Sample from the Summer 2006 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine
Yoga Prayer: An Embodied Christian Spiritual Practice
An Interview with Father Thomas Ryan, CSP
As many as half of America’s estimated 15 million Yoga practitioners come from a Christian background. 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 years of 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 — bthe Latin word for unity.
IYM: You have a DVD, “Yoga Prayers: Embodied Christian Spiritual Practice.” Please tell us about this practice.
FT: 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 Viniyasaposture 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?