical practices that could be but are largely not linked to the occult, and physical practices which are not linked to the occult but could be “cultish.” It may not have ties to another religion, but aren’t the people who fill their lives with cross fit practicing idolatry in just the same way that those who seek “enlightenment” are. Could all vanity associated with exercise be considered demonic?
I’ll share something from one of the priests with whom I spoke while preparing the article, but didn’t end up including in the piece itself. It might provide some helpful further clarification: “It’s absolutely appropriate to label any other ‘gods’ as demons. When people worship a rock, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the rock as it’s a part of God’s good creation. The problem is that act of idolatry opens us up to the demonic behind it and so we enter into a relationship not with the rock but the demon who is seeking to lead us further astray. Although most people aren’t intentionally entering into yoga as worship, you covered quite well the fact that it still exposes us to the demonic via the other areas in our life that are vulnerable.”
Since there is something intrinsically spiritual about yoga (it originates from a form of worship, is rooted in Hindu spirituality, etc), it isn’t quite the same as other things we do with our bodies. You are right that transubstantiation occurs whether or not we believe in it. But there are also demonic forces that exist, whether or not we acknowledge them, and yoga can open someone up to that dark reality under the right conditions.
Perhaps I need to look more into Pilates, but while there are similarities in movement (and in the increasingly popular hybrid classes “pi-yo,” which does include yoga) it is not my understanding that pilates is rooted in any particular spirituality.
Jenny – from what I understand, Pilates was developed by someone who was confined to a very small space. He developed the exercises as a way of staying fit without needing lots of movement.
For what it’s worth, I have a Hindu friend who is a classical Indian dancer. Her dance postures and movements are all based on studying old temple sculptures, drawings, descriptions of worship ceremonies of Hindu gods and goddesses. When she came to America, she did not understand American’s practice of yoga as exercise. She understood yoga to be similar to her dance in that it was based in Hindu worship.
Dear Jenny, thank you for this article! I totally agree with the theory of it, and I myself am wary of going to any exercise that is labelled “yoga”. I was taught a yoga exercise once though, by my physical therapist at the time, to help with back and general core fitness. She taught me the physical exercise … no spirituality or meditation came into it. If I do this exercise, am I practicing yoga?
So, without trying to be facetious, here is a reverse example. Supposing a friend was to have trouble picking stuff up off the floor, and I said; here, I’ll show you something I learned at Mass – if you bend one knee down in what’s called a “genuflection”, you can reach the thing on the floor without hurting your back. So then my friend starts doing genuflections as an exercise. Obviously (I think) then she would be exercising, not worshipping. Then she decides (to take the example further) to start up a class teaching this exercise which Catholics do so well (and maybe some others … kneeling, standing, sitting and walking up the aisle!!) and calls it “Mass” or even “Eucharist” if she maybe has heard the word. So then … what is happening? (and I’m kind of convincing myself here.) I can see that what she is doing as an exercise class is in fact parroting an act of worship because of the name she has given it and because she is copying without understanding a part of a rite. But the individual exercises in themselves are innocuous done as exercise (as that is not the intent of the Mass). And if the class is just “genuflect, stand, sit, stand, kneel, walk, genuflect, walk, kneel, sit, stand” without any spiritual explanation, except for the name (which might cause people to be confused and to turn up on a Sunday, or indeed any other day of the week, at their local church instead of the gym – yay!) would there be any significant harm? Certainly, no Catholic would recognise it as Mass, but it would certainly feel uncomfortable to use the motions of the Mass as exercise, even if individually we perform them all the time in our daily lives. If however, the class was to be run by a priest, or contain teaching like, “we do this in reverence to God’s presence” then I can see that there is more potential “harm” there in the use of the exercise as a form of worship. Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting the two acts of worship, Yoga and the Mass, have any equivalence other than the example I am trying to work out. And the harm would be of a different sort, being a mockery of the Mass rather than a worship of false gods.
So, I think I have convinced myself that the Yoga Class, whether taught by a Yogi (therefore a form of worship of false gods) or by an exercise teacher (a mockery of a form of worship, even if not recognisable as such by any adherent of that religion) is a possible source of spiritual harm.
But where does that leave me with the exercise I was taught? I know it is a Yoga exercise; how do I divorce it from Yoga and use it for a good purpose? Now that the two are connected in my mind, is that even possible?
“yoga is still an individual activity” – not necessarily, you are being led by a leader into certain thoughts, combined with postures that are related to Hindu god/goddess worship
“There is no spiritual reality happening independent of the practitioners, they are the actors. This is not true in the mass.” – just because the spiritual reality happening isn’t the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus in the Real Presence doesn’t mean that other spiritual realities are not really present in other situations
“I also think that clarity is needed between practices that are occult, physical practices that could be but are largely not linked to the occult, and physical practices which are not linked to the occult but could be “cultish.”” – true, I think yoga could fall into both categories
Hey Jenny, in your research did you come across a Church position on eastern medicine by any chance? I love acupuncture and cupping therapy and I know my practioner is into eastern spirituality all the way. Does that open me up to some kind of spirit?
I would like to know this too. I have a friend who practices Qi Gong, but has learnt it as a healing technique and separates that very firmly from any Eastern spirituality. She says she prays to God for the healing, not to false gods. But she doesn’t attend Mass regularly.
I also was affected by yoga in a harmful way. I had a bad car accident my sophomore year in college and was encouraged by my health teacher to attend her yoga class to help with healing. It hurt so much to breath with the trauma in my chest that I didn’t continue attending beyond 1 or 2 classes. But I immediately suffered the onset of a deep depression unaided by medication for several years. It wasn’t until a reconversion experience through Theology of the body about 10 years later that I felt the depression lift. By then I had long ago ditched the meds since they were a big waste of time and money. So after several more years of something seeming “off”, my husband and I both went through deliverance a year and a half ago with a priest’s healing prayer team. We had a lot of foibles in our past to renounce. It was also discovered that an old “friend” from high school and early college had cursed me. It was shocking, yet not shocking at all once I reflected on her behavior at the time. As a precursor we started the process with this ministry:http://thealexanderhouse.org/healing-hearts/. Then we read Unbound and met with a priest familiar with deliverance prayer. It was a great and necessary experience to tell those attachments and demons to kick rocks! Anyway, if anyone is in doubt over the dangers of yoga… The simplest thing to consider is why risk it? Your soul belongs to Jesus. Find another way to take care of your body like Pietra Fitness or SoulCore as some have mentioned. Both are available here in Colorado Springs which is fantastic. Pretty much anyone can benefit from deliverance so consider cleaning house.
Dang, I have never allowed myself to question (consciously) my fits-and-starts yoga practice and what effect that has had on me spiritually. Sometimes when leaving a class I would think, “I feel like I’ve just done a drug.” And I was saying it with wonder and excitement and self-righteousness because “yoga is exercise and exercise is good for you.” Now, I realize that was the enemy worming his way in and separating me from the comfort which prayer and the Holy Spirit should have been bringing me, not this yoga class. I have heavily/internally eye-rolled yoga haters in the past who claimed it was “spiritual” because *I* never practiced it spiritually, but this supremely well-written post make me confront the truth in that point of view. Something has kept me from practicing pre-natal yoga during my third pregnancy and I am wondering–nay–confident that this is God working with me to keep me safe as I have recently really upped my spiritual game. (Also, thank you for that. You are one of the most influential bloggers I read and you keep me thinking and learning about true teachings. I don’t always like it, but I like it, you know what I mean?)
Great article and thanks for sharing. I understand the logic that worship of another God is never ok, even if it’s just going through the motions (I could even liken it to singing a Demonic chant that I didn’t know the language of just because I liked the sound), but there is something missing for me theologically. Yoga is medically proven to do good things for the body that God gave us. Why can’t we judge a tree by its fruit in this case? How is it impossible to redeem something that is clearly good for the good bodies that God gave us and wants us to take care of?
Thanks for reading, John!
I think God has given us good ways to work, stretch, move, and honor our bodies. As I shared from my personal experience and from the various resources I linked to, I do not believe yoga is one of those ways. God wants our best, body and soul.
I’m sure there are people who have experienced medical benefits from practicing yoga. But I believe that there are other ways to achieve those ends (stretching, mindfulness, meditation on Scripture, etc) which don’t carry a potential threat, however great or small it might be. Our God is a good Father, and He wants 100% truth for us, not 94%.
I tried to leave a comment but it seems to have disappeared. Given the topic I’m not surprised. I’ve never practiced yoga, though my friend did and encouraged me to try it out as an exercise routine. I had an uncomfortable aversion to it and now know why. At first she did it for exercise, then got in the spiritual aspect of it, and before long both she and her husband, who were both active Catholics, left the church. I’ve been reading articles in the past year on the dangers of yoga and I believe this article is of great service to us, Jenny. And I agree with Jeanette, you needn’t explain or placate for your choice of material on your blog.
If we’ve discarded the belief that Hindu gods are real, doesn’t it follow that the belief that “yoga is dangerous” (because of non-existant Hindu gods) can also be discarded?
I don’t hear Jenny saying it is an issue of mere belief vs unbelief: she is referring more to the spiritual consequences involved, contending that they are not so easily separated if one practices yoga.
An opinion piece, “Yoga Renamed is Still Hindu” by Subhas R. Tiwari, a professor at Hindu University of America is worth the quick read:
In his own words, he says you cannot separate yoga from the spirituality it represents, though that seems to be the possibility that Catholics want to cling to in feeling comfortable practicing yoga. He also had some things to say about Cardinal Ratzinger’s statements against yoga, and then an unsupported statement about a “more conciliatory position” taken by the Vatican at a later date, 2003. His summary opinion on that point about accepting New Age practices is doubtful and points to no solid reference. If one reads the probable source document he alludes to, “Jesus Christ the Beare of the Water of Life”, one will not conclude the same. In any case, he is not an expert on Catholicism, but he likely knows what yoga entails in the realm of the spiritual, given his training in yoga philosophy.
Just because a “god” is false (i.e., not the one true God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob) doesn’t mean the “gods” do not exist as spiritual entities, albeit harmful or evil ones.
This is a long comment, but I feel compelled to share my experience:
I left the Church, dabbled in a bit of Wicca and I started doing Kundalini yoga on a set of DVD’s in my early 20s. I even went so far as to get a Kundalini chakra tattoo. The yoga made me feel awesome and calm and powerful-as long as I did it regularly. My sister used the same DVDs and shared that one night she and her husband were doing yoga and she got a feeling like something malicious was in the room, so she shut it off. That night she and her children couldn’t sleep. She gave me a heads up on this, but at that time, I didn’t take it seriously.
I didn’t attend church during this time-even during Christmas and Easter-though my whole family did. I began suffering extreme depression, suicidal thoughts and my morality became severely skewed. I had also experienced scary occurrences in my home, mostly a scary feeling in certain rooms and sometimes I even experienced physical symptoms. During this time, my mom had given me a St. Kateri medal as she was my confirmation saint, and I wore it even though I didn’t consider myself Christian anymore, let alone Catholic.
About 3 years ago, I decided that I felt lonely because my husband and children were attending church and I wasn’t part of it (I had a yearning). I went to Church on an Ash Wednesday and decided to faithfully participate in Lent for the first time in probably 15 years. I went to confession for the 3rd time in my life (I was 34 at the time), and then something really interesting happened t0 me. I went to a Mass where catechumens were being blessed-I learned later it was a blessing that contained a minor exorcism.
During the blessing, I felt a lightness come over me, like a weight had been lifted, but I also felt like the Holy Spirit had descended upon me, something I hadn’t felt in years. I began going to confession regularly-like every 2 weeks-and I began attending Church EVERY Sunday and holy days of obligation. I also spoke to my priest about a deliverance, which he performed. I threw out all of my yoga DVDs and will never ever do yoga again. I also renounced my tattoo, which was something early converts were required to do if they had tattoos or markings from pagan gods. I am in the process of getting it lasered off.
I know this is really long and dramatic, but here is what people need to know : Yoga-especially Kundalini yoga-is designed to worship Hindu gods (aka demonic spirits). Demonic spirits may not always be listening, but if you are lost like I was, and you open that door, watch out. I think Kundalini yoga is an especially virulent form of the practice when it comes this. I nearly lost my life, and brought a lot of suffering to my family. I am so very lucky that I had a lot of people praying for me, including St. Kateri.
Thanks. A very moving and credible testimony!
Jenny, do you think that practicing yoga for the exercise value while ignoring its spiritual dimension is like playing with a Ouija board or taking part in a seance with friends simply for the entertainment value while ignoring the possibility of inviting demons to enter into our midst? We are advised by the Church that many people deny the existence of satan and in doing so are oblivious to the destruction and havoc he wreaks in our lives.
How did the priest break it? My daughter was forced, yes FORCED at the age of 7 to do a yoga pose. She said she didn’t want to and the teacher forced her and her entire class. I’d like to break that link.
Also, our family was radically healed by Jesus using Unbound and Healing of Families. It is amazing what Jesus wants to do in our lives! Thank you for this article.
Good information! I had a yoga DVD many years ago, but somehow just couldn’t get into it. It’s as though something was keeping me from getting into it. I later read about its danger from Fr. John Hardon and got rid of the dvd. I had family and friends who were and still are into yoga and warned them about the dangers of yoga, but most don’t believe it. Fr. Chad Ripperger, an exorcist, has an excellent YouTube video on spiritual protection, as well as many other excellent talks and conferences and a book titled, Deliverance prayers*for use by the laity*. A great wealth of information!!
Poor ole Thomas Merton … building bridges … and appreciating the riches and wealth of other cultures … and educating us still today … how far he would have come … Thank God for the World Christian Centre for Meditation and the Meditatio Centre!!!
‘You can’t lovingly punch someone in the face, no matter how earnestly you believe that you are punching out of love and gentleness.’ … Ereeem … I’ve been ‘punched’ by a few Catholic Priests now … but how loving and kind and tender those Eastern folk have been …
As a fellow Christian and Catholic, please allow me to make a completely inadequate apology on behalf of the Church which has wounded you. I too have been deeply hurt by a broken and sinful priest (there are plenty of them within the Church, just as there are plenty of us lay folks who are screwing it up daily.) But Jesus can redeem even the ugliest situations and forgive even the gravest sins. The devil would be delighted if the sins and shortcomings of a few bad priests could keep you from the Sacraments. I will pray that you can find the strength of Christ’s forgiveness and the willingness to extend it. The Church will always be your home.
Thank you friend ~ Nothing can keep me from the Sacraments! God chooses me ~ Saint in training! We transform All pain by surrendering to it ~ and loving in response ~ but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t speak out about injustice ~ or become fearful of other cultures, customs, and spiritualities. ~ If we are secure in Gods Love & our Catholic faith ~ we should learn about others and look to understand why they believe what they do ~ whilst maintaining and sharing our own beliefs. ~ Mary stands upon a moon ~ Our altars face the rising sun ~ the Marian day of devotion is 13 ~ etc etc Using our bodies in exercise to echo certain poses which flow in line with Gods beautiful creation in all its energy is nothing to be fearful of ~ God made the whole Cosmos ~ We have the protection of the Father ~ the Son & the Holy Spirit ~ But He made the Yogi’s too! ~ I went on to take a Pastoral Mission Degree and train as a Spiritual Director … I have written a Charism ~ and minister to others ~ No apology required ~ Blessed are those like me Xx Bless You †
Part of this comment was for you ~ and part of it was for the lady above/below 🙂
But keep in mind that as helpful as Merton can be, he is not declared a saint by the Catholic Church… You want to be careful that a false spirit of “consolation” is not simply keeping you in a harmful place if it indeed is harmful.
Ahhh but its God that declares Me a Sain† in training ~ And being an Ignatian Spiritual Director myself … I have my consolations and desolations in check …. though not scrupulously.
Life’s one eternal Contemplatio …
Chris† being my Spiritual Director … along with my Ignatian Spiritual Director 🙂
My mom always warned me about yoga when I was a kid but never really told me why I shouldn’t do it. I’ve done a couple classes. The first one was just with an exercise instructor but there was still something creepy about it. The second time was in a yoga studio with a yogi who took it very seriously. I had to walk out, there was something evil about it. I also felt compelled to pray as I was walking out. Reading here about what yoga actually is convinces me that I am totally ok with never taking another yoga class again. I’m so glad there are priests out there addressing this! Thanks for the heads up!
Thank you for sharing your experience. I’ve never done yoga but I know people who do and I pray for them daily.
My absolute favorite kind of exercise is Classical Stretch, out of Canada, developed by a former professional ballerina, and designed to keep you strong, flexible, pain and injury free throughout your life: http://classicalstretch.com
I’ve tried everything over the years and never found anything like it. And if you suffer from chronic back pain, there’s nothing like it to get you recovered and fully functioning again.
It also is an excellent base for any other kind of exercise, whether you run, golf, swim, bike, lift weights, whatever, it will keep your body balanced and prepared for anything, and help you recover faster if you do injure yourself. The creator actually works with professional athletes of all kinds to help them recover from injury and perform even better – she really knows her stuff!
Thank you for your honest article. If you don’t mind a few questions, what’s the difference between “demonic harassment and oppression” and “demonic possession”? Can a person be in a state of grace and still be under “demonic harassment and oppression”? I understand that temptations and struggles are part of the Christian life, and our fight is “against the spiritual forces of evil” (Eph 6:12). Is demonic harassment and oppression any different, or is it more like an “attachment” and how so? Again appreciate your honesty, and helpful article.
Thanks for this, Jenny. I dabbled a bit several years ago after pulling a hamstring, which was a few short years after my return to the Church (and a real relationship with Jesus). Seemed to be the only thing that helped. I enjoyed the class too, until one day when our instructor made a comment about channeling our inner cobra. I got a strong interior nudge not to come back, and I didn’t. Now years later, I am a late vocation priest and wrestling with this one. I’m down I-25 from you in Santa Fe, a capital of New Age-ism, and yoga in its various forms is very popular. Thanks for giving me something to chew on and perhaps pass along to those parishioners who are similarly wrestling (and clueless clergy like me who want our flocks to be better informed, whatever they decide to do).
I do think a lot of it has to do with the instructor. I agree that the exercises are spiritual – particularly with the emphasis on breath and intention – but they can actually be healing. As someone who’s been caused deep scandal by the activities of spiritual leaders (both Protestant and Catholic), I’ve found grace under secular yoga instructors. God works through nature, too.
I do take a couple of yoga classes at the YMCA. They are run like an exercise and stretching class and one by a Catholic Instructor. I haven’t felt any negative energy from them, and they do help my lower back and tight hamstrings. After dance classes and swimming, I find yoga relaxing and a good balance to keep me from injury. We do not do any strange meditations, just relaxation techniques at the end, like relax your fingers, your toes etc… However, I do appreciate your article, and I did notice years ago in a Kundalini yoga class, that I felt very strange energy. They were constantly talking about chakras and stuff. I would not take a Kundalini again.
Great article, Jenny! This is a topic I have written on many times, and I always get a lot of push-back. A couple of clarifications. Readers who commented that there is not an exact analogy between yoga stretches and the gestures we use at Mass are correct. It took me a while to understand this. It is not the stretches themselves that are problematic. Yoga is a form of Eastern meditation that uses body movements to reach enlightenment. It was not designed an exercise. This idea came about as an attempt to spread yoga to the masses in the West. The Church has called yoga “New Age” (not just in the document you mentioned, but also in the authoritative CDF document On Some Aspects of Christian Meditation). Is it possible to completely sever yoga from its meditative/New Age purpose? The Church did not specifically address this point, but we are given enough cautions that prudent people who are truly seeking the Lord should look for a different exercise program. Why take a chance? People have already mentioned SoulCore and Pietra Fitness, which are both good options.
Dr. Arleezah Marrah
Thank you thank you!!!