Some people think Christian yoga makes about as much sense as Jewish chemistry… or Islamic mathematics. It’s a fundamental category error. Yoga, at least as practiced in the west, is a system of physical and mental exercises that has nothing to do with Christianity, these critics say. Go to church. And go to yoga class if you must. But certainly don’t mix the two up.
But I disagree. Christians who practice yoga – or the other Eastern spiritual body-mind disciplines of mindfulness, meditation, Tai Chi, and so on – bring with them the unique philosophical outlook and habits of mind that come with Christianity. While they explore what the Eastern practices have to offer them, they do so on their own terms, with their own perspectives. If, in the process of practicing these Eastern disciplines, they make modifications to accommodate their spiritual beliefs, so what? Isn’t that their right?
Now, I admit that I prefer to get my Eastern stuff straight. If I take a Tai Chi, Aikido or a yoga class, I’d rather take it from someone steeped in the traditions of these disciplines. I’d rather use the terminology of the traditional discipline, study what the discipline offers on its own terms. Later, I may decide which parts of what I learned don’t really harmonize very well with what I truly believe from my western (Christian) perspective, but I’m a big boy and can make those judgments myself.
That’s why I’m not really a fan of the Praise Moves or the “Wholly Fit” style of Christian Yoga – although I’m sure it helps very many people and I know its practitioners are sincere — in which all of the yoga postures are renamed from their “pagan” roots. Ditto meditation. If I go on a Zen meditation retreat, I want my Zen straight. Teach me what Zen has to offer… on its own terms and in its own way… and then I’ll decide for myself it I can harmonize Zen meditation with my Christian faith. I find little in minimalist Zen meditation to which any regular Christian could object… while at the same time I am careful not to say that Eastern meditation is the same as Christian contemplative prayer.
Now, that said, I will admit that Christians who have been practicing these Eastern disciplines for a long time do make their own adjustments – and that’s fine. There is a Christian Zen sitting group near me that has been around for ages (decades). These folks have developed their own synthesis. They are faithful Christians who think that traditional Zen meditation helps them, grounds them, perhaps prepares them for a more mature prayer life. But it’s pretty traditional Zen, all in all.
After a while, I think long-term practitioners do feel the need to evolve something new that explicitly integrates what they learn from Eastern practices with the unique spiritual outlook that is Christianity. And that’s why I think there is a real Christian Yoga vocation (yoga being used in a broad sense).
The unique Christian understanding of incarnation actually brings a depth and a pathos to yoga practice that enriches it.
Unlike traditional yoga and Indian philosophy generally, Christians don’t believe that human beings “cast off” their bodies like so many worn-out clothes at death – only to take on new ones in a reincarnated existence.
Rather, Christians have this strange, rather radical, certainly unusual belief that we are our bodies – and that God will miraculously preserve and render them immortal and luminescent in a resurrected state. Thus, the yoga emphasis on bodily care, awareness and health is thus completely harmonious with the Christian understanding of our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit. This is what the founder of Christian yoga – Père J.-M. Déchanet – was getting at when he tried to adapt the spiritual psychology of William of Saint-Thierry to a fairly traditional hatha yoga practice.
Remember, Man, that you are dust… and unto dust you shall return. (Gen 3: 19)
Today is Ash Wednesday, the start of the penitential season of Lent, when Catholics and many other Christians as well go to church to receive ashes on their foreheads. Traditionally, when the priest or minister placed ashes on your forehead, he or she murmured the phrase, taken from Genesis: Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return. These are the words that God speaks to Adam and Eve in the Garden after the Fall.
These days, people prefer a more “positive” message, so many churches say something like, “Repent and believe in the Gospel,” or, if it’s a Jesuit church, something like, “Practice faith-justice!”
One of the weirdest and most macabre sites in Rome is the famous “bone house,” Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, run for centuries by the Capuchin friars (an offshoot of the Franciscans). It never fails to creep people out… and it’s a great place to bring jaded teenagers who think they’ve seen it all. The entire place is decorated with the bones of long-dead (and not so long dead) friars. It’s difficult to even describe. All the walls, the chandeliers, everything is made out of human bones. If you want to know just how creepy the Catholic cult of relics can get, go visit the Capuchin bone house. But at the very end, you come to a skeleton of a friar, dressed in his monk robes, with this sign in three languages: “What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be.”
Christian Yoga differs from traditional yoga in that it affirms both the reality of the physical body and the reality of death. Death is not an “illusion.” It is not merely a “gateway.” It is the cessation of physical life and the decay and decomposition of the body. To face that squarely… to look upon the dried up bones of the 4,000 Capuchin friars in the bone house and understand that death is real… is part of a mature spiritual life and one of the purposes of Ash Wednesday. To be a Christian who practices yoga is to cherish the body… to care for it, keep it healthy and use it to reach out to the Divine… and yet to know that, in its present state, it will not last. As St. Paul put it in his letter to the Thessalonians, “what we will be” after death “has not yet been revealed to us” but we know that we will be “like him,” like the resurrected Christ. We are not disembodied souls that “depart” the body at death, either to take on a new body or live in a spiritual heaven.
We are our bodies, and any life after death, we affirm, will be as embodied creatures — perhaps, like the resurrected Christ appearing to Doubting Thomas, bearing the scars and wounds we earned in our physical life. Whatever the place we go after death, it will be a physical place where human bodies can exist… perfected, resurrected bodies, perhaps, but bodies just the same. Thus, Christians who practice yoga re-affirm the beauty and joy and essential necessity of our physical bodies… while also knowing, as Christians, that these physical bodies will be transformed into something even more miraculous, even more luminous.
Under the high altar in St. Peter’s basilica in Rome is another altar… and underneath that altar is another altar… and underneath that altar is a giant box about fifteen feet square, made out of the precious stone porphyry, and inside of that box is an ancient brick wall that dates back to the first century A.D., and in the side on that ancient brick wall is a burial niche, and inside that niche was found, wrapped in purple cloth reserved on pain of death to the Roman emperors, the bones of an elderly man, in his 60s or 70s, that date back to the first century. On the brick wall were also found hundreds of graffiti with phrases such as petros eni, Peter is here, or the Chi Rho symbol altered so it looks like a key (as in “keys of the kingdom”).
St. Peter’s church is built on a hill, known as the Vatican, at the base of which was an ancient Roman circus. In the middle of the circus was an Egyptian obelisk, once twice as tall as it is now, that now stands in the center of St. Peter’s square. The circus was an oblong with a long middle area that ran down the center – very similar to the circus maximus that still exists today in Rome. In the center of the circus was the obelisk, and the chariot racers made their circuits of the center area much like Judas ben Hur does in the film of the same name. In the center area, Christians were routinely executed for “halftime entertainment” – the most colorful exercise of which was when they dipped the Christians in pitch and then lit them on fire. The road leading to the Vatican circus was a cemetery, lined with tombs.
The Romans had the bizarre habit of building their tombs along public roads so the monuments to their past glory could be admired by the citizens. When, as the ancient sources tell us, the Apostle Peter was crucified upside down in the center of the Vatican circus, probably around the year A.D. 64, the disciples took his body and buried it in the road cemetery right outside – marking the spot with special signs that only the Christian community would know. For hundreds of years, Christians came quietly and secretly to this grave to honor the leader of the Roman Christian community… until, in the early 300s, a decision was made by the Emperor Constantine to build a church over the site.
The problem was that the Vatican circus was at the base of a hill, so the engineering-minded Romans built an enormous retaining wall, dozens of feet high, and then filled in the space with soft dirt, covering the circus and the streets lined with tombs. On top of this level area, now known as St. Peter’s square, they built the first St. Peter’s basilica, which lasted for more than a thousand years… until, around the time of the Protestant Reformation, the popes commissioned great Italian artists, such as Michelangelo, to build a new basilica on the ruins of the crumbling old one. To finance construction, they sold indulgences… which led Martin Luther to launch the Reformation. The money was raised, the new church was slowly built, and people forgot about the ancient cemetery buried beneath the old basilica… until 1939. In that year, workmen digging below the church, to create a new crypt for the recently deceased Pope Pius XI, accidentally punched a hole in the floor of the crypts where they bury popes beneath St. Peter’s… and looked down and saw, dozens of feet below, a necropolis, or city of the dead, undisturbed for 1,800 years. Like Pompei south of the Vatican, this ancient necropolis was like going back in time. The first century streets go on for miles beneath St. Peter’s square. In was in this ancient necropolis that archaeologists discovered, in the 1950s, the bones of St. Peter, wrapped in a purple shroud and hidden in a burial niche inside a brick wall… inside an enormous marble and porphyry box… directly beneath the high altar in St. Peter’s basilica.
The papacy is the oldest continuous monarchy in history, dating back at least to the second century and, depending upon how you interpret the evidence, perhaps to Peter himself. Traditionally, popes – known as the servant of the servants of God – serve until death. There have been 266 popes… and today, for the first time in 598 years, a reigning pope has announced his resignation. In a few weeks, perhaps more, the see of Peter will be vacant (sede vacante), and the 118 cardinals eligible to vote will gather in the Sistine Chapel to begin the difficult task choosing a successor to guide the world’s 1 billion Catholics and other friends of the Catholic Church on into the confusing 21st century.
The mission of the pope is, and always has been, to be a guardian of the partheke, the “deposit” of Faith, handed on over the centuries… and to do so in a way that it can be communicated and understood anew.
The new pope will have his hands full. In the entertaining prescient 2011 Italian film by Nanni Moretti, Habemus Papam (“We Have a Pope”) about the election of a reluctant pope who ends up resigning, a nice touch was that we heard all of the cardinals praying: Please, Lord, not me… anyone but me!
I just heard , quite late, that James Arraj died of cancer three years ago. To say I was stunned is an understatement. I had sent an email to Jim, asking for permission to reprint one or two of his marvelous essays, and his widow, Tyra, told me of his death. Although I never met them, the Arraj family has been an inspiration to me and many other people over the years for so many different reasons.
Decades ago, James and Tyra made a remarkably courageous decision. James earned a Ph.D. in spiritual theology from the Gregorian University in Rome, but, as is true for many young academics, his job prospects weren’t great. He and his wife found themselves in San Diego, right after the birth of their daughter Elizabeth, and they didn’t like their options. Jim had found a job in the County welfare office but it looked like the two of them were going to be forced to take jobs they disliked… to afford living in houses they disliked… in an area they didn’t particularly like… and that would be it for the rest of their lives. As a result, they decided to take a different path.
They moved to an isolated forest in the woods of southern Oregon, built their own home, and raised their children in the forest. They actually videotaped the entire adventure — from flying over their isolated forest home to the building of their house. You can see the videos here.
All these dreams were to lead us to the forest where the land was beautiful and cheap, but far from paved roads and power lines, and a mile high in the snow zone of the Cascade Mountains. It was here our schooling began in earnest about simple living, and how complicated it was. The first thing we needed was a house, and quickly, for winter was coming. Making handcrafts and a bookcase or two hadn’t really prepared us for this. But we muddled through by reading books, drawing plans on the backs of envelopes, and overcoming our biggest obstacle, which was the notion that had been pounded into our heads all our lives – that you bought houses made by . You didn’t just jump up and build your own.
Once we got the house up – and it didn’t immediately fall down – from then on we would simply build whatever we needed or wanted. When the kids decided they wanted their own rooms, we told them to build them themselves, and they did.
With a roof over our heads the days took on a rhythm of their own, and grew into weeks and months and years. We would make bread. For a long time that was the kids’ job. We would do home school with the kids, and all of us would sit around the lunch table and discuss everything from tigers to tattoos. We would make tofu. Our electricity came from a solar panel which was connected to a battery, and then to an inverter that converted it from DC to AC. We would cut and split wood, and feed it to our wood stove made out of an old hot water tank.
Slowly our eyes began to open so we could really see the forest around us.
We never had a well, and we would haul drinking water from town in the summer, and collect rain and snow in our little ponds for the garden. Growing a garden was a tough job when you are almost a mile high and can have a frost any month of the year, and if you do manage to grow something, the chipmunks are waiting to pounce on it.
And each year there would be something new to build. Our favorite style was to dig some holes in the ground, cut and treat some poles, and then just go on from there. Not very complicated, but tiring at times. One year Elizabeth decided she wanted to have a place of her own, and she just went out and built it.
This decision gave them the gift of time – time to do the work they were called to do, which happened to be write books and make videos on Christian mysticism and its relationship to both Eastern spirituality and Jungian psychology. Rather than work as academics in a university setting, James and Tyra created their own way of life in the forest. They then created a remarkable website, InnerExplorations.com, which is one of the strangest and most fascinating combination of subjects you can imagine – high-level philosophical discussions of Thomistic metaphysics, video chronicles of what it’s like to move and live in a forest, simple living, Christian mysticism, Zen, and on and on. Needless to say, it was like a candy shop for someone like me. Christian mystic hippies living in the forest… can’t get more irresistible than that!
I first learned about the Arraj family because, like most homeschoolers, my wife and I were interested in simple living. We bought their books on simple living because, like many homeschoolers, we felt called to a radically different way of life. But then I discovered that we shared an interest in both classical Christian mysticism but also in eastern spirituality, such as Zen. I was hooked… and have spent hours and hours, over the years, poring through Jim’s articles on the similarities, and profound differences, between the spiritual paths of Asia and the western mystical tradition. Over the coming months, we hope to republish a few of Jim’s thoughtful essays on our website with the kind permission of Tyra.
I urge anyone interested in Christian Yoga to visit InnerExplorations. You’ll find many topics of interest and will be inspired by the Arraj family’s life in the forest.
Picture me 7 years ago, about 60 lbs. heavier than I am now, with a chubbier face, a growing gut, and an addiction to junk food.
I ate pizza, chips, cookies, fried meats and cheeses, French fries, and drank beer and sweet & fatty lattes. I was 32 and headed for diabetes and heart disease, and couldn’t figure out how to change.
And yet, a year later I had lost about 20-30 lbs. and ran a marathon. The pounds kept dropping away, year after year, and more importantly, I was eating healthier foods. I now love fresh fruits and veggies, raw nuts and seeds, beans and whole grains that haven’t been ground up, real unprocessed food.
In the midst of a great battle, Arjuna and his friend, Lord Krishna, stop to discuss the meaning and purpose of human life.[/caption]
“The point, old friend – and this is very important – is to do your worldly duty, but do it without any attachment to it or desire for its fruits. Keep your mind always on the Divine (Atma, the Self). Make it as automatic as your breath or heartbeat. This is the way to reach the supreme goal, which is to merge into God.”
— Bhagavad Gita, Karma Yoga, 19 (Translator: Jack Hawley)
My interest in the Bhagavad Gita came from my admiration of Mohandas Gandhi. I had heard that it was an influential text in the development of his spiritual life, and from that moment on wanted a chance to read it. And it is no wonder it caught and captured Gandhi’s attention, for the Gita’s ancient wisdom is as relevant now as it was in the days it was written. Native to the peoples of the Indus Valley, it is claimed by some to be up to 5000 years old. It is part of a larger epic narrative called the Mahabharata, and contains about 700 verses. The Gita is difficult to translate because it contains so many terms that are easily understood within the context of Hindu culture, but are alien to the West. In fact, although the Gita itself is only traditionally 18 chapters in length, the common practice when translating it into English is to expound upon the text so much that volumes are added.
By pure chance (or God-incidence), I happened upon a translation by Jack Hawley. He wanted the West to have an experience of the Gita in a way that was accessible to them, without lengthening the text and losing its depth and feel. This was an incredible way to get my first taste of the compelling narrative, and it found its way instantly into my heart.
The Gita takes place in the middle of a battlefield, with both lines of soldiers facing each other, just moments before the fighting begins. Prince Arjuna, who represents the forces of good, is between the two lines in his chariot and looking over the foes drawn up against him. In those forces, he spots some of his own family members, former friends, and admired teachers. He begins to despair, thinking that he would rather die than kill all these people whom he loves so dearly. He slumps down in his chariot despondently, and looks to his chariot driver and dear old friend for advice.
What the prince does not know is that his driver happens to be Krishna, god incarnate. When Krishna sees that Arjuna has humbled himself to become his student, he begins to reveal the secrets of the universe, the meaning of life, and the ways of god himself. His monologue takes up the majority of the text.
A Christian reader is quickly amazed by the parallels found between Krishna’s description of the Hindu godhead, Brahman, and Christianity’s one true God. God (also called the Atma) is:
• The source and sustainer of all created things
• Eternal (goes on forever and has always been)
• Existence itself; pure consciousness (spirit)
• Unchanging, indestructible and immutable
• Beyond time
• Unmanifested (invisible)
• Unknowable, as his ways and being are infinite
• Continually sacrificing to and serving all of creation selflessly
• Love itself
The end goal of humanity, namely unity with god, is also the same as the Christian one (called theosis). And how does one reach that goal? The path is beset with the same dangers as found in Christianity. As Christians, it is easy to fall into the error of trying to work our way to heaven. The Christian who truly understands the nature of grace knows that it is in surrender to God’s will and allowing God to work through you that you are brought closer to Christlikeness. The intentions of our hearts determine whether our works are burned up or produce fruit (1 Cor 3).