Suzette Martinez Standring: Christian mysticism through yoga
Better Christianity through yoga is what former Benedictine monk Russill Paul teaches in his new book, “Jesus in the Lotus: The Mystical Doorway between Christianity and Yogic Spirituality” (New World Library 2008; $14.95). Yoga and prayer can open the door to a feeling of divine connection without compromising one’s Christian faith.
“Without any doubt yoga can help anyone, and is of special help to Christians, showing them how the body can be actively involved in prayer, transformed into a living temple of the Holy Spirit, and become a tabernacle for Christ consciousness,” said Paul, an author, musician and spiritual studies professor.
Paul was born to Hindu and Christian parents in Chennai, India, where his given name was unusual in a predominantly Hindu culture. Drawn to monastic life, the young man trained for five years at a Benedictine monastery in South India under the mentorship of Abbot Bede Griffiths, who applied yogic disciplines to deepen the experience of connecting to Jesus. As a monk, Paul also trained as a yogi.
A celibate monk’s life began daily at 5:20 a.m. -- rigorous with prayer, work and study, strictly following Biblical and Catholic principles. Over time, yoga practice transformed ascetic contemplation to ecstatic communion with the divine, and Paul shares much of the how-to of his experiences. For example, a Hindu “mantra,” was adapted for Christian worship, “Om, Na-Mah Chris-Taaya” (Amen, I bow to Christ”) and used as a potent “centering prayer” for meditation.
Over time, Paul had out-of-body experiences, the sensation of energy vibrating from his feet toward the top of his head, and heightened hearing and seeing. His experiences mirror those reported by St. Teresa of Avila, a 16th century Catholic mystic.
For the everyday person, the centeredness and calm attained through yoga is a practical way to experiencing God during prayer.
Though derived from Hindu traditions and steeped in spiritual teachings, Yoga is not a religion. Its system of postures, breathing, chanting and meditation produce an inner and outer peace. Paul says it results in a trust in God, self-acceptance, and a compassion for others, which are at the very heart of Jesus’ teachings.
“Does this not remind you of Jesus’ injunction ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and love your neighbor as yourself’ (Mark 12:30-31)? Yoga, in many ways, helps us understand more deeply what Jesus meant by ‘self,’” Paul writes in his book.
Many Christians resist yoga for different reasons: prejudice, a lack of understanding, fears of committing idolatry or straying from their faith, according to Paul. But their fears are unfounded.
Yoga can revitalize Christian prayer life at a time when many feel that Christianity is characterized by intellectual discussions or empty rituals.
The author cites a 2008 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life indicating that 28 percent of American adults have abandoned the religion they were raised in as children, and the Roman Catholic Church has lost more members than any other faith tradition. Those who leave yearn for a deeper spiritual connection. Many turn to Eastern religions, for example, Buddhism, where statistically three out of every four practitioners are converts, although Buddhists represent only 1 percent of the religious population in the U.S.
But Christians need not search for mystical communion elsewhere.
“Yoga does not require a Christian to give up faith in Jesus as a personal savior nor compromise any core theological views, such as that of the Trinity. One can actually use the techniques of Yoga to develop concentration in prayer and deepen relationship with God,” said Paul.
Nor is it about syncretism, the fusing of religions into one, which is unacceptable to devout practitioners of various faiths. It’s about using proven pathways to experiencing God’s presence. Paul shows how mantras, deep breathing and yoga during prayer can open the mystical door to the divine, so often missing in the Christian experience.
Christianity and Hinduism, though different, share in common a belief in self-transformation through faith. The title, “Jesus In the Lotus,” features the ancient Hindu symbol of the lotus, a beautiful flower that emerges from the muck from which it is rooted. It represents purity, eternity and divinity, those things that Christians see in Jesus.
Paul hopes to heal religious divides by showing how various disciplines can complement one’s own unique faith. To this purpose, his book succeeds.
For more information about Russill Paul visit www.russillpaul.com
Email Suzette Standring at firstname.lastname@example.org. She is the award-winning author of “The Art of Column Writing.”