An Orthodox perspective on yoga
Updated: May 25, 2020
Yoga was first presented in the Western world as a kind of “physical exercise”, a method of relaxation and psychological calmness. Its basic difference from the usual physical exercise lays, inter alias, in the characteristic immobility. Many yoga exercises have some positive effects on certain people –something, nevertheless, that occurs with the exercises of other systems as well. Generally speaking, though, these exercises belong to a framework of Hinduistic concepts and are stages of a wider total, a more general spiritual progress. In their full development, they aim at something more than the limits of physical well-being. What precedes and what follows yoga exercises –that many people are not aware of- is closely related to systems of “meditation” and experiences, full of Hinduistic philosophical-religious theories and axioms, mainly the teaching on reincarnation. And to become more descriptive: as genuflections (the “metanoies” [kneeling] of our monastic tradition) are not simple movements of the body, but are related to a more general belief and express a specific mood and disposition of the soul seeking spiritual goals, in the same way –always keeping due allowances – the more complex yoga exercises are connected with Hinduistic representations and aim at spiritual, religious experiences.
The word “yoga” is one of the words of the Indian vocabulary that has many meanings. Etymologically, it means “merger”, “union”, “connection”, “exercise”. It is widely used by the Indians in order to determine the secret bond of man with the transcendental reality as well as to define the way, the path and the methods leading to this “union”, to the “liberation” of the human being from the multiform bonds and the illusions of this world.
“Yoga” also comprises the various directions and methods shaped by the Indian tradition throughout the centuries in order to achieve the redemption of man and the union with the Absolute. The three basic types of Indian religiousness in order to achieve salvation, knowledge and devotion are correspondingly called “Karma-yoga”, “Jnana-yoga” and “Bhakti-yoga”.
The same word is used for the definition of one of the six classical “orthodox” schools (darsanas) of Hinduism. The confusion created, therefore, in the Western world by the many meanings of the word “yoga” is intensified.
Briefly, classical Yoga, as a School, recognises the existence of an eternal God, Isvara (Lord), but does not accept that he interferes with human issues. These ideas about such a God cannot, of course, be identified in any way with the Christian theological teaching.
Basic stages of Yoga
Yoga practice is taught in a long series of lessons. Although there are many variations created over time, the most common stages of these meditation methods are eight: (a) self-restraint: compliance with certain dictates, such as avoidance of sexual relations, theft, miserliness; (b) self-cultivation: aiming at calmness, purity, consistency to the exercise etc.
Following these two stages, the student is initiated and their teacher (guru) gives them a new name and a ritual phrase (mantra) which they must repeatedly chant in order to accelerate the progress to salvation. (c) Control over the body: the special postures of the body aim at exercising control over the vital energies of the human organism; (d) Control of breathing: through the application of these exercises, the breathing rhythm is decreased, the body and mind enter a state of peace and all the mental strength of man is prepared for the final stages of yoga; (e) Control of the senses: by fixing the gaze on an object, the yogi (the one who practices yoga) tries to gain control over their senses; (f) Concentration: the control of the attention aims at creating a barrier isolating the person from the surroundings and inner fantasies. The Hinduistic tradition has created various techniques in order to achieve this, such as the following: the repetition of the Hinduistic sacred syllable ” OM ” silently or in a long-drawn out chanting rhythm, focusing on particular forms and others.
The last two stages lead to the final objective of yoga which is: (g) Meditation, focusing and perception; (h) Enlightenment, liberation. The yogi believes that absolute meditation achieves unification, merger with transcendental reality. The person reaching the final stage is freed from the existential sphere and manages to find salvation.
While in the first stages, some elements of consciousness are maintained, in the last one, the yogi is led to a state transcending even self-consciousness. They are disassociated from colours, smells, sounds, feels and are not conscious of themselves or anyone else. Their spirits are “freed” as the initiated ones say- from memory and oblivion. This is considered knowledge, enlightenment.
It is, finally, a technique aiming at the connection with the Absolute. For this technique, the central Christian truths about Christ the Saviour, Grace, unselfish love, the Cross-Resurrection have no meaning.
There are various orientations, branches, shades and applications of yoga. The different yoga schools do not have the same approach. Furthermore, there are numerous yoga groups operating in Europe and America which have peculiarities and special characteristics frowned upon by India gurus. As a rule, though, all these systems of meditation, exercise and spiritual experience follow the thought categories and religious conditions of Hinduism which are radically different from the teachings of the Christian Gospel in basic issues, such as the ideas on God, the world, man, death, salvation and others. They mainly lead to a terrible and dangerous confusion and comparison which denies the essence of the Christian message.
Yoga in a Christian framework
Some Western intellectuals studied the possibility of isolating some of the yoga rules in order to be used in a Christian framework. This attempt, however, to dissociate these exercises from the Hinduistic theories with which they are united seems like an attempt to separate the human muscle system from the neural one. A new original creation is required in order to achieve their freedom from the intense Hinduistic atmosphere and ethos.
In such a case, the Christian application of yoga would mean a kind of exercise that would facilitate man to reach a deep silence; not only from external noises, but mainly from the internal shocks created by desires, concerns and fantasies; a silence through which the human spirit could hear the messages of the Holy Spirit more clearly by experiencing humiliation. For this, however, there is no need to seek methods that have been used with the opposite result: absolute autonomy of the human spirit and extraordinary confusion. According to Christian faith, spiritual life and completion are gifts of the grace of God and not an achievement of an independent human-centric technique. Furthermore, for us, the Orthodox Christians, there is the entire hesychastic experience of Eastern Christianity which under certain Christian conditions reached the holy spiritual life in Christ, peace and “hesychia” (quiet) in love.
Yoga in Greece
Various yoga centres have been on the increase in recent years in our country. Our knowledge, though, and ideas about yoga are still poor, general and confused. Yoga is publicly presented as a “kind of physical exercise” and, usually, only exercises for the muscle and neural centres, breathing exercises and other similar ones are presented. This means that from the aforementioned stages, they are restricted to the third one, control over the body, and the fourth one, control of breathing, while sometimes they advance to the fifth stage, control of the senses, and the sixth, concentration. Many private schools somewhat try to take the religious Hinduistic character away from these exercises so that they can be more easily accepted by the average Greek person. Others try to convince that yoga never had and still has no religious character and they simply talk about “science”, “spiritual knowledge”, psychosomatic exercise. Regardless, though, of what peculiar and dignified words are used to cover reality, it is a fact that the entire orientation of this Indian technique was and is religious or parareligious. The ones initiated in yoga “meditation” are guided to a clearly Hinduistic orientation. Guided by the Vedes and the other sacred Indian texts (Upanishads, Puranas, Sutras and Tantras) and mainly by a “teacher” (guru), they aim at assimilating and experiencing the theories on the law of karma, which determines reincarnation, and on the law of samsara, which determines the recycling of reincarnation, seeking salvation (moksa) from this world which is not real (maya) by following “paths” defined by the Hinduistic tradition, such as karma yoga, Jnana yoga and Bhakti yoga (mentioned in the beginning of the article), and their many variations, such as mantra yoga, hatha yoga, raja yoga and others.
This “religious core” is not mentioned and is hidden with general phrases by the various articles of association of Yoga Centres. They claim, for example, that their purpose is to “model men physically, intellectually and spiritually”. The texts offered for publicity usually appear under an allegedly simple social and philosophical guise; they are usually associated with sayings of ancient Greek wise men or even… of fathers of the Church. For the ones though, that know this issue in depth, their theories and ideas are transparent like plastic sheets that allow their deeper Hinduistic character to emerge.
Furthermore, the magazines that have been translated into Greek show their religious and philosophical points of view (e.g. the “Yoga” magazine includes an unbelievable mix of Hinduistic teachings; even invitations for participation in Hinduistic celebrations, such as the one in honour of Sivararti, 15/2/80 ). The aims described in the articles of association of these societies are full of proselytizing enthusiasm, such as “the spread and dissemination of Yoga to all people regardless of sex, nationality, religion and social class”, the “creation of solid foundations for the application of Yoga in everyday life”.
Religious freedom and deception
The Greek Constitution, of course, establishes “the freedom of religion and religious conscience”. This does not mean, however, that the various groups are allowed to deceive the Greek people with disingenuous statements about their identities and the aimed objectives.
The Orthodox Church – agent of the eternal truth of the living Logos of God – has been facing, for centuries now, every kind of measuring up with various religious – philosophical human fabrications, calmly and without fear. However, it has the right to demand from any competent authority, especially from the Mass Media, to clearly show the face and the background of the “gurus” of the various foreign religious ideas. The claim that they want to prepare us so that “we can operate responsibly and creatively within the society” (as it is written in the articles of association of some Yoga Centre ) with theories and methods that have delayed the development of fine Asian peoples seems to be a ridicule.
At the same time, though, all of us that bear a small or big responsibility within the Church need to realise that in an era of free transfer of ideas at a global level, it is natural for the unrestful inquiring spirit of the Greek people to show curiosity and interest for new ideas in our country either of western or eastern origin. Therefore, the clergymen, theologians and Christian intellectuals need to be well trained in order to provide the Greek people with dispassionate information. Finally, the best resistance to the various spiritual trends is still the continuous, dynamic offer of the whole range of the Orthodox tradition and the personal and social experience of this tradition.