Is My Priest Correct in Rejecting Yoga?

Photo: weekswell.com Photo: weekswell.com     

I never took much of an interest in Yoga. This explains why I also never questioned my priest’s unequivocal rejection of this practice. But given that many other Orthodox Christians appear to be open to or involved in this practice, or are at least uncertain about whether it is compatible with the Christian faith, ignoring this issue arguably implies a negative answer to the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9). I would much rather imitate St. Paul, whose concern for his brethren reached such a pitch that he was willing to be accursed from Christ for their sake (Rom. 9:3). Therefore, in order to more effectively persuade others of one or the other view—neither of which I had held with much confidence, or could defend beyond appealing to holier people—I decided to give this issue much more serious thought.

An Orthodox Cost-Benefit Analysis of Yoga

When the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece declared last year that yoga is "‘absolutely incompatible’" with the Christian faith, not all Orthodox Christians celebrated this pronouncement. Fordham University professor, Aristotle Papanikolaou, condemned the declaration as “unwise”, “irresponsible”, and “dangerous”. According to Papanikolaou, himself a yoga practitioner, the wholesale condemnation of the practice overlooks its scientifically-established potential to “improve problems with anger, depression, and anxiety,” as well as “positively affect such wide-ranging medical problems as high blood pressure, elevated stress hormone secretion, asthma, and low-back pain.”

The fact that yoga has roots in Hindu religion is not reason enough to condemn this practice, Papanikolaou argues. After all, “Christians [have historically] recognized good things in the world around them and assimilated those practices and thought forms within the framework of” their Christian faith. This is certainly correct; we are not, after all, Jehovah’s Witnesses, condemning anything that is believed to be of pagan origin.

However, Fr. Seraphim Rose of blessed memory would have disagreed that the practice of “secular yoga”1 is but a modern manifestation of the Orthodox tradition of appropriating positive elements from other traditions. The essence of Hindu religion, he believed, inheres in the very practice of yoga, in which case “secular yoga” is an oxymoron2: “The person who uses Yoga only for physical well-being is already disposing himself towards certain spiritual attitudes and even experiences of which is undoubtedly unaware” (p. 39, Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future, 5th ed.).3 He goes on to explain that “even the purely physical sides of psychic disciplines like Yoga are dangerous because they are derived from and dispose one towards the psychic attitudes and experiences which are the original purpose of Yoga practice” (p. 69).

Today, psychologists acknowledge the physical-spiritual nexus that Fr. Seraphim warned about decades ago. According to Duke University psychologist, Patty Van Cappelen, religions do not choose physical postures and gestures haphazardly, but rather do so “in order to promote the kinds of individual and collective feelings and attitudes that religions value.” Empirical research suggests that these physical measures do, indeed, elicit such changes in people. To cite but one example, a 2015 study found that simply altering one’s position from a lower, contractive body posture to a higher, expansive one can impact the level of agreement with conventional religious beliefs. Not only do “our body’s postures exert a great amount of influence on how we feel and even think,” but they often do so, writes Yale University Psychologist, Emma Seppälä, “without our own awareness.”

I am lead, therefore, to pose the following questions to Orthodox practitioners of “secular yoga”: Are you certain that the feelings and thoughts engendered by yoga are compatible with Christianity? If so, on what basis are you certain? Does it not make more sense to err on the side of spiritual caution by avoiding this practice? If you do decide to gamble on the hope that yoga will not affect your spiritual life, would that not imply that, in your order of priorities, earthly goals ultimately trump spiritual ones in importance? And, if you do subordinate the latter priority to the former, then are you not disregarding our Lord’s teaching that “anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25)?

Not only are their spiritual risks that attend the practice of yoga, but there are also potential mental health risks that Papanikolaou overlooks. Authors of a 2016 study cite evidence that “meditation may … lead to psychosis or worsen it in some cases.” Further, in a 2017 survey of practitioners of “meditation and mindfulness-based interventions,” researchers found that as much as one in four practitioners had “unwanted experiences”. Popular culture is largely oblivious to these risks; in lieu of a cost-benefit analysis, the tendency is to publicize only one side of the equation.

Finally, we must not assume that the touted benefits of yoga are peculiar to this practice. While, to his credit, Papanikolaou alludes to “Orthodox spiritual practices” as a possible alternative to yoga, he does not bother citing scientific research bolstering this alternative. To be sure, the benefits of yoga have been more extensively studied. However, there is ample scientific evidence that these benefits are by no means exclusive to yoga. As psychiatrists, Richard Brown and Patricia Gerbarg, note, the breathing techniques of a number of religious traditions—including that of Orthodox Christianity—“have been scientifically shown to be effective in alleviating specific stress and mood challenges such as anxiety, insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and many others.” Regarding use of the Jesus Prayer, a 2017 study found that the practice was linked to reduced tension, fatigue, phobic anxiety, and social discomfort among a group of non-conventional Catholics. The following year, a randomized controlled trial study reported a “significant decrease in perceived stress” among college students following use of the prayer. In short, no Orthodox Christian should extol the scientifically-supported benefits of yoga without also pointing to what Vazquez and Jensen describe as “the burgeoning empirical support surrounding Christian contemplation and the Jesus Prayer itself.”

In addition, there is scholarly support for the physical and mental health benefits of Orthodox fasting practices. According to a 2019 study on monastics and laypeople, the Orthodox fasting discipline is associated with greater physical health and well-being. Another study, published this year, linked Orthodox fasting to lower levels of depression and anxiety, as well as improved cognition in middle-aged and elderly individuals. To put it briefly, the science confirms what the Fathers have always known through personal experience.

Secular Yoga” and Extramarital Friendships

Our faith has been likened to a marital relationship (e.g., Rev. 19:7). It is thus fitting to compare “secular yoga” to a “strictly platonic” extramarital relationship. Will God – Who is described anthropomorphically as a “jealous God” (Ex. 20:5) – be accepting of “secular yoga” any more than one’s wife will approve his “strictly platonic” relationship with another woman?

Now you may be more of a “progressive” mind—at least claiming that you would have no objection to your spouse forming a close friendship with somebody of the opposite sex—in which case my analogy fails to demonstrate the impropriety of practicing “secular yoga”. But if you are a person of science (and I suspect that there is a strong correlation between holding such “forward-thinking” views on extramarital friendships and the desire to be seen as following “the science”) then you should perhaps reevaluate your position.4

If you remain unconvinced that “secular yoga” and extramarital friendships are inappropriate, then at least consider the possibility that they are superfluous. If the benefits you seek from an extramarital relationship can be gained from a healthy marriage, then why would you be so risky as to look beyond the latter in order to pursue them? Likewise, if the real or supposed benefits of “secular yoga” can be gained through immersion in the Orthodox spiritual life, then why would you dare to look beyond Holy Orthodoxy in order to realize them?

As it turns out, my priest was right to have denounced yoga. I have come to believe that the Orthodox Christian who practices “secular yoga” is like a farmer who owns a large and fertile pasture, but has foolishly chosen to plant his seeds in the unfamiliar soil of a distant field. Let us look to our own soil—rich, as it is, in its prayers, sacraments, ascetical teachings, services, and other resources—as we seek to cultivate our minds, bodies, and souls.

Dr. Amir Azarvan

6/1/2021

1 By this I am referring to yoga that is intended to be practiced merely as a form of physical exercise, without religious motivations.

2 This explains my perhaps annoying retention of quotation marks around this concept.

3 He cites a Benedictine monk and yoga practitioner who explains that the “‘practice of Yoga makes for increased suppleness and receptivity, and thus for openness to those personal exchanges between God and the soul that mark the way of the mystical life’” (p. 40). His reference to “receptivity” is especially troubling, since it overlooks the nature of that to which one has become receptive. Indeed, what makes “New Age” spirituality so dangerous is the subconscious assumption that only benign forces exist in the spiritual world, or are otherwise distinguishable from malevolent forces by whether our spiritual experiences confer positive feelings like peace and joy. Mark, however, that St. Paul teaches that the devil “transforms himself into an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14) and will not hesitate to misguide us with such experiences. The Orthodox Christian must never forget that it is only through faith, humility, and genuine repentance—not physical contortions and breathing exercises—that one is gifted with the ability to distinguish between the spirits (1 Cor. 12:10).

4 In a Scientific American article justly titled, “Men and Women Can't Be ‘Just Friends,’” the author summarizes scientific research concluding that “men and women have vastly different views of what it means to be ‘just friends’—and that these differing views have the potential to lead to trouble.”

Comments
Rdr Andreas Moran6/10/2021 6:08 pm
If you want to do bodily exercises, do a few dozen full prostrations before your icons (though not just now in the season between Easter and Pentecost!). A certain hieromonk at a monastery met me as he walked into the garden. He waved and said, 'just been for my medicinal walk'.
sherlock_holmes6/9/2021 7:41 pm
Motto: " If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck..." If we live a Christian life, far from passions, in peace with our neighbor as much as possible and in communion with Christ ( The Morning Prayer of the Last Elders of Optina ) , then the body will get healthy too. Or if we spent one hour a day for physical exercises ( why not prostrations, the soul will follow it ) we should spend much more for our mind which is more important and eternal.
Mamaka6/9/2021 4:11 am
There is nothing wrong with stretching and calisthenics. They look like yoga but are not. Just avoid going to a yoga class, yoga meditation or yoga books. Your body is the temple of God and it must be taken care of. So avoid yoga classes but don't be afraid if your own exercises or workout looks like yoga to an outsider - its cause that's the fad they're accustomed to. Praise God and don't be afraid to touch your toes!
m. Cornelia6/7/2021 10:52 pm
Some comments here are supposing that those Orthodox Christians who speak against practicing yoga are amiss, and that physical yoga exercises will not lead Christians away from Christianity. But it's all very simple. At least one Orthodox Synod, of the Church of Greece, has officially stated its position on this: that Orthodox Christians should not practices yoga of any kind. Synods do not make such statements without a reason. Can we accept that and then ask ourselves why should any Orthodox Christian insist on practicing yoga anyway? Physical yoga is called hatha yoga. It is one of the yoga disciplines, which taken with other disciplines make up a Hindu worldview. Gregory: Yes, many stretching exercises for health are similar to hatha yoga poses. But their are many more hatha yoga poses that you will not find in a list of ordinary stretching exercises. They are poses used by yogis to reach a certain state of mind, and to channel specific energies in the body. So, wouldn't it make more sense to consult a physical therapist for a tailored stretching regime than to go to a yoga center, where the poses taught come from a religious practice rooted in millennia? Theo: The point is that you'll hardly find a yoga teacher who does not follow the whole yoga idea. So again, why not skip the yoga and try some other exercise regime? Michal: Why should the author not bring the Hinduist opinion in as an argument? Would you ask a Hindu about the Jesus prayer, for example, and say that the Orthodox Christian opinion on that practice doesn't count? Owen-Maximos: You are doubting what is obvious. Hatha yoga is a practice rooted in Hinduim--period. Finally, the Church makes recommendations based upon its experience. Every person has his own God-given freedom to do as he likes. But when the Church steers us away from something, it behooves us to listen, because it's for our own good. We have to question any enticement that experienced spiritual guides warn us against.
Owen-Maximos6/7/2021 3:38 pm
Perhaps it should be noted that historical scholarship seems to show today's "practice of yoga"--as seen in the picture at the top of the article--has little in common with yoga as originally conceived. The quotes from Fr. Seraphim Rose, however, assume its identity. "The essence of Hindu religion" may indeed "inhere in the very practice of yoga," but maybe we should demonstrate this inherence first, historically, before condemning. Perhaps a false religious/spiritual connection has been assumed.
Panagiotis6/4/2021 2:28 am
If there is nothing wrong with yoga then ask yourself this question: Why have I never heard of one, not one, of the true Saints, true Elders, and true Fathers of our Holy Orthodox Church ever promote yoga? The answer is simple, because they had faith in our Lord Jesus Christ and great love for the Theotokos and they did not need yoga.
Michal6/3/2021 8:46 am
Dr. Azavan believes the Yoga is an inseparable movement with the praxis of Hinduism. He believes in the opinion of Hinduists. But there is the Yoga and the rehabilitations similar to yoga. If Dr. Azavan could stop believing in Hinduists opinion and stop writing the quotes torned out of original context, he could see the truth with easy. Orthodoxy is not the achromatipsia. Nor the Jehovah's Witnesses.
Matthew O'Donnell6/3/2021 5:51 am
It's interesting when we hear the arguments for separating the physical exercises of yoga with the spirituality of yoga. Because as Orthodox Christians we know all too well that you cannot separate the physical from the spiritual. They are always working together. Man is made up of Body and Soul and it is man's soul that governs the body. Our worship and spiritual life absolutely includes bodily asceticism. The holy Fathers are always talking about the need to control the stomach in order to begin to fight the passions. It's because they seem how the body can have an affect on man because his spiritual illnesses affect the body as well. Yoga exercises were developed for their "spiritual plane". We know this spirituality of the Hindi's to be demonic. In regards to the physical benefits of Yoga we know that physical exercise will not heal man of anxiety, anger, or depression. These come from our passions and it's the spiritual life that moves man from passion to dispassion. The claim that it's secular yoga and nothing to do with the religion is a demonic suggestion to make people more willing to give in.
Theo6/2/2021 11:24 pm
I've taken yoga classes purely as a form of exercise off and on for decades, nothing spiritual about it. Just don't do any meditating, chanting or visualizing along with it, that's where the problem lies, maybe find a different teacher if you have one who wants you to do the spiritual stuff. To say even physical poses can open you up to bad stuff frankly is superstitious, especially given many yoga poses are the same as stretches in other systems of exercise. Every account I've ever read of someone misled by yoga has been because they got into meditating and chanting in a non-Christian Hindu way, chanting Hindu words and visualizing chakras and such. I have never read an account of someone misled by doing yoga strictly as exercise. Rather they have gotten healthier, and some have cleared up serious back issues and such that otherwise would have required surgery. Many Christians in India do yoga, but chant Christian prayers instead of Hindu ones if they want to chant. So don't be superstitious, go ahead and do yoga as exercise if you want, just don't do anything non-Christian while you're at it.
Paul6/2/2021 8:39 pm
When it comes to Yoga I think the best people to ask are those who follow the religion that invented it. From what I have read, devout Hindus will largely tell you the two are inseparable. The way I see it, the idea of separating the physical from the spiritual is not Orthodox. Can you make the Holy Eucharist nothing more than a physical act of eating and drinking? Of course not. I avoid yoga for the same reason.
Matthew6/2/2021 3:21 am
Like Bacha, I would appreciate a clear definition of yoga. Does the author mean meditation combined with particular bodily positions, or does it include particular kinds of stretching or exercise? Also, a lot of our modern science, medicine, and many of our activities generally are rooted in a materialistic, if not atheistic, world-view. How many of these should we be wary of? Or is an atheistic world-view somehow safe or neutral because it ignores spiritual realities completely?
Nelsen Thomas6/2/2021 1:49 am
IS MY PRIEST CORRECT IN REJECTING YOGA? Yes
Hailemariam Moges6/2/2021 12:15 am
Thank you for the clarification. It is not well accepted in Orthodox Christianity. Yes, exactly, we have pure and perfect soul healing ways given by Jesus Christ. His word is a healer. All the spiritual practices, if we follow and live as much as we can, are essential for our entire life. No depression, anxiety, or the like if we follow and practice day and night. What about the tattoo? as a culture in my country, we use a traditional tattoo, cross, on our hand, forehead, neck and a design on our clothes also. I think you can guess the country. But in this "modern" world, the people who have a tattoo do not give me a sense rather I see something odd, worshiping of something X. What is your idea on this?
Gregory6/1/2021 11:52 pm
An anecdote prior to a few questions: I have several injuries from various military operations, two of which include my spine (one c-spine and multiple lumbar) and one being that I broke a hip (jumping out of planes will do that to you). My VA doctors recommend physical therapy, and the physical therapists routinely recommend exercises that are nearly indistinguishable from most yoga "poses." Now my question is not whether or not yoga is therefore better than PT, but rather one that is routinely ignored in articles such as this one: can Dr. Azarvan demonstrate a rational and logical delineation and definition of yoga/not-yoga? Is there a standardized metric of either of these that make it obvious? This is just a starting point, as there are numerous issues contained in the article here, but none of those matter if the aforementioned questions can't be answered in any kind of rational manner. With all do respect, I contend that if you could do so, you would have done so in the article itself.
Fulano de Tal6/1/2021 11:28 pm
Metropolitan Jonah said something about yoga in his lectures to St Herman catechumens from around 2019, called Confessions I, II, III I forgot which one. Better look there, but he says something along the lines of the Jesus Prayer having a similar basic psychological effect, but that confession allows "what comes up" to be handled. What comes up in Yoga has nowhere to go. Something like that. Could you do yoga, but then make sure you go to confession with the dregs of the psyche that are made apparent?
Cyprian6/1/2021 4:12 pm
I think the children might have explained it best here: https://www.omsgsa.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/World-Yoga-Day-English-text.pdf "We do not do these movements because they are only for Hindus. Not even those and some others... We don't do meditation." I didn’t say a word. The kids had taught me a lesson. Not me. Tears came to my eyes. Young children and they knew how to distinguish their tradition as Indians and their faith as Orthodox Indians. They knew that themselves.
Bacha6/1/2021 12:07 pm
it is excellence article, but I'm not clear with definition of Yoga
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