Discerning Yoga in Orthodoxy

by Kerry San Chirico | Ελληνικά

person doing yoga

It was with academic and existential interest that I read two summer yoga essays by Aristotle Papanikolaou and Metropolitan Konstantinos. As a scholar of South Asian religions engaged in interreligious work, and as a proponent of the comparative theological project among Orthodox, I found much that resonated, not only in terms of accurately reflecting the benefits of yoga practice, but the constructive Orthodox hermeneutic by which we should encounter the religious Other.

The reader should know that much ink has been spilt on the origins of yoga, its development into the modern period, and even what is meant by the word “yoga.” The Sanskrit root yuj means “to unite, join, or connect.” (The word yoke is an Indo-European cognate.) Generically, then, yoga simply means “union”—and it is possible to unite the mind/body organism, or oneself to Śiva or to non-dual Hindu understandings of the divine Self or to the Trinitarian God. Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain schools and lineages use the term yoga differently, tracing practices to different ancient texts and teachers. Practices will vary. The encounter of East and West in the colonial period has had as much to do with what yoga is today than many would care to admit. By the way, not every Hindu does yoga. Hindus might be surprised to hear that yoga is “integral” to Hinduism, the word used by the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece—at least if that means everyone practices yoga or is an absolutely necessary soteriological practice, though Hindus would almost universally agree that it is beneficial and salutary in the pursuit of liberation (mokṣa), variously conceived. While we are at it, most English-speaking Hindus don’t refer to their tradition as a religion at all. Rather, “Hinduism is a way of life.” Sound familiar?

Christians have now been doing yoga for some time, though not uncontroversially, with different levels of commitment to either their Christianity or their yoga. After more than a century, and especially since the 1960s, it is safe to say that yoga is now as American as baseball and obesity, and as adapted to its context as the American pizza. Much like mindfulness meditation, with its roots in Buddhist meditative practice, yoga has been largely shorn of its “religious” meanings, a fact that should give all religious people pause. In typical American fashion, yoga has become big business.

Simply from context one discerns that when Papanikiloau and the Metropolitan use the term yoga they are speaking of that combination of bodily postures (āsana) and control of the breath (prāṇāyāma), often sprinkled with aphoristic Eastern wisdom. We might simply call this “postural yoga,” and, whether one likes it or not, this is yoga for most people in the world today. Papanikolaou is correct when he argues that science has been proving what Indians have known for a very long time. Postural yoga, as well as other forms, have distinct health benefits for body, mind, and soul. These benefits should not be denied because their provenance are deemed “outside” Holy Orthodoxy. That would be as foolish and ultimately fruitless as denying the efficacy of antibiotics. Actually, it is not clear what constitutes being “outside” Orthodoxy, as though our tradition is a fortress under lock and key and passwords thrice uttered. It seems to me that the Johannine identification with Christ as Logos does away with those boundaries. Instead, I submit that the operative principle for determining the appropriateness of any idea, practice, discipline, or system is offered by the Apostle: “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). Of course, in order to discern these attributes requires active engagement, neither facile dismissal nor naïve tout corps acceptance. And while we are at it, “You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16a) is another helpful biblical measure. It seems this is precisely what Metropolitan Konstantinos was doing when he critically observed discourse around International Yoga Day, but most importantly, when he engaged with Orthodox children in Kolkata, for whom yoga in no way compromised their faith. Rather than making a blanket rejection, he sought wisdom and he discerned the truth from his own flock.

Metropolitan Konstantinos might not have known it, but he was employing viveka. Viveka is a Sanskrit word meaning “to discern or discriminate.” In Hindu philosophy, it is the means through which one determines truth from falsehood, the eternal from impermanent, and the very categories for ordering and interpreting the world. Viveka is needed when engaging any religious tradition or practice. The practice of yoga is not beneficial for everyone and should be done with care. Orthodox who seek to integrate yoga with their spirituality should be able to identify the different anthropologies and experiences that attend to both.

Orthodox are going to continue to do yoga, despite ecclesial condemnations. So the more fruitful pastoral response is to encourage the faithful to integrate yoga with their Orthodox spirituality, to identify real differences between yoga (in its more popular and religious varieties) and Christian spirituality, and to adapt accordingly. Of course, to integrate first involves knowing something of one’s own tradition. Regardless, this is one possible path for constructive comparative theology, rooted in a living engagement across traditions.

Still, I’d like to make one last point. For it seems that whether we are arguing for the legitimacy of yoga based on science, or we are speaking of a pastoral sensitivity requiring careful discernment, one senses that yoga is being deemed worthwhile despite its purportedly noxious associations with Eastern religions. This is a problem for two reasons. First, imagine being a Hindu and reading the recent condemnation from the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece. She would quickly note the fear and chauvinism of the Other between the lines and in them. Then she would recognize their sheer ignorance of yoga. We must begin to think in terms of a pluralist environment. In the age of Internet and smart phone we no longer have the benefit of chauvinistic insider speak. If we cannot imagine a Hindu listening in on our conversation as we discern yoga, then perhaps we had best not say it or say it differently. This is not to be politically correct, unless political correctness is taken to mean a concern for accuracy and kindness. Second, it simply cannot be the case that something is a priori problematic if it has an association with a non-Christian religion. Religions are not hermetically sealed “things,” but intermingling personal and cultural processes that mix, blend, differentiate, steal—and fail to footnote, unto ages of ages—including Orthodoxy. But the deeper theological question must be asked: Is there a way to show absolutely fidelity to God free from the chauvinism that often accompanies that fidelity?

I make no excuses about studying and teaching about Hindu traditions on their own terms and comparatively. Christian love for the neighbor actually requires it, as you simply cannot love those who you do not understand. I think of the Mīrābāī’s poetry of longing for Krishna. I think of the willingness of women to fast from all foods as they pray for the wellbeing of their families, putting Indian Christian fasting to shame. I think of the doctrine of niṣkāma karma (selfless action) as found in the Bhagavad Gītā—that is, the teaching to do one’s duty without regard to personal outcomes. I think of Hindus who have shown me kindness over the last quarter century—friends, teachers, strangers. And, yes, I think of yoga, and to the feeling of wholeness that attends to my practice when I’m disciplined enough to do it. Incidentally, when I do yoga, one name inevitably finds its way from my mind to heart to lips again and again as I move from one position to the next, remembering to breathe. The name is Jesus Christ. The residue is peace.


For Further Reading:

The Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies, Volume 30.

Christine Mangala Frost, The Human Icon: A Comparative Study of Hindu and Orthodox Christian Beliefs (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co.: 2017).

Mark Singleton, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).


Kerry San Chirico is Associate Professor of Interfaith and Comparative Religious Studies at Villanova University and President of the Society for Hindu-Christian Studies.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.