by Michael Ketterhagen
Many people know that I am a practicing Roman Catholic, even though I am deeply involved with the Yoga Tradition. They often ask me, “How can you be a Christian and practice yoga?” The implication in the question is that I am practicing two religions or am worshipping and praying to false “gods” of the yoga world.
The question of whether yoga is a religion often comes up in my conversations with my yoga students as well because many of them are confronted by their loved ones about practicing yoga and being involved in a religion that denies Jesus Christ, as Lord and Savior.
The confusion about Christianity and Yoga happens when people think Yoga is a religion because it is so similar to some of Hinduism’s beliefs and practices, a religion of India that is rooted in the philosophy and science of yoga. However, the Yoga Tradition is a spiritual tradition at its core, not a religion, whereas Christianity is a religion and a spiritual tradition.
Both Christianity and the Vedic Tradition, which is the spiritual and philosophical foundation of Yoga, are spiritual traditions, or spiritualities. A spirituality is a path one travels to or with the Spirit. If you believe the Spirit/God is separate from you, then the path is “to the Spirit.” If you believe that the Spirit/God is one with you, then the path is “with the Spirit.”
A religion, on the other hand, has four very definite components; namely, a creed, a code, cultic/ritual activities, and a community to which one belongs. These four elements are necessary for one to experience “salvation or union with God in heaven.” A spirituality is not an organized, institutionalized path to “God,” but a way/path to the experience of union with God/Fullness of Life. It could be any path. For example, a spirituality could be the practice of deer hunting every year, where a hunter has transcendental, peaceful moments communing with nature while in the hunter’s tree blind or with fellow hunters in the cabin. It also could be a “rite” of passage for young men and women into the adult hunting world, much like the Catholic sacrament of Confirmation is for young Catholics.
We cannot compare Yoga and Christianity as religions because yoga does not have a belief system that everyone must believe, nor does it have set of rules that everyone must follow, nor does it have specific ritual practices like Sunday worship or sacraments in which everyone must participate, nor does it say that there is a certain community to which one must belong. No, there are many different paths to experiencing union with God/the Source of Life, according to yoga. Whichever path/way of life/beliefs etc. fits one’s inner calling or lifestyle is the one for them.
However, we can compare Yoga and Christianity as mystical, spiritual traditions. Each has similar practices and ways of living that allow a person to experience the joy of union with the transcendental reality/the Source of Life/God. Those similar practices are called meditation, contemplation, devotion to beauty or a higher reality, or selfless service to humanity. Each tradition also has some lifestyle guidelines (the Ten Commandments for Christianity, the “yamas” and “niyamas” for the Yoga Tradition) that bring the practitioner closer to the peace and oneness of life, which is another way of saying into union with the Divine. Each tradition also believes in the non-material world and that human being’s desire union with that world, and that they are “one in being” with that world.
In my journey through life as a Catholic Christian and because of my desire to be “holy” and one with God even at the age of six or seven, my study of the philosophy and the physical/scientific practices of the Yoga Tradition has brought me a deep appreciation of the mystical/spiritual dimensions of Catholic and Orthodox Christianity. I am a better Catholic Christian, now, than I ever was.
I thank the Divine Father/Mother for the spiritual path that I have travelled. Universal Christ consciousness (called Brahman in the Yoga Tradition and Lord Jesus Christ in Christianity) has directed me all through my life, often even without my conscious awareness. Alleluia!
I pray to the Divinity in you!