“Eat, Pray Love”, God, Christianity and Yoga
A few good months ago I started reading “Eat, Pray, Love”. I’ve literally just finished it, while also reading a few more novels and non-fiction books in between. The reason why it took me so long is because I loved it too much. I’ve enjoyed “living” in Gilbert’s vivid world and I was reluctant to see the story end. So I took my time and enjoyed her funny, witty, so down-to-earth and genuine writing. I feel like I love this woman without ever having met her.
I particularly liked the India part. Thanks to her, I finally understood that yoga is not only about a few postures and namastes. It is also hard work, both spiritually and physically.
I am coming from a very conservative Romanian Orthodox family; my mother is a fervent church-goer, who very often speaks in examples from the Sunday Mass, and who’s constantly on my case about not praying hard enough. As a teenager, I found enduring two hours and a half of Sunday Mass a tiny bit torturous. I was honestly questioning (I still am sometimes) the point of all the chanting and never-ending psalm reading. Catholics have it easier: one hour and they’re done. But the Orthodox sermon lasts for about 4 hours all together. When I was 16, I found the whole procession boring and annoying and often let my mind wonder in hundred places. Then, ashamed of my „sinful” acts, I would bring myself back to the matter in hand: “…right….thank God, be dedicated, and be humble and honest in your gratitude. Because God is up there and he will punish you in ways you cannot even imagine.”
I was grateful, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that sometimes I found it really difficult to concentrate and be there and feel the sermon for so long, week after week, after week. I was a kid listening to ancient stories from the Bible that I saw no resemblance to the present time whatsoever.
For the past year or so I’ve also been doing yoga and I feel it has helped me better understand the goal and use of all those prayers and psalm readings in my church every Sunday. But there’s also a downside. The Christian church discourages yoga practising. Apparently, yoga’s biggest spiritual danger is that it opens a gateway to New Age spirituality and that if someone is not a Christian, it definitely leads them away from Jesus Christ. At least that’s what some experts think so.
Others beg to differ and argue that practising yoga is not dangerous. According to yoga philosophy, EVERYONE is inherently spiritual. Far from being dogmatic or religious in its content, the main aim of yoga is to bring inner peace. The yoga techniques aim to achieve a psychosomatic equilibrium or poise, helping us become better receptors of God’s grace. Bottom line, Christians who practise yoga will become better Christians.
Reading more on the topic made me realize I was kind of trapped between a hard place and a rock. I am an Orthodox to the bone. I do not seek to renounce my religion and embrace another. I do think my church could use some 21st century updates, but I still love it the way I love my parents, despite the fact that they are sometimes old-fashioned.
On the other hand I want to continue doing yoga. I don’t see how this mild form of exercise and breathing practice that helps me keep toned and gain inner peace could alter my faith in God or make me think I am God. I know that the Hindu self-absorption philosophy, encouraging those who practice yoga to find the God within, doesn’t sit well with the Christian idea of communion with God. In fact, Christianity condemns self-deification as pure evil.
So for some time, I kept asking myself how to go about bringing these two parts of my life together. After reading Gilbert’s book, it dawned on me that one does not necessarily have to exclude the other. Just because I’ve been attending yoga classes does not make me less of a Christian. On the contrary, I think it helps me concentrate and pay more attention to the prayers during the Sunday Mass. Gilbert’s book helped me take it easier and stop beating myself up for wanting to do both. It taught me that in every religion, chants and hymns and tedious prayers are important and have their place. And somehow helped me accept and try to better understand the whole point of these rituals in the Orthodox rite.
I was also happy to read about the Benedictine monk Dechanet’s view on yoga as a help to be better Christians, provided we practice it within a framework of Christian prayer. In simple terms: do the postures, practice the breathing, stay away from mantras and replace them with the simple and powerful Jesus prayer. Unlike the mantras that work like self-hypnotism, the Jesus prayer marks a movement to and from God, which is the actual relationship of faith and love.
So to sum it up, I do think moderate yoga practice helps me be a better, healthier person. I am definitely not interested in getting myself a Guru and spend a few months in an ashram. I may very well find an Orthodox wise priest to listen to and follow, and spend a few months in a beautiful monastery up in the Romanian mountains. There I can spend my time praying, contemplating and doing the daily chores together with the monks or nuns.
Talk about the daily chores, I found a striking similarity between Gilbert’s day in the ashram and the way it unfolds in an Orthodox monastery back home: waking up early in the morning, praying, eating only vegetarian/vegan food and doing physical work. The big difference is ashrams are more popular destinations for the Westerners. Still, I have no doubt that once you find yourself in a monastery, in the middle of nature, surrounded by mountains and forest, hearing only the bells and the birds’chirping, you will enjoy the same bliss and feel just as close to God as in India.
And let’s face it. Not only yoga can be dangerous. Religion is a strong drug in any form and under any name – be it Hindu, Christian or Buddhist. There are many people out there who have long crossed the border and have become religious nuts, promoting this fearsome picture of God as this Big Brother figure who’s watching our every step and takes a pathological pleasure from punishing us, the sinners and the skanks of the Earth.