What Yoga Offers to the Spiritual Life

Discover how being Catholic and yoga don't have to be mutually exclusive.

After authentic experiences of prayer, we feel grounded, calm, joyful — like we are not alone. In a world that often tosses us around on the waves chaos, mindful reflection gives us access to a peaceful undercurrent. 

We know that prayer is a rich source of peace, but it can be challenging to dig into this goldmine. It’s hard enough to make time for this kind of reflection on occasion in our busy lives — getting into a regular practice might be daunting enough to deter us from even trying. 

As much as we might desire prayer and its fruits of clarity and purpose and peace, it is incredibly difficult for us to shift from productivity, efficiency, to-do lists and the noise of life to the embracing rest of prayer.

In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis imagines correspondence between a “senior devil,” Screwtape, and his apprentice nephew, Wormwood. Screwtape is training Wormwood how to best coax the human entrusted to him away from God, and has a fit of rage against the power of silence to bring souls to God. His plot is to fill the universe with noise so the silence and melodies of heaven can be shouted down.

An ancient and potentially unexpected way that Christians can access this power of silence despite the ever-present noise of distractions is through the spiritual discipline of yoga.

Depending on your familiarity with yoga, various associations may come to mind: tight-fitting clothing, abnormally flexible people, crystals or words like “Namaste.” While modern yoga has many iterations, the traditional practice of yoga had one goal — bringing the mind to silence.

It is believed that yoga has its origins in the Indus Valley civilization, which puts its birth prior to 3000 BC. A man named Patañjali compiled a sort of “Bible” of yoga practice and theory that presented yoga as an eightfold path to enlightenment.

Now, Christianity is certainly not an enlightenment spirituality where the body is to be transcended in favor of the mind. Christians believe that our bodies are incredibly important and that even suffering can be transformed. It is possible, though, for Christians to practice yoga as more than just stretching in a way that benefits our spiritual lives. This is how I approach yoga — as a bridge to prayer.

While activities like going on a run or making art also have the ability to quiet the mind, yoga is distinct in that it is a spiritual discipline created for the end of bringing the mind to silence. It involves joining breath, physical postures, meditation, and moral practices to cultivate space for silence. I’ve found that the combination of breath and movement in yoga creates a particular focus and self-knowledge that brings my mind and body into a space of rest. The art of yoga helps prepare space within me to be more fully present to God when I enter into prayer.

Father Thomas Ryan, CSP, talks about yoga in a similar way: “What I am really doing is recollecting myself in the truest sense of the word: gathering myself together, possessing myself, bringing myself under control so as to hand myself over to God.”

So, what could this look like for you?

First, identify a time and space in your day that you can commit to getting on a yoga mat for practice and then transitioning to prayer. In my life, this looks like waking up before my family, turning on the coffee machine, and rolling out my yoga mat somewhere in between our kitchen table and living room as the sun comes up. I typically practice yoga for about 20 minutes, then put my mat away, grab a mug of coffee, and shift to our kitchen table to pray with a Catholic daily devotional.

Second, consider that yoga does not have to be expensive or inconvenient. While I have gone to yoga studios at different points in my practice, right now yoga on YouTube (I like Yoga with Adriene quite a bit) while still wearing my pajamas is what works best for my family and our budget.

Finally, just as important as finding a good yoga instructor on YouTube is being intentional about your prayer time and type after yoga. You can pray with the daily Mass readings, keep a prayer journal, use a Catholic devotional like Give Us This Day, pray the rosary, use different apps, sit in quiet with Jesus, etc.

Life is constantly changing and so are we, but as Saint Paul says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Whether you are an experienced yogi or novice stretcher, consider adding the tools of yoga to your spiritual life as a way to gather and give yourself to God’s loving presence.

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