By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published March 10, 2005
At the Monastery of the Holy Spirit and at churches throughout the archdiocese, Catholics are drawing upon the practice of yoga as the new year begins, in a holistic approach to physical fitness and flexibility, stress management and spiritual growth.
When the monastery in Conyers held its first retreat on yoga and Christianity last fall, participants stretched their bodies in various postures, deeply inhaled while resting in the warmth of relaxation, and emptied their minds as they journeyed inward. The focus was to become centered and relaxed for Christian meditation.
They sat on mats of many colors and stretched, mindful of their breathing. Later all stood up, spreading their toes wide, stretching their spines and lifting their arms high as they breathed deeply, before releasing their backs, shoulders and knees to bend over.
“Feel the back of the legs opening up, the back of the body opening up. With each breath inhaled the body expands and is filled with this vitality,” said instructor Scott Hodgman. “On the inhale, lengthen the spine, bring the body up nice and tall.”
A tall, slender man with chin-length brown hair dressed in a black shirt and pants, he led them fluidly in and out of “asanas” (postures), walking barefoot gracefully like a cat around the room. On the wall was a picture of a man doing a backbend with one leg pointing outward, and Scripture reading, “I lift up my hands to your commands which I love and meditate on your decrees.”
“Part of cultivating a personal program is cultivating a sense of your breath and letting the breath guide you,” he told the group. “With each inhale think of opening yourself up to that light, that mystery.”
That movement guided them into breathing exercises, where they lengthened their inhalation and exhalation with each breath and repeated the psalm verse, “My soul waits in silence.”
As they transitioned into Christian meditation, some sat in the traditional lotus posture with palms facing upward, hands on their knees. Some sat tall in a chair; others sat Indian style. Windows revealed the bare winter trees on the grounds, and quacking ducks on the large pond down the hill periodically broke the silence.
Concluding, they gathered in a circle and shared thoughts about the weekend. One spoke of an awakening to the value of breathing deeply and relaxing the body to quiet oneself for prayer, and another expressed interest in incorporating the exercises with centering prayer, and said that the retreat promoted tolerance of other religions and cultures. One woman said, “I’m eager to share what God has given us through both of these tools He’s given us to lead us to Him.”
The monastery is the most recent Catholic site to begin offering the ancient practice. Parishes offering yoga include Immaculate Heart of Mary and Holy Spirit in Atlanta and All Saints in Dunwoody. The monastery’s first yoga retreat was held in October 2004 and was taught by Hodgman, Father Tom Francis, OCSO, and Brother Chaminade, OCSO. The second retreat on yoga and Christianity for beginners was held in February, and an advanced retreat is scheduled for December.
The retreat focuses on how the yoga philosophy and disciplines can support the Christian disciple and how the Christian’s faith can fulfill its vision. The Indian sage Patanjali extracted the yoga philosophy and its holistic approach to prayer from Hinduism and systematized it to support any religion or spiritual aspiration by charting a path inward to God.
Throughout the retreat, as Hodgman taught yoga basics, Father Tom Francis integrated teachings on Christian spirituality and the mystical practice of contemplative or centering prayer. Both involve shutting down the operations of normal consciousness and quieting the mind to surrender to God. He presented the yoga postures and breath exercises as tools that can help the Christian relax the body, mind and spirit to lead into prayer.
The weekend explored how Catholicism completes yoga as in centering prayer one encounters the Trinity directly through the mediation of Jesus Christ, the Way, the Truth and the Life.
Father Tom Francis stressed the retreat is fully Christian but spoke of the value of taking this holistic approach.
Christianity has historically neglected man’s physical nature, he said. In the past, ascetic monks at times went as far as beating themselves and denying themselves good nutrition, believing the body was “a weight upon the soul.”
“But now we see it’s more than that,” he said, “that Jesus in the Incarnation takes on a human body and so we must keep this treasure God has given us and follow the rules and laws of nature to keep it healthy so it can be a servant to the person.”
The fall retreat began Friday evening with a discussion of the background of yoga and Christian mysticism and the point where the two converge and complement each other.
The first Saturday talk was on the Christian and yogic anthropology of the human person, addressing concepts like the Christian perspective of body, soul and spirit, Western psychology, and the yoga perspective of the dimensions of the human person and the various practices used to unite them into an integrated whole.
The next session addressed obstacles to spiritual practice like ego, fear and attachment, how yoga philosophy defines them, and how they stand in the way of the encounter with God, and how Christian prayer can purify thought.
The final talk addressed the spiritual journey as seen through the apostles, the Christian mystics and yoga philosophy, addressing topics such as the transformation of the life of faith, and the immediate encounter with God in centering prayer through the mystery of the Son.
Each session ended with 20 minutes of postures, breath exercises, and 20 minutes for Christian prayer and meditation.
In retreat material, Hodgman writes that yoga is woven into the birth of Hinduism in India as a way to know the reality behind their Vedic scriptures directly and personally.
Pantanjali systematized it in approximately the 3rd century B.C. Most forms of yoga practiced today are based on variations of his system often referred to as classical yoga. Patanjali called yoga holistic purification and preparation of the body and mind for encounter with God. The philosophy involves spiritual practices of purifying and disciplining oneself, self-reflection and surrender to God.
The posture and breath exercises can also improve flexibility, strength, pain and stress management, body awareness, energy level, relaxation and mood. Postures range from a lunge position with arms outstretched to standing tall with arms resting at one’s side, to lying on the floor flat on one’s back.
The instructor believes incorporating yoga breath and postures to lead into prayer can help infuse the Catholic’s faith with “fresh vitality.”
Hodgman spoke more about the yoga philosophy one balmy, gray November afternoon in his neat Midtown apartment with hardwood floors, a figurine of a meditative Patanjali and bookcases filled with Eastern and Christian spiritual books. The 33-year-old works part-time as a business consultant and is studying at Georgia State University for a master’s degree in philosophy with an emphasis in religious studies; his thesis is on the convergence of Christian and Hindu spirituality.
Hodgman was not practicing his faith when he moved to Atlanta in a job transfer in 2000, but he always loved to read books on religion and spirituality and somehow identified with the Catholic Church in which he was baptized but not raised. On his spiritual search he signed up for yoga classes for the first time at the Peachtree Yoga Center and embraced it. Having sailed the world as a marine engineer, he was struck by a teacher’s comment.
“He was talking about how you can travel the world to see sights and places. I’m thinking ‘Been there, done that.’ But he said, ‘You’ll never travel anyplace more sacred than that temple within your own heart, that imminent place where God is.’”
Naturally introspective and a journal writer, he found yoga provided discipline for his spirituality. As he journeyed deeper inward he was led to Christ and the teachings of his Catholic faith. He now rises early to practice yoga and pray for an hour before work. When he made a silent retreat at the monastery he came to discover centering prayer as a key to experiencing the Triune God fully and living contemplatively.
“(Father Tom Francis) opened to me this tradition of mysticism in the Catholic Church that parallels what I’d been reading in Eastern philosophy and that you can know God with nothing mediating” except Christ.
Hodgman considered sojourning for a month in India but instead opted for a more profound journey: to join the RCIA program at St. Andrew Church, Roswell. He became a Catholic in 2003 and attends Sacred Heart Church. Catholicism gave a religious language for his experience of Christ. “Yoga helped me turn inward and clarify everything and focus everything. That is what reconciled me with my religion.”
Father Tom Francis sat in his long black and white habit in a small study at the monastery by a window letting in soft light one cloudy winter day and recalled how he proposed to Hodgman that they teach a yoga retreat for Christians at the monastery.
The slim and frank 77-year-old monk has been doing yoga postures privately before bed since 1958 when he read a book on Christian yoga by Dom J. Deschanet and an article on the subject in Time illustrated with drawings. Hodgman has helped him improve his form.
He likes how yoga enables one to channel physical and emotional energy for better health.
“Ignoring and suppressing the needs of the body and emotional and sexual needs is when people run into trouble … If you don’t take care of the body and emotional needs and the transformation of sexual energy, it’s going to come out in deviant forms, ” he said. “Finally we’re saying let’s pay attention to our bodies and minds, the psycho-physical and spiritual parts of our nature.”
He likes to sit in the front of the abbey church after vespers and do breathing exercises and meditate.
“Holy Spirit means holy breath … because more basic than food is breath, oxygen for us. If you can learn to use the breathing to learn to quiet down, after getting breath control you’ll be able to sit quietly and the breathing mechanism will slow down and produce that physical stillness,” he said.
But the postures are for more than meditation preparation. On a practical level the postures and breathing exercises help one stay focused in church and sit and stand tall.
“The physical is not just for before meditation. It’s also to get you to sit in a chair well, to drive fully alert, to be able to pick up the box without getting somebody else to do it, or with a fork lift, to use your body intelligently.”
Taking time for morning and evening centering prayer, he said, even once a week, can help one to inhale God deeply with every breath and always live in his love. One becomes more loving to all—even those with different political views—and makes healthier choices about everything from what to eat to where to vacation. Mediated prayer where one prays with, for example, the rosary, before the Blessed Sacrament, or with a view of nature, is also very important, and can lead into centering prayer.
He suggests starting with five minutes of solitude, morning and evening, and working up to 20 minutes. A calming “prayer word” or phrase such as “Come Holy Spirit” or “Jesus” can be used to quiet the mind when any ideas, reflections and other thoughts arise. Letting go of everything from one’s memories and sense of self is key, but it’s difficult.
“Let them go and you can be Christ like … God is the object in contemplating. You shut down all operations of human thinking, imagining, desiring, just be in God’s presence, a direct experience of God not mediated today by text,” said the monk. “And there he simply rests in God as pure Spirit … Of course, Jesus, the Incarnated Son of God, is the one and only mediator of this encounter but one must let go of all other mediations.”
It brings from the unconscious scars, prejudice, fears, egoism, and other negative attitudes and helps one to let go of unhealthy attachments and purify thought and cleanse the spirit.
“After the exercises and breathing exercise, through sitting in the presence of God, God will reveal what is inhibiting the relationship. It’s the experience of your true self,” he said. “Through contemplation you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, your mind, your soul and your strength. The whole thinking is purified and made ready for union with God and that takes quality time.”
“Contemplation will rip off all these masks and tell the truth of who you are and who God is,” he concluded. “Yoga prepares you for it and the yoga practitioner knows that keeping the body disciplined and the mind and psyche open and free, it allows the spirit to soar.”
The monastery will offer an advanced retreat on yoga and Christianity Dec. 2-4. Centering prayer retreats are offered April 15-17, June 3-5 and Sept. 30-Oct. 2. Call (770) 760-0959, e-mail email@example.com or visit www.trappist.net.