With apologies to Blondie and Debbie Harry, Yogis and adherents of the Greek Orthodox Church – my intention is to unite not to divide…
I read a news story recently about how the Greek Orthodox Church has ‘ruled’ that yoga is incompatible with Christianity. I found this quite intriguing. How is this possible? I am a yogi and I like to think that the life I lead adheres to the life that Jesus Christ espoused. Certainly, my love of the Orthodox Christian traditions made me feel a little confused as my practices have been informed by both traditions. I have never found yoga incompatible with Christianity. I heard on various networks that every so often the Greek Orthodox Church makes this announcement and some yogis were not surprised by it. But I was. I sought to explore this further and this is what I found. Before I continue, I want to say thank you to the musician Nick Mulvey whose album “Wake Up” gave me the background soundscape as I explored this. I recommend the album.
There are a number of practices in the Greek Orthodox Christian tradition that mirror yoga practice to a degree. I have focused on these because my urge to do so was prompted by the announcement by the Greek Orthodox Church. However, pretty much most religions have parallels with Yoga, so I guess you could lift and shift the points I am going to make to other traditions too.
Most Yogis and historically influential and as such, spokespeople for the traditions of yoga tend to say things like – yoga is compatible and does not compromise other faiths or beliefs. I think Iyengar, Krishnamarchaya, Pattabu Jois and Deskichar all said this to varying degrees. I am too lazy to find the quotes but I am sure they have all said this. Perhaps this will prompt a flurry of investigation. Their promotion of yoga has influenced the profusion of yoga everywhere, particularly the West. So on this basis, they are very influential.
Ok, so where are the parallels? Here’s my starting point. I am sure it’s not perfect and welcome criticism and adulation (I am of course joking about the adulation).
I wanted to have some sort of neat tabulated list but I couldn’t be bothered to do that, so here is my list in bullet form. It’s not too sophisticated but it is my opening gambit and I am of course open to challenge, and debate.
1. Mantra – us yogis “do” (by this I mean recite) mantra. In the Greek Orthodox tradition, particularly as described in the Philokalia this is known as Hesychasm – or the Jesus Prayer. The repetition of a word or phrase that brings one to a state of contemplation. Hesychasm is the recitation of the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me for I am a miserable sinner”. I love this. It is well articulated in the wonderful book known as the “Way of the Pilgrim” and characterised in the 14th Century English Christian (mystical) tradition for example – the Cloud of Unknowing. A wonderful text of Christian mysticism. Yogis would love it.
2. Pranayama – us yogis love playing with our breathing. Some late comers (Butyeko and Wim Hof) have had fun with this too. Us Yogis – ok me, I call it pranayama – and there are lots of different techniques with different names. Personally, I love this exploration of breath. It does a lot for me each morning and evening. And in the day time too. The Greek Philsophers called it pneuma, the Yogis call it Prana. Breathing is very interesting. You can follow your breath, explore it in motion, or hold it and see how that affects you. It’s ever present. If it wasn’t I guess you’d be dead. So it’s a good thing to explore. St Nicophoros also called Nikephoros the Hesychast, was a 13th-century monk and spiritual writer of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The main theme of Nikephoros’ spiritual writings in the Philokalia is ‘nepsis’ (Greek: νήψις) which is usually translated as watchfulness or vigilance. For those inexperienced in prayer and spiritual self-control, the mind tends to wander and lapse into imagination. Nikephoros described a method of breathing while praying to concentrate the mind within the heart in order to practice watchfulness. Is this not some sort of pranayama? It’s fairly close I am sure. I always recommend folk follow the breath before they move onto some of the more complex visualisation based meditations. Wherever you go, your breath is there so its accessible for this.
3. Mudras – there is a whole text book in this – I am pretty certain there is. I think there is a text book somewhere which lists the mudras in yoga traditions in Hinduism and Buddhism. I started to look at Greek and Russian Orthodox iconography and began to lose count of the mudras (hand gestures) that I saw. Luckily a lot of people have been there before me. Interestingly there seems to be some psychology around the power of posture (which includes hand gestures) and how this can be empowering or not. So there appears to be some science around this. I haven’t listed this here (thats for another time) but it is worth exploring. Here’s a list of well known yoga mudras that I have seen in icons and representations:
Prithvi, prana, karana, shiva, dyana, angeli, abhaya, varada, – and that’s for starters. I am sure as well as in Greek, Russian and other icons I have seen many variations of these mudras. I am also sure that the Pope has adopted these too. Mudras are used in both traditions, as well as other traditions. Because I am enthusiastic I would say, why aren’t we looking at mudras in our daily lives?
4. Rosary/Japa – many traditions use some form of physical counting method to help them with contemplation or meditation. In the Greek and other orthodox Christian traditions this is typically the rosary. In some yoga practices and core to Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Buddhism and Shintō is the japa mala – a similar set of beads that enable and aid prayer, contemplation and meditation. How similar is this?
5. Postures – the most controversial aspect of the whole ‘yoga is not compatible with Christianity’ press announcement was the focus on asana – or the physical postures of yoga. It was quite bizarre really. As if you couldnt do downward dog or trikonasana and not retain your spiritual self in the Greek Orthodox tradition. How strange. Because this implies that any physical postures may be threatening to your beliefs and practices. And yet as any yogi may know – the body is the field of your exploration of beliefs – so you are creating an environment for your beliefs to flourish. Strange…. But it gets stranger (sorry fellow Greek Orthodox colleagues): in the Greek Orthodox tradition there is a recognition of the power of posture (ie Asana).
Essentially there are four – or five postures – asanas or vinyasas in the yoga tradition – these are (1) standing or sitting (usually standing), (2) bowing (3) kneeling (4) metania or genuflection and (5) prostration.
Standing or Sitting – believers stand in the hope of maintaining a more attentive posture in their worship. They stand in the Liturgy at the beginning while the priest gives the blessing, during the Little and the Great Entrances, when the priest is “censing the icons and congregation” – burning incense – which represents the prayers of the church rising towards Heaven. Believers stand during the Gospel reading, at the Anaphora (“Eucharistic Prayer”; for Holy Communion), and the final Blessing. This is an intentional stance as is yoga asana, like tadasana or virabhasana or trikonasana.
Bowing – believers bow their heads deeply in a more reverential and profound bow than just the mere nodding of the head. There is a taxonomy of bowing which starts with a little bow and ends with full prostration which I understand is rarely used these days. Of course full prostration (sun salutation anyone?) is used in many traditions and the yogis particularly in Hinduism and Buddhism are adept at this. Here’s the taxonomy of bowing taken from a number of sources but please correct me if you know better:
- The first type is a ‘head-only bow’.
- ‘Belt-low bow’ – also be called an ‘ordinary bow’, since it is the most widespread type of bow. Most bows during the Eastern Orthodox service are of this kind.
- ‘Belt-low bow with touching earth by a hand’.
- Metania – a ‘lightened’ version of a ‘earth-low bow’
- Zemnoy poklon – a special type of bow which is especially important in more traditional churches. To me, this looks like pose of a child.
- There is also a full prostration which I understand is rarely used. This is used a lot in yoga – including as part of surya namaksar (sun salutation), and the prostrations of adherents for example in those that are undertaken for example, by Tibetan Buddhists circumnavigating around Mount Kailash in Tibet.
Kneeling is known as a form of penance or contemplation involving the bending of the knees usually on a kneeler attached to the pews. Sounds like pose of a child or taking it back a little to virasana or cat….
6. Metania from the Greek word “μετάνοια” is an expression of reverence and is executed by first making the Sign of the Cross. I think this is referred to in the west as “genuflection”. Following the genuflection, one bends from the waist, reaches toward the floor with the right hand open and facing outward, and touching the ground and then rising upward. This is described by adherents as a wonderful participating experience of reverence, obedience, and praise. To me, personally this feels very much like my prayers to isvara pranidhana pretty much adopting similar or the same postures and movements. (Yoga sutras anyone ?).
7. Prostration from the Greek “προσκυνήσις” is associated with penance, submission, obeisance, an earthly reverence and is a delight and wonderful experience to do. From a standing position, it is an act of distributing one’s self on both hands and knees, touching the forehead to the floor, then standing up. One usually makes the Sign of the Cross before and in its completion. This is used a lot in yoga – including as part of surya namaksar (sun salutation), and the prostations of adherents for example in those that are undertaken by Tibetan Buddhists circumnavigating around Mount Kailash in Tibet.
8. Contemplation through scripture – The Philokalia (Ancient Greek: φιλοκαλία “love of the beautiful, the good”, from φιλία philia “love” and κάλλος kallos “beauty”) is “a collection of texts written between the 4th and 15th centuries by spiritual adherents of the Eastern Orthodox Church mystical hesychast tradition. They were originally written for the guidance and instruction of monks in “the practice of the contemplative life”. There is much in this collection of texts that reads across to the texts of yoga. A good starting point is simply to read it with the yoga sutras of patanjali alongside and cross reference. The similarities are astonishing – but why am I even surprised? They are key texts for adherents….However an intriguing set of sections are the commentaries of St. John of Karpathos. In particular he writes : “For the Encouragement of the Monks in India who had Written to Him” (which consists of over one hundred texts), and the “Ascetic Discourse Sent at the Request of the Same Monks in India”. This in itself is intriguing and worthy of further indepth exploration. (I’m not promising to do this – but I am very tempted….).
Nikiphoros the Monk writes “On Watchfulness and the Guarding of the Heart” and St. Gregory of Sinai (amongst many texts) writes on thoughts, passions and virtues, as well as on stillness, prayer, and signs of grace and delusion. Sounds familiar? I am sure Patanjali (amongst many adherents, Siddhis and adepts) was exploring these topics…
I am sure I have missed some connections. That is inevitable because I am just me, with my enthusiasms and love of life and learning, and the journey to God and uncovering my delusions and illusions. At heart, I want to seek to unite rather than divide so when I heard that the Greek Orthodox Church was being churlish about the efficacy of yoga and that it was incompatible with Christianity – that made me sit up. Wait ? Really?
I have tried to show the connections and relationships but I know this is just me in one segment of time and effort. Ultimately – if you are a Greek Orthodox Christian or a Yogi – you will either just ignore the statement or take it as some sort of guideline. For me if yoga and Christianity is a path to truth and the Godhead – I guess you have to make your own accommodation. Either way – accept the position of each and if you are like me, a yogi – continue to practice. This includes ahimsa (non harm), and compassion and kindness, with “truth” (Satya) as your guide. However, your journey is your journey : good luck and I hope I have helped unite and unify the journey for you.