The Origins of Christian Yoga



By Ganga Kali Das Jaya

When I was about 25 years old and I was a novice in a Franciscan monastery, we had a monk who worked very hard, slept very little and was always so busy and one day I asked him “what is the secret of your health?”

“Yoga” he said “I practice Yoga”. I asked him to teach me and he lent me a book called “La Voie Du Silence” by Jean Dechanet ( a Benedictine monk) First Edition of this book, published in French, was in 1956.

I cannot speak to you about Yoga and Christianity without mentioning my gratitude to this French Catholic priest who, some 40 years ago gave not only me but many Christians a memorable introduction to Yoga. Up to today, his name is still known, his books are still in their libraries, in many a Catholic monastery and convent because of his rendering accessible the exercises and philosophy of Yoga to Christian contemplative minds.

Jean Dechanet said in the beginning of his book that he came across Yoga because for 20 years he searched ardently to create in himself a harmony between what he calls, the anima,(body) the animus(mind) and spiritus (soul). For him, it’s through the harmony of these three aspects of oneself that the Grace of Redemption flows. Yoga which calms the senses, pacifies the soul and liberates in us certain intuitive and loving powers and can render incomparable services to Western society. He claimed too that Yoga , in helping us to become human,can make us true,full-filled, and dynamic Christians. In the preface to his book, (published on the I st November 1957) Jean says “I am not trying to Christianize a given practice of Yoga but rather to offer the incontestable advantages of Yogic discipline to Christianism, to the Christian life and especially to those who are contemplatives. ……It is a path to go to God, only that, but all of that”.

I will also talk about Fr Bede Griffiths, a catholic priest who lived in India and who was co-founder of an Ashram called Shanti-vanam (Forest of peace). Fr Bede was well known for his work in Inter-faith dialogue and he wrote several books and among them a commentary of the Bhagavad Gita. During my stay in India in 1981, I spent most of my time in Fr.Bede’s Ashram and I accompanied him to my first Inter-faith Conference which was held in Cochin, near Madras in South India. .Fr.Bede lived the life of a true sannyas. I will always remember visiting him in the mud hut in which he lived on the banks of the Kaveri River. He wore the ocre robes of the sannyas, was barefoot, ate simple vegetarian meals seated on the floor. He celebrated mass Indian style seated cross-legged as he broke and blessed the bread, chappati for communion. Fr Bede passed away in his hut on the evening of May 13 1992. He was 86 years old .

At the moment of his parting, one of his disciples sang the verses of the prayers in Sanskrit which he so loved….a prayer taken from the Rig Vedas

”The face of Truth is covered over by a golden vessel. Uncover it O Lord, That I who love the Truth may see. O Lord, sole seer, Controller, Sun, Son of the father of beings, shine forth. Concentrate your splendor that I may behold Your most Glorious Form. He who is yonder-The man yonder- I myself am He! Go my breath, to the immortal wind, Then may this body end in ashes!At this moment in the Hindu Tradition, a member of the family then recites this verse….”Remember O My mind, the deeds of the past. Remember the deeds. Remember the deeds.” (Rig Veda vs 18) Om krato smara krtam smara krato smara krtam smara…Madame Bettina Baumer a friend of father Bede comments.“At the moment of death, a realization of one’s true being has to take place, and this is the discovery of one’s identity with the Divine Person (purusa), that Person whose vision is most glorious, beautiful and saving. It is a vision leading to identification.”

I mention the physical parting of Fr. Bede from this earth and the way in which he was prepared for it. This is a sign of a true yogi. Swami Vishnu Devananda in the “Complete Illustrated Book Of Yoga” says..”The aim of all Yoga practice is to achieve Truth wherein the individual soul identifies itself with the Supreme Soul or God.”For the Yogi, the whole of life is a preparation for this moment. There is a prayer which says…”If I do not remember you now O Lord, how can I remember Thee when at that moment, I am choking”In the Bhagavad Gita the Lord Krishna tells Arjuna…”Of those whose thoughts have entered into Me , I am soon the deliverer from the ocean of death and transmigration, Arjuna” The Yoga of Devotion, Bhakti. For the true Yogi of devotion, at the moment of death, there is nothing to fear….we are delivered from the ocean of death and transmigration.

The other verse of the Gita, the Lord Krishna goes even further by saying that “If you are not able to keep your mind steadily on Me, then seek to attain Me by the constant practice of Yoga Arjuna” In his commentary, Jnaneshwar says…read (Pg 179, vs 104…105 108-110)

Fr. Bede thought of himself as a Christian Yogi and wrote about Yoga particularly in the first decades of his life in India. He defined Yoga as Union: a realization of nonduality in which the three worlds of God, human, self and universe are experienced as one.. He makes a distinction between the classical Yoga of Patanjali, and Integral Yoga of the 20 th century master Sri Aurobindo which embraces both this ascending way and the descent of the Spirit into matter to transform it into the medium of a ‘spiritual consciousness’.

It is this vision which Fr Bede sees the promise of a Christian Yoga. Fr Bede felt that in the Resurrection of Christ, the transformation has taken place and that this transformation must also take place in each one of us through the power of the indwelling divine Spirit. This is what I understand to be Christian Tantra. The transformation of the human into the Divine.

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