CNS PHOTO | BOB ROLLER
Yoga instructor Donna Kocian works with her class at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Virginia.
Sister Margaret Perron, a Religious of Jesus and Mary, trades her habit and rolls out her mat for Father Tom Ryan's yoga and Christian meditation class at St. Paul's College in Washington.
Carefully choreographed yoga-prayers allow participants to "embody a prayer," Ryan tells his classes. He said they may have been praying a prayer their whole life, but by saying the prayer in conjunction with different postures, they can more fully understand and appreciate the words they are saying.
Participants in Ryan's class go through a series of yoga poses inspired by prayers as they pray and listen to traditional liturgical songs.
Sister Margaret was searching for a new form of exercise when she learned about Ryan's class from a friend. "It really spoke to me on the spiritual level," she told Catholic News Service.
Ryan, a Paulist priest and author of several books that connect Christian spirituality to the body, is one of the nation's foremost proponents of yoga as a tool for Christian prayer and spirituality. He has also produced the DVD Yoga Prayer, which is described as, "praying with your whole body."
"This is the first time I have been encouraged to bring body, mind and spirit to prayer," said Sister Margaret. Yoga allows her to let go of some things she has been carrying throughout her day.
"I think I have learned to pray in a very different way. You don't need a lot of words to pray; it's not all about words and formulas," she said.
For years Catholics and other Christians have had qualms about practising yoga, and conflicting information on its origins and meaning could be to blame. Although it has Eastern roots, many scholars say yoga existed on its own before being used in any religion.
CNS PHOTO | BOB ROLLER
Madeline Moonan relaxes with yoga
"The practice of yoga is an avenue to prayer, a way to pray," explained Sister Margaret. "I see it as a way to being with God and stilling all those inner voices. I don't see it as being apart from Christianity; I just see it as a way of entering into prayer."
"Yoga is not a religion," states the American Yoga Association's website. "It has no creed or fixed set of beliefs, nor is there a prescribed godlike figure to be worshipped in a particular manner. The practice of yoga will not interfere with any religion."
Georg Feuerstein, a well-known scholar of the yoga tradition, wrote in his book The Deeper Dimension of Yoga, that "practising Christians or Jews (or practitioners of any other religious tradition), should take from yoga what makes sense to them and deepens their own faith and spiritual commitment."
Still, many Catholic clergy and laypeople think that doing yoga can conflict with Catholicism because of yoga's perceived connections to Hinduism and other Eastern religions.
A 1989 Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation, signed by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, offers an answer to the question of conflict between yoga and religion.
It states, "The majority of the 'great religions' which have sought union with God in prayer have also pointed out ways to achieve it.
"Just as the Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions, neither should these ways be rejected out of hand simply because they are not Christian.
"On the contrary, one can take from them what is useful so long as the Christian conception of prayer, its logic and requirements are never obscured. It is within the context of all of this that these bits and pieces should be taken up and expressed anew."
Christine Hobbs has been taking a Christian yoga class in Triangle, Va., for a little more than a year and told CNS it helps her calm down and connect with her Catholic faith in a different way. Hobbs, who is originally from India, is familiar with yoga's Eastern connections, but does not believe there is a disconnect between Catholicism and yoga.
Hobbs said the words used in the class she takes at St. Francis Church from Donna Kocian, a Catholic and registered yoga teacher, are "totally found in Christianity" and "they are about life."
In response to yoga's Eastern roots, Ryan wrote in his book Prayer of Heart and Body: Meditation and Yoga as Christian Spiritual Practice that "contrary to popular belief, the practices are not inseparably tied to the concepts peculiar to Hindu theology.
"The best practical proof of this is that so many yoga teachers in the West provide instruction in the postures and breathing techniques without ever going into concepts of Hindu religious belief."
In a conversation CNS had with Ryan, he stressed the importance of drawing a distinction between classic and contemporary yoga.
Contemporary yoga is practised most commonly today as a form of exercise. It has a focus on the physical, but leaves out the spiritual element.
Ryan practices a more classic version, based on meditation rather than solely focused on fitness. The goal of classical yoga is to centre, ground and make one present and aware, although practitioners still reap benefits that include flexibility and being more mindful of one's health.
"Physical exercises are but the skin of yoga," Ryan wrote in Prayer of Heart and Body. "Its sinews and skeleton are mental exercises that prepare the way for a transformation of consciousness which is always a gift of God and a work of grace."
Amy Russell took over Ryan's class at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in Manhattan after he relocated to Washington.
She was first introduced to yoga in 1972 by a friend, but considered it just a fun, calming practice. In 1989, Russell began attending a Christian yoga class.
"I was living in Manhattan and 9/11 happened, and I was just profoundly moved that the horror of those events had been so deadly to human bodies . . . not only the ones that died but the ones that lived."
Russell felt a deep calling to commit her life to living in a way that honours the sacredness of the human body.
"Right after that I got a postcard in the mail about yoga teacher training. I went with the intention that I would use that certification to bring yoga as a prayer form into the Christian Church."
"For a lot of Christians that whole connectedness does not always get connected. God may be out there, and my body is over here," she told CNS.
"That sense of wholeness and unity is really what yoga is meant to unlock. For me as a practising Christian I get to realize this is what God is trying to say. It's a deep connection to the reality of Jesus Christ that's with me in my body."