American Synthesis: Catholicism and Yoga
Updated: Aug 27
This post has since been updated by changing the verbiage of syncretism to synthesis in order to better communicate its intent.
Catholicism came to America, then yoga came to America. American Catholicism and American yoga have something in common: synthesis. As defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, synthesis is the combination of different forms of belief or practice.
So let's begin how Kateri Tekakwitha became the first Native American saint canonized...
European missionaries protected convert Natives from enslavement if they would show up to mass every Sunday for an hour or longer. Natives practiced synthesis because they would attend mass and continue to believe in their previous spiritual practices.
Many missionaries wanted the Natives to understand the true meaning and practices behind the Catholic Church, not just to imitate conversion. Natives were hesitant because they believed they had to change their identity in order to convert to Catholicism. Kateri Tekakwitha, a Mohawk indian who converted to Catholicism, was keen on maintaining her identity as a Mohawk indian and a devout Catholic. She became a beautiful example of being able to keep one's culture and accept Catholicism whole-heartedly.
The earliest mentions of yoga in America was written by none other than everyone’s favorite transcendentalist hermit, Henry David Thoreau. He wrote about his understanding of yoga in the forms of correspondents with a friend. He stated that even he “may be a yogi.”
The interpretation of these yogic ideas were spread throughout the Western world and produced a new light on the subject written for the understanding of the American people at the time.
The first true Indian yogi to come to America, Paramahansa Yogananda, did not settle here until the early twentieth century. A yogi as well as an acclaimed author, Yogananda became famous for his best-seller, The Autobiography of a Yogi, a detailed account of his personal yoga journey. The book gave insight to Americans upon which was otherwise unknown territory beforehand. The end result of Yogananda’s spreading of yogic philosophy was an awareness of yoga in the West.
Not long after, a yoga teacher named Indra Devi came to America. She had no relation with yoga until she moved to India a few years prior with her husband and began teaching under an Indian guru. She journeyed back to America and began to introduce the yogic ways of life to many celebrities at the time. Devi opened the first yoga studio in America in no other than Los Angeles, California. Even Marilyn Monroe enjoyed some yoga herself.
Based on the history of synthesis in America, yoga should not conflict, but enhance and strengthen a person’s Catholic faith by allowing an individual to maintain an identity of their choosing if it does not oppose their faith. The Catholic Church may not be subject to constant change, but Catholics are subject to the trends of the times, wherever these Catholics may be.
Peace and Namaste,