Is Yoga OK for Catholics or Not?: The Conversation Continues

I appreciate Jain’s well-considered and detailed response to my comments on yogaphobia in institutional Catholicism. We do seem to agree that there can be legitimate conflicts between theistic and monistic ontologies. Where we differ is over whether the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 1989 letter is a reasonable or a phobic contribution to interfaith discourse.

While I agree with Jain that the Letter relies on too many sweeping statements,  I still think the document is more nuanced than Jain gives it credit for. I also think that our discussion about this text points toward larger complexities in the relationship between theological principles and their rhetorical expression.

According to Jain, the Letter’s paranoid spirit leads it to assert that “Eastern methods share a doctrinal core,” and that that core is inherently monistic. I concede that the letter has a disconcerting tendency to deal in generalizations rather than specifics. But that is not the end of the story. Jain says that the Letter “lists no specific eastern system,” and that one must infer yoga as its primary target. But in a footnote, the author refers to movements based on Hindu and Buddhist teachings, including “‘Zen,’ ‘Transcendental Meditation’ or yoga.” Given this list, I think that one cannot entirely blame the author for positing a monistic tendency across eastern practices. Teachers including D.T. Suzuki, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and Paramahansa Yogananda—key figures in contemporary Zen, Transcendental Meditation, and yoga, respectively—have expressed strong commitments to metaphysical monism.

Given this, I can see how it would take some discernment for a Catholic to regularly practice, say, Zen meditation without subtly eroding Catholic models of the person-God relationship.

Additionally, Jain argues that the Letter goes beyond simply defending Catholic doctrine to spuriously investing yoga with the power to disrupt “everyday health and moral commitments.” I read the Letter somewhat differently. It characterizes the dangers of “erroneous” applications of Eastern methods as deeply internal and spiritual. For instance, the Letter’s warning that certain practices “would represent a kind of mental schizophrenia” is not strictly a psychiatric diagnosis, but a metaphor for an inconsistency between one’s perceived and actual level of spiritual attainment.

The notion here is that one who believes prematurely that he has experienced holy grace is liable to grow in pride and therefore become susceptible to hubris—which can lead to prideful actions, or “moral deviations.”

Significantly, the Letter couches this warning in eastern terms, saying that “the eastern masters themselves” have noted a similar danger. This point is not without evidence. For example, the charismatic Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche famously warned against “spiritual materialism,” a misplaced pride in one’s experiences of refined mental states that can lead one to think, speak, and act in unethical, ways. (Chogyam Trungpa likewise acknowledges that “spiritual pride…is as much a problem in theistic disciplines as in Buddhism.”)

The dangers posited in the Letter are explicitly spiritual, and their material outcomes are not characterized as everyday occurrences or inevitable outcomes of yoga.

Jain also contends that the Letter is yogaphobic for suggesting that modern postural yoga, with its non-metaphysical emphasis on health and self-control, might be a threat to Catholic soteriological doctrine. Contemporary yoga does really not concern itself with salvation, but rather, as Jain puts it, “immediate self-improvement in modern terms.” By discussing Catholic objections to modern postural yoga’s focus on the body, I do not mean to imply, as Jain suggests I do, that yoga might conflict with Catholic doctrine because it is “essentially hedonistic.” But whether the Letter itself views yoga as hedonistic, either essentially or just potentially, is a more complex question. It seems to me that a focus on “immediate self-improvement in modern terms” does have the potential to conflict with a Catholic sense of a “Christ-centered path.” Catholic teachings have characterized a focus on worldly life, including one’s own body, as a potential distraction from Christ—and the Church has a long history of venerating those who deny their physical well-being for a Godly calling.

But to the extent that one might use yogic self-control as a part of being a good Catholic—this is exactly the sort of use that the Letter approves of.

Indeed, one could argue that from a Catholic point of view, a pattern of highly focused attention on one’s body, if it is not directed toward a religious purpose, can have the unintentional consequence of leading one toward self-centeredness and away from God-centeredness. I think that this perspective on the body is problematic, but it is internally consistent with the theological principle that bodily yearnings are in tension with spiritual ones unless the former is strongly subordinated to the latter. At this point, the theology itself is what is at issue.

However, offering evidence that the Letter indulges in yogaphobia well beyond what Catholic theology demands, Jain observes that “the CDF offers no Letter warning against Cross-fit, spin classes, or running marathons.” That is a good point, and it seems to me that to be more consistent, perhaps the CDF should offer up such warnings. Any form of exercise on which one becomes too fixated could be an obstacle to salvation in the Catholic, spirit-over-body sense.

To close her response, Jain asks me to consider what kind of serious Catholic, having read the Letter’s dire rhetoric, could confidently practice yoga. I think the answer would be: one who takes seriously the Letter’s affirmation that its warning “does not mean that practices of meditationv[…] from the great non-Christian traditions […] cannot constitute a suitable means of helping the person who prays to come before God with an interior peace, even in the midst of external pressures.”

The Letter could have categorically commanded Catholics to stay away from Asian-based meditation and exercise methods altogether (which some yogaphobic screeds do), just as the Humanae Vitae encyclical futilely commanded Catholics to avoid artificial contraception. But it doesn’t. Instead, it explicitly leaves room for integrating eastern meditation into a Catholic life.

Although I read the Letter differently from Jain, I share her larger concern with combatting “strong misreadings of yoga” that perpetuate fear rather than education. The Letter could have adopted a more open stern tone without abandoning its warnings against adopting practices that might go against Catholic doctrine—as Zen and Transcendental Meditation arguably do. The Letter should also have “attend[ed] to the particularities of the practices it targets,” as Jain rightly says it does not.

As the Catholic Church strives to adapt its tough-sell messages to skeptical contemporary audiences, it is trying in some quarters to deliver its message in terms of fulfillment rather than threats. The Letter we have discussed could have benefitted from this approach. But if the problem is fearful rhetoric, then a larger issue might be a Catholic sense of how easily one can be corrupted—and that is about much more than yoga.

Whether shifts in rhetorical tone are fully separable from changes in theological content remains to be seen.