by Lynden Rodriguez, OCDS
I recently came across an article in my email on the relationship of yoga and the Hindu mantra. Like so many Christians who might have been introduced to yoga before rededicating their lives to Christ, I have been somewhat divided on what all of this means. The Biblical pronouncement to take that which is valuable and discard the rest may be applied here, but the “mantra” is a decidedly Hindu development. Or is it?
Katie Silcox writes in this week’s Yoga Alchemy of the on-line Yoga Journal: “The Sanskrit root ‘man’ means ‘mind’ or ‘to think.’ ‘Tra’ means ‘to protect, guide, or lead.’ So, ‘mantra’ is a sound, vibration accompanied by ‘abhav’(feeling/meaning) that protects, guides, and leads the mind. Another meaning of mantra is ‘a measure,’ as in a vibration or rhythm that we attune to, instead of the normal patterning (and therefore vibration) of the untamed mind.”
This interpretation of the word mantra means it is far from Christian thought; particularly Christian Mysticism. Readers may be surprised to find that there is indeed such a thing as Christian Mysticism. The treasuries of the Catholic Church are replete with mysticism, mystic experiences, and instructions along the way.
After my conversion to Catholicism, my daily yoga practice became increasingly more difficult with regard to meditation and use of the mantra. I was extremely uncomfortable with the spiritual practices at the base of my favorite exercise. However, there was nothing I could find at the time that said it was detrimental to practice yoga and yogic meditation.
Fast forward a few years, and I found myself called to the vocation of a Secular Carmelite. During my first years at Carmel, I was struggling with my prayer life. I spoke to our Director of Formation, and she recommended meditating on a flame, a holy image or word, and of all things, a mantra. The word made me bristle, but I knew what she was referring to. We had recently been instructed in the “Jesus Prayer.” It is a repetitive prayer used for hundreds of years by the Orthodox Church: “Jesus Christ, only Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” So, in obedience I began to recite the prayer as often as I could. I cannot tell you how much more complete my prayer life was after utilizing that prayer; and it has taken me up unto this very day.
But returning to topic, being the curious person that I am about words and language, I sought out a book: The Way of a Pilgrim. The book is a spiritual classic from Russia, delving into the history of the prayer, its meaning, and its consequence. It follows a Pilgrim on his way, and all of the holy people and experiences he encounters. It explains how one may constantly pray the Jesus Prayer, as the answer to the Biblical command to, “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17 NASB).
The anonymous author of the book writes about his encounter with a holy man: “The elder received my plea lovingly and invited me to visit him in his cell: ‘Come, stop by and I will give you a book of the Holy Fathers from which, with the help of God, you can learn all about prayer…The ceaseless Jesus Prayer is a continuous, uninterrupted call on the Holy Name of Jesus Christ with the lips, mind, heart; and in the awareness of His abiding presence it is a plea for His blessing in all undertakings in all places, at, all times, even in sleep” (Way of a Pilgrim, 18)
Eventually, I became Director of Formation in my Secular Carmelite order; and was the Director of Aspirants (Inquirers) for much longer, and always recommended to my students Christian meditation as approved by the Order; the Jesus Prayer being one of the methods.
I cannot say that the yoga mantra is inadvisable or not. I can only speak from my own experience. After all, I came from that practice into my Carmelite vocation; and I wouldn’t want to break anyone’s “rice bowl” either. However, I do owe yoga a debt to teaching me about meditation, and breathing exercises to calm the spirit. I would only say that it is a different understanding than that of my own. But to all those who are Christian and who enjoy yoga asanas, yet are torn by this issue, I would recommend the substitution of Christian objects, words and mantras, particularly the Jesus Prayer, over those put forward by traditional yogic teachings.
Bracovcin, Helen, Translator. Way of a Pilgrim, The. Image Books – Doubleday. 1992.
Silcox, Katie. Sweeping the Body with Mantra.Yoga Alchemy:
YogaJournal.com. October 26, 2012. <http://blogs.yogajournal.com/alchemy/2012/10/26/sweeping-the-body-with- mantra/#.UIrsHyxwhJY.facebook>
- Jesus Prayer (shawnbranch.com)
- A reflection of prayer (pjgracecommunity.wordpress.com)
- Nothing Means The Same Anymore (sarahsilver.wordpress.com)
- Return to Our Senses – Learning to Breathe the Jesus Prayer (godspace.wordpress.com)
- ‘Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer’ the New Book by Emmy Award-Winning Documentarian, Norris J. Chumley, Ph.D, is a Journey Into the Heart of God (prweb.com)
- Trouble Sleeping? (frstephensmuts.wordpress.com)