As a devoted yogi with strong Christian roots, I’ve been scolded more than once for practicing yoga. Happily, I’ve found far more support than not among Christians. That’s good, because it turns out there are many yogis in Church history! Of course, they’re rarely identified as such and probably would not have thought of themselves as yogis. But they are there nonetheless, at least in my mind.
One of these yogis is Saint Ignatius of Loyola.
Some may be skeptical or even angry when I refer to Catholic saints as yogis. I assure you, my only goal is to connect yogis and Christians. We yogis are all about connection after all.
With that in mind, I’d like to introduce Ignatius, who had a lot in common with seekers on the yogic path.
Saint Ignatius and Detachment
Saint Ignatius developed a type of prayer based on meditation and contemplation. One of the core principles of Ignatian spirituality is finding God in all things. In yoga, we practice gratitude and being in the moment. Ignatius did the same. He was also a champion of a very yogic principle: the principle of non-attachment (or detachment).
Consider these words:
We should not fix our desires on health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or a short one. Our one goal is the freedom to make a wholehearted choice to follow God.
This is a very yogic statement! It is also a quote from St. Ignatius.
Yogis and Christians (and all other seekers of enlightenment) are called to union with a higher power. While some modern yogis are reluctant to call this higher power God, for Christians, God is exactly who we seek union with.
People who know more about the life of St. Ignatius than I do may feel like I’m reaching when I describe him as a yogi. And maybe I am. But I’m reaching because I believe there is a force at work in the lives of yogis, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists—all of us—that tries to bring us out of ourselves so we can discover who we truly are.
The core lessons of all spiritual traditions are remarkably similar, even as they appear to be quite different. An honest look at St. Ignatius’ view of detachment would have to include the Ignatian Prayer for Detachment. In true Christian form, this prayer focuses a lot on our own sinful nature. But let’s be clear. Sin is nothing more than separation from God. It’s no different from attachment to ego and ignorance, which yogis know to be the source of suffering.
Christianity, Yoga, and Union
Obstacles to enlightenment in yoga and sin in Christianity have a lot in common. Unfortunately, many of us who grew up in the Christian tradition learned sin as self-hatred, not sin as separation from God or sin as an obstacle to enlightenment.
For Ignatius, detachment meant that status, success, good fortune, etc. had no spiritual meaning. This is significant, because it allows his followers (the Catholic order of Jesuits) to work among the wealthy, comfortable, and educated, provided they are not attached to wealth, comfort, status, or good luck. While other orders emphasize poverty and simplicity, Jesuits may have a better shot at enlightening those who experience and remain attached to success, wealth, good health, and popularity.
In my yoga classes, most of us are living comfortable middle-class, even affluent lives. But we know there is something more. We know that attachment to material comfort, success, and even physical health is not wise. All of that will end, perhaps sooner than we expect.
But the truth of who we are will remain, and living in tune with our source (with God) will set us free.