Whether it’s Pilates or spinning, marathoning or extreme kayaking, Americans love their exercise. No doubt the number of new gym memberships and fitness-related New Year’s resolutions will spike in a couple of weeks, right after we’ve all ingested too many rum balls and glasses of egg nog.
Physical activity for the sake of good health is certainly a noble goal. No one would debate the health benefits of an after dinner walk, a daily run, or taking the stairs whenever possible. But Fr. Thomas Ryan a Paulist priest as well as a certified yoga instructor and avid skier, believes physical activity enhances both bodily and spiritual health. In other words, taking good care of our bodies has spiritual benefits, and can actually bring us closer to God.
Along with his full-time ministry directing the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in New York City, Ryan has authored numerous books lauding the spiritual benefits of proper and disciplined care of the body, most recently Reclaiming the Body in Christian Spirituality (Paulist Press).
BustedHalo recently interviewed Fr. Ryan about his new book and forthcoming Yoga Prayers DVD (available through this site as of Dec. 24), as well as some of his unique ideas about the connections between the care of the body and the spiritual life.
BustedHalo: Do you think that the body is something that Christians take for granted?
Father Thomas Ryan: The body has, overall, gotten short shrift in Christian spirituality. The irony is that we as Christians have the highest theology of the body in theory and the lowest in practice.
BH: Can you explain what you mean by a high theology of the body?
TR: Take this event we will celebrate at Christmas for example: God becomes a living being of flesh and blood and experiences life just as we experience it: eating and drinking, working and resting, touching and being touched. In this event God is sending us a very clear message: I identify with this bodiliness. That means that where we are now [as physical, embodied beings] is the intimate habitat of God. This is the place God has chosen to call “home”.
Then there is the issue of salvation. For a Christian, salvation does not mean finally at the end of our lives getting out of this skin, but being transformed and glorified in it. We don’t just have a body. We are a body. In the Christian afterlife we will have a body. That is a part of our self-understanding, a very distinctive understanding.
We do have a very high evaluation of the body that does not characterize every religion. Hindus believe in an enduring principle, the soul, that migrates from one body to another until all of the negative karmic imprints are gone. Buddhism believes in a karmic energy that passes from one body to the next, but like Hinduism, offers no particular salvation for the body. The irony is that both of these religions accord a very significant place to the role of the body in their spiritual practices. They have practices like tai chi, yoga, tae kwan do, walking meditation?such practices have significant places in these religions, yet in the big picture these traditions see no salvation for the body after death. So we Christians, with our high theology of the body but low level of practice, have something to learn here. Based on our understanding of salvation it makes good sense for Christians to use practices like yoga as software that they plug into the hardware of their own faith understanding.
Spiritual life practices that give the body its just due in the spiritual life are like wheels under the body of a car. Right now the car has a wonderful body [theology of the body] but needs wheels [practice] to get it to roll. As Catholics our most pronounced physical expressions at prayer are sitting, kneeling, standing, genuflecting– and how mindful are we really when and why we do even that? Because of the close-knit body-mind connection, the body expresses the attitude of the heart.
BH: In your book you write that the human qualities underlying fitness activities are the same qualities that support a healthy spiritual life. Can you say more about this?
TR: Team sports teach us cooperation, fair play, and how to be a graceful winner and loser. Individual sports, like track and field, teach determination and perseverance. In individual sports you are doing something because you believe in it, not because people are cheering you on. A sport like golf teaches attention to detail and nuance. Now many of these particular qualities, like determination or perseverance, are key qualities for the spiritual life. They’re the raw material for our human development, but we don’t often think about applying them to the spiritual life. But these are the qualities that will get somebody out of bed early in the morning or home early from the office to spend a little time praying. A lot of people have just developed those qualities in one area without realizing the direct potential and application in another part of their lives, like the spiritual life.
BH: Let’s say I go to the gym every day or do Pilates twice a week or something like that. What’s the first step I can take toward making a connection between these activities and my spiritual life? Does it have to be as explicit as me praying while I exercise?
TR: Not at all. One connection to make is to simply offer your time and energy during the exercise period out of a clear sense that caring for your body is a very concrete way of responding to God with thanksgiving. It can just be a little mental click where we simply avert to that and recognize that all that we have [including good physical health] is given to us in sacred trust and can be taken from us at any time. In the meantime, exercise is a way for us to take good care of the gift given and simply glorify God in our bodies.
BH: Do you think that people who are physically active are different spiritually from those who are not? How can you explain that difference in Christian terms?
TR: I think that people who are in good physical condition, through dance or swimming or yoga, know things in and through their bodies that pass others by. I think it relates to the flow of energy, a joy and enthusiasm that comes when the whole organism is in fine tune. When all the cog wheels are meshing, when energy is flowing through the body it is much easier to experience the joy God intends us to experience rather than when we are lethargic. As Christians we are called not just to read the Good News of the Gospel but also to be Good News. In order to be that Good News, however, we need to feel positive energy, to be glad we are alive and communicate that hopefulness and joy.
BH: So what are your favorite sports?
TR: Cross-country skiing and swimming. They are both aerobic kings in terms of the workouts they provide.
BH: I’m just curious–do you ski black diamonds?
TR: Yes, I do ski black diamond hills–at this point in time I ski single diamonds rather than double. I’m happy to ski intermediate runs too.
BH: Where are your favorite places to ski?
TR: My favorite places to ski in Canada are Banff and Lake Louise in Alberta. In the U.S. my favorite place to ski is Vail, Colorado.
BH: Is there a kind of exercise you really don’t like or have no desire to try?
TR: Hmmm. I have to pause because I usually enjoy anything that moves. I’ll say softball or cricket, because they involve too much standing around. I like to be on the move.
BustedHalo: I’ve never met a priest who is a yoga instructor! How did you get into yoga in the first place?
Father Thomas Ryan: I got into yoga through my prayer life. I had been doing Christian meditation/ centering prayer for about 10 years. And then one day someone said, ?Did you know that yoga was designed to help people meditate better?’ I filed it away in a mental file because I am a committed meditator. Then I took a sabbatical study year in 1991 in India where I studied Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. I spent the first month in an ashram and there was a daily yoga class. I practiced yoga daily for five weeks and continued to meditate. I could feel a qualitative difference in the stillness of my body while sitting and in the focus of my mind. I thought, this is really interesting–what is going on here? I started to embark on a more serious study of yoga, convinced of its value. When I got back home I pursued training as a certified yoga teacher at the Kripalu Center in Massachusetts.
BH: So are you saying that yoga originated as a physical practice to enhance spiritual meditation?
TR: Yes, that’s right. The idea was that a person developed a stronger back, more flexible legs and hips, and an increased ability to focus the mind so as to sit still in one’s body with one-pointed mental concentration.
BH: How come you never hear about that even though yoga is so popular in fitness centers and places like that?
TR: The Americanization of yoga has basically meant that it has been divorced from spirituality and turned into a workout or fitness experience. Basically somebody made a marketing decision in the 1960’s when yoga was brought to the West to separate the physical practice from its spirituality so as not to limit market share. So at your average YMCA or fitness center you won’t find that it is connected to meditation. In my own classes we always end with 20 minutes of quiet sitting in meditation. That’s why we call it Prayer of Heart (meditation) and Body (yoga).
BH: So are you a yoga instructor now?
TR: Yes, I am. I teach a weekly class at St. Paul the Apostle Parish [in midtown Manhattan], which I have done for five consecutive years. The participants are all kinds of people, by and large people in their 30’s and 40’s. They’re mostly first-timers–people who would not normally feel comfortable in a yoga studio. I also lead weekend and weeklong retreats.
BH: Tell me about this new Christian yoga DVD you have coming out.
TR: I work with yoga and meditation in ways that help Christians to root them in their own Christian faith. I teach what I call “yoga prayers”, made up of individual postures linked together in sequential flow and executed to sung Christian prayers like the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, the Prayer of St. Ignatius, the Peace Prayer of St. Francis, Psalm 23?. The DVD has seven of these yoga prayers on it. I spend 50 minutes teaching the postures that are the building blocks, and the full range of song prayers themselves takes about 30 minutes. The music brings in the element of affectivity; we all know how music can engage the emotions. The end result is a way into prayer that engages you mentally, emotionally, and physically. Prayers you’ve been praying all your life become suddenly fresh and powerful as you experience their meaning through your bodily movements with inspiring words and music stirring your emotions.
BH: You seem to be much more physically active than most priests. How did you come to be so athletic?
TR: I’ve been active in sports all my life. In high school I played football in the fall, basketball in the winter, track and field in the spring, and baseball in the summer. When I was growing up the playing fields contributed as much to my educational development as the classroom did, and I learned to highly esteem the role of physical activity and physical education. In other words, I have always been comfortable in my own skin.
BH: Who are the people who have been your spiritual mentors?
TR: Throughout my Catholic schooling physical education was an integral and strong component of the curriculum, which showed me the harmonization of physical and spiritual education. One of my real spiritual mentors was Fr. John Main, OSB, my spiritual director in Montreal. He is considered to be the one who was first out of the starting blocks in recovering the wonderful tradition of Christian meditative prayer. He died in 1982. God could not have given me a better spiritual director, as I met him when he was opening a Christian meditation center in the city shortly after I moved there. I also learned a lot from Thomas Merton’s writings, especially his openness to how God and the Holy Spirit are at work in other religions of the world and from his dialogue with those from Eastern religions.