What is the Church teaching on yoga and reiki?

What is the Church teaching on yoga and reiki?
Q. Can you explain the Church’s teachings about yoga and reiki? Recently a priest gave a presentation in which he said that, to avoid the devil, Catholics should also avoid things like palm readers and ouija boards. He also mentioned yoga and reiki. I’ve practiced yoga on and off for many years and have found no religious references to it in my practices. My experience has been a western, nonreligious practice for strength, deep breathing and calmness. I became familiar with reiki when I had cancer and received reiki treatments. Over recent years, medical practices and hospitals use reiki to help patients with relaxation and pain reduction.

A: First, this priest was correct in saying that Catholics should avoid things like palm readers, ouija boards or anything else related to the occult. Not only can engaging in such activities open us up to contact with evil spirits, but these activities are also a sin against the first commandment.

Currently the Church does not have any clear official teaching on yoga, and so it remains somewhat of a grey area. On the one hand, yoga did originate as a non-Catholic religious practice, and for this reason it would be problematic if a Catholic engaged in yoga on specifically spiritual terms. But on the other hand, as you note, many if not most westerners who engage in yoga do so without any kind of religious intentions. That is, they participate in yoga for the pure physiological benefits of this kind of gentle exercise and controlled breathing, benefits that do seem to have a basis in the natural medical sciences.

Some would argue that because yoga began as a religious practice, it is impossible to ever fully ‘divorce’ yoga from the spirituality of its origins. Yet others would point out that the Church has a long history of adopting what is good from various pagan cultures – for example, St Thomas Aquinas made extensive use of the ancient pagan Greek philosophers in his writings – and that a similar argument might be made for the legitimacy of non-religious yoga.

I think right now, unless or until the Church comes out with a clearer teaching on yoga, whether or not Catholics should engage in yoga is something that should be personally discerned, perhaps with the help of a confessor or spiritual director. And of course, if a Catholic does choose to engage in yoga, they should be sure that whatever classes they attend are firmly non-spiritual and for health benefits only.

Reiki is a different story. In 2009 the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a document titled Guidelines for evaluating reiki as an alternative therapy. This document begins by noting that physical healing can come about through natural or supernatural means, i.e., through medical science or through God’s direct intervention in response to prayer. While we can ask God for direct supernatural healing, we ultimately must accept that such healing can only come about at God’s discretion and cannot be seen as an automatic guarantee. But we are always free to use the natural means at our disposal to try to effect physical healing.

While reiki is not a religious practice per se, it is based on the idea of channelling purely spiritual energies. And so (unlike yoga) has no plausible basis in the natural medical sciences. The document concludes by stating that, “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.”

By extension, it stands to reason that Catholics should not practice or receive reiki, because it would be inappropriate, if not spiritually dangerous, for a Catholic to seek out purely supernatural healing apart from Christian prayer or the sacraments.

Jenna Marie Cooper, who holds a licentiate in canon law, is a consecrated virgin and a canonist whose column appears weekly at OSV News. Send your questions to CatholicQA@osv.com.