Stretching Too Far
The practice of yoga entails spiritual danger
The last decade has seen incredible growth in the number of people who regularly practice yoga. Despite its popularity, most practitioners are woefully ignorant of its roots and meaning. Many Catholics can be counted among this group. In fact, some parishes even going so far as to host “Mommy’s Morning Out Yoga.” Ignorance or not, there is a great spiritual danger associated with its practice, prompting many exorcists to conclude that it is a work of the devil. In charity then we seek to set the record straight.
The term yoga is rather broad and there are various forms. What all these forms have in common is an intrinsic link to the religious beliefs of the East: Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism. Although it involves bodily postures, the purpose according to the ancient Hindu texts from which it is derived is to clear the way for enlightenment and a realization of one’s own divinity. A key Hindu belief is in the goddess Kundalini, which is represented as a coiled snake sleeping at the base of the spine. Every posture is designed to stimulate Kundalini, which seeks to pass from the first chakra or energy depot (in the pelvic area) to the four chakras in the spine. It then travels to the two in the head with the goal of spreading the sexual energy (seen as divine energy) to each of the other chakras, promoting spiritual power and enlightenment. Finally, it reaches the crown chakra where one is made karma-free and immortal.
A key element that corresponds with poses is controlled breathing accompanied by a mantra. The controlled breathing is thought to be a means of absorbing prana (divine energy) from the air (since nature is divine). One eventually learns how, through willpower and visualization, to direct the prana to different parts of the body. The ultimate goal is to clear the mind for extended periods and to generate the “consciousness” that one is divine and completely one with the universe. In fact the word Namaste means “I bow to the divine essence which is your true nature.”
Yoga is problematic for Catholics on two fronts. First, it is a religious activity based on a false religion. It espouses pantheism and leads to the worship of false gods: not only the self but nature itself, as evidenced by the Sun Salutation, one of the most common sequences, that seeks to “adore the sun.” Second, it seeks to create an altered sense of consciousness. The Church has always taught this is wrong, be it through chemicals (like alcohol and drugs) or through spiritual practices. The mind is not meant to be a “clear slate” and in making it so, we can open ourselves to control by the demonic. Exorcists are seeing more and more cases of demonic possession, obsession, and oppression that all began in the practice of yoga.
In the West, many of yoga’s overtly religious aspects are downplayed and many people unquestioningly practice it for its supposed health benefits. When it is pointed out that even the simple practice of “inviting surrender” in the corpse pose, something that each session ends with, involves surrendering to something (or someone) as a religious act, they still insist that they are doing it for their health. They will agree that as a religion yoga is wrong, but it matters why they are doing it.
It is true that intention matters but it is not the only thing, nor for that fact is it the primary moral determinant. A morally good act depends first on the object that is chosen. Only when the object that is chosen is good (or at least morally neutral) do we look at the intentions and the circumstances. The moral object here is the practice of yoga, a fact that even the practitioner’s language would confirm. No one says, “I am going to a stretching class” but instead “I am going to a yoga class.” The point is that the practice of yoga can never be ordered to a good end, regardless of the individual intention. And so, the person who presents this line of defense is adopting a subtle form of subjectivism. Yoga is always objectively evil and thus no good intention on the part of the person can make it good.
Once we clear away some of the semantic confusion, we shouldn’t be surprised to find health benefits being used as bait. If yoga wasn’t beneficial in some way, then no one would do it. But there are other ways to achieve health benefits without entering a yoga studio or a yoga class. This leads to a discussion of a rather confusing issue: scandal.
Scandal in the worldly sense means some behavior that causes public outrage. Scandal in the theological sense is much broader than this, such that it can occur even when there is no “public outrage.” St. Thomas says that “active scandal” is when a “man either intends, by his evil word or deed, to lead another man into sin, or, if he does not so intend, when his deed is of such a nature as to lead another into sin… something less rightly done or said, that occasions another’s spiritual downfall” (ST II-II, q.43). So, a person can be guilty of active scandal even if there is no witness or the witness is not led into sin. St. Thomas calls it a “deed of such a nature as to lead another into sin.” It is the type of the action and not its consequences that determine whether someone has committed a sin of active scandal. Regarding the topic at hand: Because yoga is a public act, even if no one else knows about it, then it still constitutes a scandalous act.
As paganism continues to push against the Church, it is important that we become aware of its dangerous bedfellows like yoga. Yoga may offer health benefits, but to practice it in any form is stretching too far.