Wednesday, February 29, 2012

How About Yoga?

 It is not uncommon for Orthodox Christians to participate in a yoga class. It is normally seen as good exercise for the body. But are you aware of the source of this practice and the purpose of many of its exercises?

There was an article recently the NYT about yoga and sex scandals. It was about the founder of Ansura one of the world's fastest growing yoga styles who is accused of sexual impurities with female students. But this is not why I reference this article. It goes on to highlight the nature of yoga practice and it's roots.

Did you know that this practice began as a sex cult? Hatha yoga is the root of these practices and it began as a branch of Tantra. This was a group who sought to integrate the male and female aspects of creation into a blissful state. Their rites included group and individual sexual acts. Hatha yoga was developed as a way to accelerate the Tantra agenda. The article says, "it used poses, deep breathing and stimulating acts -- including intercourse -- to hasten rapturous bliss. In today's yoga practitioners, such as B. K. S. Iyengar, worked to remove much of the Tantric influence. But the reality remains that the practice of yoga increases sexual passions. Pelvic regions feel more sensitive and orgasms more intense.

Scientists have studied this practice measuring testosterone levels, brain wave patterns, and blood flow through the genitals. They found the effects of such exercise "was strong enough to promote sexual arousal not only in healthy individuals but among those with diminished libidos." Other clinical studies in India report "wide improvements in sex lives." Others at Rutgers University show participants can think themselves into states of sexual ecstasy, a form of masturbation.

The article points out that baby boomers of today who experience the arousal, sweating, heavy breathing and states of undress found in yoga classes have led to the following action. "In 1995, sex between students and teachers became so prevalent that the California Yoga Teachers Association deplored it as immoral and called for higher standards." Numerous famous teachers have been accused of molesting women including Swami Muktananda, Swami Rama and Swami Satchidananda.

The article concludes, "But perhaps--if students and teachers knew more about what Hatha can do, and what it was designed to do--they would find themselves less prone to surprise and unyogalike distress.
The Orthodox way of life involves taming the passions, not enhancing them, so that we can better make choices in our actions that are Christ like. With true faith, we love God and have an intense desire to follow Him and to become like Him. Yoga can be a dangerous practice for one who is serious about developing their relationship with God following the Orthodox way. If you are involved in a yoga program, I advise you to study the roots of the exercises and to seek more conventional forms of exercise.

Elder Paisios comments on yoga:
They strive and they strive, and what do they achieve with it? Orthodox self-restraint and spiritual ascesis in general always aspire to a loftier spiritual purpose: the sanctification of the soul.  Their satanic, worldly ascesis is only implemented to give them a flexible body so that they can contort arms and legs like a paper puppet, and so that other foolish people might admire them and the silly demons can ridicule them.

Note: William J. Broad is the author of the NYT article and also the author of “The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards,” published this month by Simon & Schuster.  for more on this you might want to consult his book.
Reference: Yoga and Sex Scandals: No Surprise Here

Monday, February 27, 2012

Why Don't You Fast?

The Prophets Fasted
Moses: When I went up into the mountain to receive the tables of stone...I was in the mountain forty days and forty nights, I ate no bread and drank no water. Deuteronomy 9:9 (LXX)
Prophet Jonah:  It was by fasting among other things that the people of Nineveh were saved from his prediction of peril.  Jonah 3:7  (LXX)
Prophet Joel: Fasting associated with repentance:
“Now, says the Lord your God, turn to Me with all your heart, with fasting and with wailing, and with mourning. Joel 2:12 (LXX)
Prophet Daniel: Fasting with repentance and prayer are an aid in seeking God and the spiritual life:
And I set my face toward the Lord God, to seek him diligently by prayer and supplication, with fastings and sackcloth.  And I Prayed to the Lord my God, and confessed...  Daniel 9:3-4 (LXX)
Jesus Fasted:
Immediately after His Baptism, what did He do?
And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights,
he was afterward hungry. 
What was His instruction for Apostles in the case of the epileptic boy whose demon the Apostles could not cast out?
This kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.
When challenged by Pharisees about His disciples what did He say? 
Can the children of the bride chamber mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast. 
The Lord Himself gave instructions for fasting:
But you, when you fast, anoint your head, and wash your face; That you appear not unto men to fast, but unto your Father which is in secret. Matthew. 6:17-18
Why did he say this?
Apostles fasted:
In the Acts of the Apostles we read:
As they ministered (liturgical rite) to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.
They coupled fasting with liturgical acts
Paul: Apostle Paul describes his own spiritual life as one of sacrifice, vigils, thirst, and fasting lived “in weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness.”
He also refers to fasting in the context of marriage saying that by mutual consent husband and wife abstain from marital relations periodically while fasting and prayer.
The first century - Didache
“The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles” 
Your fasts must not be identical with those of the hypocrites. They fast on Mondays and Thursdays; but you should fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. 
The fasting referred to here was a complete abstention from both food and drink until sundown. 
Church Fathers fasted.
Ecclesiastical writer Tertullian (220 d.) notes that spiritual growth requires confession and prayer fed by “fasting, ...not for the stomach’s sake, ...but for the soul’s.
Saint Gregory (391) - practice of receiving the Eucharist after fasting.
Saint Basil (379) wrote much on fasting.
John Cassian (435): Therefore, fastings, vigils, meditation on the Scriptures, self-denial, and the abnegation of all possessions are not perfection, but aids to perfection: because the end of that science does not lie in these, but
by means of these we arrive at the end. 
Saint Athanasius (373) - Fasting more than just food.
...let us vie with each other in observing the purity of the fast by watchfulness in prayers, by study of the Scriptures, by distributing to the poor, and let us be at peace with our enemies. Let us bind up those who are scattered abroad, banish pride, and return to lowliness of mind, being at peace with all men, and urging the brethren unto love. Letter XIV.
Saint Athanasius describes the benefits of fasting.
It “...cures ills and dries up bodily humors, casts out demons and turns away evil thoughts; it makes the mind brighter, the heart clean, and the body holy; and it presents man before the Throne of God.”
Modern Saints Fasted
Saint Nectarios of Aegina (1920)
Fasting is an ordinance of the church, obliging the Christian to observe it on specific days.  ...He who fasts for the uplifting of his mind and heart towards God shall be rewarded by God, Who is a most liberal bestower of divine gifts, for his devotion.  
...unless one lifts his mind and heart towards God through Christian--not Pharisaic--fasting and through prayer, he cannot attain a consciousness of his sinful state and earnestly seek the forgiveness of sins.. Prayer and fasting--Christian fasting-- serve as means of self-study, of discernment of our true moral state, of an accurate estimation of our sins and of a knowledge of their true character.

(Vol 7 of Modern Orthodox Saints, 2nd ed., p 178)
The purpose of fasting is chiefly spiritual: to provide an opportunity and preparation for spiritual works of prayer and meditation on the Divine through the complete abstinence from food, or the eating of uncooked food or frugal fare. 
However, fasting is no less valuable for physical health, since self-control and simplicity of life are necessary conditions of health and longevity, as dietetics tells us.
Canons of Church require fasting
If you do not honor the Wednesday and Friday fast you are to be excommunicated.
Must fast prior to taking Communion
Strict fast during entire Lenten period
Do not fast on Sunday and Saturday
If ill or weak relaxation of guidelines appropriate
Always been essential part of Orthodox Christian Life. 
Necessary discipline to combat the passions and open the door to the renewal of the Holy Spirit. 
Why don’t you fast?
Fasting foods should be simple and plain and not extravagant. 
The more effort that goes into their creativity and preparation, the more its value is reduced. 
Should not be prepared to satisfy our craving for certain tastes       
   •  Break from our automatic response to food,
   •  Give thanks to the provider, out Lord,
   •  Increase our self-control.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Prayer Changes the Brain

The following report indicates that prayer does change the nature of our brain.  This is important as we have many neural connects that continually lead us to sinful activities giving the brian dominance over the godly desires of our soul. With the practice of the Jesus Prayer and other worship activities our brains are rewired, putting our soul back in control, so that we are more likely to to counteract our sinful tendencies.

Michael W. Taft writes the following in "Science 2.0":
An "Ask the Brains" question on the Scientific Americansite recently inquired as to any differences between the brain of an atheist and the brain of a religious person. Andrew Newberg, the director of research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital in Philadelphia, responded that, yes, in fact, there are some small but perceptible differences between the brains of believers and non-believers. Newberg is a pioneer in the field of "neurotheology," the study of how the brain approaches faith.For example, the frontal lobe of the brain governs reward, attention, and motivation. In past studies, those who meditate or pray regularly seem to have more active frontal lobes on average than those who do not. Meditation has even been shown to grow the frontal lobe. Newberg's own research has measured changes in cerebral blood flow among Franciscan nuns as they prayed in a meditative fashion, finding an significant increase in activity in the frontal lobe as well.

For more information on Orthodox prayer go to

Monday, February 20, 2012

Essence of a Spiritual Community

When we decide to join the Church we are joining a community of believers in the Trinitarian God who promises us eternal life.  As we come together in worship, we come as equals of all differing backgrounds, occupations, and ages. There are no earthly status parameters in this gathering.  We are all equal in our quest to be united with God in eternal life.  We realize that it does not matter what worldly success we achieve, but that our relationship with God is what is most important. The place of worship is beautiful with many icons and symbols of our community’s long history. We see images of martyrs who gave their lives for God over a thousand years ago. There are images of Jesus Christ and the Mother of God. We see the Crucifix and numerous icons about different aspects of the life of Christ.  This space is quite different that our normal worldly space, lifting us up to the reality that we are gathering together to enter into a heavenly realm, a place where earth and heaven are one.  This is the nature of the Divine Liturgy.  It takes us from our daily lives of worldly care to a heavenly realm where we are joined with the saints and angels to have a direct communion with God. In this egalitarian and beautiful environment with its 2000 year history and traditions we are humbled and are able to let go of our egotistical nature and seek mercy from God.  We praise and glory Him with prayers and hymns. We are surrounded with others who share our belief and quest to become united with Him and supported in His teaching that to love God we must love all those gathered with us as well as our enemies.  In this gathering we feel connected and one with each other as well as God.  We feel nourished, secure, and peaceful in our hearts. We experience a true sense of community that cannot be found in any other way except through our common relationship with God.
 St. Cyril of Alexandria (ca. 376-444) writes the following about the reason we all come together in this place of worship.
The Savior Himself declares, “Whoever eats My Flesh and drinks My Blood abides in Me and I in him.” By this statement it is to be seen that Christ does not say He will be in us only after the fashion of some relation that is solely intellectual, but also through a participation truly according to nature. Just as if someone were to entwine two pieces of wax together and melt them with a fire, so that both are made one, so too through participation in the Body of Christ and in His Precious Blood, He is united in us and we too in Him. In no other way can that corruptible nature be vivified except by being united bodily to the Body of Him who is, by His very nature, life: that is, the Only-begotten. (Commentary on John, on 15:1) 
Through our partaking of the true Blood and Body of Christ we are in a real sense united as one Body in Him. This is the essence of an Orthodox Christian community based on 2000 years of Christian Tradition.
There is a new Book out titled Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton  which was recently reviewed in the Wall Street Journal.  The author uses the surface attributes of our worship to theorize that we can build communities based on the outward elements of our worshiping community. He thinks we can take God away and use the artifacts of our worship to create meaningful communities. Without God, without our faith in His saving power, without joining with Him in Communion through partaking of His Blood and Body, there can be no such unity that this provides.  This atheist’s view is doomed to failure as he does not understand the true nature of the Church and our gatherings. We should be concerned about such secular views as it can easily permeate our own as well as our children’s world view.  True community only comes from a shared faith and a shared worship that includes Holy Communion of His real presence. We must practice it with faith and zeal for His love.  It is through our example that others such as this author clamor for the kind of community we too often take for granted.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


One of the common errors we make is to think in either/or or black&white terms. For example we may read from one of the desert fathers about giving up all that is of this world and to only concentrate on God. If this notion is taken literally we will create great problems in our life by ignoring the reality of our integral existence. We are physical and spiritual beings. We cannot separate one from the other. It is equally wrong to ignore spirit and to live according to our physical needs alone. This is the most common of errors as our physical needs and passions seem to be the stronger and difficult to manage. What is essential for our spiritual well- being is to balance the physical realities of our daily life with our spiritual needs. 

How do we best do this? This is where discipline and balance are essential. We have to be attentive to both body and spirit. We need to pray and we need to eat. We need to set aside time for exercise and for worship. We can't let one dimension of our life  out weigh the other. We must care for our whole being all the time. 

Saint Seraphim of Sarov says the following:

One should go by the middle path: ‘turn not aside to the right hand nor to the left’ (Pr. 4:26); and one should render unto the spirit what is spiritual, and unto the body what is bodily; for the maintenance of temporal life, one should render what is necessary, and for life in society, that which is lawfully demanded by it, in accordance with the words of Holy Scripture: ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s’ (Mt. 22:21).  

He calls this balance the "middle path." our approach to life must be one that is a balance. We must care for the body we have been given, we must have time to express our love for our neighbors, and we must also continually nurture our love for God. When we have such balance we will find that our heart is filled with peace and that God's grace fills it with His love enabling us to walk this thin line of balance. With perfect balance there is no sin but only harmony and love.

I must admit, this is not an easy path to find. Most of will find this balance hard to find. This is why the Church provides so many ways to assist us. As we are more aware of our sinfulness we are discovering the points of imbalance in our lives. Through the ascetic practices, worship and regular participation in the sacraments, we are making an effort to achieve a better balance. No one can walk out on a high wire ir even a balance beam without practice and self effort. The same is true in aging the necessary balance between the physical and spiritual aspects of our life.

Reference: “Spiritual Instructions,” 33, Ascetic Labors, The Little Russian Philokalia, Vol. 1


Thursday, February 9, 2012

Speaking Out - Using Our Voice

Often when we are in a group we prefer to stay silent rather than speak out when we know we have something important to say.  How can we be His disciples if we feel intimidated so easily in this way? If you feel this limitation be assured that you are not alone.  Here are some reasons researchers have found as to why we tend to remain silent in groups.

We think everyone else is smarter than we are.  We fear we may appear dumb in the eyes of others.  When we think this way we actually do become dumber as we lose our problem solving ability.  Why? because we are focused on ourselves, on protecting our ego. Reseachers say this is more common for women than men and for those who have a higher IQ.

How can we then overcome this limitation so we can let our "light" shine forth as good disciples?  If we recognize that this is just one way the devil works to limit us, then we can easily attack it.  The moment we sense this inhibition, we must call on Jesus with a prayer, seeking His mercy and help. Once we connect with God, then we will lift our center of being out of our ego-self and become centered with our soul in God.  Our minds will then be able see clearly what it is that we should be saying at this moment.  Often it proper to say nothing if it is only going to cause a conflict.  But when directed by God, we will be given the right words to say, enabling us to do His will at that moment.  What is essential, is to have the ability to pause while you are in action and seek God's guidance in prayer.

This is the power of the Jesus Prayer.  If we practice it daily by repeating, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me," over  and over for at least 20 minutes, this prayer will very quickly be at the forefront of our mind when we need it.  Having immediate access to this prayer can help us with any kind of anxiety. 

The clinical researches also recommend the following ways to help us with this problem.
Pair with someone who is more outgoing than you and ask them to help you join in the conversation.
Have a brief discussion with the leader of the group and mention the points you would like to share, asking them to give you a chance to bring them up for discussion.
Being prepared is always a must requirement.  Make notes and think about what and how you want to make your points.
Remember that you are not the only one in the room who shares this kind of anxiety.  Learn to encourage others who may have the same problem as yourself. A good discussion is where everyone's views are shared.
Above all, do not forget the power of prayer in such a situation.  This never fails if you can remember to do it.  Make the saying of this prayer a habit and you will never be without meaningful words when they are needed.

More on Jesus Prayer


Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Ecological Responsibility

Ecological destruction is taking place. Those who can, should write and talk about it. - Elder Paisios

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew gives the Orthodox view of our responsibility to the environment

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Developing a Child's Conscience

Key to the Orthodox way of Life is an active conscience.  But for many, this sense we are given in our Baptism is lost or dulled by our separation from God.  At a young age it is important to nurture a child's use of their conscience.  How do you do this?

I knew a school principle who was very effective in maintaining discipline in an inner city school.  There was an incident where boys were cutting up on the bus  and in their zeal to be "smart" they mutilated one of the bus seats. The boys were identified by the supervising teacher, but she did not see them actually mutilate the seat.  She sent them to the principal. Faced by the principal, the boys of course denied doing anything.  What did the principal do? He began by explaining to them that they have a conscience.  He told them that this is a quiet voice inside their heart that tells them right from wrong.  And, if they had done anything wrong, later in the day or that night they would have a feeling coming from inside that they had done something wrong.  He explained to them that once you get this feeling you want to get rid of it.  He did not accuse, threaten or punish them, but told them to go home and that he would be there in the morning before the school bell rang to talk with them if they wanted to meet with him.  That next morning the boys showed up in his office early and explained to him that their conscience was bothering them and that they could not even sleep very well that night. They then told him what they had done and asked for his to help to get rid of this bad feeling they had. He then led them in a discussion about how they could make up for the bad deed that had done.

He was teaching them about conscience and how to use it.  This is the same task we all face with our children to help them develop a good Christian moral sense.
The biggest task for parents is to instruct their children in such a way that they do not force them to go against what they know is best for them out of rebellion.  Like the principal, parents need to guide children in using their conscience so they develop a God oriented will and learn to recognize the work of God within themselves. When they learn to recognize their own sinfulness, then they can be introduced to the concept of repentance and eventually the sacrament of confession.  A parent who is successful in this regard while become an open conduit for their repentance.  A child will see their parents as the loving father of the story of the Prodigal son.  Children will know that when they are honest with their conscience, their parents will always welcome them with gladness.

Paul points out that Christians have more than the law of the Jews. They have a law in the heart. He tells us that those "who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them" will be justified when that final judgment come. (Romans 2:12-16)

Saint Greogry of Nyssa tells us the following;
What then must we do, we who have been found worthy of the name of Christ? Each of us must examine his thoughts, words and deeds, to see whether they are directed toward Christ or are turned away from him. This examination is carried out in various ways. Our deeds or our thoughts or our words are not in harmony with Christ if they issue from passion. They then bear the mark of the enemy who smears the pearl of the heart with the slime of passion, dimming and even destroying the lustre of the precious stone.
On the other hand, if they are free from and untainted by every passionate inclination, they are directed toward Christ, the author and source of peace. He is like a pure, untainted stream. If you draw from him the thoughts in your mind and the inclinations of your heart, you will show a likeness to Christ, your source and origin, as the gleaming water in a jar resembles the flowing water from which it was obtained.

For the purity of Christ and the purity that is manifest in our hearts are identical. Christ’s purity, however, is the fountainhead; ours has its source in him and flows out of him. Our life is stamped with the beauty of his thought. The inner and the outer man are harmonized in a kind of music. The mind of Christ is the controlling influence that inspires us to moderation and goodness in our behavior. As I see it, Christian perfection consists in this: sharing the titles which express the meaning of Christ’s name, we bring out this meaning in our minds, our prayers and our way of life. 
Its essential to lay a sound foundation in our children so they learn to trust in their conscience knowing that i's impulses come from God.