8. Alternatives to Yoga: John Main’s meditation movement and his initial Hindu inspiration; Centering Prayer; the use of mantras; the Christian embrace of the Hindu greeting gesture, the namaskara. American devotees of Hindu gurus who have converted to the Catholic faith (Professor Alexander Lipski, John Moffitt, and others).
There are and have been Christians (Jews, even Muslims) who, remaining in the faith they inherited, have practiced some form of Hindu yoga consistently and over a long period of time. This practice has borne fruit for them in the “stilling of the agitations of the heart” (the definition given in the Yoga Sutras 1:2), in the awakening of kundalini, and in some degree of samadhi, the assimilation of the human consciousness to the divine reality upon which the yogi meditates. These ultimate states of the yogi’s spirit correspond to the “abandonment to the Lord” (Ishvara-pranidhana), which is the last act of Kriya Yoga according to YS 2:1.
Only a theological a-priori can deny the possibility or legitimacy of yoga practiced by a Christian. There have been too many of these ‘Christian yogis’ to justify the denial of the fruits they have experienced. They have integrated their practice into a life of faith, or if they had begun outside organized Christianity, practicing meditation and experiencing its fruits have brought them to embrace or renew an explicit faith and a sharing in the sacramental life of the church. This latter has been the pattern of my own spiritual journey.
Of course, the ‘yoga’ in question is not just the physical ‘limbs’ of the practice (posture, breath-control, and sense-control, about which there seems to be hardly any objection), but the three-fold meditative process of contemplation, communion, and assimilation, in which the act of the believer passes through what Thomas Aquinas calls the enuntiabile, whatever can be expressed in words and concepts, directly to the reality of God, who is “beyond all names and all essences” (John Damascene). An authentically contemplative yoga can be a legitimate means to the end of the act and habit of faith, precisely because it is per se a going-beyond.
Although I cannot concede the a-priori arguments against a Christian practice of yoga, I do see the personal and pastoral value of alternatives that ground themselves primarily or exclusively in Christian sources and the great heritage of the church’s mystics. The first of these was developed by John Main (1926–1982), a Benedictine who, before entering Ealing Abbey outside London, served in the British Colonial Service at Kuala Lumpur, in what is now Malaysia. He had been raised Catholic and had studied in seminary, but during his service in southern Asia felt drawn to a more contemplative life. He made the acquaintance of a yogi from India, Swami Satyananda, who instructed him to accompany his meditation by a mantra drawn from the Bible. His experience gave rise to an international network of Christian meditation groups.
On Centering Prayer, let me quote this paragraph from the relevant Wikipedia article: “Cistercian monk Father Thomas Keating, a founder of Centering Prayer, was abbot all through the 60s and 70s at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. This area is thick with religious retreat centers, including the well-known Theravada Buddhist center, Insight Meditation Society. Fr. Keating tells of meeting many young people, some who stumbled on St. Joseph’s by accident, many of them born Catholic, who had turned to Eastern practices for contemplative work. He found many of them had no knowledge of the contemplative traditions within Christianity and set out to present those practices in a more accessible way.” Objections to Centering Prayer as Hindu-influenced have been based on nothing but crass ignorance of the contemplative tradition of orthodox Christianity.
Readings: excerpts from Moffitt and Lipski in the Dropbox folder; Wikipedia articles on John Main and Centering Prayer. Compare and contrast Main’s meditation practice with Centering, especially with regard to the distinction between ‘attention’ and ‘intention.’