By Bishop Julian Porteous
Sydney Auxiliary Bishop
Yoga, Tai Chi, Reiki, these are now familiar terms to most Australians. They are relatively recent imports into our culture, but they have spread with extraordinary pace across the nation. Yoga has been around the longest, while Reiki is a more recent immigrant.
Coming from Asia, they have been marketed as good for relaxation, fitness and general health. They are widely used, and many speak of their benefits. One could say that they are not viewed as exotic practices but are a part of mainstream Australian life. Sports people use them. Business people turn to them. Many Christians have been drawn to them, seeing them as supplementing Christian spiritual practices.
Despite the large scale acceptance of these practices, we need to ask: are they good for the soul?
The Practice of Yoga
Yoga is well known as the practice of adopting various bodily postures that are intended to help the person enter a “state of inner stillness”. This is seen as a way of de-stressing, for relaxing and restoring a sense of general wellbeing. Hatha Yoga, the most common form, offers 20 basic postures.
Adopting these postures is accompanied by various ways in which the practitioner is guided to be able to be still and empty the mind. The bodily posture needs to work in cooperation with the quietening and steadying of the mind. Thus, each posture is to be accompanied by a control of the breathing, the focus of the mind, and the repetition of a mantra. In other words, there is an inner journey which must be undertaken along with the physical postures.
As the person wishes to move further into yogic practice the teacher may propose that it is necessary to surrender oneself to the prana, or divine energy. A person can go even further on this inner journey towards entering altered states of consciousness. This further development will entail an emptying of the mind so that one becomes more open and passive. The result is that there will be a reduction in logical thought, a lessening of the influence of the emotions and a weakening of the will, so that there is greater freedom for the divine energy to operate. A person must surrender in trust to some real but unknown divine force.
The ultimate goal is to come to a place of oneness with the universe. However, to achieve this goal there is a requirement on the practitioner to dismantle their personality – the philosophy underlying Yoga considers all but the spiritual an illusion. The actual final point of Yoga is an absorption into the divine energy.
The spiritual underpinnings of Yoga
When we consider the goal of Yoga in these terms we have crossed a line. No longer is Yoga simply a relaxation technique, rather it is a path into a spiritual world. This world is the spiritual world of Hinduism. Yoga has been imported from India.
The practitioner, who no doubt has experienced some tangible benefits from using Yoga and wants to know more, is now led into new territory. New concepts and new ways of seeing themselves and reality around them are introduced. They claim that the human body has seven chakras (or energy centres). The student is introduced to existence – they claim of the force called Kundalini – the divine energy that flows within the body. Kundalini is, in fact, a Hindu goddess, designated as a coiled snake.
In this process the person is being offered an alternative view of the nature of the human person and of the character of the divine. These are concepts that are completely at variance with Christianity.
What is the practitioner now coming into touch with? The spiritual belief behind Yoga is that there is an impersonal, infinite energy called Brahman. This energy has created everything and is in everything. Hinduism believes that nature is divine. Thus they say, “All is god, god is all”. We Christians call this pantheism.
Advancing further into the spiritual world behind Yoga one learns of the possibility of developing the ability to exercise psychic powers (or siddhis). This is what the Christian Scriptures call divination. The Catholic Church warns of the dangers of such spiritual activities – “All forms of divination are to be rejected”, teaches the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It goes on to specify: “Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers.” This spiritual world offered through Yoga is dangerous territory.
A person advancing in the ways of Yoga is under the direction of a guru who is needed to escort the person into these higher spiritual levels. One has to ask what does the guru believe? Who is his god? Where is he taking the person?
For the ordinary person who wants a simple system of actions to assist in relaxation, all this may seem far from what they have experienced and they may have no intention of going this far. All they desire is to benefit from the simple practice of the postures. This is quite reasonable. However, someone using Yoga will be exposed to the spiritual world that underpins it. There is a temptation to take on the “spirituality” behind Yoga, albeit inadvertently. A person may find themselves using the Hindu terminology. They may find themselves thinking more about oneness with the universe and less about a personal relationship with God in Christ. Indeed, for the Catholic, the sacramental life may seem prosaic compared with the satisfaction derived through Yoga. What can happen is that there is a subtle shifting of vision – from a Christian faith grounded in a relationship with Christ to a more “enlightened” universal view of reality as professed by Yoga. Somewhere along the line clear Christian faith has dissolved and has been replaced with a new spiritual outlook.
The seemingly graceful art of Tai Chi
With these thoughts in mind let us examine the popular practice of Tai Chi. The origin of Tai Chi is China. We are familiar with seeing people practise the slow, graceful movements in parks and halls. Once again the movements are associated with other practices which are in common with Yoga. The exercise of Tai Chi requires the control or slowing of breathing. The practitioner will be encouraged to empty the mind so that peace and harmony can be found through the absence of thoughts.
Tai Chi is touted as providing a means for the reduction of stress and generally improving overall health. It is commonly used in schools and businesses, in nursing homes and on Catholic retreats. Tai Chi claims to enhance the spiritual aspect of life. It is also claimed to enable people to experience healing powers. The promotional material is quick to claim, however, that it is not a religion. They propose it as simply a technique.
Those who teach Tai Chi are conscious that there is, in fact, a spiritual philosophy that underpins it. Slowly, this deeper dimension comes to the fore, particularly for those who want to go further with the practice. The ultimate source of this philosophy is Taoism. Tai Chi aims at releasing the Chi, or life force, or divine energy. As with Yoga, various places in the body are understood to be centres of the Chi.
The understanding of the nature of the human person, which is found in Taoism, is quite at variance with the Christian understanding. There is a completely different spiritual worldview.
Having an open mind
To benefit from Tai Chi at a deeper level one is asked to have an “open mind”. It is claimed that the person will only be able to discover the supernatural power within when they let go of rational thought and open themselves to these new realities.
One of the paths to having an open mind is to be able to move beyond a reliance on the difference between good and evil. In other words, a person has to suspend moral thinking. The reason for this view is found in the Taoist philosophy of the yin and yang. Harmony and stillness are found when the yin and yang are in balance. Thus, there is a requirement to move beyond the use of moral facilities and enter a new realm of free floating openness.
Such a position of radical openness is extremely dangerous. We have abandoned those faculties given to us to direct and protect our lives: our reason, our emotions and our will. The normal use of these faculties assists us in making fully human decisions, and enabling us to be responsible for our actions. Abandoning these faculties in search of a deeper spiritual existence opens the person to all sorts of unknown forces. Our defences are down. It can lead to exposure to demonic powers.
To pursue Tai Chi to its fullest, a person must surrender to the Tao, the supreme creator. Once again we come to realise that something that is declared to have no religious meaning is in fact a path to a new set of religious beliefs. There is a fundamental deception at work.
Reiki – “an ancient healing art”
Reiki healing has come on the scene in recent years. It hails from Japan. It is described as “an ancient healing art”. In fact Reiki, as we know it, is just over a century old. It was developed by Mikao Usui and is grounded in Buddhism. It is sometimes called, “The Usui System of Natural Healing”.
Reiki uses a gentle “hands on” technique. The person seeking healing lays on a table, clothed. Hands are placed on or just above key locations of the body: the head, the heart, the navel, the groin. People speak of experiences like a strong surge of energy through the body; they can find themselves relaxed and some speak of strong emotional release. Reiki thus works on the emotions, the mind and the spirit as well as the body. It is often described as providing holistic healing.
Reiki has its particular spiritual aspects. It has four sacred symbols. These Usui symbols are directly connected with the exercise of the healing power.
Stages of Initiation
To become a practitioner of Reiki there are three levels of initiation, or “attunement”. These are supervised by a Reiki Master. There is a requirement of a spiritual preparation for each level. This preparation includes fasting (from sugar, smoking, alcohol and TV), engaging in some time of meditation and of seeking an inner cleansing from negative emotions like anger, fear or jealousy. It is clearly a religious rite of passage.
The Master traces symbols over the initiate, invoking power to the chakra centres. The initiate adopts postures of prayer as the Master performs his liturgy. This religious rite aims to channel divine energy to the person which they can then use in healing. There is a transmission of power taking place in these rites. But what is the origin of this power?
Moving to higher levels of Reiki opens the person to psychic powers. They become capable of channelling spirits and clairvoyance. Thus, they have moved into the world of the occult. For the person to be able to receive these psychic powers it is necessary to deny the reality of evil. Nothing is evil, Reiki Masters declare. The mind is to adopt a position of passive openness. Again, we can ask: open to what?
There are documented accounts of some of the dangers that a person engaged seriously with Reiki can experience – a release of powerful forces of lust, for instance. Moving into these realms when one’s normal defences are neutralised allows spiritual forces complete freedom to move. These forces can quickly reveal themselves as dark and threatening.
In March 2009, the US Bishops produced a document: Guidelines for evaluating Reiki as an alternative therapy. The Bishops state, “To use Reiki one would have to accept at least in an implicit way central elements of the worldview that undergirds Reiki theory, elements that belong neither to Christian faith nor to natural science. Without justification, either from Christian faith or natural science, however, a Catholic who puts his or her trust in Reiki would be operating in the realm of superstition, the no-man’s-land that is neither faith nor science”.
The document states categorically, “Since Reiki therapy is not compatible with either Christian teaching or scientific evidence, it would be inappropriate for Catholic institutions, such as Catholic health care facilities and retreat centres, or persons representing the Church, such as Catholic chaplains, to promote or to provide support for Reiki therapy”.
Not good for the soul
Entering into the spiritual world beyond the simple practices is clearly not good for the soul. They are particularly inimical to Christian faith. While they may offer practices that can be helpful at a superficial level they are a Trojan horse for dangerous spiritual infiltration. Engaging in them opens the person, in their desire to know more of the technique, to the possible exposure to demonic powers. Indeed, a person who follows these religious philosophies to their full extent find themselves worshipping of a false God.
There are a number of common elements to Yoga, Tai Chi and Reiki. They all offer a physical practice that is readily accessible. They claim to offer methods that achieve relaxation and offer paths to greater wellbeing and healing. Many people find this to be the case. At the superficial level of these systems there may be no more than providing a source of simple benefit for the person – being able to de-stress, being able to relax and experiencing some personal healing. However, these experiences can be seductive.
The advocates of these practices declare that the practices are not religious. They clearly want to re-assure people that they are not being duped into another religion. Yet, each of these practices has a strong “theological” basis. They carry a vision of the human person and clear understanding of the nature of the divine. Each of them, in fact, has a spiritual origin and can easily draw practitioners into these religious philosophies. They all offer an alternative understanding of the make-up human person and they invite people to discover their view of divine reality.
By their nature they do not stop with the simple physical exercises – their advocates know the deeper spiritual meaning of what they are doing. They can’t help but promote this deeper reality. They want to lead people to the truth as they see it. Thus people are drawn into this new and exotic spiritual realm. This is at odds with Christian faith and belief.
The divine, as they see it, is an impersonal force – and not the personal God revealed in Christianity. The practitioner, fascinated with the discovery of new powers, is drawn to surrender to this divine force. Simple exercises of relaxation have led to idolatry!
Having said this, it is important to state that it is not an inevitable process for everyone who uses Yoga or Tai Chi or seeks some healing through Reiki. These practices can be used simply as physical exercises that are helpful. If a person is wary of getting caught up in the spiritual philosophies, then they can be used with no detrimental effect at the moral or spiritual level. Indeed, it may be possible for the development of similar techniques grounded in a healthy Christian spirituality. As the Church has done in past times it is possible to find ways in which they can be “baptised” and integrated into the Christian faith.
However, an understanding of the spiritual roots to these practices is necessary to ensure that prudence accompanies their use. These practices can be dangerous at the spiritual level. In this sense they can be not good for the soul.