If you ever want to understand what it was like for St. Paul when he was preaching to the Corinthians about the dangers of meat sacrificed to idols, then you should try convincing another Christian not to practice yoga. Convincing people of the serious threat that yoga poses is often very difficult. Most of the time, you can tell who is practicing yoga by the great flexibility they show by rolling their eyeballs. Most of them can roll them quickly into the heads while a few more seasoned practitioners (with some help) are able to roll them even deeper. As Fr. Gabriele Amorth, former Chief Exorcist of Rome and author of a number of books on demonology has said, “(Y)oga is the work of the devil.” So when he calls yoga “devious and dangerous” we ought to take him seriously and seek to understand why he says what he says.
To begin it is a necessary reminder that a person is a body/soul composite. There are two important implications to this. First, whatever we do with our bodies, it is the person who does it. Likewise, whatever we do with our souls, it is the person that does it. Second, those things that we do with our bodies have an effect on our souls and those things we do with our souls have an effect on our bodies.
Why is this simple reminder necessary? Because the most common objection goes something like this: “I just do it for the stretching and I don’t do any of the other stuff.” While that may be true, the poses in themselves mean something. After all, I may merely be extending and stretching my middle finger as a police officer goes by, but extending it means something even if I was only stretching. If you need to stretch your middle finger you will likely find another way to do it rather than risk being misunderstood. Likewise there are many other ways to get the physical benefits of stretching that do not involve yoga poses. This is the same point that St. Paul makes to the Corinthians when he tells them that they cannot “drink of the cup of the Lord and also the cup of demons” (1 Cor 10:21). While I certainly advocate extending your middle finger to the devil as much as possible, I suggest you avoid anything resembling yoga at all costs because it might “provoke the jealous anger of the Lord” (1 Cor 10:22) (i.e. He may allow us to be given over to the demons that we are inadvertently worshipping).
With this in mind, let’s examine the underlying philosophy of yoga. While there are many forms of yoga (including hatha and raja—two of the most popular in the West), they all have a number of things in common. First and foremost they are inextricably linked to the religious beliefs of Hinduism, most of which is absolutely incompatible with Christian beliefs. In addition each of them in practice attempts to create an altered state of consciousness (ASCs) by focusing on the breathing, the body position, and a mantra. The controlled breathing is thought to be a means of absorbing prana (divine energy) from the air (since nature is divine). When combined with the poses performed slowly and the repetition of a mantra, this easily creates an effective means to an altered state of consciousness. One learns by these means to direct the prana to different parts of the body by willpower and visualization. The peak of achievement is when the mind can become a void for extended periods and one becomes aware he is divine and completely one with the universe. One of the reasons why the Church has always rejected means of ASCs both natural and un-natural (like drugs) is because it opens one up to the demonic. Our minds are meant to know (especially to know God) and not to become blank slates.
Unfortunately, that is not all. The goal of yoga is the realization of one’s own divinity. A key Hindu belief is in the goddess Kundalini that is represented as a coiled snake sleeping at the base of the spine. Every posture is designed to stimulate Kundalini, which seeks to pass from the first chakra or energy depot (in the pelvic area) to the four chakras in the spine. It then travels to the two in the head with the goal of spreading the sexual energy (seen as divine energy) to each of the other chakras, gaining spiritual power and enlightenment. Finally it reaches the crown chakra where one is made karma-free and immortal. One does not need much of a Christian imagination to understand where this newfound “spiritual power and enlightenment” that many experienced practitioners of yoga have comes from.
There is great ignorance about what Yoga actually is by those in the West. Western teachers in promoting it tend to gloss over the religious system of belief and many practice it unquestioningly. The teachers invite the students to “invite surrender” in the corpse pose at the end of the session without ever discussing what they are actually surrendering to. The Sun Salutation, one of the most common sequences, is meant to “adore the sun.” Even the word “Namaste” means “I bow to the divine essence which is your true nature.” In each case, it is “worshipping the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom 1:25).
This inherent religious nature of the poses also causes a problem. In addressing the continued practice of the ceremonies of the Old Law, St Thomas articulates a principle that is particularly apt–our external acts of worship should always be proportional to our internal beliefs. His point is that regardless of what we believe, we can lie with our bodies by performing certain external acts. He labels this as an act of superstition and, at least objectively speaking, a grave sin.
Instinctively we already know this, although it may not be immediately obvious. Many martyrs are martyrs because they refused to make an external religious act of worship to the pagan gods. They knew that their internal beliefs must always be reflected in their external acts and were willing to die for truth.
The Church too bears some responsibility in the widespread ignorance. Certainly, the Magisterium has been rather vocal in warning the Faithful about its dangers. The Vatican issued a key documents on the so-called “New Age” practices (of which it includes Yoga) in 2003 called Jesus Christ, The Bearer of the Water of Life. The Church cautions against the mind explanding techniques of yoga which “are meant to reveal to people their divine power; by using this power, people prepare the way for the Age of Enlightenment. This exaltation of humanity overturns the correct relationship between Creator and creature…”(Jesus Christ, The Bearer of the Water of Life,188.8.131.52 ). The testimony of Exorcists also speaks of the dangers of Yoga, especially considering that demon of Yoga is one of the demons they attempt to expel.
Unfortunately, these teachings have failed to make their way to the ears of the Faithful. In fact there are many parishes that host things like “Mommy’s Morning-Out Yoga” and the like. Clearly we have work to do to get the word out and keep our fellow Christians from stretching beyond their limits.