CLARE MCGRATH MERKLE
Growing numbers of westerners have become devotees of various forms of yoga. Christian critiques of yoga often contain warnings against yoga without in-depth analyses of yoga's underlying theology, philosophy, practices and their effects. Those in pastoral ministry are finding Catholics in crises as a result of their involvement in yoga without the knowledge, discernment or reliable resources to effectively minister to them. In order to address this growing problem, it is crucial that there be a greater awareness of the problem and a commitment to minister and educate on the part of Christian leaders.
The Encyclopedia Britannica describes the Sanskrit word yoga (meaning union or yoking) as one of six orthodox systems of Indian philosophy. The practitioner of yoga seeks to yoke himself to God through a complex, ancient science of self-purification and development. Yoga's basic text is the Yoga-sutras by Patanjali (c. 2nd century B.C.), a sublime treatise on the science of yoga and the ascent of the soul. Through the practice of yoga, one attempts to free oneself from the bondage of karma, or the law of cause and effect which burdens the soul with the effects of sin and keeps it tied to a cycle of rebirth. The purpose of liberation is to return to a once-possessed state of original purity, consciousness and identification with the Supreme Self or, as others believe, to union with the Transcendent God.
The eight stages of yoga include five external preparations and three internal aids to this ascent of the soul, as we would understand it.
1-2: The two ethical preparatory stages of yoga involve detailed practices of renunciation, restraint from evil and religious observance. 3-4: The next two steps, the most popularized and emphasized in the West, are physical postures and breath control techniques designed to open, cleanse and fortify variously described physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects of the human person. These aspects are referred to as bodies accessed via the seven chakras (wheels) or psycho-spiritual energy centres located throughout the bod.5: The fifth stage is withdrawal of the senses. 6-8:The next three stages involve deep concentration, deep meditation and lastly the state of samadhi or self-collectedness, in which the mediator and the object of meditation become one. This is the final stage before union with God or with the Self (as others believe) and the final release from the cycle of rebirth.
At the core of the philosophy of yoga are the beliefs in the law of karma, reincarnation, the potential for self-realization or enlightenment without external aid, and a practiced and finally ultimate withdrawal from the world which is deemed to be an illusion or projection.
The core beliefs of this ancient discipline are, at best, incompatible with Christian doctrine, having been negated by the radical entrance of Christ into human history. Through the Paschal Mystery of His death and resurrection, we and the physical world were redeemed from sin and enabled to enter heaven.
While, doctrinally, yoga is an ancient outdated attempt to attain divine union, practically, this fact means little to a lukewarm laity that is hungry for access to spiritual experiences that they believe (erroneously) their own tradition denies them. Our goal must not only be to point out the hazards of yogic philosophy and practice, but to replace any false concepts and influences by offering seekers the true Living Water that is the Gospel and love of Jesus Christ.
Specific healing ministry
Unfortunately, many Christians have experienced some of the beneficial effects of yogic postures, breathing and meditation including extraordinary healing, spiritual renewal and various bliss states. Many have become involved in one of the larger yoga societies and ashrams. Adding to the general confusion about the legitimacy of yoga, is the guidance Christians receive from the now significant body of Catholic clergy, teachers and spiritual counsellors who practice, write about and advocate eastern practices, especially yoga, often mixing them with Catholic mysticism. One Catholic rehabilitation centre for religious I know of teaches yoga to those having already had nervous breakdowns.
In terms of ministry, each yoga practitioner will be heir to differing problems, depending on the kind of yoga he or she practiced and the combination of other eastern or esoteric practices he or she also pursued.
Schools of yoga
Following is a brief overview of a variety of yoga schools or methods with their differing aims and emphases. Each practice stresses different paths of liberation. Each description is my interpretation based on my own experience as an advanced Kriya yoga practitioner and anecdotal observations made during my years in the society of practitioners.
This is the most popular yogic practice in India. It stresses the first two stages previously mentioned and is devotional in character. Bhakti practices of fasting, right living, prayer and ritual parallel Christian practices and so offer little particular appeal to the average Westerner. These first stages, however unglamourous, are essential to the relatively safe practice of more advanced techniques in that they purify the personality of many of its more subtle and unconscious emotional and spiritual weaknesses that will be exacerbated and harmful at later stages of yogic practice.
Bhakti Yoga is mixed with other yogic traditions in the case of Amrit Desai, a popular yogi and spiritual leader in America. Recently, numerous female students stepped forward to confirm they had all had sexual relations with him. Westerners, over-impressed with lectures on universal love, are prone to falling into the trap of guru worship, transferring their own dependencies to him.
Ministering to someone who has placed all their trust and identity into a person or group is very difficult. The feelings of betrayal and abandonment are overwhelming upon leaving the group or leader, making it very difficult to re-establish trust in God and community again. Psychological boundaries are destroyed or weakened. Deep emotional healing is needed.
Some therapists in attempting to aid these victims make the mistake of pursuing regression therapy or Deep memory therapy — both of which are risky when psychological boundaries are so weak.
A popular form in the U.S., Hatha Yoga aims for the conscious control of the physical and etheric (subtle energy) bodies. This emphasis on energy, another characteristic of yoga, changes the perception of the world as the arena of divine grace into the perception of the world as a domain defined by science, technique and control. Yogic control of body and mind is particularly popular now as we in the west develop a renewed fascination with the human potential movement initiated by Hegel, latched onto by Hitler and now hailed as the precursor of a soon-to-occur evolution in consciousness known as the New Age.
The use (or misuse) of Hatha and other yogas at the blatant service of immature personalities brings with it a host of problems. An example is at my own workplace where Power Yoga is offered at lunchtime for a quick pick-me-up. The yoga instructor recently had the class perform an exercise designed to stimulate the pituitary gland — and one of my co-workers did not sleep the entire following night. The dangers of any kind of yoga can include abuse of power, unconscious motivations of teachers and students, as well as the ignorance of the physiological and psychological effects of yoga.
It is important to note that historically, in the east, advanced yoga practice was only permitted within narrowly defined parameters. Students practiced under the strict guidance of a yogi in controlled, slowly advancing stages in stress-free settings. Higher levels involving breath work and energy work were always reserved for those initiates successfully completing years of the purification which decreased the likelihood of problems.
Now, even in all but the most rigorous ashrams in the West, advanced yogic practices are imparted at weekend or week-long getaways and some yoga teachers receive certifications after only months of study. In addition, yoga techniques are taught by psychologists and intermingled with avant-guard psychological release work methods such as rolfing or rebirthing which are intended to break through unresolved issues and remove deep emotional blocks through either the expression of strong emotions or rough physical massage — a recipe for disaster.
Several months ago, one enthusiast completed certification as a yoga instructor after only a year's study. She travelled for a weekend workshop on holotropic breathing — a way of accessing childhood trauma through heavy yoga-like breathing techniques designed to induce altered states of mind. For some time afterward, she was in total bliss and believed it was the divine will she leave her family. These kinds of therapy weekends have innumerable casualties. Treatment centres/retreats for those suffering these kinds of psychotic breaks and nervous exhaustion are much needed.
True advanced yogic practitioners are the first to warn about the dangers inherent in yoga, a science designed to remove unconscious blocks, incite untapped psychological wells of emotions, and enervate the nervous system. Unfortunately, the most commonly heard remark after a yogic practitioner experiences a psychotic break due to his yogic practices is that he went too fast or she has bad karma to work out. Hatha Yoga, then, while hailed as merely a physical self-improvement technique, goes much farther in practical terms.
Tantric and Kundalini Yogas
These two yogas are immensely popular.
Tantra Yoga is a product of Shaktism, the worship of the Hindu supreme goddess, Shakti (Power). Shakti is worshipped as both the divine will and the divine mother who calls for absolute surrender. In her fierce destructive aspect she is depicted as Kali.
Shakti is also the power that lies dormant in the base of the spine, coiled like a serpent (kundalini). Kundalini energy is aroused and guided up the spine to open chakras and attain spiritual liberation. It is the rising of this serpent power that marks the removal of karma and the push toward enlightenment.
Tantric practices are found in Hindu, Buddhist and Jain sects and are classified as secret esoteric practices involving purification, control of psychological processes as well as spells, rituals, symbols, black magic and necromancy. Tantraism utilizes sexual energy (whether through ritualized overt sex acts or subtle psycho-spiritual stimulation) to achieve bliss states. Secret tantric texts are also the basis of the "healing" technique known as Reiki — most popular now in Catholic circles and promoted at many hospital healing centres. Reiki has as its base the use of secret tantric practices which are most deadly and damaging spiritually [see following article - Ed.].
Kundalini and energy manipulation
A number of other yoga paths exist or combinations thereof. Numerous teachers or experts mix and match yogic traditions, increasing the likelihood of malpractice, abuse and ill effects. The excitation of the kundalini (serpent power), this mysterious form of psychic or physiological energy is, in fact, the result of all forms of yoga. The effects, both bad and good, are the subjects of not a few texts.
Many of the progressively stronger manifestations of supernormal powers and phenomena accompanying serious yogic practice are well documented both in the East and West. There can be no doubt that these events occur, which are the effects of practice. For example, kundalini episodes, where the student experiences marked physiological phenomena, can include the spontaneous assumption of strange and difficult yoga postures. One such posture — standing on one's head alone — has been observed, for example, in one Catholic saint, during a flight of ecstasy. Sweet aromas, the hearing of celestial choirs and musical instruments, bilocation, healing powers and ecstasies are all well documented experiences of yoga masters and adepts. Western students, in reading of or visiting these adepts, become convinced of the philosophy's veracity and benefit.
The case histories of yoga masters with paranormal powers do not necessarily affirm the worth of these practices or of yoga philosophy in general. Extraordinary powers are no guarantee of goodness or character. These powers can be the results of spiritual virtue, but can just as likely be variously the results of magical art, demonic influence, psychosis or drugs.
To most Western devotees, these powers are merely the harnessing of energies and physical laws not yet understood in the West. The majority of holistic energy work practices touted as healing science are all built on a science of energy manipulation based on the Eastern chakra system. What we in the West do not fully realize, is that any manipulation of energy is tantamount to the practice of magic — using power at the service of the will. Utilizing or even simply 'channeling' these energies sent supposedly by God, angels, extra-terrestrials or the universe opens the yoga practitioner and also the many healers and body workers in the New Age to forces they cannot perceive, understand or control.
Surrender to otherworldly guides, gurus or yogis adds additional oppressive influences in the dangerous game of kundalini arousal. The arousal may not only cause long-term psychological burn-out and exacerbation of latent weaknesses but also demonic oppression and possession as Pandora's box is literally opened to the spiritual world.
Using the Garden of Eden as an analogy, our spines are like the tree of life which hold within them the potential for good or evil. The serpent power allures us to seek the hidden knowledge and power of these forbidden fruits. True spiritual development, ecstasies and gifts, however, descend from above and are not the result of conscious control. As Our Lord warned, those who try to enter Heaven without Him are thieves.
The general belief that the universe is benign and that practitioners of goodwill are protected by invoking Christ and his angels usually keeps yoga practitioners pushing the limits of endurance and safety in their power-driven lust for the kundalini arousal and enlightenment. Why?
Yoga appeals to modern America because it is a pseudo-science. It is technique-driven and codified. It is also addictive as one becomes more and more used to the pleasure of altered states (which can lead to habitual dissociation). Americans desire for self-improvement, endless youth and ultimate knowledge and power have fed the yoga craze. The concepts of sacrifice, suffering and guilt of mainline Christianity are replaced by a philosophy of endless progress, bliss and control over one's own destiny. How can we combat this very seductive way of looking at the world and ourselves? How can we not seem to be backward, naive and just plain narrow-minded?
We must know how to dissect not only the philosophy of yoga but the flawed logic behind its practices. We must also realize that the greatest lies have the most truth in them. There is much truth in yoga. The Nazi SS were trained to lie as closely to the truth as possible to establish the bond of trust with their victims.
We must be willing to hold those who seek out counsel gently but strongly in the truth of Jesus Christ.
What are yoga's biggest errors?
Firstly, yoga would make us all "christs" — without need of a Saviour. While there is ample documented evidence of the presence of great saints in the East who led and lead lives of renunciation and sacrifice to atone for others' sins, only Our Lord Jesus Himself opened the gates of heaven. One clear announcement of the liberating action of acceptance of Jesus as Our Lord is the story of the good thief. Whilst on the cross, Our Lord promised the good thief he would be with him in paradise that very day. Under karmic law, a thief of his ilk would have necessitated hundreds of lifetimes to remove his own karma. Our Lord carries this burden for each of us. If reincarnation were a reality, perhaps some might like to spend hundreds of lifetimes on this very sad world to attain heaven — but why would they?
Secondly, yogic philosophy maintains we live in a world of illusion — one to be escaped. As Christians we believe that our world, while fallen, has now become the beginnings of the kingdom of God. Our calling is not to escape the world but surrender to it fully with compassion and mercy. As importantly, by our embrace of the cross and its ever present redemptive action through the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the living sacrifice of the Mass, we are no longer bound to the slavery of sin and have become heirs to the mysteries of sanctifying grace and Heaven. Why try to find the one in a million yoga master who can take on one's karma when every day Our Lord makes himself available daily to take away our sins?
These two errors alone set the spiritual adventurer up for disaster. Once we accept the premise that the world is an illusion and we are Christ, we are opened to increasing ego inflation and dissociation as reality becomes more and more subjective and we become more self-referenced. A dear friend of mine, dying of cancer, was told by her "guardian angel" and her New Age licensed psychological therapist that she was cancer-free. She died not long after she had the opportunity to have surgery for this very correctable form of cancer.
Return to the Eucharist and contemplative prayer
Why, then, have so many religious, teachers and seekers either embraced the yogic philosophy in place of Christian beliefs or, on the other hand, sought to Christianize the practice and legitimate it as a spiritual aid in their walk with Jesus? The question most Christian devotees of yoga pose when questioned about their practice is: Why not? This is the question we must all be able to answer to shield our family and friends from great spiritual injury. For, in fact, the dangers involved in yogic practice are as great as or greater than any occult pursuit, despite its hallowed origins in history.
We cannot simply warn against error and argue doctrine. We must also become the rivers of living water Our Lord told us we would be if we only drink from the Well of Living Water ourselves. In all the time I spent attempting to witness to those in the New Age, no argument could change anyone's mind. Programming, mental and physical conditioning, behavioural addictions and spiritual influences all weave a tight web of deception around those in yoga practice and in the New Age in general. It was only through my sister 's prayers that the veil of deception was lifted for me to see into what I had become involved.
At its best, yoga is a very beautiful and intricate system devised thousands of years ago to mimic the states and powers of saints in order to attain their virtue. At its worst, it is a tool of hidden and dangerous power that destroys minds and lives. At its heart, it is nothing more than a flawed shadow of the truth in comparison to the power of the Paschal Mystery and the sacraments. In any light, it is now incontrovertibly incompatible with and antithetical to the Christian walk.
In closing, yoga and all New Age practices have filled the void that exists because we abandoned the greatest source of bliss and comfort, the Eucharist. A return to the Eucharist and a renewed program of instruction on contemplative prayer will bring many Catholics back from these deceptively beautiful practices and philosophies.
Once involved in the New Age as a "healer" and advanced Kriya yoga practitioner, the author is the editor of The Cross and the Veil website: the fruit of ten years of personal renewal and five years of efforts at evangelization — www.crossveil.org/page2.html