2016-06-30

Q:

I am a Christian and love Jesus Christ. I want to practice yoga and meditation because I feel the need to be centered. Is this against my Christian beliefs? I pray continually and still feel led in this direction. Please help.

A:

Take heart, for you're not the first person to struggle with this issue. Many Westerners drawn to Eastern practices have wondered whether they're violating their religious beliefs, even committing heresy.

In the past 40 years, despite warnings about the dangers of stepping outside the bounds of Judaism and Christianity and falling into an abyss of paganism and occultism, large numbers of people have dared to explore yoga, meditation, chanting, and martial arts to fulfill needs that otherwise weren't getting met. What they learned by immersing themselves in the Asian traditions has literally changed their lives, though not necessarily their core religion. I know of many people, including myself, who have greatly benefited from crossing over into what fundamentalists consider forbidden territory.

The body itself is neither Hindu nor Baptist nor Muslim.

One man immediately comes to mind. He was raised in a devout Roman Catholic family and entered a religious order. After more than 30 years as a Jesuit, he decided to enrich his prayer life by going on sabbatical to the Hindu-Buddhist world. For 13 months, he participated in Buddhist forms of meditation, chanted bhajans (hymns sung individually or collectively in praise of a deity, such as Vishnu, Rama, or Krishna), took yoga courses, and lived with laypeople and monks of the different traditions in several countries. But it wasn't until he returned to his Jesuit lifestyle and his graduate theological world in California that he realized what a deeply positive impact his Asian experience had on him.

After years of ongoing stomach problems, including major surgery for an ulcer, his health and digestion were better than they had been since he was a teenager. He needed less sleep, yet had more energy. He also felt more comfortable with himself. Without any particular effort, he became attracted to a simpler way of living. It was also easier to keep up a regular practice of Christian prayer and meditation.

Contrary to what you might fear about the perils of integrating Eastern disciplines and attitudes, this priest never once wandered from his Christian foundation. He discovered what you're seeking--centeredness. The various Hindu and Buddhist practices gave him very basic and effective ways to quiet agitation in his body and mind. In turn, that tranquility allowed a deeper kind of awareness to surface and awakened a natural sense of love and compassion. Stilling the mind never drew him away from Jesus Christ; it drew him closer.

Across the country, people are going on spiritual retreats at Christian centers that include some ecumenical sharing. But it's true that other people are highly suspicious of such activities. One Catholic sister, who entered a Midwestern convent when she was 13, told me that because she taught yoga at the Himalayan Institute and a Montessori school, some women in her parish wouldn't attend a talk she gave. They considered yoga the work of the devil. Ironically, it was yoga that led her to do healing work inspired by Christ's laying on of hands.

When I attended my first 10-day Buddhist meditation retreat in India 20 years ago, the hall was filled with people representing a wide variety of both Eastern and Western religions. The first thing the teacher did was reassure everyone. The practice we were about to learn was nonsectarian, and no one was expected to give up the tradition he or she already followed.

The teacher himself had been raised in a Hindu family that had emigrated from India to Burma. A highly successful businessman, he had suffered severe migraine headaches for years and sought relief by traveling to Europe and America for the best medical help. When someone recommended that he try Vipassana meditation, he hesitated at first, afraid to offend his family's traditional beliefs. But once he overcame the initial obstacles, his healing and transformation were so dramatic that he has devoted his life to teaching this meditation method to others. He knows that it has nothing to do with religion per se and everything to do with attaining peace and happiness.

That's why mindfulness meditation is now an integral part of various stress-reduction programs in clinics, hospitals, and health centers across the U.S. Although it is based on the Buddha's original instructions, people from every denomination learn how to become aware of their breath and bodily sensations. Unexpectedly, they discover that they feel less pain and more calm and balanced. Research shows that because of the seamless connection between body and mind, both yoga and meditative techniques have positive effects on health. After all, the body itself is neither Hindu nor Baptist nor Muslim.

Most of us don't realize that the various religions we engage in have been influenced and enlivened in some way by different beliefs and practices around them. None of them has existed in a vacuum. In a similar way, what we learn as individuals from a spiritual tradition other than our own can infuse vitality into our path.

Your uneasiness about getting involved in what you think may be un-Christian doesn't have to leave you polarized. How far to explore outside your religion is always an individual decision. Interview teachers ahead of time to find out how much of the cultural or religious trappings they include in their instruction. Ultimately, the strength of your commitment to your faith can guide you into a comfort zone that expands your dedication to Christ while also taking care of yourself.


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