By Bill Nolan
Every Monday evening for the past six weeks, I have left the treasures of Western civilization and headed East. OK, so it is only two blocks from my home and only one of them is east, but go with me here. I have become a sojourner in a new time and space. I have been instructed to configure myself in ways previously thought to be impossible given my physical structure. I have begun the practice of yoga.
Now let me dispel a few misconceptions: There is nothing un-Christian about practicing yoga. My eternal soul is in no danger, at least not from this practice. And there is nothing particularly Christian about practicing yoga, either. Its roots are in Hindu and later Buddhist philosophical and theological thought; the ultimate purpose of yoga is to prepare for meditation—in other words, all movements are preparation for the experience of stillness. Thus, while a benefit of yoga might be increased physical fitness, the goal of yoga is spiritual enlightenment.
The first Monday night I attended class I asked if we had to sit “Indian style.” I thought I was supposed to bend at the knees in order to touch my toes. And every time I was supposed to inhale, I was exhaling and vice-versa. I couldn’t have been doing things more wrong and I was frustrated because everyone else had legs that crossed the way they were supposed to, could reach the floor easily and knew how to breathe correctly. If I hadn’t already paid the non-refundable fee for the eight-week course, my first formal yoga class might also have been my last.
Of course, any spiritual practice that seeks a greater awareness of my body, mind and spirit will take practice, patience and self-discipline. And it can be a frustrating experience because it never goes exactly as I map it out. Too often, my best efforts fall short because perfection—whether that be God’s definitive “yes” in answer to my prayer for happiness or the unmatched quality of my “downward dog” pose—is the only acceptable outcome.
Yoga has taught me much about my quest for spiritual perfection. First, no such perfection exists. That makes letting go of that goal a bit easier. Second, the mere awareness of my physical being is itself a path to enlightenment. I am more aware of my body, of how it moves and bends and takes in and expels oxygen. I am conscious of the rhythmic, if not always artistic, connections between my movements and my stillness and am more aware than ever of the need for balance in both. Third, there is a power and grace that is found in humility. Yoga is a humbling experience, not because it reminds me of what my body cannot do, but because it reminds me that if my soul cannot be silent, I cannot hear the voice of God. If my mind cannot be aware of my breath, my whole being will be out of sync. And if I cannot experience the One that is within me, I will never experience the One in another. Those are the insights from yoga so far. So I just signed up for six more weeks. I have so much more to learn…
I’ve been meditating since I was 17 years old. That’s when I was initiated into, or simply taught, the Transcendental Meditation technique popularized by the Maharishi Mehesh Yogi. I am now 50 and have been meditating more than 30 years — although you would never know it from my excitable Irish personality.
It was the early 1970s and TM was everywhere. I was then and remain to this day fascinated by Eastern religion and mysticism although I was then and remain now a devout Catholic. Then, as now, I thought the churches were doing a poor job communicating their own mystical heritage and was impressed by the systematic, step-by-step character of eastern meditation in general and TM in particular.
I went to the introductory meeting and was “sold.” I drove out to a modest house in a suburb and went through the whole initiation ceremony with the bestowal of my secret “mantra.” I must admit, the smell of flowery incense and the chanting (in Sanscrit) to images of the Maharishi’s own teachers made me uneasy… but the teacher, like all TM teachers, was dressed like an accountant and went out of his way to stress that TM was a mental and physical technique that has nothing to do, in essence, with Hinduism.
I’ve always remained grateful to TM for getting me started as a meditator… and was sad when the Maharishi finally died recently. I would still say that the TM technique is as good as any other for a beginning meditator.
For one thing, I like the stress they put on REGULAR daily meditation — twice a day, in the morning and afternoon, for 20 minutes.
The second thing I like, and this is due to TM’s yogic roots, is the stress that TM people put on the physiological nature of meditation — how it is fundamentally “deep rest,” deeper than sleep, that allows your body to release accumulated stress and your mind to literally expand as a result. Perhaps it grew out of the Maharishi’s background in science… but that is an emphasis I’ve never really encountered in my instruction by more esoteric Buddhist meditation teachers, such as the Tibetans.
In many ways, TM is very simple and to the point. The Maharishi deserves a lot of credit for demystifying meditation and making it something very accessible. Sit for 20 minutes. Repeat your mantra. When thoughts intrude, notice then and return to your mantra. If you fall asleep, that’s great. It means you needed a nap!
I was a bit disappointed to find out, years later, that my super-secret mantra — allegedly chosen just for me according to rigorous criteria that made the use of just “any” mantra something horrible — was mechanistically assigned to me according to my age. You can look up lists of TM mantras on the Internet these days and, yes, there was my mantra according to what my age was then.
I still meditate twice a day. More often that not, I still use a mantra — although these days I am just as likely to pray the Jesus Prayer or Maran (Lord) atha (come!) as I am a Sanscrit syllable. And when I fall asleep when meditating, as I sometimes do, I’m delighted. I guess it meant I needed a nap!
By Francis X. Clooney, S.J.
Several months ago I mentioned that I was teaching a seminar on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. This fundamental yoga text, from nearly 2000 years ago, is brief — 195 very succinct verses — but it is the reference point for all the later yoga systems. I promised to report on the results of the seminar (with ten fine students) at its conclusion (this week), and so here (and hereafter) I offer some reflections.
Given the great popularity and accessibility of yoga — I was told recently that 20 million Americans practice some version of it — it may seem a bit too academic to go back and study the Sutras, but I was convinced by my seminar that this is very much worth the effort, even necessary if we are to know what yoga is all about.
Anthony de Mello, SJ, was a famous Jesuit priest, psychotherapist and seminar leader who sought to fashion a “Christian spirituality in Eastern form.” Anyone interested in Christian Yoga should definitely check out his many books — especially his seminal and fascinating text, Sadhana: A Way to God.
He was born in Bombay in 1931 into a large Portuguese Catholic family whose ancestors were converted by the early Jesuit missionary St. Francis Xavier. He attended a Jesuit high school and joined the Society of Jesus in India in 1947. Following a typical Jesuit course of studies that included philosophy in Spain, theology in India and psychology in the U.S., De Mello was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1961. Read more