You know, words are a funny thing. That’s important to remember when we ask this question because, I think, much of the problem will come down to what we mean by the word “yoga.” I can’t speak for other languages and cultures, but American English at least has a pretty nasty track record of dragging words through a while bunch of meanings before leaving them, muddy and muddled, with a definition that was really better served by a word that already existed. “Gentleman” is one famous example, the word “gay” is another. My point here is that “yoga” might well suffer a similar fate. That’s important to remember as you read the rest of this article. See it through to the end and you’ll see what I mean.
But, to start at the beginning, what does “yoga” mean originally?
It’s pretty well known that it originates in India and is connected to Hinduism as well as Buddhism. Even a quick read through Wikipedia confirms this and I don’t need to be an expert to say with confidence that it originated as a religious practice. It was designed by and for the philosophy, theology, and worldview of ancient pagans in India. It was created as and still exists as a form of worship or spirituality that is rooted in a false view of god (or gods in this case) and the world we live in. What does that mean for Catholics? I’d bet an enormous sum of money that St. Paul would agree with me in saying this: don’t even get close to it.
And the warning doesn’t stop with St. Paul. “Yoga” in its original and close to original forms has been strongly rejected by people in the Church who know this topic well. There’s even a Vatican-level document explicitly naming it as unacceptable. Look, I’m no expert on demons or possession, but those who are speak unanimously about this subject. The late Fr. Gabriel Amorth and his successor, Father Cesare Truqui, both speak strongly against Yoga. There are other exorcists who agree. I get that some of their claims can be a bit sweeping and dramatic. It would be one thing if this was a single wild-eyed exorcist speaking out of turn, but the fact is that you’d be hard pressed to find a single exorcist who disagrees about yoga being dangerous for the soul. Are you more willing to trust the faithful exorcist worried about your soul or the secular yoga instructor interested in only your body, or worse, your money? If the authority of the Church and her exorcists don’t sway you, perhaps this woman’s personal experience will help.
So yeah, it’s pretty clear that anything close to the original meaning of yoga is a problem, but what about deliberately removing the spiritual aspect? As the woman in the last link mentioned, that’s not as easy as a simple mental act. Our bodies are more closely involved in spiritual realities than we like to admit. Though we post-modern westerners are quick to dismiss some connection between certain poses and spiritual realities, we also like dismiss the connection between the physical act of sex and spiritual realities. I’m not saying “downward dog” is a magical demon-summoning posture, but I am saying we should be careful about tapping into our materialistic heritage to justify lazy thinking and to simply ignore invisible and spiritual realities.
At the same time however, is every “yoga” class rooted in the spiritual tradition?
It’s common enough to find things that are called “yoga” that have no meditation and don’t ever make claims about the cosmos or inner peace. It is possible that these kinds of practices are really another example of us taking a word and changing it’s meaning? Possibly, but you should be careful about anything that is too eager to hold on to the heritage of yoga. I think there is some real wisdom in the recent move by Benedictine College to rename a class formerly called yoga. They even say explicitly that it is an effort to break the link with the dangerous Hindu history. If a person or institution is willing to be honest about their words and take clear steps to move away from those elements, it’s much easier to trust their intentions and their judgment. Even when they lack religious reasons, others might simply co-opt some, but not all of the poses using them for a purely physical purpose. Some of you crossfitters out there might be thinking of ROMWOD, which stands for Range of Motion Workout of the Day. I’ve seen a few of their videos and they seem pretty uninterested in being “yoga,” though they do use some of the position names.
After all, exercise and stretching are good for the body. It is quite conceivable that a person who has never even heard of yoga could stretch and exercise and, by accident, use a pose that looks exactly like something we see in yoga. Another person who knew yoga might see them and say (inaccurately) that they were doing yoga. In such a case, there is no spiritual danger and it would be wrong to say that the person is endangering their soul by doing yoga. In some cases, what people call “yoga” is actually a series of non-spiritual, non-eastern stretches. But, we have to be honest with ourselves; How likely is it that someone would end up in a pose like this purely out of seeking exercise? When the poses are strange and the terminology has an eastern or new-age ring to it, it’s probably safer to simply steer clear.
So, if you are involved with or are considering a class that is called “yoga,” consider whether or not it is the only option for exercise and mobility. It might be the case that they are simply misusing the name. Still, there are plenty of alternatives that drop the name and are willing to even change the rules/postures to improve the quality of the exercise. If you’re hesitant to get away from “yoga” specifically, ask yourself why there is an attachment to that name. Above all, be careful and try to be docile to the Church. True, exercise is of some value but, really, how does it compare to your soul?