Christians Practicing Yoga through Thomas Merton
This post is the first of a three-part series formatted from my writing sample written in the fall of 2019. It was originally posted on Christians Practicing Yoga.
I found Thomas Merton’s autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain in 2018 at the Harvard Book Store while touring around Boston with my dad. While Merton’s experience with Eastern traditions was intriguing, his aptitude for uncovering a true, substantial desire to connect with God is what drew me in. I saw myself depicted in that form of desire. I saw myself striving every moment of my yoga practice to obtain this full mind-body union with God. My spirituality, my faith, my practice never stops regardless if I am in a church or on a yoga mat. Many people may not overlap with Merton in a Christian yoga practice, but Merton’s work influenced my personal understanding of practicing yoga as a Christian. This realization connected me to Merton and his experience even though we are decades apart.
Last year I continued my devotion by researching Merton’s work and its intersection with the spiritual benefits of yoga. This research deepened my appreciation for the contributions of Merton to my own beloved practice of yoga, and I want to share this appreciation for his work with others. I encourage you to get to know him better. Below you will find an introduction to Merton and his influence on Christians who practice yoga today. This post will be followed by three others that dive deeper into Merton’s impact on Christians practicing through mysticism, contemplative prayer, and interreligious dialogue.
Thomas Merton, after a European upbringing and an education at Columbia University, converted to Catholicism in 1938. Shortly after, he joined Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky as a Trappist monk. There he worked diligently with the practices of mysticism, contemplative prayer, and interreligious dialogue through study and personal experience. With the Second Vatican council inviting Catholics to engage with their religious neighbors, Merton’s later-in-life comparative work reflected this post-Vatican II Catholicism. During this time Catholics and Merton himself experienced a shift towards more progressive values. Merton’s new approach to monastic thought and practice brought him to think deeply about Buddhist meditation and its contributions to Catholic contemplative prayer. The Dalai Lama even praised Merton as a “master of contemplation.”
While Merton did not explicitly address yoga in his writings, his appreciation for interreligious dialogue promoted the idea in late twentieth-century Christian culture. I believe Thomas Merton was key to the developing popularity of Christians practicing yoga through his emphasis on Christian interreligious dialogue which established the foundation for laypeople and clergy members to begin practicing yoga. Interreligious dialogue invites Christians to explore yoga as a habitual spiritual practice.
The importance of interreligious dialogue comes into play when honoring the Eastern origins of yoga as Christians. Traditional yoga goes beyond the postures we associate with it today. Yoga is a spiritual philosophy that provides wisdom for how we should all live. It is a philosophy and a systematic technique that makes it unique among the Indian philosophies. Christians who practice yoga have drawn on Merton’s contemplative prayer, advocating that we can explore and contemplate our soul’s relationship with God, realizing our connection to the mystical body of Christ. Merton establishes mysticism, contemplative prayer, and interreligious dialogue as essential to the Christian faith. Without these three essential ideas, it would be difficult to imagine Christians practicing yoga for spiritual benefits at all.
As Christians, we engage in mysticism by seeking a unified connection with God. This connection is seen by way of contemplative prayer or praying by meditating on one or all persons of the Trinity. Yoga is, in itself, a practice of mysticism and contemplative prayer.
Thomas Merton’s documented experience with yoga is rather sparse, yet Christians who practice yoga are indebted to his work with Asian traditions. One reason some Christians oppose the practice of yoga, and some Hindus oppose the practice of secular yoga, is that both are combating consumerism and self-centeredness in the world. In the same light, Merton does not believe a person’s connection with society can be separated from faith. In other words, faith is about the community and recognition of the mystical body of Christ. Through mystical experiences, we recognize that we are all in communion through Christ. This explains why he believes that mysticism is the bedrock of the Christian faith. In his perspective, no one can ignore its importance in the Christian tradition. Christians who practice yoga have gone even further than this, extracting mysticism from the bedrock of the Christian tradition by bringing it to the surface and engaging in this traditionally Eastern practice.
I believe Merton would support Christians who practice yoga because they embody mystical contemplative practice and interreligious dialogue. Merton’s praise of Christian Yoga and the Bhagavad Gita encourages Christians to explore their faith through yoga. This gateway led our fellow Father Thomas Ryan at the end of the twentieth century to expand upon Merton’s work by writing Prayer of Heart and Body. Here he describes Merton as a pioneer of contemplative prayer for all. Traces of Merton’s effects on Christian yoga are mapped throughout this blog and our devotion to integrating Christian and yogic philosophies. Many other Christian bloggers like myself and Amy Secrist, another CPY contributing writer, praise Thomas Merton as an aid in the effective practices of yoga for physical and spiritual benefits.
The next post in this series will focus on the first concept, mysticism, in Merton’s influence of yoga. If you are interested in Thomas Merton’s path to becoming a monk, check out his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. To learn more about Thomas Merton, visit merton.org.