OUR POSITION ON YOGA
- Pietra Fitness respects people of all faiths. While we recognize and point out specific theological differences, we also firmly believe that all people are greatly loved by God.
- Pietra Fitness is not “Christian yoga” or ‘Catholic Yoga” and should never be described as such because the term ‘yoga’ describes an integrated whole of philosophies, spirituality, and physical practices based in Hinduism and found in Buddhism and New Age practices.
- Pietra Fitness respectfully asserts that yoga cannot and should not be separated from its spiritual and philosophical roots, therefore the practice of yoga cannot be part of a specifically Christian exercise program.
- Pietra Fitness believes that beneficial stretching and strengthening exercises can be separated from yoga (in some cases slightly modified, and in all cases re-named) and redeemed in Christ for use in a Christian exercise program.
- Pietra Fitness believes that one cannot regularly practice yoga without some spiritual effect; therefore we recommend that Christians stop the practice of yoga and seek alternatives consistent with Christian philosophy and spirituality.
Pietra Fitness is not “Christian yoga” or “Catholic yoga.” Most Hindu and Christian philosophers would agree that “Christian Yoga” is an oxymoron because Christianity (coming from Christ) and yoga (based in Hinduism) have fundamental differences in theology and philosophy. The practice of yoga as such inherently incorporates Hindu spirituality, therefore an exercise program cannot truly be both yoga and Christian. Pietra Fitness seeks to provide some insight into why this is true, both in general terms and through specific examples.
What is yoga, and where does Pietra Fitness stand?
“Yoga” is the ancient Sanskrit term for the physical practice used to develop Hindu spiritual disciplines. The word yoga means “yoke” or “spiritual union,” indicating the innate spiritual nature of the practice. Thousands of years old, yoga teachings are detailed in the Vedas, or sacred Indian texts. These teachings include polytheism (worshipping many gods and goddesses), monism (a belief that all things in the universe are one, without distinction), reincarnation, karma, idol worship, and the goal of realizing one’s own divine identity. Many of these teachings are also prevalent in Buddhism and the New Age Movement. Because these beliefs are not compatible with Christian teaching, embracing the full practice of yoga would be contrary to Christianity. Simply put, to practice yoga is to practice an important element of Hinduism and/or New Age beliefs. Most people in yoga fitness classes do not understand the roots and purpose of yoga and therefore do not understand all they are participating in. While we deeply respect other religious practices and beliefs, it is important for Christians to truly understand their faith and to engage in activities that are wholly consistent with Christian teaching.
At Pietra Fitness, our position on yoga is built on that of the Catholic Church. Our goal is to recognize the good and true, wherever it is found and bring it to fullness in Christ. The Church clearly states that there are very real spiritual concerns associated with the practice of yoga and advises strong caution regarding the practice. We should not take this lightly. We must get informed and make intentional decisions based on solid spiritual and intellectual formation. The Church asks Christians to know and apply their faith. Two documents from the Vatican are great resources for the faithful on this subject:
- The Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith
- Jesus Christ The Bearer of the Water of Life by the Pontifical Council for Culture & Pontifical Council for Interreligious
How is Pietra Fitness different?
The human body is made and designed by God, and our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. In dutifully and humbly caring for our temple, we glorify God. Since all that is good and true comes from God, we can freely utilize movements that keep us well. Movements that stretch, strengthen, calm, and relax are good for us! Because yoga is thousands of years old, it can lay claim (and does) to almost every possible movement or position of the human body – including movements as innate as yawning, blinking, and breathing. Despite the wide range of exercises catalogued in yoga, yoga does not have a patent on any of them. You should not feel guilty for doing ordinary and natural human movement just because it has an official name in yoga. So while you may see familiar movements in a Pietra Fitness class, it is important to note that the differences between Pietra Fitness and Yoga go much deeper than stretches.
At Pietra Fitness we do not seek to attain spiritual enlightenment and immersion with the divine, nor do we utilize elements of yoga that conflict with Christian teaching. While we, as Christians, desire union with God through our relationship with Him, we recognize that no technique can ever lead to full immersion with Him. Union with God is a gift of His grace alone, and we are distinct from God. Pietra Fitness, then, is not a technique to attain perfection. Rather, Pietra Fitness is a way to stay physically fit while answering the call of St. Paul to pray unceasingly. We simply offer our exercise in prayer to God.
In Pietra Fitness, each exercise class begins and ends with prayer. While the physical workout strengthens and stretches our bodies, our hearts and minds are free to follow the advice of St. Paul and focus on things true, honorable, gracious, and excellent (Phil. 4:8). We do this with scripture and a meditation read during stretches of longer duration. Because gentle soothing movements and extended periods of stretching naturally foster relaxation and serenity, this type of exercise offers a great opportunity to turn our hearts and minds towards Christ.
St. Benedict believed all labor can be a prayer if we are mindful of God: “Ora et Labora” – Prayer and Work. Combining prayer and exercise/work is timeless. It helps us to “redeem the time” as St. Paul exhorts us to do in Ephesians 5:16… and it feels fantastic.
Discerning Elements of Yoga that Conflict with Christian Teaching
Let’s take a closer look at specific practices found in both casual yoga classes offered at the average gym, as well as in-depth classes taught in professional yoga studios. These very common methods are rooted in non-Christian eastern spirituality and/or are utilized in New Age practices. If you have ever attended a yoga class, you have undoubtedly been exposed to one or more of the practices below. All yoga teachers are educated in these techniques and certainly their classes will be influenced in this manner.
- Chanting Mantras – “A mantra is a sound, syllable, word, or group of words that is considered capable of ‘creating transformation.’” Mantras are commonplace in yoga. Let’s look at two of them: Aum/Om and So’ham. Aum/Om: “The popular Aum chant is fully described in the Hindu scriptures and is synonymous with the Hindu Deity Ganesha.” Deepok Chopra, M.D. explains it this way: “The primordial vibration Om (or ‘aum’) is considered the most sacred sound in Hinduism and Buddhism… People have used Om as a mantra since ancient times, chanting the sound or silently repeating it in meditation to expand their awareness of the divine. In the Yoga Sutras, the philosopher Patanjali states that the repetition of Om, along with a deep contemplation of its meaning, is a direct path to enlightenment… The symbol is also incorporated into the design of all Hindu temples and family shrines. In the Western world, repeating Om at the beginning and end of yoga classes is common, and more and more people are using the sound as a mantra for meditation and sacred ceremonies.” So’ham: According to Yoga for Dummies, “The mantra so’ham” (pronounced so-hum) means ‘I am He,’ that is, ‘I am the universal Self.’ It is repeated it in sync with breathing: so on inhaling, ham on exhaling.” In Christian teaching, “I AM” very specifically refers to God Almighty and would not be appropriate for an individual to chant.
- Chanting in Sanskrit – Many yoga classes feature chanting at the beginning or ending of class. The chanting is done in the ancient language of Sanskrit, so most participants have no idea what they are saying. There are many chants, but portions of common chants are translated below
- I bow to Lord Shiva, the peaceful one who is the embodiment of all that is cause by the universe.
- I bow to the lotus feet of the gurus, the awakening happiness of one’s own self revealed; beyond better, acting like the jungle physician; pacifying delusion, the poison of samsara… to Patanjali, I salute.
Clearly, chanting in yoga class presents a dilemma for Christians.
- Body Positions to Channel Energy – There are specific hand, body, or eye positions in yoga called yoga mudras. Yogis believe that by forming these positions, one can direct the flow of energy. These positions are utilized by skilled yogis to induce alternate states of mind and consciousness. An article in Yoga Journal explains, “Fingers and toes are charged with divine power, which, when intelligently accessed and properly applied, can intensify the transformative power of the practice… Symbolically, a mudra seals or ‘stamps’ the mark of the god or goddess on the practitioner much like a signet ring stamps an impression on soft wax, signaling her complete devotion and self-surrender… some texts claim, mudras confer magical powers on the practitioner, such as healing others’ illnesses (and maybe even exacting revenge on enemies) and assisting in the awakening of kundalini.” Kundalini Yoga is a particular type of yoga that aims to develop spiritual awareness by freeing the serpent power (kundalini) that is coiled in the base of the spine through exercises and meditation that draws it upward through the seven chakras (energy centers).
- Chakras – The concept of chakra originates in Hindu texts and is in yogic traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism. The Chakras are thought to be the seven main energy centers in the body that are located along the spine starting at the base and running upwards to the crown of the head. They believe the chakras can become blocked, and that by practicing poses that correspond to each chakra, you can release these blocks and clear the path to higher consciousness. It is also believed that with the healing of each chakra comes the gift of certain powers. This comes from the University of Metaphysical Sciences: “In addition to its connection to the body, the third eye chakra is also highly related to the spiritual realm. This chakra is said to be associated with the ability to experience and even see into other dimensions during meditation. Astral awareness is related to this chakra. When the third eye chakra is awakened during meditation, a number of abilities are said to open up including higher cognition, remote viewing, intuition, telekinesis and telepathy. Inasmuch, psychic powers are often said to be related to this chakra.” Yoga poses are often sequenced to unblock the chakras, and meditation on the chakras in a yoga class is commonplace. There are many dangers associated with kundalini rising through the chakras, including psychological disturbances. Numerous websites, written by those who have experienced kundalini rising, are devoted to describing the dangers of this practice.
- Unnatural breathing techniques – While proper breathing is extremely healthy (it releases stress and calms the nervous system), it is important that breathing be done gently and at the pace of the individual. In yoga, pranayama is not just breath control, but is also believed to regulate the prana, or life force, in the body. Some studios practice breath control for up to fifteen minutes at the beginning of the class. In more advanced practices, students are encouraged to meditate on the breath and visualize drawing themselves into healing, cosmic, divine energy. The California College of Ayurveda cautions against pranayama when not done correctly. They state: “The practice of pranayama has always been surrounded by an air of mystery. Since such practice is a gateway to yogic powers (siddhis), gurus have traditionally been hesitant to teach it until the disciple was able to prove his or her readiness… Many great yogis have known of the dangers of pranayama when performed incorrectly… faulty practice puts undue stress on the lungs and diaphragm. The respiratory system suffers and the nervous system is adversely affected. The very foundation of a healthy body and a sound mind is shaken by faulty practice of Pranayama… This results in the prana charging recklessly through the body causing both physical and psychological imbalances.” Caution should be used with many breathing exercises found in yoga because these structured techniques can adversely impact students.
- Namaste – This physical and verbal salutation is regularly said in yoga classes. “Namaste” can be translated as, “the divine in me bows to the divine in you.” An article in Yoga Journal explains, “To perform Namaste, we place the hands together at the heart charka, close the eyes, and bow the head. It can also be done by placing the hands together in front of the third eye, bowing the head, and then bringing the hands down to the heart.” While Christianity certainly recognizes the sacredness of another person (we are temples of the Holy Spirit),we need to be careful not to insinuate that a human person is the same as God. The Creator and His creatures are distinct beings, although they may be united by grace. For Christians, it is undesirable to allude to the chakra system when greeting or honoring another person.
- Yoga Meditation – Yoga uses various meditation techniques to draw students inward psychologically and emotionally. These techniques may include chants, mantras, and Transcendental Meditation. The Transcendental Meditation technique is based on the ancient Vedic tradition of enlightenment in India. It is believed that, through yoga meditation, you can open the chakras that lead into yogic powers or siddhis. According to traditional sources, the five siddhis of yoga and meditation are:
- Knowing the past, present and future
- Tolerance of heat, cold and other dualities
- Knowing the minds of others, and so on
- Checking the influence of fire, sun, water, poison, and so on
- Remaining unconquered by others
There are also other powers that can be achieved. “These powers include items such as clairvoyance, levitation, bi-location, becoming as small as an atom, materialization, having access to memories from past lives, etc.” Trying to attain these powers is not compatible with Christianity.
If you have ever attended a yoga class, you have undoubtedly been exposed to one or more of these practices. The Catholic Church, whose job is to care for souls, cautions us regarding the practice of yoga and the influence of the new age movement. Do your research and get informed when in search of a good exercise program for body, mind, and soul.
 Classical Yoga Hindu Academy, http://www.classicalyoga.org/Modern-%22Yoga%22.php
 Deepak Chopra M.D., What Does Ohm Really Mean?, http://www.chopra.com/articles/2010/03/26/what-does-om-really-mean/
 Georg Feuerstein, Ph.D., Larry Payne, Ph.D., Yoga for Dummies, pg. 317
 Wikipedia, Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ashtanga_Vinyasa_Yoga
 Dr. Marc Halpern, Pranayama, Yoga, and Ayurveda, California College of Ayurveda,