The Ethics of Yoga and the Rule of Benedict

The following is a talk I gave in Rome, to a gathering of monastics, on June 10, 2011.

Comparing the incomparable

The title of this lecture is not properly academic. One might see it on a poster at a street corner or in the side column of a newspaper’s third page, and its wording serves only to attract attention. The key word is ‘Yoga’: a term in nearly everyone’s passive vocabulary, a noun one has heard or seen in a book or article, but whose meaning is vague. The term’s connection with the Latin jugum and the English ‘yoke’ is well known. But from the start I need to note that the meaning of ‘Yoga’ is vague even for one like myself who has dedicated a considerable portion of his life to the study of the area of religious culture identified by this noun.

It is also true that a majority of educated persons throughout the world would not be able to identify ‘Saint Benedict’ as an historical personage, nor would they know that he had written a ‘Rule’. But were one to travel East from here, beyond the Mediterranean Basin, more and more people would immediately recognize the term ‘Yoga’ (whether or not they would be able to give a definition of it), and by the time one reached India, one would likely find a person at a city bus stand who would ask, “The Ethics of Yoga? Do you perhaps mean the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali?”

There you have it: the proper academic wording of my title ought to be: “A Comparison of the Ethical and Ascetical Precepts in the Rule of Saint Benedict and the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali” — a properly academic title, but not very interesting. This academic wording would also expose me to the immediate objection: “Can these two very different texts be compared at all?” Perhaps they could no more be compared than any two fruits of human creativity: say, for example, a film of Federico Fellini and a symphony of Beethoven. In fact, the two texts we consider here may chronologically be separated by about the same time span as that between Beethoven and Fellini; so the Yoga Sutras can be dated a couple of centuries before the Rule of Benedict, some time between the third and fourth centuries of the Common Era.

Obviously, I hope to show that Rule and Sutras can in some way be compared, for the fact that the Sitz im Leben of both is a kind of community dedicated to a rigorous discipline different from that of the human family or other, ordinary, social institutions. I might even be so bold as to say that the communities that gave rise to both texts could be called ‘schools of the Lord’s service’ in some analogous sense. Of course, I would immediately correct my own boldness, before the objection could be raised by a hearer, that the ‘Lord’ in the Rule of Benedict is the Dominus Deus Israel and especially the Dominus Jesus, while Patañjali’s Īshvara (which does mean ‘Lord’), although identified as the supreme Spirit, Paramātman or Purusha, cannot simply be declared the same (under a Sanskrit rather than a Latin name) as the one whom the Bible identifies as Lord and God. Let me state this objection in other terms: those formed in the school of Patañjali do not relate to their Īshvara in exactly the same way as those who have been formed in the school of the Gospels and Saint Benedict relate to the Lord Jesus.

I said, “not exactly as,” but I can always say that a Benedictine’s relationship to Jesus, to God, is in some way analogous to a yogi’s relationship to the Lord named Īshvara in the Yoga Sutras. The analogy is strengthened, as we move forward in time, into and beyond the Western Middle Ages, and we see witnesses of devotional Hinduism, yogis belonging to what are called the bhakti schools. But time does not permit us to cover so much ground, and so we limit our topic and our primary sources to the Rule of Benedict and the Yoga Sutras. However, keep in mind the difference of literary genre: the genre of a monastic rule, which mixes descriptive and instructive teaching; and the genre of sūtrāni, a neuter plural noun that shares the Proto-Indo-European root with the English verb ‘to sew’. The Sanskrit noun, sūtra, can be translated ‘stitches’. Italian has a similar metaphor: stitches are punti, and this word is also used in speaking of points in a discourse.

Aphorisms of Yoga

In many translations, the title ‘Yoga Sutras’ is given as ‘Aphorisms of Yoga’, and this is also an appropriate name for the genre. Here we have pithy, sometimes arcane phrases, often no more than two or three words. These phrases, aphorisms, points, or stitches are in practice used as reminders — aides-mémoires — of a more ample discourse. In fact, underlying the phrases of Patañjali, there is a long history of teaching, an oral tradition like that of so many schools in India and even of the Vedic literature itself; the most sacred texts of Hinduism, like the sūtrāni, are handed down orally, ‘from mouth to ear’, with a mnemonic precision unmatched by scribes and copyists.

Just as the aphorisms presuppose an antecedent discourse, rich in content, which they condense into the fewest possible words, they also have given rise to an abundant literature of commentary, whereby the individual sutras are shown to be practically inexhaustible sources of doctrine and precept. Hence a text like the Yoga Sutras stands as a pivotal point in the midst of many texts, anterior and posterior to it.

In addition to the metaphor of ‘points’ or ‘stitches’ in the title, the tradition also refers to the teachings of Patañjali as ashtānga-yoga. Ashta is etymologically related to Latin octo, that is, ‘eight’; anga is related to ‘ankle’, and the Italian anca (’hip-bone’), and means ‘limb’. So the sūtras of Patañjali are the ‘eight-limbed yoga’, and this calls to mind the ‘Noble Eight-fold Path’ of Buddhism, the eight righteous actions that lead to the cessation of the cause of our alienation or ontological suffering; most significant is the use of the identical term samādhi in both Buddhist and yogic texts, for the eighth of these actions or ‘limbs’.

In the system of Patañjali, samādhi is both a goal and a practice. As the end of yoga, the term samādhi is used to define yoga itself. The first chapter, verse two of Patañjali’s aphorisms gives another, general definition of yoga as: citta-vritti nirodha, “stopping the agitations of the heart”. By means of the eight ‘limbs’, the yogi, having practiced samādhi, attains a perfect ‘concentration’ of the mind upon its own essential being (’concentration’ being a literal translation of samādhi), and mind and heart are still. As a practice, samādhi is understood as a fixed, contemplative gaze and an uninterrupted meditation, and even when the meditator contemplates an external object (a flame, an icon, a name of God, etc.), the practice is ultimately aimed at the mind itself. Hence, in samādhi, as the fruit of meditation, the mind is totally assimilated to its object; the object then paradoxically disappears, and the mind as ‘seer’ (the ‘seeing one’) shines of its own light.

If this were all that yoga is about, we would find it to be a polar opposite of a Christian monastic’s ultimate end. Although Christian monks and nuns do practice meditation and do seek to quiet the heart’s agitation, the goal is not to contemplate one’s own mind but rather to turn mind, heart, and will toward the Trinitarian God, the God of subsistent relations, whose essence is love and whose primary external manifestation to human beings is God’s image in the neighbor, whom we are called to love, even were the neighbor an ‘enemy’. If we sum up yoga in a definition that so starkly contrasts it with a Christian’s ultimate end, we should face the same dilemma that assailed Jules Monchanin, co-founder of the Benedictine ashram of Shantivanam in South India: on the one hand, yoga as practice and goal seems to exclude the Christian life, which is predicated upon divine grace, and on the other, Christianity will never be incorporated into India, its society, and its culture, unless and until Christians incorporate some form of yoga into their spiritual life.

Solution to the false dilemma

Of course, the dilemma is false, to the extent that we have isolated a few terms from Patañjali’s whole text, and his text from the broader, historical context, which reveals to us yoga’s vast plurality of meanings and forms. Similar practices continue to emerge from these forms, so that the various yogas in India and in the Buddhist world can be compared with each other only by way of analogy. At this point, one can indeed sustain an incorporation of some form or forms of yoga into a Christian life, invoking the analogies of experience that bridge the differences among the yogis of Hinduism and Buddhism.

However, we need to remain focused in this brief lecture; so we must stay with Patañjali’s aphorisms, making, now and then, only a passing reference to other traditions and texts. Let us move on to the second chapter, verse one of the YS: “Kriyā yoga consists of tapas, svādhyāya, and Īshvara-pranidhāna.” Here I have provided an English verb and cast the sentence in accordance with English syntax, but the key terms are left in transliterated Sanskrit. These three terms imply a tripartite anthropology of body, mind, and spirit. The term kriyā generally means ‘action’ and here could be understood as ‘practice’; so we are hearing, “Yoga as practice consists of these three kinds of action.” But kriyā is also found in the context of ritual: hence it can bear the meaning of ‘sacred action’ or even ‘sacrifice’. Indeed, in subsequent tradition, especially in those texts called tantras, yoga was often understood as a substitute for the rites described in the ancient texts called Vedas and Brahmanas.

Let us look at the three Sanskrit terms, to see if they also bear some reference to sacrificial rites. The first term, tapas, is etymologically linked to the English ‘tepid’, but it bears the stronger meaning of ‘heat’ and, in a metaphorical sense, ‘fervor’. As a technical term, tapas refers to the systematic practice of asceticism: fasting, physical immobility, exposure to extremes of heat and cold, sensory deprivation, etc. Mythological references to practitioners of extreme austerities suggest that their fervor wins divine favor and endows the practitioner with extraordinary powers. Indeed, the powers acquired by the great practitioners of tapas sometimes thwart the purposes of the gods. However, the aphorisms we are considering do not depend on a mythological world-view. They are more likely influenced by Buddha’s ‘middle way’; Patañjali and his school insist, as do Buddhists and the post-Buddhist text called the Bhagavad Gita, that “Yoga is not for one who eats too much or eats too little, nor for one who sleeps too little or sleeps too much” (chapter 6, verse 16 of the Bhagavad-Gita, which dates probably from the second century BCE). As our own Rule teaches, a monastic’s most rigorous ascetical practice is the quest for the delicate balance between too much and too little.

The second term, svādhyāya, has more than one meaning. The word itself signifies the act and habit of dedicating attention to what is ‘one’s own’, which in commentaries is understood as the doctrine of sacred writings and of one’s own guru or master. In other words, yoga requires a practice quite similar to our lectio divina. The analogy is reinforced when the commentaries reduce to a single word the ‘text’ to which one directs one’s undivided attention. That single word is om, which in the Sanskrit lexicon is given the meaning of ‘yes’ and is identified with the divine essence itself. The absolute ‘yes’ of om is both the affirmation of God’s own self and God’s affirmation of the existing universe. From the single word that contains all the sacred writings and all that exists, the yogi proceeds to meditate on the inner word, the ‘sound of silence’ in the heart. Likewise in lectio divina we are directed from many words to few, and ultimately to one, when the word becomes prayer and is absorbed into contemplation.

The third term that defines kriyā yoga or yoga as practice is Īshvara-pranidhāna. We have already met the term Īshvara, which means ‘the Lord’. In passing, let me note that the generic Sanskrit terms for God, such as Īshvara , Deva (’God’), or Paramātman (’Supreme Spirit’) have been adopted into Christian prayer and Bible translations, at least from the seventeenth century onward. The word pranidhāna describes an act of adoration, a full-out prostration in front of whatever symbolizes the divine. The usual translation is ‘abandonment to the Lord’. There is a certain dissonance between this term and the ancient, dualistic philosophy called sānkhya, whose basic terms and concepts are as it were the scaffolding upon which the Yoga Sutras are constructed. The philosophy in question makes no reference to God or a supreme purusha, while virtually all yoga traditions do make such a reference, and indeed, the yogis are most often engaged in a devotional or even erotic relationship with the divinity. You could say that the popular, ‘health-club’ brand of yoga promoted in the West often reverts to the agnostic stance of sānkhya philosophy, but other modern schools (for example, the Federazione italiana yoga) emphasize the spiritual dimension of yoga practice, and even offer ‘Christian yoga retreats’ at Camaldoli and elsewhere.

The literary inclusion in Yoga Sutras II

The second book of the Yoga Sutras (Yoga as Practice or kriyā yoga) thus begins with three essential practices, and we find them again in verse 32; this double citation forms a literary inclusion that makes of the three terms a hermeneutical key for what comes between verses 1 and 32. There is also a third reference to the terms in verses 43-45. Kriyā yoga, we are told in verse 2, leads to samādhi and to the progressive attenuation of suffering; the terminology is different with respect to Buddhist teaching, but the progressive dynamic is that of the Buddha’s Noble Truths and the Eight-fold Path. The causes of suffering are further parsed in the following verses, centered on the three fundamental ‘inclinations’: ignorance, concupiscence, and aversion (analogous to the noetic, the concupiscible, and the irascible appetites of Western philosophical anthropology), and on the three universal qualities of nature (sattva, rajas, and tamas, or ‘harmony’, ‘energy’, and ‘inertia’).

At verse 11, we find an anticipation of a basic term for meditation (dhyāna) that reappears in the list of yoga’s eight ‘members’ in verse 29: yama (five ‘prohibitions’) and niyama (five ‘precepts’); the time-frame of this lecture allows for a more detailed reading only of these first two of the eight members, which are the ethical-ascetical pillars of the entire yoga system. The other members are: āsana (sitting), prānāyāma (breath exercises), pratyāhāra (withdrawal of sensory attention), dhāranā (simple apprehension), dhyāna (continuous meditation), and samādhi (concentration or total assimilation).

Verse 30 enumerates the five yama: ahimsā (’do no harm’), satya (’speak the truth’), asteya (’take nothing that is not given’), brahmacharya (’keep to the path of the Absolute’), aparigraha (’do not covet another’s good’). The first of the ten words governs all of them: ahimsā, ‘harmlessness’. Like the first precept of the Hippocratic oath (Primum non nocēre), it means that yoga practice must do no harm either to the yogi or to others. Pushing through pain in performing postures, extending meditation periods beyond an hour, holding the breath more than three or four seconds: all of these excesses introduce a tone of violence into yoga and are contrary to the authentic sacrificial intention, which is one of yielding, offering-up, abandonment, surrender.

Gentleness and harmlessness govern the yogi’s use of speech. Satyam, truthfulness, does not mean saying out loud in every circumstance what you regard as true. It means a silent demeanor that renders the yogi’s right conscience evident and gently corrects wrongdoing by the contagion of example. Truth means never judging. The only negative precept of Jesus was: “Judge not.” Truth in our minds also entails our recognition of how little we know and our sincere willingness to listen and learn.

Asteya, ‘not to steal’, means never to take what was not given freely. Many yogis, like Buddhist monks, are mendicants, but they are not active beggars. If they have needs, they leave a bowl at their side while they meditate, trusting that some devout soul will fill it. Yogis with family and social responsibilities practice scrupulous honesty in all their affairs and would rather not acquire goods than to harm someone by acquiring them; the rule is always ‘to do no harm’, ahimsā. All yogis practice gratefulness, and they know that what is enjoyed without giving thanks is as if it were stolen.

The fourth word in Patañjali’s decalogue, brahmacharya (literally, ‘journeying in the Absolute’), is a positive term, although it is understood as a prohibition regarding sex, expressed in euphemistic terms. It affirms primarily the yogi’s commitment to integrating the body’s energies into the spiritual quest; secondarily, the word is often translated ‘chastity’. Properly speaking, chastity is a virtue of lovers; it is practiced in the intimate sexual relationship between two persons dedicated to each other in a conjugal union. Even yogis who live in solitude practice this virtue as if they loved someone dearly enough to do absolutely nothing to harm the relationship; the governing principle is always ahimsā, harmlessness and non-violence. Thus governed and purified, neither the individual’s personal sexuality nor physical intimacy in a faithful relationship are impediments to the practice of yoga and the search for God. I have found, in my own experience of the body’s wholesome appetites and through many years of counseling others, that emotional and psycho-sexual maturity are attained as one’s sex life is purified of violence, obsessive-compulsive behavior, and false guilt. Psychological counseling may be in order, but deep yoga meditation certainly facilitates this process.

The last word in YS2:30 is aparigrahā, which means something like non-grasping; it corresponds more or less with the tenth commandment of Moses, “Do not covet.” It could also indicate a willingness not to cling to persons or things, because doing so would be a form of violence and so run counter to ahimsā. In all cases, we need to see through the grammatical negative in ethical teaching and observe the positive virtues: the true non-violence is a life-giving and healing act; the authentic form of speech is a comforting and enlightening word; the perfection of never taking from another is a generous gift; true ‘chastity’ is expressed by a tender and loving embrace, and non-coveting point to a general lightness of touch that respects the integrity of persons and things. These are qualities for which yogis strive.

Verse 31 affirms: “When the yama are universal, not conditioned by caste, place, time, or circumstances, they constitute the Great Vow.” Verse 32 then enumerates the five niyama. Ahimsā overflows into the niyama, which are grammatically positive. Shaucha means ‘cleanliness’ and is practiced by yogis as frequent bathing and regular bowel habits, etc. Contemporary society has totally secularized this part of life, and that is good. All yogis keep themselves clean, but many of them reject the rules of what traditionally is considered ‘ritual purity’.

‘Contentment’, santosha, is another positive expression of the precept of ahimsā, which governs a yogi’s whole existence. The concrete meaning of santosha can be updated in terms of contemporary ‘green’ concerns; the ‘slow’ movement (slow food, slow fashion, etc.) and the theme of ‘elected simplicity’ also show today’s need for the recovery of this yogic virtue.

The final three words have already been given in the first verse of YS 2, with the name of kriyā yoga. The literary inclusion suggests that these three words are a governing principle for all ten of the yama-niyama, like ahimsā. Tapas, the first of the three terms under kriyā yoga, can be understood to include the three ‘outer members’ of Patañjali’s system, that is, āsana, ‘posture’; prānāyāma, ‘breath exercises’; and pratyāhāra, ‘sense withdrawal’. Of course, ahimsā rules here as well, especially with regard to the postures: with regard to āsana, Patañjali says only that the body should be steady and comfortable. In other words, the yogi assumes a meditation posture that allows the mind to remain focused and awake.

Prānāyāma is not about ‘control’ of the breath so much as about breathing according to the non-violent and self-surrendering intention of ‘harmlessness’ and ‘abandonment to the Lord’. For this reason, the true breath-sacrifice does not require forced holding-in; occasional suspension of breathing or “ecstatic apnea” will happen spontaneously after regular and protracted practice. Finally, sense-withdrawal follows the same criteria of harmlessness and abandonment and consists mainly in the detached observation of one’s sensory experience without forming judgments in the mind.

Parallels in the Rule of Saint Benedict

A Western objection to the philosophical anthropology implied in the Yoga Sutras is that it is ‘Pelagian’, that is, it begins and ends with human effort and human self-control, without any reference to the necessity of divine grace. There are two suppositions underlying this objection, to both of which I must say, “Nego suppositum, I deny the presupposition.” In the first place, Pelagianism is intelligible solely within the history of Christianity and within the context of the faith-works tension that we see in the New Testament. Thus it is totally out of place to ascribe a Christian heresy to a Hindu or pan-Indian tradition like yoga, which neither affirms nor negates any doctrine proper to Christianity. The second presupposition is that the entire tradition of yoga has never known a doctrine of salvation by grace through faith, not even in the somewhat latent way that the doctrine is present in the Hebrew Scriptures. On the contrary, a careful reading of the last chapter of the Bhagavad-Gita, together with numberless texts of the bhakti or devotional yoga traditions down through the centuries of the Common Era, lead us to recognize the presence, even patent, of the doctrine of supernatural grace and the supernatural ultimate end in these traditions. Whether or not this doctrine has been absorbed into some schools of Hinduism from Judeo-Christian influence is another question, about which we cannot interest ourselves in the limited time that remains.

One other superficial judgment about the Yoga Sutras, is that they present a series of chronologically successive steps, which must be sequentially ascended in order to attain the end of yoga, while on the other hand, the Holy Rule, grounded as it is in the gospel doctrine of grace, follows no such scheme of vertical steps. On the contrary, neither the Noble Eight-fold Path of Buddhism nor the eight ‘limbs’ of Patañjali are presented to us as successive steps upward toward the goal. Albeit that the last term of both, samādhi, is presented as an action of the highest value, none of the others is said to be abandoned, even when one attains the perfection of samādhi. In fact, ‘abandonment to the Lord’ is what perfects samādhi (cf. YS2:45). This is especially true of the Yoga Sutras, whose ethical-ascetical grounding (yama-niyama) sustains and governs the practice of all the other actions, including samādhi.

The Rule of Saint Benedict is of course an extension and a concrete application of the gospel, and the teaching on grace that came down to Benedict from Paul and Augustine suffuses the whole atmosphere of monastic life as given in the Rule. Still and all, breathing the air of divine grace, Benedict gives us precepts and aphoristic maxims that can be taken as a sort of Western yoga, a way of integration and interior unification analogous to that evolved by the yogis of Hinduism and Buddhism.

We keep in mind that the Benedict’s Rule can also be read as a narrative text, more descriptive of spiritual practice than preceptive. The Rule is also linked with the ‘life of Benedict’ narrated in the second book of Dialogues attributed to Pope Saint Gregory the Great. Setting aside all the questions of authorship (Did Gregory really write the Dialogues? Is his ‘Benedict’ really the author of the Rule?), a long monastic tradition holds the two texts together, as does the Camaldolese micro-history within the broader sweep of Benedictine history. This linking of a story to a rule can be found analogously in the centuries-old usage of the Bhagavad Gita as a yoga textbook and hence a companion of the Yoga Sutras.

Staying for now with the Rule, we see two possibilities of comparison and contrast: 1) the ‘degrees of humility’ (RB7), and 2) the ‘tools for good works’ (RB4). The latter are certainly aphoristic, and they have always summoned monastic commentators to peel back the layers of meaning in each and all of the ‘tools’; but the inverse commentary is also made, whereby the many are reduced to few words or to one, like the yogis’ om. If anything, our one word is the obsculta, ‘Listen!’, with which the Rule begins. However, recent monastic commentators always take into consideration the literary history of the text and its derivation from the much longer Rule of the Master; in Benedict’s abridgment, we also consider the last chapters of his Rule as hermeneutical keys to the chapters derived from the Master.

Steps up and down the ladder

Chapter seven of the Rule evokes Jacob’s ladder (Genesis 28:12; cf. John 1:51), giving us the image of humility as a dynamic process, associated with another metaphor, that of natural growth. Climbing the ladder is also a way of integration, as Saint Benedict says: “The vertical ladder is our life in the here-and-now, and when we humble our hearts, the Lord raises our life to heaven. Our body and soul are the sides of this ladder, into which God, who is calling us, has fitted the various steps of humility and discipline by which we ascend.” (RB7:8-9) The underlying assumption is that God’s grace makes us who we are, calls us to ascend, and places beneath our feet the steps of humility. Our practice of spiritual discipline is our doing, our kriyā, but it is always  done within and under grace. It is also done within and through our total humanity, both corporeal and mental; the implicit anthropology of Benedict sets aside the usual Greek hierarchical dualism of soma (the body as ‘tomb’) and psyche (the mind as spirit). The philosophy that loaned its terminology to Patañjali is also dualistic, although not necessarily hierarchical, but a larger view of yoga, with its insistence on bodily practices and (at least in the Bhagavad Gita) on the practical fulfillment of the duties of one’s state in life, leads beyond the philosophers’ dualism. Later yogic schools (called ‘tantric’) envision the yogi’s perfection not as liberation from the physical but as liberation within the physical, that is, within the flesh, the living cosmos, and time.

Benedict plays with the paradox of ascending and descending: God calls us up, but we are to respond by climbing down; only at the bottom do we reach the top. The various ‘degrees’ of humility do not fit easily into a hierarchical pattern, whether we read them abstractly or in line with the metaphor of the ladder. If we compare the first and last degrees, we rather see a movement from within to without, from the core of our consciousness to the movements and gestures of our body. We may indeed start with the first degree, that continual consciousness of God that the Bible calls ‘fear’. This fear of God is often improperly understood, but when we read it in the Psalms, we find it placed in parallel with words like ‘serving’, ‘worshipping’, and more commonly ‘seeking’ God: “Your face do I seek; hide not your face” (Psalm 26[27]:8). This fear is the equivalent of the Buddhist ‘mindfulness’ (smriti in Sanskrit, sati in Pali); as Benedict says, “Shun forgetfulness and always be mindful of what God teaches you” (RB7:10-11). This fear also has an emotional valence: “Keep thinking of the way people who despise God set Gehenna on fire by their sins and the way those who seek God reach the eternal life that God has prepared” (ibid.).

The twelfth step (RB7:62-66) on the ladder of humility is the body’s expression of the inner mindfulness inculcated in the first. While some novices purposely (perhaps presumptuously) adopt the outward gestures described here (head bowed, eyes cast down, whether sitting, walking, or standing), the authentic practice of this step is always the consequence of the first. However, as our personal monastic experience teaches us, the inner and the outer humility walk hand in hand. Indeed, says the Rule (ibid., verse 65), it is the gospel prayer of the Publican (Luke 18:13) that is the heart of the outward gestures of humility.

Perhaps we can connect the twelfth step with what the yoga traditions say about ‘posture’ (āsana). The connection cannot be traced on the physical plane, since ‘posture’ in the Yoga Sutras (YS2:46-48) is a preliminary condition for the other practices conducive to meditation. The instruction is simple: “Let your posture be steady and comfortable” (2:46). In practice, this means sitting on the ground, either on straw or on a cushion, so that one may maintain the position stably, without exerting conscious effort. Later texts, collectively referred to as hatha yoga, describe an uncountable variety of bodily positions, some indeed requiring vigorous exertion, but their link with the stability of meditative sitting is never totally forgotten. One may suggest that the degrees of humility and the postures of yoga meet in their groundedness and stability. Ultimately, they meet in the spirit of non-violence (ahimsā) and ‘abandonment to the Lord’. A yogi’s understanding of the word ‘Lord’ may differ from the common Christian understanding, but there is no question that Īshvara-pranidhāna is a gesture of profound humility.

A final word about RB4, “The Tools for Good Works,” whose genre as a list of aphorisms grants us license to compare it with Patañjali’s text. The chapter opens with a listing of the commandments, citing in part the decalogue of Moses, but enclosing it within the commandment of love (RB4:1-2) and the Golden Rule (RB4:9). This is pure Scripture and not specific to monastics; it functions here rather like the principle of harmlessness (ahimsā) that governs all the eight members of yoga.

In this chapter four of Benedict’s Rule, the phrase, “Love chastity” (verse 64), seems to echo a preceding aphorism: “Love fasting” (verse 13). The context of each aphorism is instructive. On the one hand, “Love fasting” is associated with the corporal and spiritual works of mercy: “Relieve the lot of the poor, clothe the naked, visit the sick, bury the dead, extend help to the troubled, and console the sorrowing” (verses 14-19). On the other hand, “Love chastity” is associated with the healing of relationships, and is followed by: “Harbor neither hatred nor jealousy of anyone, and do nothing out of envy; do not love quarreling; shun arrogance; respect the elders and love the young; pray for your enemies out of love for Christ” (verses 65-72). Hence, as fasting is a means of helping others in need, so chastity is a way of overcoming hatred, enmity, and jealousy. In neither case is the virtue presented as a means of control or repression.

Respecting the differences in literary genre, we can say that the Yoga Sutras and the Rule of Saint Benedict do overlap in some areas, and the basis of this overlapping is a partially-shared anthropological understanding. Let me say again: we are dealing with analogies of expression and experience, in texts that are both aimed at instituting a school of divine service, although they do not share a univocal concept of the divine. We can also affirm, without disparaging the traditions of yoga, that the Benedictine life is simply and integrally Christian, and it is predicated upon the New Testament teaching about salvation by grace through faith, hope, and love. This love, whose “inexpressible sweetness” Benedict promises to his beginners (RB Prologue, verse 49), is grounded and grows in community. My own observation of yoga schools in India and elsewhere, is that many of them lack this ‘cenobitic’ dimension. Nevertheless, the human heart was made to love, and when yoga fosters love, it also builds community relationships.

About ashramdiary

Thomas Matus, who blogs this Ashram Diary, was born 1940 in Hollywood, California. Academics: A.B. in music from Occidental College (Los Angeles); S.T.L. in ecumenical theology from Athenaeum Anselmianum (Rome, Italy); Ph.D. in comparative mysticism from Fordham University (New York). Initiated into Kriya Yoga (by direct disciples of Paramahansa Yogananda) in 1958. Became a Catholic in 1960 and entered New Camaldoli Hermitage (Big Sur, California) as a novice monk in 1962. Lived for more than 30 years at the Monastery of Camaldoli in Italy. Traveled to India some 20 times; made frequent retreats at Saccidananda Ashram (Shantivanam) in southern India. Was in Brazil, off and on, from 1999 to 2006. Now back in California, he lives at the Hermitage in Big Sur and Incarnation Monastery in Berkeley, California. See:
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