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.