Welcome to Chavara Institute of Indian and inter-Religious Studies

Welcome to Chavara Institute of Indian and inter-Religious Studies

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

1. Priests offer yoga course inspired by Catholic spirituality, prayer

Yoga classes abound these days, with trendy “hot yoga” and “power yoga” classes marketing yoga as exercise, and standard-fare yoga classes at the local community center emphasizing flexibility and overall improvements in health. The few classes that focus on yoga’s spiritual benefits use the practice to enter into Hindu spirituality.

Carmelite of Mary Immaculate Father Issac Arickappalil, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Sacramento, and Father Francis Chirackal, St. Mary parochial vicar and also a member of the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate, teach a seven-week-long course in yoga that centers entirely around Catholic spirituality, theology and prayer.

“Yoga itself is not a religion, but a method,” explained Father Arickappalil in an interview with The Herald. “Yoga is a method that people of different religions use in their prayer lives.”

Yoga is a spiritual, mental and physical practice, he said. Physically, yoga calms the nervous system, strengthens the immune system, and helps with asthma. As mental training, he said, yoga increases one’s ability to concentrate. But it is yoga as a specifically Catholic spiritual practice that most interests Father Arickappalil, who also directs the Chavara International Center for Indian and Interreligious Studies.
Before becoming pastor of St. Mary Parish, Father Arickappalil, who holds a doctorate in theology from the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, was professor of theology at the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate seminary — Dharmaram Vidya Kshetram, Pontifical Athenaeum of Philosophy, Theology and Canon Law — in Bangalore, India. Seminarians there learn yoga as part of their prayer lives.
“The word ‘yoga’ comes from the Sanskrit root ‘yuj,’ meaning ‘to unite,’ explained Father Arickappalil, who learned yoga himself as a seminarian. “Yoga is a method of breathing, postures, and meditation leading to the individual’s communion with God.” Anyone from any faith can use yoga as prayer, he said, by following their own faith concepts in their yoga practice. Even agnostics and atheists can use it just for the physical benefits, he noted.
But the Catholic understanding of yoga’s method is that the practitioner seeks to achieve communion with God in the sense that St. Paul refers to in Galatians 20:20 when he writes, “It is no longer I who live; it is Christ who lives in me.”
All Christians are baptized into that communion with Christ and communion with God through Christ, Father Arickappalil observed, but people are not often conscious of that union or of their bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit.
“We tend to recite routine prayers without awareness,” he noted, “and in Western cultures particularly, we have little ability to concentrate. We are surrounded by sound all day long, unable to concentrate or focus our awareness.
“Yet unless we become conscious of the divine presence within us, we cannot lead an authentic Christian Catholic life of faith,” he added. Like the saints and sages, he continued, people must find quiet moments in their busy schedules to meditate upon the mysteries of their Christian Catholic life. Even Jesus found time to go with his disciples to a lonely mountain to pray and enjoy his union, his “yoga,” with God.
“Awareness can make our breathing a prayer,” Father Arickappalil said. “Even our posture can be a prayer with awareness.”
The only posture practiced in Father Arickappalil’s yoga classes, however, is sitting — usually in a chair.
“This class is not for you if you need to come in and stand on your head,” declared Barbara Carvalho-Leahmann, a St. Mary’s parishioner since 1978 and a returning student to the yoga course. “This yoga is very spiritual.”
Each hour-long class begins with a half-hour presentation on a theme for reflection. Recently, the course theme was God as creator, and on successive weeks the students considered their responses to God as creator, sustainer, sanctifier and provider.
The second half-hour is devoted to awareness and concentration through breathing.
This is pranayama yoga, or controlled breathing and prayer. Father Chirackal conducts the breathing instruction.
“We close our eyes, breathing,” reports Carvalho-Leahmann, “and we breathe in God’s grace and let if flow back out of us.
“When we first get started, you hear lots of rustling and loud breathing, until you learn how to do the breathing,” she said in an interview, “but then you begin breathing in the Holy Spirit and you allow him to take over your life.”
“We do not identify the literal air as the Holy Spirit,” said Father Arickappalil, “but because it is through God’s grace that we are alive, we use our breath symbolically to remind us that we are sustained every moment by God. When God created Adam, God breathed life into him. So in our yoga practice, we may say, ‘God’s breath comes to me, God’s breath sustains me.’”
Carvalho-Leahmann said that her yoga practice has changed her prayer life. She said that she has become more dependent on God and more aware of the working of the Holy Spirit in her life.
“In the morning, sometimes before the alarm rings, I wake and become aware of my breathing,” she said. “I start breathing a prayer — thank you, Jesus — with each breath.”
By Denise MacLachlan
Herald staff

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