Recently I’ve made a mental shift towards mysticism by fault of interest and my consuming study. Each article, book, or blog post I read sends me down the rabbit hole of Christian mysticism and where this has grown from Eastern traditions. What I am finding is that mysticism and the mystical experience is the link binding Christians to a habitual yoga practice for their faith life. Ultimately, mysticism shares fundamental laws expanding across religious borders. The sheer descriptor of “Christian” or “Eastern” mysticism does not indicate a difference in foundation. On the mystical train of thought, this month’s book is Prayer of Heart and Body by Father Thomas Ryan which illustrates the marriage of Christianity and yoga.
Father Thomas Ryan is a Paulist priest who founded Christians Practicing Yoga after diving into the study of Christianity and yoga. Ryan discovered yoga to be an essential element of his entire faith life. Yoga is not the end-all be-all of his faith life, this being a stark distinction from our Eastern neighbors. As he states, to have a complete faith life one must encounter all facets: meditation, sacraments, prayer, etc. (113). I explain this concept to others by using the analogy of a toolbox: in order to build a house, a builder needs more than just a hammer. For us to have a fulfilled faith life, we need the sacraments, Church study, and personal prayer, but we may also find the need for a weekly rosary or, in my case, a yoga class a day!
His book functions as a manual for the Christian yogi seeking information about yoga from a Christian perspective. Part one describes meditation and contemplative prayer in Christianity. Ryan recognizes the many Christians involved in this history such as St. Paul, St. Gregory of Sinai, St. John Cassain, St. Benedict, the author of The Cloud of the Unknowing, St. John of the Cross, Symeon the New Theologian, and St. Ignatius of Loyola. Ryan then records the modern and contemporary Christians who were inspired by Eastern relations like M. Basil Pennington, Thomas Keating, John Main, Laurence Freeman, and, my favorite, Thomas Merton. These contemporaries provided the “how to” of Christian meditation and centering prayer as opposed to the ambiguity of the earlier Christians (42). Part two dives deeper into the interreligious study of Christianity and yoga. This section initiates the justification of the Christian-practicing-yoga conversation. Remnants and expansions of this discussion can be found in many recent Christian-yoga blogs (such as this one). Once one has read through part one and two, they may be interested in commencing a Christian-based yoga practice, but might not know where to start. The third part animates the words into helpful methods of this practice.
The role of unity as a theme in this book catches my attention the most. The pages illuminate John of the Cross’s fundamental idea that union is God’s gift (62). Therefore we are in fact created to find God in ourselves and our bodies. This definitively affirms that God cannot be separated from his creation: “the practice of yoga fosters realization of the union which is already present” (211). Unity is an essential element of the Christian life, yet many view it as a mere earthly bond between human beings. We often experience God through our relationships with others yet fail to see a transcendent union. This is one reason why Christians who practice yoga seem so bizarre. Our true community is culminated through our consuming bond with God. Receiving the eucharist is a perfect example of this: we receive God in the flesh in the presence of our community, our Church. We are bonded together because we are bound to God. From this we find a central Christian objective: “the aim and invitation of our lives is nothing less than full union with God. We are made for communion” (107).
I highly recommend this book for anyone whose feelings are ambivalent towards Christians practicing yoga whether a Christian, a non-Christian, an advanced yogi, or an amateur. This book gives a beautiful insight into the Christian-based yoga world, giving it much needed enlightenment.
Peace and Namaste,