Can yoga help a Christian pray?

Fr. Tom Ryan, CSP

Yoga can enrich the life of a Christian—or member of any religionby balancing the nervous system and stilling the mind. In short, yoga creates an environment in the body for meditation. Teresa of Avila, a 16th century Spanish mystic, speaks in her writings on prayer about “the fool in the house”—the restless mind. If you’ve ever tried to pray, you know what she’s talking about!

If you find something that relieves tension and stress from your body so you can sit quietly in prayer, something that helps you focus your attention on your sense of God’s presence and hold that focus for a period of time—you’ve found a very valuable practice!  That’s what many have found in the practice of traditional yoga. One of the significant contributions it makes on a spiritual level is that it directly addresses two of the greatest obstacles in prayer: the restless mind, and the restless body. That’s part of its attraction for westerners: it gives fidgety activists something to do that is actually very peaceful and calming.

All day long we are absorbing affective charges, whether positive or negative. They are little packets of energy that lodge in our muscles and tissues and organs. And when the cupboard is full, it is very difficult for us to relax our body and stabilize our mind. Physiologists tell us that the most effective way to unload these charges is through contraction and relaxation of the muscles and deep breathing.

Obviously, there are many ways one can do that: a brisk walk, a swim, riding an exercycle, etc. But if you’re talking about unloading tension and stress from the body through contraction and relaxation of the muscles and deep breathing, then hatha yoga is a way par excellence of doing it, because that’s essentially what it does. The word for a posture in yoga is asana, which means “to be stable, still,” and that applies to both muscular and mental activity.  Anybody who has ever participated in a session of hatha yoga knows the effect of feeling calmer, more grounded and centered.

So if one of our greatest difficulties in prayer is the restless mind or the fidgety body, the stretching and breathing of yoga empties the cupboard of those affective charges and enables one to sit calmly and quietly in meditation.

In meditating, are we leaving our minds open and empty with the result that the devil might enter in? 

This view seriously undervalues the power of intentionality. Meditation in the tradition of Christian contemplative prayer calls for the use of a short prayer word or name of God that serves as an anchor for the attention and continually renews one’s intention to simply be present to God in loving faith with the whole of one’s being. Leaving the mind “open and empty” is not what it’s about.

Our freedom is God’s respect for us. God does not force or impose, only invites. And if God does not force or impose, God will not allow the devil to trample our freedom either. When it is our intention to respond to God’s invitation to deepening communion in faith and love, it is God, not evil, that will fill our hearts and minds.

(See the other articles on meditation)

How can cultivating the ability to be present in the moment help you in your spiritual life?

This question arises because one of the things we’re doing in practicing yoga is paying attention—to what’s going on in our body/mind as we enter into and hold a pose. Does training the mind to pay attention to the moment make any positive contribution to our spiritual lives in general and our prayer in particular?

If we begin by recognizing that there are two fundamental components for a rich spiritual life—our own personal experience, and the Holy Spirit present to us in it all—then learning to pay attention to our experience is critical.

There are many biblical scenes that exemplify how marvelous things happen when people are present in the moment. To cite but a few: the annunciation of the angel to Mary (Lk 1: 28-35); Elizabeth’s awareness of and reaction to the child leaping in her womb when she hears Mary’s voice (Lk 1: 41);  John the Baptist’s reaction to Jesus when he comes to him to be baptized (Matt 3:14); Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well (Jn 4); Jesus’ communication on the cross with the good thief (Lk 23:40-43).

What we practice on the mat—paying attention—can help us bring a more fine-grained awareness to the movement of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and minds throughout the day, and that will lead to a rich spiritual life.

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, her baby moved within her. The Holy Spirit came upon Elizabeth. -Luke 1:41