Yoga and Orthodoxy

by Aristotle Papanikolaou | ελληνικά | Română | српски

Woman in yoga pose

In the wake of advice disseminated earlier this month across a variety of Greek media channels that the practice of yoga can be helpful to manage anxiety provoked by COVID-19, the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece felt compelled to make an official declaration that the practice of yoga is “absolutely incompatible with the Orthodox Christian faith and has no place in the life of Christians” (emphasis mine).  This is not the first time the Synod decided to warn about the dangers of yoga, as it made a similar proclamation in 2016 on the heels of the World Health Organization proclaiming June 21st as World Yoga Day. 

Is it wise for the Church of Greece to issue such a statement about yoga?  And is yoga absolutely incompatible with the Orthodox Christian faith?

Not only is it not wise, it’s actually irresponsible, especially given the mounting scientific evidence on how yoga can help those who not only suffer from anxiety, but from trauma and moral injury, which occur as a result of an experience of some form of violence. Neuroscientists have discovered that the plasticity of the brain lasts throughout our lifetime.  This means that the brain can, indeed, be rewired and, although violence does leave an imprint on the body that endures, it need not be determinative of one’s future. Neuroscientists are discovering that spiritual practices, such as certain forms of prayer, can rewire the brain, because, as explained by one of the leading specialists in treating trauma, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, in his book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, such practices allow “the body to have experiences that deeply and viscerally contradict the helplessness, rage, or collapse that result from trauma” (3). 

One such practice that they are discovering has been effective in helping trauma victims is yoga.  Bessel van der Kolk references research that shows conclusively “that ten weeks of yoga practice markedly reduced the PTSD symptoms of patients who had failed to respond to any medication or to any other treatment” (207). After testing sixty subjects, van der Kolk explains that “it became clear that people with PTSD have unusually low Heart Rate Variability. In other words, in PTSD the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are out of sync. We confirmed that yet another brain regulatory system was not functioning as it should. Failure to keep this system in balance is one explanation why traumatized people are so vulnerable to overrespond to relatively minor stresses: The biological systems that are meant to help us cope with the vagaries of life fail to meet the challenge” (267). He adds that “scientific methods have confirmed that changing the way one breathes can improve problems with anger, depression, and anxiety and that yoga can positively affect such wide-ranging medical problems as high blood pressure, elevated stress hormone secretion, asthma, and low-back pain” (268-69). Finally, because trauma victims so often dissociate from the feelings in their bodies, and this dissociation prevents them from proper and healthfully integrating the memories and experiences of trauma, van der Kolk says that “twenty weeks of yoga practice increased activation of the basic self-system, the insula and the medial prefrontal cortex. This research needs much more work, but it opens up new perspectives on how actions that involve noticing and befriending the sensations in our bodies can produce profound changes in both mind and brain that can lead to healing from trauma” (275). 

The fact that yoga is proving to be so helpful to those who have suffered trauma—child abuse, rape, combat violence—means that the recent declaration of the Holy Synod of Greece banning the practice of yoga is very dangerous as it deprives victims of trauma from a practice that is proving effective for healing trauma insofar as it helps to rewire the brain and one’s sense of self to one’s emotions and one’s bodily sensations.  One could argue that the Orthodox have their own spiritual practices that could help with trauma. Recent studies on yoga should motivate more research on the effects of various Orthodox spiritual practices, such as the Jesus Prayer, on the body for healing the effects of violence. The problem is that the Synod found it necessary to issue a declaration without any knowledge of this scientific evidence, and without any real alternative that is backed by scientific findings.

Is yoga absolutely incompatible with the Orthodox Christian faith?  This incompatibility logic is not new.  The Synod argues for this absolute incompatibility because  yoga is a “foundational” practice of Hinduism, and many modern Orthodox use this logic in different forms:  because it is from feminism, because it is from the Enlightenment, because it is from liberalism, because it is from atheistic psychology, because it is from Western Christianity—on and on. The idea is that only that which emerges purely within Orthodoxy is acceptable. 

But the problem is that this incompatibility logic, which is really a logic of purity, is neither historically nor theologically defensible. Historically, there is nothing sui generis in Christianity, with the exception of the event of the Incarnation itself.  In liturgy, theology, and ascetical practices, there is ample evidence that Christianity developed by appropriating already existing practices and thought forms. In other words, Christians recognized good things in the world around them and assimilated those practices and thought forms within the framework of their faith in the death and resurrection  of our Lord Jesus Christ. Such an idea is promoted by St. Paul: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil 4:8). St. Paul even recognized that Greek pagans were on the right track in worshiping “the Unknown God” (Acts 17:23), not to mention the affirmation by the fathers and mothers of the Church regarding the many philosophical truths about God developed already within Greek philosophy. 

The logic of absolute incompatibility is also theologically inconsistent with Christian belief in the Incarnation, and expresses more of a dualistic view of the world that one sees, ironically, in Gnosticism, Manichaeism, and Sabellianism. An Incarnational logic is not one that sees the world through either-or spectacles.  Such a logic affirms with confidence the Incarnation of God in Christ, and because of this event, can recognize what is good and godly in other thought forms, philosophies, and religious practices. 

What might the Synod have said? It could  have very simply stated that if Orthodox Christians are to practice yoga, they should try and do it with Jesus Christ in mind; they should say the Jesus Prayer in sync with the breathing rhythms of the yoga practice (breath is part of yoga practice, as it is part of the Jesus Prayer and other Far Eastern meditative practices); that Orthodox Christians  should remember that the goal of the Christian life is deification, theosis—divine-human communion, and that this bodily practice is a tool to make our bodies more available to the presence of Christ within us; that they should use the occasion of yoga practice to learn more about the rich and beautiful spirituality of their own Orthodox faith.  

Such an approach would have been much more beneficial than a blanket condemnation—a reaction seen all too often in the contemporary Orthodox Church. And in condemning yoga, the Synod has alienated so many of their faithful, while depriving especially those undergoing trauma of a practice that could help them experience what St. Paul calls the fruits of the Holy Spirit:  love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness (Gal 5.22). The healing that has been proven for many to result from yoga may even help those Orthodox Christians who have experienced trauma to really believe that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38).

An Orthodox Christian approach to the Other does not mean that we are quick to condemn; it means that we always affirm what is good in the other and integrate it into what we confidently have experienced to be the fullness of truth in Christ. As an Orthodox Christian, I practice yoga and will continue to do so, not seeing it as leading me to nirvana, but as affecting my body in such a way as to hopefully manifest the virtues, which St. Maximus the Confessor says are the very incarnation of Christ in our body (Ambiguum 7).

Aristotle Papanikolaou is the Archbishop Demetrios Chair in Orthodox Theology and Culture and the Co-Director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University.