Orthodoxy and Yoga

November 6, 2018 Length: 22:24

Fr. Brendan and Andja Bjeletich discuss the Orthodox view of Yoga and meditation practices.

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Miss Andja Bjeletich: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to the OCF Podcast. I’m Andja Bjeletich, and I’m talking today with Fr. Brendan Pelphrey as always, and today we’re talking about—actually, today is going to be a very interesting podcast. I’m excited for it—maybe a little bit controversial, but something that a lot of people bring up: we’re going to talk about yoga and yoga’s relationship with Orthodoxy. Fr. Brendan, I know you have a lot of personal experience. You’ve been to Asia and actually seen this, so I want to know what do you think?

Fr. Brendan Pelphrey That’s really great. I don’t want to start the podcast by saying, “Can you be Orthodox and practice yoga, yes or no?” because I know there’s strong opinions both ways.

Miss Bjeletich: Yes!

Fr. Brendan: I will say this, though: what I’m going to say is out of my own personal experience of attempting to practice Bhakti yoga, which is worship-oriented meditation and practice, and also trying to practice tai chi in China, which some people call “Chinese yoga.” It’s rather different, but it has similarities, in that it involves meditation and physical poses. So I did all this before I was Orthodox, and I guess every year met lots of young people, particularly in the Orthodox Church, who ask this question, because they are involved, some of you.

Miss Bjeletich: There’s a little yoga exercise class, and I’ve been before. So when you brought this up, I was like: Oh! This is going to be interesting. I want to see what’s going to happen.

Fr. Brendan: Okay, so what are you going to say about it? What do you think?

Miss Bjeletich: The yoga class I went to, the way I see it, there are two different kinds of yoga. There’s exercise, which is literally just “Okay, I’m going to do the stretches,” led by some sophomore who doesn’t really know anything about yoga and is literally just like: “Okay, guys, now we’re going to stretch our arms out and we’re going to do deep breathing.”

Fr. Brendan: My doctor does that to all these old people: Lift your right leg, lift your left leg.

Miss Bjeletich: Exactly.

Fr. Brendan: Although in the background, he always plays these movies about Hindu yoga, because he is Hindu and is from India. It’s very interesting. [Laughter] Here in San Antonio. So go ahead: what was the other kind?

Miss Bjeletich: Then there’s this other kind which is more… I don’t know. It seems more alluring and it seems kind of innocent and it has meditation combined with it, and there’s this idea of: you can be connected to the universe around you—which sounds great and sounds like a cure-all kind of a thing, but, I don’t know. I’ve never been a fan of that. That’s always been kind of creepy to me. It feels like there’s something else there.

Fr. Brendan: I would say that that’s how I came into practicing what I knew as yoga was through a spiritual thirst, because historical yoga in America… Now, I would point out that Swami Vivekananda who brought Hinduism to the States in a big way in 1893, he taught a path of yoga which was called Kriya yoga, but it was supposed to help you learn that you are a god inside, that you are divine—it’s called the Ātman—and that the whole point of that kind of yoga was to elevate a consciousness of that, which they call self-realization. So that is a spiritual kind of yoga, which is rather different probably from what you’re talking about where the sophomore leads stretches. So, yeah, I would divide it into two types, although, as a cavil, I would say that as long as you’re calling it yoga, if it is genuine, it’s going to have a spiritual dimension to it. Yoga doesn’t exist without that. In fact, there are lots of different kinds of yogas, and the purpose of all of them is to elevate the divine self, or, if you want to, to escape from your body, because “self” in that point of view, is enclosed or trapped in your body, and you’re trying to unite with Brahma, which is the undefinable, eternal, universal god. By the way, in that kind of thinking, people equate the universe with god.

Miss Bjeletich: Oh!

Fr. Brendan: Yeah, so that’s kind of interesting. So what you’re doing is leaving the body behind. That’s what yoga means. It’s to link your mind, your thoughts, first with your mind, your body, to control the body completely, and then, if that control is adequate, to begin to elevate the consciousness until you reach an altered state of consciousness or a kind of cosmic consciousness. I just want to point out that Buddha was doing the same thing, but he came up with different paths of doing that.

Miss Bjeletich: Yeah, that’s really interesting, because it sounds like there’s this idea of meditation, and that’s very well linked with yoga. Recently, I’ve been dealing with anxiety since I was, like, four years old…

Fr. Brendan: Probably all people do, but they don’t admit it!

Miss Bjeletich: Exactly, and just recently my therapist—I do cognitive behavioral therapy—she has suggested meditation. So I’ve been doing meditation… Meditation is so interesting because there are so many different kinds.

Fr. Brendan: We can mean a lot of different things by that word.

Miss Bjeletich: Normally if I tell a priest, “Oh, I meditate,” they’re like: “Ohh, that’s not good.” But the kind that I do is behavioral meditation, and it’s very much like: “We’re going to look at the thoughts that are in my head and determine whether or not they are good or bad.”

Fr. Brendan: I think the roots of that may be more rooted in Jungian psychology and the center of psychotherapy. There are many, many other schools, but I would say that, on the other hand, at least when I was growing up, what was very popular was transcendental meditation. So when I was in college and after, if people mentioned meditation, they were thinking of a Hindu-based idea.

Miss Bjeletich: Oh!

Fr. Brendan: We can quarrel about how effective meditation can be, but I just point out that in Asia yogans can do enormously powerful things. They can slow down their heart. They can actually stop their own heart from beating. Every year—I don’t know if you’ve seen this; it’s always in Time magazine—around Easter time or somewhere during Lent, you’ll read about yogans in India who were nailed to crosses. Of course, they weren’t hung up in the air, but they put nails through their hands and feet and prove that by doing yoga meditation they don’t die. Of course, they weren’t run through with a lance or whipped to death or any of those things. Some of them close themselves in a little tiny wooden coffin for three days and survive. The way they do that is they’re going into a state of almost hibernation; it’s a kind of semi-consciousness. One thing that really kind of bolted me out of wanting to do yoga meditation was to discover that in Asia there are yogans who are living vegetables because they have put themselves in that state and they have to be fed, their diapers changed constantly.

Miss Bjeletich: Oh my goodness!

Fr. Brendan: I said to myself: I don’t want to be a vegetable. In other words, is that what God wants you to do? Now, having said that, we’re going to get phone calls… [Laughter]

Miss Bjeletich: Exactly.

Fr. Brendan: “Well, I never heard of that” or “That’s not my objective” or anything. I am just putting it out there that that’s what some yogans do. And if you consider that that is the ultimate gain of Hatha yoga. So stretching your legs is not the ultimate goal of Hatha yoga at all. It’s to be liberated completely from this world into an altered state of consciousness. So I presume you’re not looking for that. [Laughter]

Miss Bjeletich: No, no, definitely not! That sounds actually kind of terrifying, like I would rather stay in my body. I’m good.

Fr. Brendan: You see, the point of the therapy you’re doing is to be able to look at your behavior and to find the ways to welcome or to deal with it, and I would say that Orthodoxy is realism. So the whole point of Orthodox prayer is to realistically engage who you are and what you’re doing and what the world around you is, by the way, totally opposite from trying to escape the world around us.

Miss Bjeletich: What about—when we bring up prayer, what about people who bring up, “Well, I’m Orthodox, and I do yoga, and when I meditate, instead of using a typical mantra, I use the Jesus Prayer”?

Fr. Brendan: Well, motivated idea, in the sense that if you don’t want to use a mantra… Mantras usually—again, you’re going to get a lot of phone calls—mantras are typically Sanskrit phrases that were intended to guide Hindu meditation. They may be the names of Hindu gods or goddesses, even. A lot of people don’t even know what the mantra was, what it meant, when they were given it by their yogic teacher. But obviously Christians don’t want to pray to other gods or goddesses, but then my question is: Is the Jesus Prayer a prayer or is it a technique for doing something else?

The Church Fathers, particularly if you read through the Philokalia—although I don’t recommend that; talk to your priest about it if he’s a real elder—but I think what we would call hesychastic prayer in the Orthodox Church, the prayer that is so called because it was linked or observed to be linked with breathing in some way, that with every breath you’re in prayer—that was never considered a technique for anything. When we’re praying, we’re actually connecting with God. We’re praying. So, question number one: What god are you connecting with? Okay, it’s Jesus; I’m doing the Jesus Prayer. Then, number two is: What was your reason for doing the Jesus Prayer while attempting to do yoga? Because it was never linked with any kind of yoga. In fact, the Church Fathers were familiar with other, like Asian, meditation.

I don’t meet many people who seem to know this, even in the Orthodox Church, but St. Gregory Palamas wrote about exactly that practice. Now, he probably encountered it through Islam, what’s called dhikr, which was Sufistic type of meditational practice. Probably the Sufis obtained it from India. I don’t think anybody knows for sure, but in any case, dhikr involved physical exercise with prayer. Obviously it was Islamic prayer.

Palamas makes a fascinating point to me, because I used to do Hindu meditation. He says: Look, if you’re doing Asian meditation, whether Hindu or Buddhist, you’re going to sit up absolutely straight in lotus position—our back has to be perfectly straight—and you’re raising qi, energy, or the energies are welling up through the spine and they come out your head. So if you look at Hindu images of gods, you’ll often see a red spot on the top of their head. That’s the fifth element, the last of the chakras coming out. It was the energy. In China it’s called qi energy. By the way, it’s not “key”; if you see “qi”… I’ve heard people call it “key”; no, it’s “shee.” Coming up from the anus through the chakras, through the spine, and out the top. In one kind of yoga meditation it’s called kundalini energy.

Palamas says when you’re doing that—you’re sitting perfectly straight and energizing from the belly out—he said we Orthodox monks curl up like an omicron. He’s saying this against your attackers. He says you’re staring at your belly. One of his points was: “I defy you to look at your own navel.” It’s really hard to do, especially if you weigh very much. But he said, no, no, we’re not doing that. We’re curling up like an omicron, which is the position of repentance, of self-abnegation, of saying, “Holy Spirit, come into me and fill my entire body, and do not leave me.” So we’re not interested in energies coming out but in the energy of God coming in. And he says, “Therefore, we suppress the noetic demon of the belly.” That’s the English translation! So, exactly opposite aim of meditation, which is trying to raise energy. So even the physical position is quite different.

And today, Orthodox monks will go in their cell—they don’t usually do this publicly—they kneel, throw themselves forward on the ground. We see the Russian icons, and they show they make a cross with their arms on the ground or in the air.

Miss Bjeletich: Oh!

Fr. Brendan: And the object is repentance.

Miss Bjeletich: Oh!

Fr. Brendan: So I think if you think about this at all, yoga meditation is certainly not about repentance. Now, to get back to your topic, the Jesus Prayer while I’m doing yoga would probably interfere with my attempting to do yoga.

Miss Bjeletich: Yeah, exactly.

Fr. Brendan: Because I’m trying to connect with Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, in repentance: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.” Not “a sinner,” but “the sinner,” and if my focus is really on that, I’m not going to be thinking, “Now we do the asana in which we stand on one leg and balance.” Probably not going to be thinking that. I’m also not going to be thinking of grounding; I’m not thinking of controlling my breath; that is not the goal.

So when I was seeking, I would even say, after I decided that I didn’t want to be overtly Hindu, I was trying to be Christian at the same time, still, I was trying to control my breathing in the sense that slow, really way down, and that can be good, like you’re about to chase your brother-in-law or something, and some little voice in you says, “Stop.” You’re breathing fast: just calm down and don’t do that. Nothing wrong with that at all, but if, on the other hand, you’re thinking of breath control, as I say, that can be very dangerous. Even some people in America—I don’t know about in India, but some Americans have died attempting to do Hatha yoga where they were actually slowing down their pulse.

I do remember—I want to say it was Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) of London—who said that if you’re trying to slow down your pulse while you’re doing the Jesus Prayer, stop. That’s not what we’re after. It may happen on its own, but that’s not what you’re trying to do.

Miss Bjeletich: That’s actually really interesting, because sometimes, like when I’m having an anxiety attack, that’s one of the things that I’ll try to do, just say the Jesus Prayer with the specific intention of calming my heart rate. So this is interesting, yeah.

Fr. Brendan: Yeah, I don’t know that it’s bad to try to calm yourself. I think what would be bad is if that became your main focus: Now I’m going to slow down my heartbeat. The Jesus Prayer wasn’t really intended for that. Now, on the other hand, the Fathers and Mothers teach that prayer should be constant in us.

Miss Bjeletich: Yes.

Fr. Brendan: It’s just that I’m going to raise the question whether you can do yoga positions and pray at the same time. To me, that would be difficult. I found the same thing in China where Christians said they wanted to do tai chi while saying the Jesus Prayer. My only side note to that is: tai chi is not really Chinese yoga. Tai chi is martial arts slowed way down.

Miss Bjeletich: Oh! Oh!

Fr. Brendan: Yeah, it’s combat between the cobra and the bird of paradise is coming down, and they’re having a combat. Like if you said—there are lots of positions and exercises—cannonball swings back and cobra strikes. Now, if you speed all that business up, I’m really hitting someone in the throat with the objective of killing them. [Laughter] So that’s… not exercise. Not if you really understood it.

Miss Bjeletich: Exactly.

Fr. Brendan: Whether most Americans do understand it, I doubt, but I don’t know. I can’t speak for others.

Miss Bjeletich: Yoga’s an interesting topic, because it seems so innocent and so innocuous. The way that we have incorporated it into our culture is very much a “I go to yoga on Wednesdays to stay fit.”

Fr. Brendan: And many of these groups are in churches, right?

Miss Bjeletich: Yeah!

Fr. Brendan: Not to be too Orthodox Evangelical here, but I’ve seen it in Methodist and Presbyterian churches especially, Churches of Christ. Hopefully not in any Orthodox churches to put out your mat. But I have seen many Orthodox women come into my Bible studies with their yoga mat.

Miss Bjeletich: Oh my goodness!

Fr. Brendan: Yeah, over the years. I usually didn’t say too much about it, but I think at the end of the day we do have to ask: What are you doing? When you mentioned the attractiveness of yoga as well, let’s keep in mind there are many different kinds.

Miss Bjeletich: That’s true.

Fr. Brendan: Right, so my interest wasn’t exercise; it was spiritual. One of the great attractions of Kriya yoga was the idea that we’re combining meditation with compassionate practice, which sounds really good.

Miss Bjeletich: Yeah, it does.

Fr. Brendan: Vivekananda was quite an attractive swami in the 1890s, and in the 1920s a group was founded here in America by a yogan that began teaching exactly that, and it was very attractive to Christians. But you have to realize what the root of that was. If you read their own works, you realize that you are a god, you are divine. You mustn’t think about sin because that’s a false teaching; it’s an illusion.

So one thing that dawned on me during my time in the army service—it was during the Vietnam War, so a little scary—I started thinking: Can you have Jesus Christ at the center of your life and at the same time believe that you are a divine being? Or unite yourself somehow to God without God doing that in you?

I would say this: one of the good parts about my getting into Bhakti yoga was: God used it ultimately to bring me to Orthodox faith, because the Evangelicals weren’t talking much about theoria, becoming one with God. But that doesn’t mean that what I was doing was good, at all. It means God used it.

I will say this, too. A number of times in my life, living in Asia, Hindu yogans, fortune-tellers have walked up to me and said that my third eye was open. “Your third eye is open” means that you have achieved some kind of cosmic consciousness. At first I was shocked by this, but then I thought, “Hey, wait. I was baptized.” [Laughter]

Miss Bjeletich: Exactly.

Fr. Brendan: So, yeah, you have achieved…

Miss Bjeletich: Yeah, you’ve reached it through the Orthodox faith.

Fr. Brendan: Remember that we call baptism “enlightenment.”

Miss Bjeletich: Yes.

Fr. Brendan: On that note, one kind of yoga that’s considered the hardest one is Jnana yoga, J-n-a-n-a, which is wisdom yoga. To practice that, you’re controlling thoughts and will. So that’s a bit different than probably what you were doing.

Miss Bjeletich: Yeah!

Fr. Brendan: You’re not simply looking at thoughts. It’s considered the hardest kind of yoga, because you really have to work at controlling your thoughts. But again, you have to ask: What is the purpose of controlling the thoughts and will? It’s to unite with Brahma, which is done by realizing your internal self as divine.

So we mentioned a few kinds. Raja yoga is available on campus. I’ve run into followers of Raja yoga on campuses, and not Indian, by the way, just American kids. This seems to be equated by some yogans with the founder of classical yoga, Patanjali. He lived somewhere between fourth century B.C. and second century A.D.; nobody really knows. But Patanjali yoga interestingly includes one other feature that Christians would not be able to accept, and that is the notion of combining karma with reincarnation. So that universally in Asia today, reincarnation is feared—it’s not something you look forward to—because you can never overcome the bad fruit of karma, your past life.

What does Christianity teach that Christ has overcome and defeated? Your bad fruit of karma. St. John says in 1 John so beautifully: The blood of Jesus Christ has cleansed us of all sins. So number one, we don’t fear we’re going to be reincarnated or transmigration of the soul, unless you mean by it that you’re going to be re-created in an eternal kingdom. Secondly, karma, which just means “what goes around comes around,” St. Paul talks about it even—as you sow, you shall also reap—but the point Paul is making is that, in faith in Jesus Christ, that can be wiped out. So there’s a sense in which I don’t need Jnana yoga to teach me that, although I may need to learn from Christ how to overcome my bad temper or to be reactionary. Orthodoxy teaches that: to be without passions. I think a question you and I have talked about some is: Why don’t we hear about this in Sunday school in Orthodox churches?

Miss Bjeletich: Yeah, exactly right.

Fr. Brendan: The whole goal is to practice being without passions, while all the people around us passionate. Like about politics, even some of my own kids. So I have to say, no, as an Orthodox person, I’m stepping back from that. That’s the practice of our faith; that’s just the practice of being an Orthodox Christian. But you may need a guide for that. That’s why I’m saying if you’re doing exercise in a gym, you need a good coach, so you don’t hurt yourself. If you’re doing mental exercise like meditating, you need a good coach, so you don’t hurt yourself. [Laughter] Does that make sense?

Miss Bjeletich: Yeah, absolutely. Well thank you so much. This was a really insightful conversation and a really good podcast episode!

Fr. Brendan: Wonderful. Thank you again for inviting me.

Miss Bjeletich: Yeah, of course. I can’t wait to see you again next week!

Fr. Brendan: Thank you.

Miss Bjeletich: Bye!