How to value yoga and mindfulness, can there be a Christian mindfulness? goodness and risks of yoga and mindfulness

How to assess the usefulness of yoga and mindfulness

What is the usefulness and goodness of mindfulness and yoga for the Christian life? Are these Eastern techniques a source of lasting peace in society and in the individual?

Yoga, mindfulness and other forms of Eastern meditation are practices that have grown and produce fascination, surprise and admiration; or bewilderment, disquiet and rejection.

We offer some thoughts on these two practices, highlighting their benefits and shortcomings.


1. Similarities between yoga and mindfulness

2. What is yoga in relation to Hinduism?

        Basis of self-realization in yoga

        Keys to practice yoga and its benefits

    3. Wat is mindfulness and its relation to Buddhism?

        Keys to practicing mindfulness and its benefits

        Mindfulness from East to West

        Mindfulness and Christianity, goodness and risks of mindfulness

    4. Yoga, mindfulness and Christianity

        Some interventions of the Church on yoga and mindfulness

        Yoga and mindfulness in practical reality

        Positive and negative aspects of yoga and mindfulness

    5. From mindfulness to the presence of God

        Christian prayer to focus on what is important

        Christian mindfulness

    1. Similarities between yoga and mindfulness

    For years, yoga and mindfulness have found ample space in companies and in the sporting activities of many people. There is a growing interest in such activities in religious settings.

    You can find advertisements for specialized courses in the university, in the hall of a hospital, on a bus or in a parish.

    Mindfulness and yoga are sometimes presented as a panacea for having more followers, a better integration into parish groups, a more serene life, a "more meaningful" Christianity.

    - Both are forms of meditation, to reach equilibrium and leave suffering aside. They also have a moral purpose (the so-called karma yoga), which consists in self-realization.

    - The religious basis is Hinduism in yoga; and Buddhism in mindfulness.

    - Yoga and mindfulness have achieved great impact in the West since the 80s of the twentieth century. They have spread in many countries, with greater or lesser secularization or loss of religious foundations.

    - They are presented as the art and science of governing the mind. They use concentration on the body, in particular breathing.

    - Mindfulness is a more recent phenomenon, which takes from yoga the meditation postures or asana yoga.

    2. What is yoga in relation to Hinduism?

    Yoga is a word that comes from Sanskrit. There are traces of its use since about 3000 years before Christ. It corresponds to one of the 6 doctrines of Hinduism.

    According to the doctrine of yoga, the human being is a soul enclosed in a body, which has 4 parts: physical body, mind, intelligence and false ego. According to the Hindu religion, yoga constitutes a spiritual path to experience the contact with the divine: the integration of the individual soul with God (i.e. with Brahman) or its deity (who is the avatar), and the liberation from material attachments.

    Basis of self-realization in yoga

    Yoga presents the 8 steps of a self-realization that rests on 3 bases: suppressing the modifications of the mind, with silence; non-attachment, or non-self or nullity; abandonment to attain samadhi, which is full self-realization, an inner awakening, spiritual strength and communication with the divine Self.

    As a form of meditation, yoga uses various postures (so-called asana yoga) to act on the body and mind. There would be a special resonance from different energetic points of the organism, along the spine.

    In sports stores around the world offers hundreds of products of all colors to practice yoga. The fundamental thing is to have a mat and a cushion, which are called sabuton and zufu.

    Keys to practice yoga and its benefits

    The keys to the practice of yoga are: slowness of movement; slow, conscious and directed breathing; mental attention in a receptive state to what is happening.

    The various postures can be accompanied by the mental repetition of a mantra, word or short phrase, to concentrate on breathing in and out regularly and slowly.

    The promoters of yoga affirm that it has numerous positive effects on the organism, especially the reduction of stress and a better concentration and mental clarity.

    In the body, yoga exercises improve flexibility, coordination and endurance. Overall health benefits.

    Many people practice yoga for its physical benefit, with rejection or indifference to the religious background. There are also those who turn to yoga as a gateway to more Eastern religious experiences.

    3. What is mindfulness and its relation to Buddhism?

    Mindfulness is the modern English translation of the Buddhist term Sati, considered a type of meditation.

    Mindfulness is described in the collection of Buddhist writings, compiled with commentaries in the 5th century, in the Digha nikaya (DN 22). There it is stated as a prayer: "the path with a single goal, oh monks, comes from the four pillars to achieve purification, to overcome weeping and lamentation, to move away from pain and suffering: observe the body, observe sensation, observe the mind, observe the elements".

    Keys to practicing mindfulness and its benefits

    The Digha nikaya also describes how mindfulness meditation is performed: with crossed legs and full attention, one must concentrate on breathing in and out, experiencing the body.

    According to the promoters of mindfulness, its practice increases mental concentration (samatha or meditation, which obtains tranquility by concentrating on the breath or reciting a mantra); it also sharpens the inner vision (vipassana or meditation that is subordinated to sati): for this one must focus or fixate on the concentration itself.

    Mindfulness from East to West

    The main disseminators of mindfulness in the West are the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Nhât Hanh (born in 1926) and his American disciple of Hebrew tradition, the biologist John Kabat-Zinn (born in 1944). It was presented as the essence of Buddhism.

    Thích Nhât Hanh gives an example of what mindfulness could be: "when you are washing the dishes, washing the dishes should be the most important thing in your life, the same if you drink tea or if you are in the bathroom...". He adds, "living in the present moment is the miracle."

    A graphic question of what mindfulness could be would be: your body is present, and your mind is also here?

    Mindfulness and Christianity, goodness and risks of mindfulness

    As mindfulness has spread, its definition as total attention in the present moment has become clearer: "Particular attention to the present, with an attitude of acceptance".

    It insists on concentration on one's own breathing and thoughts, in a non-judgmental and non-reflective way. Sati, they say, does not seek to eliminate thoughts or feelings, but not to identify with them. It is about considering one's thoughts in an impersonal way, so as not to be swept away by them.

    The promoters claim that mindfulness is a state of mind that everyone can achieve, such as concentration, full awareness and mindfulness.

    Concentration on the body, thoughts and feelings allows you to see the real nature of hatred, greed, suffering and resentment and you reach Nirvana.

    Through concentration, they will say, you empty yourself and suffering disappears: sati gets away from the false self (anatta) and reaches the pinnacle of Buddhist ethics which is compassion (karuna), separating from selfishness, uniting us with everyone and the universe and lovingly caring for universality.

    Mindfulness has cultural manifestations, such as the tea ceremony in Japan, in which the social moment of meeting with others, unique and unrepeatable, is appreciated, sharing a drink and a space for relaxation in one's own home.

    In the West it has been insisted that it is only a technique without religious overtones. It was introduced in medicine as a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) technique. It is used in depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder.

    It is important to know that adverse effects of mindfulness have been described, due to excessive concentration on one's own thoughts.

    Mindfulness is offered for children, men, women. For addictions, sexuality, burnout, business... There is even an application, Buddhify, which moves millions.

    Mindfulness in the West has become a consumer product that is sometimes presented as infallible to give peace to the individual. For this reason, some speak ironically of McMindfulness.

    4. Yoga, mindfulness and Christianity

    When considering whether yoga and mindfulness are compatible with a Christian life, the first thing is to distinguish what is a doctrine and religion from the practice or technique, from which physical and psychological benefits can be obtained.

    Some interventions of the Church on yoga and mindfulness

    a) The Indian Catholic Hierarchy has spoken several times about yoga, as it is a compulsory teaching in schools there. In 2017, the Synod of the Syro-Malabar Church stated that yoga is a "useful and beneficial practice for the body and mind, but should not be confused with spirituality." They added: "It is not a means to reach contact with the divine, even if it can contribute to physical and mental health." In 2018, the Doctrinal Commission of that Church published the document "Yoga and the Catholic creed".

    b) Pope Francis has referred at various times to similar practices. For example, in the homily of 9-I-2015: "Who teaches us to love?... Only the Holy Spirit. You can take a thousand courses of catechesis or spirituality, or a thousand courses of yoga or Zen or all those things, but none of that will ever be able to give you the freedom of the son". He also referred to the subject in a message to the diocese of Rome in 2019.

    c) I dwell a little more on the document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: Letter on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation, dated October 15, 1989, feast of St. Teresa. It studies the value for Christians of non-Christian forms of meditation, including Yoga.

      This letter does not mention mindfulness, but encompasses it. It reminds us that "some physical exercises automatically produce sensations of stillness or relaxation, gratifying feelings and, perhaps, even phenomena of light and warmth similar to spiritual well-being", and that "To confuse them with authentic consolations of the Holy Spirit would be an erroneous way of conceiving the spiritual path".

      In this document on Christian meditation there is an openness to meditation practices from the Christian East and non-Christian religions. It is affirmed that they can help to be inwardly more relaxed before God, in the face of daily stress.

      The letter on Christian meditation also mentions as positive the psycho-physical symbolism: from a bodily attitude, to functions such as breathing or heartbeat. But it warns that improper and incorrect use can lead to a cult of the body, identifying its sensations with spiritual experiences.

      Yoga and mindfulness in practical reality

      Most yoga and mindfulness academies insist that it is not a religion, but a discipline that tries to combine the harmony of spirit and body and relaxation. However, in many books and in gyms, concepts from Hinduism or Buddhism are explained.

      Sometimes, some promoters of yoga or mindfulness explicitly leave aside the cross of Christ, presented as masochism.

      In the case of Mindfulness, John Kabat-Zinn began by insisting on the medical aspects, then the lifestyle and Buddhist foundations. There are different interpretations and practices. Some focus only on breathing.

      Positive and negative aspects of yoga and mindfulness

      Summary of positive aspects

      • They manifest a thirst for spirituality
      • They are an effective remedy for dispersion
      • They give importance and space to the body and its energies.
      • They help to control the interiority

      Summary of negative aspects

      • It is easy to confuse them with Christian prayer
      • Sometimes the only goal is balance
      • There is a risk of hyper-reflection and worship of the body.
      • There is a certain basal egocentrism.

      As a summary of this point, we will say that the Catholic Church tries to distinguish in yoga and mindfulness the exercise or technique of concentration, to which it does not make any special objection, from the religious background.

      The moral judgment in a concrete case, and how to respond to the Christian person who asks about the appropriateness of performing these practices, depends on the possibility of making a clear distinction between technique and associated religiosity.

      5. From mindfulness to the presence of God

      From what we have said, it would not be good for any parish or institution of the Catholic Church to promote mindfulness or yoga courses as its own activity. The underlying approach is very different from the Christian one.

      The increase of interest in these practices among Christians reflects the need to be more attentive to the care of the body, the emotional world and to reduce stress.

      These basic needs should be addressed - probably outside the parish - perhaps through courses with a Christian perspective on relaxation or breathing, courses on the management of emotions, or courses on how to take care of inner silence, etc.

      It is opportune to remember that there are practices without religious connotations that produce very beneficial effects: for example, stretching exercises, diaphragmatic breathing or deep muscular relaxation.

      It would be good to offer Christians courses to deepen their understanding of prayer as a source of serenity and peace. It would be useful to contextualize various techniques and how to understand their positive aspects in the light of prayer in Christ, along the lines suggested by St. Paul: "Examine all things, hold fast that which is good" (1 Thess 5:21).

      To people who ask about the use of these techniques, unless they have a special need, it is preferable to advise against yoga, unless they are careful to separate the physical part from the religious.

      Christian prayer to focus on what is important

      For all Christians it is fundamental to seek the presence of God: to discover that there is a God who sees us, hears us and loves us, which is a good way to focus the consciousness on what is important. We can do this through moments of peace in every practice of piety, especially in prayer, which permeates thought and action. Whoever prays ends up thinking and acting like Jesus.

      Through prayer, with God's grace, we come to interiorize Christ, following St. Teresa. The saint speaks of an "intimate relationship of friendship" in recollected prayer.

      Many saints emphasize prayer, united to peace. St. Josemaría, for example, spoke of a serene meditation, slowly and in silence, in which "the fire is lit".

      Christian mindfulness

      I end with a text from St. Basil, which could well be the mindfulness of a Christian:

      It is beautiful the prayer that makes God more present in the soul (...). This is what the presence of God consists in: to have God within oneself, reinforced by memory. (...) We become a temple of God when the continuity of memory is not interrupted by earthly concerns, when the mind is not disturbed by fleeting feelings, when the one who loves the Lord is detached from everything and takes refuge in God alone, when he rejects everything that incites to evil and spends his life in the fulfillment of virtuous works.

      Wenceslao Vial