Yoga Prayer: An Embodied Christian Spiritual Practice

Fr.RyanAs many as half of America’s estimated 15 million Yoga practitioners come from a Christian background. In this interview, Catholic priest and Yoga teacher, Fr. Thomas Ryan illuminates how Christians can use Yoga to experience their bodies as temples of spirit with his unique approach to integrating postures and prayer.

Integral Yoga Magazine: How did you begin a Yoga practice?

Father Tom: I began meditating in 1974. I was just on the verge of ordination to the priesthood. I felt increasingly called to a more contemplative prayer practice. One day one of my friends mentioned that Yoga developed as a way of helping people meditate better. I made a mental note, “If that’s true, I want to learn  more about Yoga.” Courses in Yoga were not prevalent then and I was busy with my work, so it was a long wait. The opportunity finally came in 1991 when I was on a study sabbatical in India. I was, at the time, marking ten years as director of the Canadian Center for Ecumenism, working for unity among Christian denominations on a national level. After a decade of experience with intra-Christian dialogue, I felt ready to open my own horizons to a new challenge and take the plunge into interfaith dialogue. I set out to learn as much as I could about Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam—all having large followings in India.

I spent my first month at Shantivanam with Fr. Bede Griffiths. Shantivanam had a daily Yoga class. This was my long awaited opportunity. Within four or five days of that regular Yoga practice, I could feel a qualitative difference in my meditative practice. My body was quieter and more grounded. I could see my mind was more one-pointed and focused. As I continued with that daily practice I became more and more interested in getting an understanding of what was going on—how did Yoga work? It had such a direct and palpable effect on my meditation. I continued on to Sri Ramana Maharshi’s Ashram and then on to Pondicherry to Sri Aurobindo’s Ashram. Then I went to DLS in Rishikesh and soaked it up and went into the Himalayas to Dharamsala and did a two-week retreat in Buddhist doctrine and meditation practice. I then went to central India for an intensive course in Islam at the Henry Martin Institute for Islamic studies.

While in India I had a very deep and clear sense of calling that what I was to do, when I returned, was to initiate an ecumenical center for spirituality and Christian meditation, where the various disciplines offered by Christianity and other world religions could be brought forth with competent instruction for the benefit of everyone. Within a couple of years after my return, that center was up and running in a pilot project phase and within five years we were already drawing 9,000 people a year. It responded to a need. We called it: Unitas—the Latin word for unity.

IYM: Why do you think so many Christians are drawn to Yoga?

FT: Americans, the majority of whom have historically been Christian, are fitness conscious. If they discover a practice that increases flexibility, strengthens muscle, extends range of motion, improves their postures, balance and coordination, heightens their concentration, and strengthens their immune system—they’ll be there. Christians have absorbed beliefs about the body that they, perhaps, have not brought to rational consciousness—but they have intuited them. A positive evaluation of their embodied being is carried implicitly in the central doctrines of their faith. Take Christmas: What is being celebrated is God becoming flesh. It’s hard to over-emphasize the positive implications of that for living in a material, sensual world. It means, by extension, this materiality, this physicality and sensuality are now permeated with the very divine energies of God. Then, at Easter, Christians celebrate Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead—one of the messages in Christian understanding is that it’s not just our soul that is immortal, but our body as well. The conviction of faith is that this mortal body will undergo transformation and become a spirit body, but a body nonetheless. The understanding is that the soul is hardwired to give life to a body. Forty days after Easter, Christians celebrate the Ascension. They take great care to speak about the bodily ascension of Jesus into the very life of the Godhead.

In other words, Jesus takes with him our own human physical embodied nature, which he has assumed in what we call theologically, “the incarnation” meaning becoming flesh. He takes that body and soul into the center of God’s very own life and being, so that what we are is now held at the very heart of the Godhead. Ten days after that, comes Pentecost where the Holy Spirit—God’s own life—is poured into the hearts, minds and bodies of Jesus’ followers making them temples of the Holy Spirit. Against this backdrop of belief, is it any wonder that so many Christians respond enthusiastically to Yoga? If they have had their ears open at all during their Christian education, they’ve gotten pretty powerful messages about the dignity and consummate value of their bodies.

IYM: You have a DVD, “Yoga Prayer: Embodied Christian Spiritual Practice.” Please tell us about this practice.

FR:  I have taken some classic prayers set to inspiring music like certain psalms or the Our Father or the Peace Prayer of St. Francis and interpreted them through posture flows. I just evolved out of my own prayer life. In 1994, after getting Kripalu-certified, I began sharing how my own practice was evolving in response to inner inspiration. It touched something very deep in people, as it did in me, and they said, “Teach us these embodied prayers.” When I would hear a prayer that would make my heart vibrate, my response was to pray it not just with my mind but the whole of my being, to embody it. So, I began interpreting the attitudes of the heart being expressed in the prayer through my body in Yoga practices, linking them together into harmonious Viniyasa posture flows. The music makes it all the more holistic because of the way the music engages our affectivity. It’s not just the body being swept up in the prayer along with the mind, but one’s emotions as well. When inspiring words are set to inspiring music and then interpreted through graceful, flowing postures, the prayer literally lifts off the page and dances.

IYM: Could this be considered Christian Yoga?

FR: What makes a practice Christian is not whether it’s from the Hindu or Buddhist matrix, it’s the intent. If one’s intent in assuming a practice is to deepen one’s awareness in Christ, by that very token , it becomes a Christian practice. If that is not one’s intent, then even the reading of the New Testament ceases to be a Christian practice. Personally, I avoid the term “Christian Yoga.” I think it runs the risk of creating the impression that we are co-opting Yoga and retro-fitting it in Christian terms, that we are failing to respect its own integrity on its own terms. That is by no means our intention. What we are interested in are practices that support a holistic Christian spirituality. Yoga represents India’ s most valuable gift to the world and what makes it particularly precious is that it is flexible enough (pun intended!) to accommodate people of many religious and philosophical perspectives. It is only natural that people will work with a practice in ways coherent with their own faith understanding.

IYM: Is there more understanding by the Vatican and within the Church toward Yoga and non-Christian wisdom paths?

FR: Are there still prejudices about Yoga in Christian circles? Prejudice as we know, whether in racism or Yoga, generally takes root and grows in the soil of misunderstanding and ignorance. There are simply a lot of Christians who think they know what Yoga is and what it is about but who don’t know as much as they think they do. The answer to this situation in three words is: education, education, education. I hope that our work (through books, articles, interviews, DVDs and our website, www.christianspracticingyoga.com) will help set the record straight about Christianity and Yoga.

Much of the recent theology of religions in Catholic circles, has been a response to the demands to take religious pluralism seriously as a cultural and religious fact and to recognize that the teachings and spirituality found in other religious traditions are also capable of engendering an impressive practice of virtue. My participation in the last three Parliaments for the World’s Religions [international interfaith conferences] leaves me hopeful. Catholic leadership realizes the utter importance of the inter-religious dialogue today. Pope Benedict XVI has already indicated that explicitly in several different talks he’s given, and his predecessor John Paul II left an impressive legacy of bridge-building between religions.

In his book, Beyond Words, Swami Satchidananda said, in his own inimitable way, that his path was “Undoism.” He explained that when people would ask him what his religion was, he would say, “I’m not a Catholic, a Buddhist, a Hindu; I am an Undo.” He was referring to how many unfortunate things have been done in the name of religion and to how we must undo that damage.

About Father Thomas Ryan, CSP
Father Thomas Ryan, CSP, a Catholic priest and certified Kripalu Yoga teacher, coordinates ecumenical and inter-religious relations for the Paulist community in the U.S. and Canada. His nine books include Reclaiming the Body in Christian Spirituality; The Sacred Art of Fasting; Four Steps to Spiritual Freedom; Prayer of Heart and Body; Meditation and Yoga as Christian Spiritual Practice; and Disciplines for Christian Living: Interfaith Perspectives. His DVD and books are available through Sounds True: 1-888-333-9185. For more info, please visit: tomryancsp.org.

Fr. Ryan offers programs annually at Satchidananda Ashram-Yogaville.

Reprinted from Integral Yoga Magazine, Summer 2006 issue

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