To some, my interest in yoga is somewhat unusual. Not only am I Catholic, male, and attend exclusively the traditional Latin Mass, but I am also a sedevacantist.
How and why would a sedevacantist be interested in yoga, you may ask? It started when I was 14 with this book.
I bought this book from a local bookshop with a little confidence. I read it with interest, keeping it under lock and key from my family. Aside from the asanas, I remember reading about the origins of the words “hatha” and “yoga” as well as chakras, the OM symbol, pranayama, meditation, yoga retreats, ashrams and yogic diet.
The asanas were a little tricky with only the book to refer to, but I did have a go at pranayama in the form of alternate nostril breathing, inhaling for 5, holding for 15 then exhaling for 5. I also attempted to meditate, however the instructions were brief, e.g. “focus on your breathing, let your thoughts wander, then pick a thought and focus on that.” Whilst yoga and meditation often took a back-seat in my life due to my religion, I remained interested in both.
During my preparation for Confirmation, we studied Vatican II. I asked my priest ‘Father, if Muslims can pray in Arabic, read the Qu’arn in etc. why can’t Catholics do the same with regards to Latin?”
At the age of 20 I started attending the Latin Mass (“Extraordinary Form”) with the Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP). After returning from a traditional pilgrimage in France, I began to look into what had happened in the Catholic Church since Vatican II. This in turn led me onto the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX). For many years following, I regularly attended SSPX mass, confession etc. It was during my time with the FSSP / SSPX that I attended my first yoga class.
As a traditional Catholic, I was having doubts about the permissibility of yoga. Such that during what I believe was a General Confession on my first retreat, I confessed my attending a yoga class, somewhat embarrassingly, to an SSPX priest who knew I was male. If I were female, I would not have felt as embarrassed in mentioning yoga. To my relief the SSPX priest told me not to worry about attending a yoga class.
I found my first yoga class somewhat boring, during which my socks were slipping on the yoga mat. My second yoga class was in a room at a church where I practised barefoot feeling more grounded. It was a much smaller class and I got a lot of adjustments from the teacher. I left this second yoga class feeling refreshed and rejuvenated.
I returned the following week, on this occasion a different teacher was covering the class. The teacher opened the class with a Sanskrit mantra or prayer, which as a Catholic, I felt uncomfortable with, due to the first of the ten commandments (Exodus 20). I ended up walking out of that class and my next yoga class was not for a few more years.
Nevertheless I remain interested in yoga. Since the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, many yoga classes, and many 200 hour registered yoga trainings, have taken place online via Zoom. Although I could not attend remote yoga classes at home, I ended up learning more about yoga, including its philosophy.
Whilst the first of the 10 commandments often present a barrier to Catholics and yoga, if one takes a look at the Yamas of yoga, there are some notable similarities. As a devout Catholic, I have been practicing at least three of the 5 Yamas of yoga, for years, without realizing it. By simply keeping the 10 commandments, I am also practicing the yamas of Satya, Asteya and Brahmacharya, and to some extent Ahimsa.
I also researched different styles of yoga, hoping to find a style and teacher best suited to me. I was keen to practice the most authentic form of yoga I could without compromising my religion.
I needed a form of yoga which would be neither boring, nor too physically challenging for me, and one in which, if I attended classes, I would get loads of adjustments from the teacher. From my previous experience of attending four yoga classes, with three different teachers, I felt that proper alignment and physical adjustments were important for me.
But how do I balance my interest in yoga with my Catholicism? Particularly my pre-Vatican II Catholicism? To understand this, we first need to explore how and why I came to Catholicism.
My interest in yoga began when I was an agnostic 14 year old. I then became involved in Protestantism at age 15 / 16 after considering the question of what happens after death? I felt particularly connected to the Catholic Church when John Paul II died. After attempting to justify Catholicism for many months, I discovered the following scripture verses in the Bible.
“And Jesus answering, said to him: Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona: because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven.
And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven.”Matthew 16: 17-19 – Douay-Rheims
Shortly after discovering this, I was received into “full communion” with the post-Vatican II Catholic Church. I had become Catholic because the Bible revealed to me that the Catholic Church was the one true Church established by Jesus Christ himself.
Having been initially received into the post-Vatican II Catholic Church, I then came to pre-Vatican II Catholicism, sedevacantism, for similar reasons. Now a sedevacantist, I exclusively subscribe to pre-Vatican II Catholic teaching, as it was on the day when Pope Pius XII died in 1958.
Whilst the practice of yoga may be somewhat controversial in the post-Vatican II Catholic Church, I have yet to find a single Church document from before Vatican II, which deals specifically with the subject of Catholics practicing yoga. As a sedevacantist, the approach I take is to put myself in a hypothetical situation, and then apply basic pre-Vatican II Catholic principles.
The hypothetical situation which I use is this:
The year is 1957, I am visiting Southern India for a few months. Whilst in India, I am introduced to yoga and ayurveda. I am then offered the opportunity to train as a yoga teacher in India, which I want to do, as I have developed a real passion for yoga.
I have to ask myself to what extent I, as a Catholic can practice yoga?
In the absence of any explicit Church teaching on the subject, the starting place would essentially be the Ten Commandments and the Catechism of the Council of Trent, which is the most concise pre-Vatican II Catechism. In essence, the Catechism explains the meaning of scripture, tradition and the magisterium.
Having read through what the Catechism of the Council of Trent has to say on the first commandment, my conclusion is that practicing yoga (as an ancient science) is OK, as long as, in my yoga practice, I do not worship any deities of other religions or graven images. Essentially this means that as a Catholic, I often feel that I have to tread very carefully with regards to my yoga practice.
On the other hand, I do not want to merely appropriate yoga or treat it like a Pilates workout. Yoga is a cultural lifestyle worthy of respect, I want to practice the ancient science of yoga as authentically as possible, and in so much yoga is compatible with pre-Vatican II Catholic teaching.
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