Jesuit Yoga I

Francis S. Clooney, S.J.

This article was originally printed in America: the National Catholic Review on May 7, 2008. Reprinted here with permission from the author. 

Cambridge, MA. Several months ago I mentioned that I was teaching a seminar on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. This fundamental yoga text, from nearly 2000 years ago, is brief -- 195 very succinct verses -- but it is the reference point for all the later yoga systems. I promised to report on the results of the seminar (with ten fine students) at its conclusion (this week), and so here (and hereafter) I offer some reflections.

Given the great popularity and accessibility of yoga -- I was told recently that 20 million Americans practice some version of it -- it may seem a bit too academic to go back and study the Sutras, but I was convinced by my seminar that this is very much worth the effort, even necessary if we are to know what yoga is all about. Yoga is extremely supple in its ability to take on various rationales -- nondualist, devotional, health-oriented, Hindu, Buddhist, etc. -- and my impression is that even expert teachers of disciplined yoga practice are rather fluid -- sometimes unhelpfully vague -- in their explanations as to what it is all for. The Sutras help pin down a succinct attitude toward the practice and its purpose.

Consider these select verses (in my own somewhat loose translation, indebted to published translations which I’ve consulted along with the Sanskrit text):

  • I.1-5 "Now, instruction regarding yoga. Yoga is the restraint of fluctuations in consciousness. With such restraint, the seer abides in his own-form; otherwise, the mind takes the form of the fluctuations. The fluctuations are fivefold: valid cognition, error, false conceptualization, sleep, and memory. They are afflicted or non-afflicted."
  • I.12, 23 "Through practice and dispassion, the restraint of the fluctuations -- or by dedication to the lord."
  • I.47-49, 51 "When there is clarity in the non-reflective state, there arises calmness with respect to self, and then there is truth-bearing wisdom, which in content differs from wisdom that is taught or learned by inferences; for its object is specific. But when even that is restricted, everything is restricted, and that absorption that is final."

However physical yoga may be, it is, in Patanjali’s view, primarily about the mind, its disturbances and distractions (fluctuations), and the way in which detachment, practice, and even devotion (dedication) can free the mind from what ails it -- with results unimaginable for those comfortable with the constricted, distorted mind. Only if such matters are clearly understood -- as explained in the first chapter of the Sutras -- will the physical practice, the breathing exercises, the expanded capacities and higher insights do the practitioner any good: unless you change the way you think, nothing you do will help you much. Each of these verses -- and the rest of the 195 -- merits close reading, since (in the Sanskrit at least) no word is superfluous, each makes a point.

My seminar was all about this close reading, with about eight of the classical and modern commentaries as our guide. It was also, readers may recall, a comparative course, in the sense that I brought to bear on the Sutras insights from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, which we read along with the Sutras. More on this in a later segment in this series of reflections, but I will close this one by observing that in linking the yoga to the Christian tradition, I am by no means a pioneer. Already in the 1950s Fr. Jean-Marie Déchanet, a Benedictine priest working in the Congo, published La Voie du Silence and, in English, Christian Yoga, in which he expounded the salutary practices and, with extreme caution, made the case how and why Christians could benefit from yoga. In the 1960, Fr. Gaspar Koelman, a Jesuit working in India, did a meticulous study of Patanjali, The Patanjala Yoga, that is invaluable even today. From a very different angle, in 1990 Ravi Ravindra, a Hindu scholar, published an insightful interpretation of the Gospel according to John entitled The Yoga of the Christ. And -- lest we forget -- there have been many columns, essays, and letters by Christian leaders cautioning Christians against being enchanted by physical practices that ultimately mean a whole way of life -- possibly or probably incompatible with Christian values. (See for instance, Laurette Wills’ comments at and, of course, the 1989 letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, "Some Aspects of Christian Meditation": )

So the fruits of my seminar -- this latest "Jesuit Yoga" -- need to be carefully assessed, for the sake of the general question, How can we benefit from the ancient and wise tradition of yoga, as Christians? My hope is to add at least two more to this series of reflections -- Jesuit Yoga II and III -- to spell out a bit more of what I mean. I also very much welcome comments from readers who (for better or worse) have brought yoga together with Christian (and/or Ignatian) spirituality.

Note to the studious reader: The Sutras are available in numerous translations, and those interested would do well to sample several, perhaps beginning with those by G. Feuerstein, C. Chapple and Yogi Ananda Viraj, or Barbara Miller. There are likewise numerous studies of the Sutras, and here I would recommend [for the determined reader] Ian Whicher’s The Integrity of the Yoga Darsana; more popular and accessible works are works such as B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on the Yoga Sutras, and Feuerstein’s several commentaries.