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.