By Patrick J. Cassidy, Loyola University Maryland
It seems as though nearly every week in large, urban areas within the United States, a new yoga studio opens, offering a wide variety of classes, workshops, and experiences. Within popular western culture, yoga has seemed to evolve into a sensationalized activity and lifestyle with brightly colored athletic gear, Instagram celebrities, and at times, exclusive communities of thin, white, attractive individuals. At the same time, those who enter into yoga for its physical benefits often find themselves drawn to communities of western yogis who have cultivated spaces for spiritual grounding, exploration, and growth. Hatha yoga’s use of body, breath, and mind has, for many years, drawn Christians of the western world into the practice. It continues to offer Christians the opportunity to foster connection with one’s divinely created self, to grow in understanding of a lived incarnational theology, and ultimately, to move towards greater union with God.
History and Tradition of Hatha Yoga
Hatha Yoga and the Yogic Tradition
Tracing back to India over five thousand years ago, yoga originated as an oral tradition passed down from teacher to student. Rooted in shared teachings of both the Buddhist and Hindu faiths, the yogic tradition developed as a rich philosophy and method of discipline (Harmon, 2016). Yoga’s philosophical teachings allowed individuals to engage the tradition across religious communities.
Between the years of 5,000 B.C. and 300 A.D. the long-time existence and practice of the yogic tradition became systematized through the writings of Sri Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras. Much like the authorship of many biblical writings, it is unclear as to whether or not Patañjali was a single person or a variety of individuals whose writings were compiled under one name. The sūtras, meaning threads, provide nearly 200 teachings that serve as the transcribed basis of yogic philosophy which has inspired the varying forms of meditation and yoga practiced today (Satchidananda, 2012).
The physical expressions, or asanas, of the modern day yoga practice are not mentioned in the ancient texts, as they are around 150 years old and continue to be developed today. The term asana, meaning seat, was originally used in Patañjali’s writing to refer to what the yogi sat on during meditation. In time, its meaning has evolved to include how the yogi is positioned physically during meditation, often times in the lotus seated position (Manfredi, 2012).
Hatha yoga developed during the fifteenth century and was written about in Svātmārāma’s Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the first piece of writing about the physical practice of yoga (Harmon, 2016; Manfredi, 2016). Hatha, meaning sun and moon, calls for the merging of opposing forces in a way that is both gentle and focused (Satchidananda, 2012). Svātmārāma’s writings describe hatha yoga as a practice that utilizes physical postures and breathing to bring the body into quietude, which then allows the individual to engage more fully in meditation and prayer (Harmon, 2016).
Hatha Yoga and the Christian Tradition
The movement of yoga within western society came as teachers and students from the east and west traveled and conversed across traditions throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. French Benedictine monk Jean Marie Déchanet was one of the early Christian yoga practitioners to begin formalizing his experiences through his 1960 writing Christian Yoga. Soon before Déchanet’s publication, Fr. Henri Le Saux and Fr. Jules Monchanin moved to India to explore the yoga practice and founded Shantivanam (“Forest of Peace”), an ashram for Christian believers in 1950. Fr. Bede Griffiths became the director of Shantivanam in 1968 and has served as a spiritual guide for many Christian yoga practitioners, including Fr. Tom Ryan, CSP, a modern prolific writer of yoga and Christianity (Prymus, 2016).
Christians particularly interested in centering prayer sought the hatha yoga practice not only as an opportunity to still the body and mind for meditation, though also as a way to engage Christianity’s incarnational theology (Nary & Ryan, 2016). God’s manifestation in the world provides a connection to the Divine that is both within as well as outside of the material and mundane (Nelstrop & Podmore, 2013). Hatha yoga serves as an expression of incarnational theology in that the practitioner recognizes the enfleshment of God within their own embodied spirit which carries divine life (Nary & Ryan, 2016).
In connecting to one’s breath through the yoga practice, Christians are able to move into a deeper understanding of God as the Breath of Life. Such verses as Job 32:8 and Ezekiel 37:4-14 highlight the breath of God as the source of life for humanity (Gelinas, 2016). The practitioner begins to witness the divinity of the breath as the inhale draws inspiration from God and the exhale moves oneself closer to the Divine (Manfredi, 2012). The movement of the Breath of Life in and out of the body works towards guiding the individual into a more readied state of meditation and prayer (Paul, 2009).
Features & Goals of the Hatha Yoga Practice
One of the most fundamental truths and factors in yoga is that it is a practice, in and of itself (Satchidananda, 2012). Dorothy Bass (2010) speaks of spiritual practices as being done not for the treasure of their outcomes, yet rather because of knowing that they are good in their foundation. The gifts that they offer come from the act of engaging the practice continually with “patience, devotion, and faith” (Satchidananda, 2012, p. 19). It is done in covenant, with a commitment to both listen and respond to the Divine; listening throughout the physical posturing and movement of breath, and responding in one’s presence to God in meditation and prayer (Hopkins & Koppel, 2010; Manfredi, 2012).
Features of the Hatha Yoga Practice: Asana& Pranyama
Hatha yoga consists of both asana and pranyama practices (Harmon, 2016). Asana refers to the physical postures that one moves into throughout the course of the practice. A series of postures are held and linked to both the inhale and exhale of one’s breath. The physical postures strengthen and support one’s physicality and internal biological systems while calling the individual into greater awareness of the body (Gelinas, 2016).
In pairing one’s breath with physical movements, the practitioner gains control of the inhale, exhale, and retention of breath through the pranyama practice. Pranyama, or breath work, quiets and stills the mind, preparing the practitioner to turn inward (Gelinas, 2016). At times, a practitioner may choose to identify a mantra, often times a word or phrase, as a point of focus with the breath to keep their object of concentration from shifting. Often, the repetition of mantra with breath, moves the individual beyond the mind (Satchidananda, 2012; Paul, 2009). The controlling of the breath and its pairing with the physical posturing of the hatha yoga practice, creates both stability and ease within the body, allowing the mind to remain still for an extended period of time (Harmon, 2016).
Goals of the Hatha Yoga Practice: Practical & Spiritual
Hatha yoga holds both practical and spiritual intentions within the practice, both of which mirror and support the other. Practically, it is a practice that is designed to calm the body, mind, and spirit, letting go of any tension or distraction that may build up throughout the course of life (Salai & Ryan, 2016). Its hope is to obtain steadiness of mind and body as the individual recognizes the continuous turnings of the mind, while growing in their ability to remain detached from its movement (Satchidananda, 2012). The hatha yoga practice manifests the recognition that “God talks to us always, but we talk so loud we fail to hear” (Satchidananda, 2012, p. 40). The holistic stillness that is cultivated prepares the practitioner to move into meditation and centering prayer, discovering a deeper sense of intimacy with God.
Spiritually, it is this sense of union with the Divine that individuals work towards in practicing hatha yoga. As the mind ceases to attach itself to thought forms, the individual moves further inward, witnessing the True Self of God (Satchidananda, 2012). In obtaining union with God, the practitioner surrenders the ego-self to that of the True Self, as Saint Paul states in Galatians 2:20, “It is not I, but Christ who lives in me.” It is in this grasping of the eternal truth of having been created in the image and likeness of God that the true union between practitioner and the Divine occurs (Paul, 2009).
Challenges & Benefits of the Hatha Yoga Practice for Christians of Today
Challenges of the Practice
Hatha yoga presents challenges similar to those of other spiritual practices in the sense that it requires patience, dedication, and the engagement of one’s entire being. Particularly within western culture, busy lives and one’s seemingly endless commitments, make it difficult for individuals to commit oneself to a spiritual practice, such as hatha yoga, which requires time and solitude (Scharen, 2008; Stewart-Sickling, 2016). Such realities mean that practitioners are challenged to identify a quiet space for their practice. In time, practitioners begin to move beyond their impatient mind and develop the skills to engage their yoga practice in the midst of the day’s noise and chaos (Satchidananda, 2012; Manfredi, 2012).
As individuals move into the stillness of the practice, the body and mind often unconsciously bring to the surface life’s challenging emotions and experiences. Thomas Keating (2006) describes this process as interior purification in his book Open Mind, Open Hearts. Keating describes it as divine psychotherapy that “enables the organism to release deep-rooted tension in the form of thoughts that arise spontaneously” and “appear without one’s knowing where they came from and why. They introduce themselves with considerable force or emotional charge” (p. 125 & 126). Just as Jacob faced in the book of Genesis, it is often in these times of stillness, where an individual is found alone and exposed. Removed from all the false definitions of their being, one’s flawed self can be seen most clearly, present before the individual to be faced and transformed (Hopkins & Koppel, 2010). The work required within these experiences is to acknowledge the presence of the pain, accept what it brings, and release it as one moves forward towards healing (Keating, 2006).
Lastly, for Christians in particular, one of the main obstacles in engaging hatha yoga as a spiritual practice, is the moving beyond of the false idea of yoga as a religion or religious practice. In his interview with Catholic Profiles, Fr. Thomas Ryan, CSP (2016) explains that yoga is “a philosophy, a science, a physical and a spiritual practice” that is engaged by folks across faith traditions, including Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and those unaffiliated with a religious or faith tradition. Fr. Ryan expresses that hatha yoga is able to serve as a means to both recovering the Christian tradition of centering prayer and meditation, as well as to live into the embodiment of the incarnational Divine (Nary & Ryan, 2016).
Benefits of the Practice
Recognizing the busyness of lives within western societies, hatha yoga provides practitioners the opportunity to step back in retreat to connect more thoughtfully with their own being, as well as God’s. In addition to the physical benefits of strength and relaxation, the practice serves as a spiritual means of union with one’s body, mind, spirit, and ultimately, the Divine (Harmon, 2016; Paul, 2009). For both experienced and new practitioners, the benefits of hatha yoga build as one begins, every time, with the focus on breath and body (Satchidananda, 2012).
Within the relaxation of body and mind, yoga practitioners move towards a life of detachment. Expectations fall away as the mind is freed of self-interest and desire (Satchidananda, 2012). This ability is already present within the individual, however, one must relax into it by opening oneself up more fully to the presence of God in continuing to surrender to the Divine within. For Christians and spiritual seekers alike, this work is what prepares the practitioner to move more deeply into meditation and centering prayer (Joseph A. Stewart-Sickling, Class Lecture, February 2, 2017).
Engaging hatha yoga, additionally provides Christian practitioners the opportunity to enliven their embodied spirits. This form of prayer is an element of Christianity that has decreased throughout the years as weekly fasting days and keeping Sabbath have fallen away as common spiritual practices. Yoga can serve as a reminder for Christians that our bodies play a crucial, yet often neglected, role within our spiritual lives as they can serve as avenues to a fuller connection and union with God. Fr. Ryan utilizes this basis of Christian understanding and experience to bring continued awareness to the incarnational teachings of the desert fathers, Ignatius of Loyola, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila (Nary & Ryan, 2016).
Personal Exploration of Hatha Yoga as a Means to Union with God
As a dedicated hatha yoga practitioner for the past six years, I came to the practice as many western practitioners do, focused on the physical benefits and open to whatever spiritual perks may arise. Engaging my yoga practice as a Catholic, I was at first hesitant about its spiritual aspect as I had misunderstood its foundation in religion, rather than philosophy. With patience, time, study, and a committed practice, it was not long before I moved into a fuller understanding of the hatha yoga tradition. I experienced the calmness of body, mind, and spirit, while also facing the demons of false-self which arose in the stillness. Even amidst injury and self-doubt, I felt the strength of my body and my spirit as I came to witness the ever-presence of the Divine within.
To this day, my practice continues to inform my way of life and my understanding and conceptualization of God. My evolving connection to my body and my breath opens new understandings and insights of the incarnational Divine. Scripture passages of the Breath of Life and the communal body of God become my mantra as I inhale God’s presence, hold it within, and release it to the world around me. My practice leads me to stillness, and in stillness I am lead to the Divine.
Hatha yoga has much to offer as a spiritual practice for Christians of the western world. Rooted in a rich philosophical tradition, its connection to body, mind, and spirit guides practitioners on a journey of understanding of self and God. Its benefits, both physical and spiritual, support the tempering of life’s noise as the individual learns to move towards stillness, surrendering expectations to be in union with the Divine. It is through God’s incarnation that salvation was brought to humanity. Hatha yoga offers an opportunity and a path to remain connected to this truth in an active, holy, and embodied way.
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