In the first article, we discussed “What is yoga?” In the second article, we learned about the polytheistic, Hindu roots of yoga. And, in the third article, we saw that philosophic yoga teaches that the goal of yoga is union with a Supreme Reality, that is, it leads the practitioner to become dissolved into a “higher reality.” Once a person perfects her yoga practice, her individual self disappears, along with all distinctions among things.
In today’s post, I would like to show three things:
- 1. There are many traditions of yoga.
- 2. Practically all types of yoga practiced by Westerners are in the tradition of Hatha Yoga.
- 3. Hatha Yoga is the first step to the other traditions of yoga.
In other words, the yoga that the West knows best is only the first step on a spiritually dangerous and morally unacceptable path.
St. Paul advises us: “Do not quench the Spirit . . . but test everything; hold fast what is good, abstain from every form of evil” (1 Th 5:19, 21-22). Let us turn our minds to the truth, ask the Lord to bend our hearts according to His will, and explore yoga from a Catholic perspective.
There Are Many Traditions of Yoga
To the newly-initiated, the varieties of yoga may be overwhelming. At first, a person might think that yoga is yoga wherever you go. But she soon discovers that the yoga offered at the local gym may not be the same as the yoga offered in a boutique studio. She might even meet connoisseurs who claim to practice “real” or “traditional” yoga. Perhaps she comes across aficionados and their flow-charts to help a person make their way through this jungle. Perhaps she reads an internet article with the leading question, “Which Type of Yoga Is Right for You?” The implication is that everyone can find at least one of the dozens of options that fits her lifestyle.
But there is another possibility, namely, that no type of yoga is right for anyone.
Since the goal of this post is not to sell yoga but to explain it, it may be useful to distinguish between traditions of yoga and styles of yoga.1 A yoga tradition is like a branch on a tree; a style is like a leaf on the branch. The major classic traditions of yoga are:
- Raja Yoga, The Yoga of Mind Control: The “original” yoga, focused on disciplining the mind in pursuit of union with the Absolute.
- Karma Yoga, The Yoga of Action: It provides liberation from the law of karma and reincarnation through good works performed with complete detachment.
- Bahkti Yoga, The Yoga of Devotion: It offers nine means of maintaining a connection with the divine; often practitioners worship a guru as an embodiment of the divine.
- Jnana Yoga, The Yoga of Hidden Knowledge: A discipleship period with a guru prepares a person to engage Hindu-Yoga literature directly.
- Tantra Yoga, The Yoga of Dynamism: Instead of classic yoga’s insistence on self-denial, the dominant form suggests salvation through the practice of sexual yoga.
- Kundalini Yoga, The Yoga of Awareness: It aims to unlock the “goddess energy” of the root chakra, seen as a serpent coiled around the base of the spine. It is called the “master,” the “mother,” and the “bestower” of yoga.
- Mantra Yoga, The Yoga of Sound: It uses sounds and songs, especially “om,” in order to help the mind find union with universal divine. It is typically combined with other kinds of yoga.
- Hatha Yoga, The Yoga of Opposing Forces: It focuses on physical postures and breathing techniques.
It is important to note that these varieties generally are not opposed to each other. In fact, many people employ more than one form of yoga at the same time.
Nevertheless, one tradition of yoga has gained dominance in the West and, subsequently, wherever the West has had cultural influence. It is the tradition of Hatha Yoga.
There is a smorgasbord of styles that shape the basic techniques of Hatha Yoga. In this realm, one finds ancient-sounding names, such as Vinyasa and Kriya Yoga. Then there are styles named after famous founders including Bikram or Iyengar. “Gentle” Yoga caters to the elderly and injured; “Hot,” “Rocket,” and “Power” yogas appeal to business types; and Laughter Yoga is touted as a cure for sad sacks.
What is the essence of Hatha Yoga? What do all the various styles have in common? The etymology of the word gives us a clue. In Sanskrit, ha–tha means “sun– moon,” such that Hatha Yoga denotes the union of two opposite forces, something accomplished only by personal effort. The union of opposing forces occurs on different levels. On one level, physical postures unite with conscious breath; on another level, one’s body unites with one’s mind; on an even deeper level, the mind unites with the Absolute. These levels of union are intelligible in light of the fact that Hatha Yoga aims at “self-realization” by building on the Raja structure, often uniting it with Mantra and other types of yoga.2
Experts tell us that Hatha Yoga is the “foundation” for the other traditions of yoga, the first step along the path of the truest yoga.3
What is the first step of Hatha Yoga? The asanas, the physical postures.4 How do physical postures do this? By means of bodily postures and breathing techniques, the body is tensed and relaxed, the mind is emptied, and then follows meditations with pantheistic or polytheistic content: “Melt into the ground,” “Become one with the universe,” “Awaken the goddess within,” etc. A disciple of the yoga master Patanjali explains the meaning of the asanas:
“Posture becomes perfect when the effort to attain it disappears, so that there are no more movements in the body. In the same way, its perfection is achieved when the mind is transformed into infinity.”5
In other words, through yoga postures, a person begins by being hyper-conscious about her body as she tries to perfect her positioning. But if she perfects her posture, she gains control over her limbs, her breathing, her organs, her entire body as a complete whole. Then she is able to suppress all natural efforts of the body and to lose all conscious awareness of the body. This exercise is meant to facilitate, even make real, a union, a bond, a yoking with the infinite consciousness. The deeper union is supposed to take place during the feeling of expansion that occurs in deep relaxation. Because yoga postures calm the emotions, they help to empty the mind. The practitioner is easily led to assume that her physical experience also involves a spiritual experience.
A summary evaluation of the effects of Hatha Yoga is as follows.
- Yoga postures often have physically beneficial effects, but we should not be fooled: feelings of quiet and relaxation, pleasant sensations, perhaps even phenomena of light and warmth, and even deeper insights into reality are not the same as deep union with God, nor are they signs of spiritual progress.
- If a person calls upon gods during the practice of yoga, as in performing postures in the presence of Hindu statues or in chanting mantras to a god or goddess, then she has practiced idolatry and her spiritual condition is worse than when she began.
- If a person accepts a philosophy that denies the distinctions between body and mind, gain and loss, good and evil, God and the self, then she has embraced falsehood and her spiritual condition is worse than when she began.
- If she believes that yoga is not dangerous or thinks that it is simply exercise, then her misunderstanding indicates that there is room for improvement. Probably her heart longs for deep spirituality.
The saints teach us the path to true holiness. From them we learn that the evidence of a deep spiritual life necessarily includes the love of God and neighbor, a regular prayer life, fidelity to the commandments, a real and abiding faith in the saving power of Christ, and obedience to the voice of God speaking through the Church. Without these, union with God is little more than a passing breath of hot air.
This article first appeared on spiritualdirection.com. Reprinted with permission.
This series continues with article five.
Father Ezra Sullivan is a Dominican friar of the St. Joseph (Eastern) Province, USA. Currently he teaches moral theology and psychology at the Angelicum in Rome. He has published scholarly articles on bioethics, theology, and Catholic history, and his upcoming book is entitled Habits and Holiness: Ethics, Theology, and Biological Psychology (Catholic University of America Press, 2020). Currently he is doing research for a book on Yoga from a Catholic perspective, tentatively entitled Yoga and Christ.
- 1For a helpful and accurate summary of the interconnecting branches of Yoga, see: http://theyogaposter.com/.
- 2See David Gordon White, “Yoga, Brief History of an Idea,” Introduction to Yoga in Practice (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 16. “Without a doubt, hatha yoga both synthesizes and internalizes many of the elements of the earlier yoga systems.”
- 3The classic text Hatha Yoga Pradipika by Swami Svatmarama begins with this dedication: “Reverence to Shiva, the Lord of Yoga, who taught Prvati hatha wisdom as the first step to the pinnacle of raja yoga.” Following this tradition, see B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Yoga (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1966), 23.
- 4Swami Svatmarama, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, verse 17: “Asanas are spoken of first, being the first stage of hatha yoga.”
- 5Quoted in Mircea Eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, trans. Willard R. Trask
- Art: Mirror of Neopagan meditation in Rocca di Cerere (Enna) [Sicily], Dedda71, own work, undated, CC; A view of Surya namaskar position 5, Thamizhpparithi Maari, 22 December 2011, own work, CC-SA; Mirror of St. Dominic in Prayer, El Greco, between 1586-1590, PD-US; all Wikimedia Commons.
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