This article was originally published in America: The National Catholic Review on May 15, 2008. Reprinted here with permission from the author.
One of the things that most attracts people to yoga, I think, is that it is wholesome, challenging, and able to bring a deep sense of well-being to body, mind, and spirit — all without seeming to impose an alien worship on the practitioner. Even in the ancient Indian traditions, and certainly now in America, it has always seemed possible to practice yoga and at the same time maintain, even deepen, our original and continuing faith commitments. But at the same time, this very point is a source of worry for others, since yoga seems blithely unconcerned about matters of religion: as if its energies were elsewhere, making religious commitment seem not so much a problem, as simply optional. If yoga is a powerful religious system, shouldn’t it conflict in a more direct way with Christian commitment? Or are we missing something?
Since yoga is many things to many people, there are probably many answers to this question; much depends on where we learned yoga, how we practice it, etc. But I do find a certain wisdom and challenge again in the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali (introduced in my last entry). Early in the Sutras, Patañjali remarks on the efficacy of turning to God. In I.12, he had said that the fluctuations of the mind are calmed by constant practice, and by the learning of dispassion, detachment. After some intervening matters, he adds, Or –by turning to the lord. (I.23) The Sanskrit word for “lord” here — ishwara — may or may not refer to God as ordinarily understood, but certainly an important strand of the yoga tradition has assumed that Patañjali is here offering that option, as if to say, “If not constant practice and dispassion, then try turning to the Lord — that will work too.” For many people, perhaps, the most effective path is turning to the Lord; to the person who is attentive and focused, the divine person in turn responds graciously, giving him or her the calmness and clarity desired.
Now it may be unsettling that Patañjali is so matter of fact about all this: bodily discipline can work; detachment can work; OR turning to the Lord can work. Being devotional is not the only way to achieve what one seeks, but it may indeed be your best way, so turn to the Lord. This openness may obviously be unsettling for some readers: you can find your way to peace through devotion — but you have other options too.
Patañjali goes on to describe this Lord: he is “untouched by afflictions, actions, the fruits of action, or their residue;” he is omniscient, with a knowledge that will not be surpassed; all teachers have learned from him, for he is not limited by time. (I.24-26) One can reach him by repetition of the sacred word Aum, a practice that clears away obstacles and affords us heightened consciousness (I.27-29). There is no mention here of the ordinary resources of devotion, love, affection; rather, we find our way to this Lord through the holy word, which itself is effective in changing us. This is intriguingly like — and yet unlike — a Christian commitment to know God through the word of God.
All of this — there is much more that could be said — should be at least bracing and stimulating for us who are believers, dedicated to Christ, and yet too seeking calmness, clarity, dispassion, and freedom. It may be inaccurate for any of us to claim that our spiritual well-being is solely dependent on God. The rituals, practices, moral virtues and dispositions we cultivate over time may well give us much of what we find wholesome and helpful in our religion. It might even be that the Bible, as Word of God, inspires us in its eloquence and, over time, with the words by which we live our lives. God is at the core of all this but Patañjali may be asking us, How does God –plus the ritual and scripture and other things of your religion — help keep your life together?
Or, even more basically, we might ask: have we ever been intent enough in our spiritual practice, or deeply dispassionate enough, that we might realize what is means to say that turning to the Lord is an alternative even to my religion? It’s a good question for a Jesuit too: detachment, poverty, obedience, chastity, energy, vision, love — plus turning to the Lord?