By Sarah Griswold
Recently, while I was sitting on my couch, scrolling through social media with Netflix playing in the background, I came across this post on Facebook. At first I was taken aback. Ignatian spirituality and yoga didn’t seem to make sense together in my immediate reaction. Then I remembered all the other things I had seen like it in recent years — SoulCore and Holy Yoga among them. Ignatian Yoga actually isn’t any different than these other forms of Christian influenced yoga. The only thing that was new to me was seeing something that was both explicitly Catholic and explicitly yoga. So what is Ignatian Yoga anyway? And what were my preconceptions of these terms that contributed to my initial surprise?
First, “Ignatian” refers to a particular type of Catholic spirituality founded by Saint Ignatius of Loyola. St. Ignatius founded the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) which now has more than 16,000 members. One of the Jesuits’ foci is on spiritual direction. It follows, then, that their retreats (including this one for Ignatian Yoga) would feature talks on Ignatian spirituality and spiritual direction. While the Jesuits (like all groups) face opposition to their ideas from time to time, the idea of Ignatian spirituality seems fairly straightforward — at least in concept.
More complicated, however, is the idea of yoga. What is yoga? Is it religious? I vividly remember a yoga instructor once beginning an academic class on the subject by saying, “Before we begin, you all know yoga’s not a religion, right?” For the purposes of teaching yoga as an academic class at a public university in the United States, this claim makes perfect sense. By declaring yoga to not be a religion, the instructor was intentionally creating a barrier between yoga as good exercise and yoga as religious to avoid trouble under the first amendment. But the religiosity of yoga is actually a lot more complicated than that. The history of yoga in the United States is complex, but includes a particular trajectory of secularization — or does it? Andrea Jain has an interesting and concise book about this history. Suffice it to say that “yoga is not religious” is quite a bold claim.* To many (particularly outside of the U.S.), yoga is religious. Some see it as a positive, others see it as a threat to their own religious life. But none of this explains why the words “Ignatian” and “yoga” were put next to each other to describe this retreat.
By putting these two terms together the Jesuits running this particular retreat are making a few implicit claims just in calling it “Ignatian Yoga.” Because Ignatian spirituality and Christianity more generally act exclusively and reject non-Christian religion, “Ignatian yoga” can only exist if yoga is considered to not be religious. In this case, yoga provides the added component of exercise. Therefore, yoga could hardly be religious as Ignatian spirituality already fulfills that role. But beyond the question of whether or not these things are “religious,” we also see a combination of things from two seemingly different cultures.
In New York, the Jesuits ostensibly participate in and produce western and American cultures. On the other hand, yoga’s roots are often placed in Indian culture. From this perspective, how do we wind up with Ignatian Yoga if the two terms come from such different cultures? The answer here lies in how we conceptualize culture. Because of the more modern adaptations of yoga into American culture, the combination of Ignatian spirituality and yoga is actually not all that surprising. Cultures are often defined by their difference. So the idea of Ignatian yoga becomes possible first by the adoption of yoga into American culture itself. Then, after its recreation as non-religious exercise, it can be adopted into the folds of of Ignatian spirituality at this retreat (and other products like it).
The answer to how we wind up with “Ignatian Yoga,” then, seems to say a lot more about the person answering this question than anything else. So at first, I was surprised because this concept was outside of what I am most often exposed to. My preconceived notions of Ignatian spirituality and yoga were exclusive of one another. But as I thought about it more, I realized that this is precisely how culture is continually reproduced and recreated. After this brief pause, I kept scrolling through Facebook.
*For a fun introduction to the complications in this claim, I recommend Rough Translation‘s “Om Alone In India.”