A Professor's Point of View: Yoga and Meditation as a College Course
Dr. John Borelli of Georgetown University
Do I teach “Yoga and Meditation” because yoga is a popular topic among young adults? Indeed, my course is popular, and always has been. Most Georgetown University students must take at least two courses in Theology. My course on meditation counts toward that requirement; yet, many students tell me they already had their two courses or six credit hours and still elected to take “Yoga and Meditation.” They hear about the course from their friends, probably one of my previous students, or single it out in the course listing as something they want to complete their schedule for the term and perhaps want for a relief from heavier, more demanding and career-oriented courses.
I currently offer “Yoga and Meditation” in the Catholic Studies Program at Georgetown University. Even years ago, when I offered the course as an elective beyond the one required course in religious studies at a Catholic liberal arts college in New York, it was never canceled for a lack of sufficient numbers. In the 1970s and 1980s, I never had a waiting list, but always more than fifteen students. When Catholic Studies listed this course for the first time at Georgetown in 2006, eighty-four students signed up. We met in an auditorium, and a graduate student assisted me with the lectures and reading exams. Since then, I have kept the final number of students to between 30 and 35, and there is always a waiting list. Yoga and, I hope, meditation have become more popular in the past thirty years. This is good and explains why this course belongs in Catholic Studies and its topic at a Catholic university.
I first taught a course on yoga in 1975, which seems a lifetime ago. I was finishing my doctorate in History of Religions and Theology at Fordham University, and the department chairman invited me to teach full-time on the Theology faculty during my final year of post-graduate studies. Fordham University, like Georgetown University, was founded by Jesuits. In 1976, I completed and defended a dissertation on a sixteenth century Hindu theologian, who produced notable commentaries on the foundational texts of Vedānta, Sāňkhya, and Yoga and precise theological summaries of these systems of Hindu thought. He was the somewhat elusive Hindu teacher by the name of Vijñānabhikshu. Most likely his was an assumed name or one bestowed by a spiritual guide or students because it means: the monk or ascetic who serves discerning wisdom. I translated thirty pages of his writings on Vedānta, contextualized his thought within the Vedānta tradition of Hindu thought and compared his way of doing theology with certain western thinkers including the great medieval Franciscan theologian, Bonaventure.
Little is known about Vijñānabhikshu apart from his writings, but he was significant to the Hindu tradition not only for the importance of what he wrote but also for his synthesis of Hindu thought based on a coincidence of identity and difference between everything that exists and the underlying and all-encompassing substrate of the universe, the pure being of God, identified in a word as the Brahman. According to Vijñānabhikshu, yoga is both the means and the theological system for meditating on Brahman. Vijñānabhikshu’s gloss on Vyāsa’s classical commentary on the Yoga Sūtras is the fullest one that exists. My dissertation qualified me as a beginning scholar of Vijñānabhikshu, Hindu thought, and the field of history of religions and theology, nowadays known as comparative theology. My knowledge of Vijñānabhikshu qualified me to teach about yoga, and I also realized this would be relevant to students at any time. From my first course on yoga, I impressed upon students the need to understand yoga within its Hindu context first, and then using its precision of language and technique, one can make theological comparisons with other forms of meditation, especially Christian meditation. I teach “Yoga and Meditation” to remain fresh and involved in my original area of research.
There was a twenty-year break between the last time I taught the course in my early career and the first time I offered it to Georgetown University undergraduates. In the intervening years, I left academia for a position at the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and served in the office that developed and implemented programs in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. Among other activities, I engaged often in dialogue with Hindus. While I staffed and engaged in not a few ecumenical dialogues towards Christian unity, I primarily served as staff to interreligious dialogues for the Catholic bishops of the United States. During those years, I was a consultor to the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. I was also instrumental in establishing the ongoing Vaishnava-Christian Dialogue in the Washington, DC, area in 1998, a dialogue that continues to meet annually to the present. I teach Yoga and Meditation today because it gives me an opportunity to work directly with students on the topic of dialogue.
Teaching is not my primary work at Georgetown University. As a special assistant for dialogue to the President of the university, my job is to promote interreligious understanding through programs and activities on campus. Interreligious understanding is one of our missions at this university. This mission flows from the Ignatian tradition as embodied in the Society of Jesus whose members founded Georgetown University in 1789. At their 34th General Congregation in 1995, Jesuits committed themselves to interreligious dialogue as an essential activity in their mission in service to the mission of the Catholic Church. At Georgetown University, we educate students in numerous fields of knowledge and from the perspective of our Catholic and Jesuit heritage. “Yoga and Meditation” gives me opportunity to promote the university’s commitment to interreligious understanding and to discern what influence the university is having on the lives of our students with regard to our mission.
I also teach “Yoga and Meditation” because this course allows me, after several weeks reflecting with students on yoga within the Hindu tradition, to discuss with them representative works on Christian meditation and prayer. We spend a little over half the time studying yoga and the remaining weeks studying Christian meditation. I teach Yoga and Meditation because it gives me an opportunity to teach about the Catholic tradition and in doing so to introduce students to a method of comparative theology.
Students come to the course from a variety of backgrounds, more than nine out of ten from some form of Christianity and most of those from a Catholic background. They generally try to understand the material for the course from their religious upbringing, and this naturally raises questions of the value and significance of other religions from a Christian perspective. While I was a college student, the bishops of the Catholic Church committed Catholics “to recognize, preserve, and foster the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among the followers of other religions . . . through conversations and collaboration with them, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life.” (Vatican II, Nostra Aetate 2, 1965e 2, 1965 English: Contemporary English Version (1999) I teach “Yoga and Meditation” because the course allows me to engage in conversation with students about interreligious understanding, comparative theology, spiritual practice, and religious values based on classical texts from the Hindu and Christian traditions. This involves broad engagement with various intellectual and cultural traditions, a hallmark of Jesuit and Catholic education. During every academic term, a multitude of lectures, panels, and other events, broadly categorized as “interreligious,” take place on campus. I encourage students to attend by offering credit if they write articles from a reporter’s point of view on these events. They are also treated to guest speakers in the class, authors of the required books, including Paulist Father Thomas Ryan (Prayer of Heart and Body: Meditation and Yoga as Christian Spiritual Pratice, Paulist Press).
Currently, “Yoga and Meditation” meets twice a week for two 75 minute periods. On days when I have prepared well enough to keep the class within these limits, we are able to have a seven to ten minute period of quiet sitting. We begin the term focusing on breathing and from there expand to various forms of meditation to sharpen attention and relax the mind from its usual rapid engagement with the flow of everything experienced. We try various kinds of concentration techniques and expand to include both the mind- emptying methods of the Christian via negativa and the imaginative exercises of Ignatian of Loyola and other Christian teachers.
The first noticeable difference between offering “Yoga and Meditation” now and twenty-five years ago is that far more young people are signing up for yoga exercises than a generation ago. Over half my students have taken yoga in a gym. The second major difference is that these students, because of these gym classes and more widespread athletic discipline, can sit still. They devote themselves to the few minutes of quiet sitting with an intensity I had not expected. This was not my experience twenty-five years ago. At times, lights go off because no one has moved enough in the interval to signal the motion sensor. My third and major observation is the most important one—students today are hungry for meaningful spiritual practices and have huge questions on their minds about the relation between religious belief and practice and living life. I teach “Yoga and Meditation” so that those important questions might arise, find expression, and can be address within the disciplined study of yoga and through comparative theology drawing from the Catholic theological tradition. I teach “Yoga and Meditation” because the course opens doors to theological inquiry about meditation and interiority.
This paper was originally presented at a conference on “Dio, questo Sconosciuto” (The Unknown God) held in Assisi, October 5-6, 2012. The conference was sponsored by the “Court of the Gentiles,” a new Vatican structure created by the Pontifical Council for Culture to foster dialogue between believers and nonbelievers. This paper was then published in Dilatato Corde, Vol. III:2, July-December 2013, an online journal published by the Monastic Interreligious Dialogue. It is used with permission here.