Indian students participate in a yoga demonstration on International Yoga Day in Chennai on June 21, 2016. (Photo by Arun Sankar/AFP)
Published May 11, 2017
I have been closely associated with globally acclaimed Yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar since 1968, a year after I was ordained a Catholic priest for the Archdiocese of Bombay.
Iyengar's teaching of yoga has never caused any conflict, especially with regard to the faith of the practitioner. In my teaching of yoga in over 40 countries, I have several times emphasized this essential difference between Iyengar Yoga and other forms of Yoga.
Iyengar taught yoga as a science and art and in his later years shared his expertise to help my work with drug users and people living with HIV. Many medical schools in India and abroad, through extensive research and documentation, have affirmed this method of practicing yoga.
Iyengar Yoga has helped me as a Catholic priest for the past 49 years. Further, as a form of health-management, it has been truly an unique and supportive instrument for the practice of Christian contemplative prayer.
In the good old days of pre-Vatican period, the practice of spirituality especially in the church was affected by the post-renaissance reaction to Protestantism. The Catholic Church cautioned its members about two types of practices which Martin Luther and others tried to emphasize such as the use of scripture and the importance of a personal encounter with the Lord through contemplation.
Hence most of the Catholics kept away from reading the scriptures and the practice of meditation. But in the early sixties the west went through the revolution of the "Flower Children." Many young people were disillusioned by the Catholic Church and organised religions and went in search of a personal encounter with the Lord.
At that time, the Catholic Church welcomed the renewal programme that originated from the Pentecostal churches. However, the integration of the renewal was within Catholic teachings and the sacramental structure.
On the other hand, there were many who came to the East to have that direct experience of God. While they went to various Hindu Ashrams and various kinds of spiritual practices, some of them did find a Catholic Benedictine Monk who lived for over 40 years at the banks of the river Kaveri in Tiruchirapalli in Tamil Nadu.
The monk, Father Bede Griffith, had absorbed the Indian ethos and integrated it into the Catholic Church in India. He welcomed the use of the body as a temple of God's Spirit and helped some western young people find the original teachings of Jesus in and through Yoga and even through the Christian interpretation of the Bhagvad Gita, one of the Hindu scriptures.
His masterpiece of this blend was the book titled, "The River of Compassion" which is a reading of the Hindu epic through the Gospel of St. John.
At the 1969 "Church in India Seminar," convened against the backdrop of Second Vatican Council, he challenged the assembly by saying, "if the church in India does not respond to the call of contemplation it might as well fold up as it has in the West."
As a young priest, he encouraged me to use the ancient science of Yoga to help the youth learn to pray the contemplative way. Later on as the country coordinator of the World Community for Christian Meditation, I had the opportunity to present this teaching at a 2008 celebration at Mt. Orford, Quebec Canada. The entire assembly requested me to publish the teaching of Yoga for Contemplative prayer in a DVD and a guide book.The most valuable contribution of this kind of Iyenagar practice has been to help people struggling with all kinds of addictions. This inclusion of yoga's psychosomatic dimensions within the Alcoholics Anonymous program has made a major contribution to the addiction recovery worldwide.
One would now wonder why a section of Catholics and particularly the so-called "born again" Christians doubt practicing yoga. Some even go to extent of condemning yoga as satanic.
It is very evident that this is unlike the Catholic Church especially the teaching of the Second Vatican Council where the church embraced the teachings of world religions and even recommended the integration of deeply spiritual dimensions found therein.
The problem arises with some holier-than-thou fundamentalists who wish to be more "Catholic than the Pope." Through their prejudice, they consider all other faith expressions as satanic and condemn the use of Yoga.One could draw a parallel in such an attitude towards another kind of renewal of the Charismatic practice. While in origin this renewal stemmed from the Pentecostals, they would not like to be identified as "Pentecostals."
Similarly, while yoga originated from the Hindu ethos, the practice of yoga such as the Iyengar practice cannot be identified with a whole lot of cultic yogic practices. Hence, if the objection to Christians practicing yoga stems from the whole lot of unorthodox and cultic practice, we would fully agree with them.
The orthodox yogic practice is today affirmed by world renowned behavioral scientists such a Dr. Herbert Benson of the Harvard Medical School. Nay more, in the regular world conferences on "faith and healing" the use of yoga is gaining prominence. The very concept of "relaxation response" which is the "Savasana Effect" is the beginning of healing many a stress caused ailments from simple coughs and cold to major incidence of cancer.
The basic principle of yoga as explained by the western scientist is the same as the invitation of Jesus when he said: "Come to me all you who labor and are overburdened, and I will give you rest."
Benson in his recent book said that such eastern disciplines (mostly yoga) have made us aware that our brains are wired to God. When in the final stages of relaxation one comes to experience the "nitric oxide" effect, one finds the common denominator for what scientist call "spontaneous remission," in other words, the state of exhilaration.
As a Christian Yogi in my pastoral practice I see the blend of both. Through the practice of yoga and meditation one arrives at this state of "exhilaration" as well as by the practice of Charismatic Renewal.
As Jesuit psychotherapist Father Anthony De Mello (1931-1987) would say, "A heart filled with thanksgiving is full of joy." In yoga this takes place precisely when one reaches the ultimate sheath of the body called Anandamaya Kosha (the blissful body).At all yoga weekends in many western countries where the youth have left the church, I celebrate the Eucharist and make them return to the church. Ironically, I have been able to evangelize to them through this beautiful discipline that is fulfilling the call of my Supreme Yogi, Jesus, who said: "If you wish to be my disciple, deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me."
Finally, as a faithful priest of the Catholic Church, it is heartening to hear the official teaching on Yoga and Christianity, the use of the body in prayer by Jesuit Father Anton Witwan of the Institute of Spirituality, at the Pontifical Gregorian University Rome, "Roma locuta est Causa finite est."
Mumbai-based Father Joseph Pereira is a yoga practitioner and teacher. He also runs Kripa Foundation to support the rehabilitation of those affected by chemical dependency and HIV/AIDS.