Pray with Your Body
by Fr. Thomas Ryan, CSP
Yoga means “to yoke, to harmonize, to unite.” Hatha means “sun and moon,” symbolizing the different polarities within the human person. Hatha yoga refers to a series of stretching and breathing exercises that are used to harmonize body and spirit and orient the whole person towards an experience of communion with the Divine. These exercises— yoga— were originally designed to help people meditate better. Most people in the Western world have never gotten that message about yoga.
Can Christians do yoga? Sure, and they can even bring their Christian faith to it and make it part of their practice in the spiritual life. The exercises themselves are like the “hardware”. By itself, it’s neutral and can receive many different kinds of software and be used in different ways. For example, when a Christian brings his or her own faith understanding to it and employs these as a way to release tension and stress from the body and calm the mind so that one can encounter Jesus with greater focus of attention in meditation, yoga becomes an aid to Christian prayer.
Christian faith has the highest theology of the body amongst all world religions, but it also has one of the lowest levels of actual physical practice. So when Christian theology meets a finely developed physical practice like yoga or tai chi, it’s a natural fit.
Where do we as Christians get such a high regard for our embodied nature? For starters, we believe that God actually became flesh in the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth. In other words, human flesh and bone and blood became the place that God chose to call home. Then, at the end of his life, Jesus didn’t shuck off his body as though it were a burden to be escaped from; he re-embraced it in the resurrection. Notice how we always talk about the bodily resurrection of Jesus. And for good measure while we’re at it, take note that we always talk about Mary’s bodily assumption into heaven. Obviously, God holds our embodied spirits in very high regard. In heaven, Christian tradition holds, we will have bodies.
So it only makes sense to learn how to relate to God now both in and through our bodies. Here’s a little embodied prayer to the Trinity that you can pray each morning when you get up.
Steps for above postures:
- Inhale and raise both arms forwards and upwards, as you look up, reaching and stretching, expressing relationship with God, our Creator.
- Then Exhale and lower the arms out to the sides at shoulder level, with the palms up, to form a cross. Hold them there and turn your attention to Jesus, our Redeemer.
- The third person of the Trinity, the Hold Spirit or Sanctifier, we experience both within us and among us. Inhale and bring your hands inward towards the heart-center. Then exhale and reach forward, with palms up in a receptive position.
- Finally, return the hands to a folded prayer position at your breast.
This illustration and text is used with permission from Paulist Press. Prayer of Mind and Body. Fr. Tom Ryan, CSP Paulist Press, New York/Mahwah, NJ 1995]
If you’d like more information on how to relate your Christian faith of yoga and meditation, see Prayer of Heart and Body: Meditation and Yoga as Christian Spiritual Practice (Paulist Press, 2001), by Fr. Thomas Ryan, CSP or A New Christian Yoga (Cowley Publications, 1991) by Nancy Roth. To purchase these books click here.
Christians believe that after Jesus died he rose again from the dead and that his disciples experienced him in some kind of glorified and yet physical way. We believe this is our ultimate destiny too.
Catholic Christians believe that Mary at the moment of her death was transported to heaven body and soul. In other words, she was the next after her son to experience the transformed body of the kingdom of God. We believe this is the ultimate destiny of all of us at the
end of the world.