Yoga Bare

August 29, 2013 | 7 comments

Yesterday was a balmy 103 degrees outside the Catholic Answers office, and today didn’t promise to be much cooler. If I wanted to exercise outdoors, it would have to be early, and so it was.

Before work I headed up nearby Kwaay Paay Peak. At 1,194 feet, it’s denominated a hill here, though east of the Mississippi it would be called a mountain. In Florida it might be named Mt. Gargantua because it’s more than three times as tall as that state’s high point, Britton Hill (345 feet).

As I was coming down Kwaay Paay I came upon a small plateau where I found a shirtless man, about my age but even more out of shape. He was facing away from me, toward the East, moving his arms and legs as though in a slow-motion dance. Since he wasn’t facing the rising sun directly, I surmised he wasn’t a devotee of Sol Invictus. I took it he was doing his daily yoga exercise. As I came parallel to him I let out a brief “Hello” but didn’t stop because it was clear he was trying to concentrate on his motions.

Maybe I’ll find him at the same place the next time I hike Kwaay Paay. If I catch him just before or after his routine, I’ll strike up a conversation. I’ll ask him what he’s doing. He’ll say yoga. He’ll ask me if I have an interest in yoga. I’ll say no and ask him why I should. If he says only that it’s good exercise, I’ll reply that there are many good exercises and that it would be hard to prove that one is better than another.

But if he says that he engages in yoga for its meditative value, I’ll ask what his religious background is. He might say that he used to be Christian or still is Christian, in some vague way. He might say that he doesn’t subscribe to any religion but considers himself “spiritual.” Then I’ll throw Aristotle at him.

I’ll remind him that Aristotle taught that man is a thinking animal. To the extent we set aside our rationality, we lower ourselves. This is a chief reason why drunkenness is wrong: The drunk sets aside his rationality, which already is impaired because of the Fall. He lets his passions go their merry way. This makes him less of a man than he ought to be.

Eastern mysticism, I'll say, is unlike Western mysticism. Read John of the Cross or Teresa of Avila—or read their modern followers, such as John Chapman or Thomas Dubay—and you’ll see that the stages of the mystical life do not require that you dispense with (or, worse, outright reject) your intellect. But Eastern mysticism, including the mystical part—as distinguished from the exercise part—of yoga, is at root non-intellectual. We might say that Western, Catholic mysticism builds on the intellect, whereas Eastern mysticism sets the intellect aside.

Which approach is truer to man’s nature? Aristotle would have said the former. He recognized that man is a creature whose main attributes are intellect and will. The two need to work in harmony for a man to be fully human. (Aristotle could not have known that, to be really fully human, a man also needs to cooperate with grace.)

Of course, I might not get to say any of this. Maybe that shirtless fellow wasn't practicing yoga at all. Maybe he actually was worshiping the sun, though at a bit of an angle. In California, you never can tell.


Karl Keating is founder and president of Catholic Answers, the country’s largest apologetics and evangelization organization. He is the author of five books, including Catholicism and Fundamentalism and What Catholics Really Believe.

Comments by Catholic.com Members

#1  Tim Ryland - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Staff

Sorry I ignored you. My spirit was one with the rising sun.

August 30, 2013 at 7:36 am PST
#2  Gordon Jewett - Spokane Valley, Washington

A wonderful morning reflection. Also a accurate one. I have a sister and brother-in-law who live in northern California. When we visit they take us to many of the beautiful areas that overlook the ocean. Many times we have come upon various mazes and shrines which they, being well respected academic archeologists/anthropologists inform us, are placed there by people worshiping idols other than God.
Peace and God Bless, and thank you and all your colleagues at CA for what you do.

August 30, 2013 at 7:50 am PST
#3  Joseph Webb - Wake Forest, North Carolina

I take karate and have found many companions in dojos who are interested in it because of the spiritual aspects of understanding the interactions of body and spirit. I've also met many lapsed Catholics at the same dojos. I have taken karate for health and have had marvelous medical results because of it. When the class was meditating, I learned to instead focus on the Rosary and other prayers, and began to realize some physical and spiritual peace from that. It led to prayers at other times of the day too, especially when waiting in lines or waiting for planes, or other times. I found Fr duBay's books to be helpful too. So I came to explore prayer because of my contact with others who did not understand it. and it made me more curious about prayer than I was before. There are a lot of karate schools here in the South the include "Christian" in their name. There are many Evangelical and other Christian families who are concerned about Asian and Martial Arts being against their faith, and these dojos are often run by Christian men who want to assure others that they will focus on the techniques and exercise of the art, especially for self defense. It is easy to see how someone who does not have a strong foundation in faith can be attracted by many Eastern philosophies and practices. Perhaps my case is quite different. I've learned to use the time well and to enrich my prayer life. In yoga and other arts you are supposed to clear your mind, and it's a good idea to banish the pressures of daily life, but you should push them out by filling your mind with the Holy Spirit. The book that helped me a lot was "Prayer Primer" by Thomas duBay, who passed away in 2010.

August 31, 2013 at 9:03 am PST
#4  OM Prem - Ottawa, Ontario

Man is not only a "thinking animal". Consider that we have a soul, the most important aspect of us. It is astounding that you choose to omit this most important aspect of us.

Thinking is about comparing and assessing. It therefore depends relativity, the relation of one aspect to another. The story of Adam and Eve is instructive regarding rationality as it was because of their insistence on gaining knowledge of good and evil, i.e. relativity, that estranged them from God.

The rituals of religion are intended to surmount the obstacles of rationality and access innate processes given to us by God for coming to God.

Your citing St. Teresa of Avila is interesting because her "Interior Castle" with its seven rooms is a commentary on the seven principal chakras.

Your contention that Eastern mysticism is, at root, non-intellectual is false. The Via Negativa path of Roman Catholicism parallels the Jnana Yoga path of Hinduism; the Lahoot Salbi path of Islam, found principally in the Shia and Sufi paths, but to a lesser extent in the Sunni path; the Ein-sof aspect of Judaism, plus Buddhism (the Buddha said that “A position is something that buddha has done away with.”1). Taoism (sometimes spelled Daoism) also employs a Negative Theology approach.

This path of negative theology focuses on what cannot be said about God. It differs from the Via Positiva approach that assumes positive statements can be made about God. The Via Negativa path to the Divine has been practiced for many millenia by sects of all religions. It is the mystical approach to the Divine.

The process of Negative Theology is to use the intellect to exhaust all notions of what God is or is not, so that at the appropriate time the intellect frees itself from the confines of rationality and begins to access other, more appropriate ways of coming to God.

Vaya con dios

August 31, 2013 at 9:28 am PST
#5  William Bean - Waterbury, Vermont

As one who spent 10 years as an Eastern Orthodox Christian before returning to the Catholic Church, I must say that our Eastern Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters might be highly surprised (if not offended) by the implication that Christianity itself (much less Eastern Christian mysticism) is a Western phenomenon. If memory serves, Christianity arose in the NearEast and migrated westward. The mysticism which one encounters among the Eastern fathers doesn't eschew human reason; it simply acknowledges and appeals to a faculty of experiential reason that can take us beyond the sensory and psychological realm of discursive reason. This faculty of direct encounter with the Divine was sometimes called the "nous."

August 31, 2013 at 2:08 pm PST
#6  Daniel Moore - Arlington, Tennessee

Interesting article. I agree that people today prefer to slide by without answering any of the latent questions they have about the world. This leads to a lack of ethical consistency and the confused murmurs of, "just spiritual," we here so often today. I believe that these excuses are a symptom of a broader abdication of intellectual and spiritual responsibility that exists today--people would rather physically indulge than find the answers that exist right in front of them in the Catholic Church. In the meantime, they dabble in easy, morally lax intellectual cesspits like, "just spiritual," to absolve their uneasy consciences.

September 1, 2013 at 8:51 am PST
#7  Roxanna Rubinic - Columbus, Ohio

Thank you so much for your article. My main concern with yoga is that it can often be a "gateway practice" into Eastern Mysticism. Those who are poorly catechized can easily fall into the false spirituality offered by these religions. My son and his homeschool friends created a workout DVD that combines stretching and strengthening exercises with the Rosary sung in Latin in the background. It's a great alternative to yoga and Pilates. (www.cathletix.com) I'll send you a copy.

September 3, 2013 at 6:33 pm PST

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