Mutually Illuminating: The Spiritual Richness of ‘Doing’ Ignatian Yoga

With the flip of a switch, darkness turns to light. From the lighting of a match to the burning of a fire, a small initial spark grows larger and more intense with the right fuel. As the sun rises over the horizon, there is a gradual shift from darkness to light, a series of gradations on the way to complete transformation. All three of these images can work as metaphors for my experience of Ignatian1 Yoga as an embodied spiritual practice.

During a period of difficulty spurred by a professional setback, I found myself experiencing a crisis of identity, discernment and vocation, that left unchecked and uncontemplated was causing physical, emotional and spiritual dis-ease. Tapping into an already well-established practice of prayer and self-reflection in the Ignatian tradition of the Examen,2  I sensed that I needed an anchor—something to “calm the fluctuations”3during this tumultuous period in my life. By coincidence or by Providence, I heard about an Ignatian Yoga retreat that would be happening several months later and several states away.4 I was immediately intrigued and set about making the necessary arrangements to attend.

Depending on the starting point, the juxtaposition of “Ignatian” and “Yoga” might strike a person as completely incongruous or utterly intuitive. I fall into the utterly intuitive camp. My graduate work is in Comparative Theology, my professional experience has mostly been in Jesuit and Ignatian contexts and my gut instinct has always been that the ascetical turn in religion, especially Christianity, that seeks to deny the physical and denigrate the material is out of sync with the nature of the cosmos and the lived experience of being in a body. I went into my first Ignatian Yoga retreat both eager and skeptical—this sounded precisely like what I needed at this exact moment in my life, but I had high expectations for how the retreat would treat the Hindu and Buddhist foundations of yoga given my training in comparative theology methodology5 and commitment to interreligious dialogue. I also had high expectations for how the retreat would engage my Catholic sensibilities and push me in my own spiritual growth in the Ignatian tradition. Done well, the experience could be the beginning of the kind of integration I was yearning for; done poorly, it would confirm the critical voices (real and imagined) that questioned a view of the world in which seemingly different things and people could come together in dialogue for mutual enrichment and learning.

The retreat directors, Bobby Karle, SJ and Alan Haras—who founded Ignatian Yoga—and the other workshop facilitators, I was relieved to learn, were “the real deal,” so to speak. The pairing together of “Ignatian” and “Yoga” was not a haphazard attempt to appeal to a new audience and fill retreat beds, nor was it a water-downed syncretistic version of both that preserved little of the distinctiveness of either tradition. It was a masterful weaving of expertise and experience, The Spiritual Exercises6 of St. Ignatius and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the religious and the spiritual, the soul and the body.7

The retreat took place from Friday evening to Monday morning. As people arrived from varying distances and settled in, the weekend began with an optional meditation. Set in the vestibule of the retreat center’s Catholic chapel, it felt both strangely familiar and utterly new. I am a cradle Catholic and the inside of churches are as comfortable and familiar to me as my grandparent’s living room. The sights, smells and sounds called to mind countless masses served, sacraments received and moments of stillness and prayer in the presence of the body of Christ. The previous spring, I had spent another weekend in retreat at Blue Cliff monastery with the monks and nuns of Thich Nhat Hanh’s community in upstate New York.8 There was a sense of delight in bringing together the bodily memories of sitting in the meditation hall there, together with the sense memories of a lifetime of Catholic liturgy in this opening experience of my Ignatian Yoga retreat.

The following morning, Alan Haras’ first talk of the day introduced aspects of St. Ignatius’ biography—a story of setback, self-reflection and gradual spiritual conversion—and his own manual for prayer known as The Spiritual Exercises. The focus was on Ignatius’ initial impulse toward asceticism and extreme physical penances during an intense period of prayer and withdrawal in Manresa. In confronting his own sinfulness, he initially felt unworthy of God’s love. The talk encouraged those of us on the retreat to consider if we, too, feel as though we have to earn God’s love because we aren’t good enough, and then asked us to consider what it would look like to let people (and God) love us as we are. The talk then asked us to consider what it means to be human, to be fully human and drew on the work of Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche.9  It highlighted the integration of the head and the heart and the difference between deriving your importance and self-worth not from what you do but from who you are. This then gave way to an introduction to the koshas, described as layers of the body, or “sheaths” that cover and obscure the true self, or atman in the Hindu tradition. I was impressed by the scope of the talk, by the beautiful integration of several different themes and by the fact that it cut right to one of the biggest aspects of my own recent struggles—an over emphasis on the “head” and a denial of the “heart.” It was my heart that had gotten me into the professional work I had been doing for almost a decade, but it was only my intellect that seemed to matter as I forged through a grueling push to complete a major writing project. And it was my body that suffered. In order to put my mind to work and to get the thoughts and ideas out of my head and on to the page, I had to ignore my body’s cry for movement, for exercise, for healing and for rest.

As the talk concluded, which we listened to sitting on our yoga mats, we moved into an asana session. This was the “ahah” moment for me. Just as I was beginning to feel restless and uneasy in my physical body, the task of listening, reflecting, and thinking naturally gave way to an embodied experience of breathing, movement and integration that allowed me to listen intuitively to what my body was telling me, but also gave me the time to be present to the insights that were arising on the affective level. That experience first thing in the morning on the first full day of the retreat, of the seamless integration of a retreat talk and asana practice, and of Christian and Ignatian themes and a core concept of yogic philosophy was like a lightning rod for me. I was hooked. It was complemented later that evening by one of the most profound retreat experiences of my life. Following an exercise that was part yoga nidra and part Ignatian imaginative contemplation10 led by Bobby Karle, SJ, I gained some insight that allowed me to view what had been troubling me and what had brought me to the retreat in the first place in a new way that brought a sense of contentment and calm that has lasted long beyond the retreat itself.

I left the retreat refreshed, but also energized and curious about how I could make the practice of Ignatian Yoga a more regular part of my life. I exchanged contact information with Bobby and Alan and expressed an interest in staying involved with the organization of Ignatian Yoga as it established itself and defined its identity. The seed was planted for me to consider doing a 200-hour teacher training and I promised to thoughtfully consider the possibility. Thankfully I work at a Jesuit school that was just as eager as I was to explore Ignatian Yoga and I received professional development support to complete my training this past summer.11 I continued to stay in touch with Ignatian Yoga, participating in a strategic planning session at the offices of the Midwest Province of Jesuits and in the ongoing development of workshop and retreat curricula. The first Ignatian Yoga workshop I offered in Boston in November attracted fifty registrants. The next one is scheduled for December and will likely become a monthly offering.

These personal reflections mark the beginning of my exploration into a comparison between the Exercises and Patañjali’s Yogasūtras.  In graduate school I specialized in Christian-Jewish dialogue and my study of Hinduism and Buddhism was much more basic. While I lack the kind of deep specialized knowledge of these religions that is expected of a text-centered comparative theology, I am learning deeply through my body and my experience at the intersection of two incredibly rich spiritual traditions. The habits of dialogue and techniques of study that I am trained in and have applied in the Christian-Jewish context provide a sound model for how I can begin to engage the foundations of yoga as a responsible and informed practitioner and teacher of Ignatian Yoga.  And so, I’ll cautiously offer just a few possibilities for fruitful sites of comparison and mutual enrichment at the intersection of the Ignatian and yogic traditions.

In his recovery of the role of the body in The Spiritual Exercises,12 Michael Barnes, SJ acknowledges that not a lot of attention has been given to the body in the traditional forms of Christian spirituality. While Ignatius still expresses some negative feelings about the body and material world, which is reflective of the wider Christian tradition at the time, Barnes makes the helpful point that by focusing on the senses, feelings, emotions and the “whole person,” the body is implicitly included, thus, opening up a path for a more positive role for the physical body through the specific emphasis on prayer as an activity of the whole person.13

Through his analysis of Ignatius’ three methods of prayer, rules for eating, and attention to the whole person, Barnes identifies some possible sites for comparison with yoga, although he does not make the comparison himself. Barnes’ dialogue is primarily with the Zen tradition. Therefore, a comparative reading of these parts of the Ignatian tradition in light of the yoga tradition would be another opportunity to bring new understanding to the role of the body in Ignatian spirituality. The dialogue with yoga at the heart of Ignatian Yoga brings this to fruition in a concrete and embodied way.

In the Exercises, Ignatius gives guidelines for the external environment in which one prays,14 lays out a style of prayer that matches words with breath in a progressive exercise meant to transition from a way of praying that emphasizes the words of the prayer, through a style more focused on the affective experience of the prayer, finally to stillness and then silence.15Parallels to pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and possibly even samadhi—six of the eight limbs of yoga—echo for me in Ignatius’ three styles of prayer. From the focus on the breath in pranayama, to the “content” of the meditation in dharana, and especially the idea that a single point of focus falls away in dhyana, these limbs of yoga which have been studied and practiced, perhaps to a far greater degree than Ignatius’ methods for prayer in relation to the body, may offer some useful insights to the practitioner of Ignatian yoga.

The two remaining limbs of yoga—the yamas and the niyamas—also “sound familiar” to me from my experience with the principle components of Ignatian Spirituality. Ignatian Spirituality is rooted in the conversion experience of St. Ignatius, himself, his insights into prayer and the reality of God captured in The Spiritual Exercises and the ongoing tradition of Jesuit and lay practitioners for whom Ignatius’ biography and the Exercises continue to be a fruitful pathway to a deeper relationship with God. Ignatius, or Inigo de Loyola, begins his life in a noble family in the Basque region of Spain. Early on he is content to seek glory as a soldier and courtier, but his identity and vanity are tested when he is injured in battle. During a period of recuperation, he describes an experience of being drawn to Christ and the saints and vows to attain glory, not for the King of Castile, but for God, and not as a soldier, but as a saint. This initial zeal leads him to dedicate himself to the Virgin Mary, but also to engage in some forms of physical penance that exacerbate his existing injuries and cause some new ailments that will plague him throughout his life. From this experience, he realizes the danger of an extreme approach to the body and later, when he is outlining the guidelines for his community of companions—the Jesuits—he denounces such behavior and encourages an overall spirit of self-awareness, humility, restraint and adaptiveness.

In the Yogasūtras, the yamas are nonviolence (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), refrainment from stealing (asteya), celibacy (brahamacharya), and non-grasping or renunciation of unnecessary possessions (aparigraha).  Ahimsa, if interpreted as non-violence toward the self and others, offers another potential way into Ignatius’ attitude of compassion toward the self and others. But restraint and compassion are the companions of self-discipline for Ignatius. Self-discipline here is less about restraint and deprivation, and more about discipline in terms of discernment and detachment.

Discernment in the Ignatian tradition is about becoming sensitive to the interior movements (what Ignatius calls “motions of the souls”) of the self—”thoughts, imaginings, emotions, inclinations, desires, feelings, repulsions, and attractions…reflecting on them and understanding where they come from and where they lead us.”16 Tapas, or burning discipline, in the yoga tradition can be applied variously. In conversation with Ignatian Spirituality, tapas can be applied to knowledge of the self. The purpose of discernment and self-knowledge for Ignatius is to plot a mean between excess and necessity and overcome disordered affections. Asteya means to not steal or even think about stealing.  Along with the niyama, santosa (contentment) it might also be considered as the balance between giving and taking and seeing what we have in abundance and being grateful for it. Aparigraha, or renunciation of unnecessary possessions, might similarly be reconsidered as developing an attitude of stewardship rather than domination for the world and its gifts.  In this way, these fundamental principles of Yoga in the Yogasūtras correspond to with Ignatian Spirituality’s emphasis on freedom and detachment.

Before his conversion, Ignatius was overly attached to the comforts of his upper-class life and the image of himself as a soldier. His conversion included a detachment from this old way of seeing himself and the world and required a new vision of himself and his role in the world.

From this he articulates the principle and foundation of the spiritual life:

God created human beings to praise, reverence, and serve God, and by doing this, to save their souls. God created all other things on the face of the earth to help fulfill this purpose. From this it follows that we are to use the things of this world only to the extent that they help us to this end, and we ought to rid ourselves of the things of this world to the extent that they get in the way of this end. For this it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things as much as we are able, so that we do not necessarily want health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, a long rather than a short life, and so in all the rest, so that we ultimately desire and choose only what is most conducive for us to the end for which God created us.17

Within this, echoes of spiritual surrender and devotion to God, ishvara pranidhana (surrender to a greater power) and bhakti (devotion), respectively, resound.

What I’ve offered here is not much more than a pairing up of similar concepts in Ignatian spirituality and yoga philosophy. This is hardly adequate in terms of a comparative theological approach to the two traditions, but it does open up a way of thinking about and ‘doing’ yoga with Ignatius. As I have embarked on teaching and offering workshops in Ignatian Yoga myself, under the guidance and with the direction of my own teachers, this is how I approach the classes. I attempt to introduce a theme from Ignatian spirituality and its connection to the Christian tradition in an opening talk or meditation, then offer some complementary ideas or concepts from yoga, carrying the themes through the poses of the asana practice and, finally, offering an opportunity for deeper reflection and integration in a closing meditation. The method is a work in progress for me and one I am grateful to have experienced on my first Ignatian Yoga retreat. In this particular form, it is the gift of Bobby Karle, SJ’s and Alan Haras’ experiences and wisdom. I’m honored to thread18 my small contribution onto a long history of practice and study of people convinced of Vatican II’s great insight that, “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in [other] religions…regard[ing] with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.” (Nostra Aetate 2)19 To this textual and doctrinal tradition, I add my own embodied knowledge and spiritual insights from trying to ‘live’ Ignatian Yoga.


  1. “Ignatian” refers to St. Ignatius of Loyola, Roman Catholic saint and founder of the Society of Jesus (The Jesuits). For an overview of Ignatius and the Jesuits, see: John W. O’Malley, SJ, The Jesuits: A History from Ignatius to the Present, Rowman and Littlefield, 2014.
  2. In reference to the Ignatian practice of Examination of Consciousness. See, for example:
  3. Yogas-citta-vrtti-nirodhah” (Yoga Sutra 1.2)
  4. The retreat took place February 2-4, 2018 at the Mariandale Retreat Center, Ossining, NY.
  5. Comparative theology (CT) methodology assumes the theologian is rooted in her own religious and/or spiritual tradition and is open to learning deeply from and with the texts, traditions and practitioners of another religious or spiritual tradition. The contemporary field of study has been shaped by the work of Francis X. Clooney and tends to focus on close reading of texts from two or more traditions, but this textual approach to CT has been expanded by other comparative theologians. Works in CT methodology include: Francis X. Clooney, Comparative Theology: Deep Learning Across Religious Borders, Wiley-Blackwell, 2010; Clooney (ed.), The New Comparative Theology Interreligious Insights from the Next Generation, T&T Clark, 2010; Clooney and Klaus von Stosch (eds.), How to do Comparative Theology, Fordham University Press, 2017.
  6. Different versions of the texts of the Exercises can be found in Monumenta Historica Societatis Iesu (MHSI). In T. Worcester, SJ (Ed.) The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the Jesuits (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).
  7. For the background and history of Ignatian Yoga, see: Bobby Karle, SJ, “The Development of Ignatian Yoga,” Ignatian Yoga blog, Jan. 25, 2018;
  10. For a basic introduction to Ignatian prayer:
  11. The training was through Breathe for Change, a 200-hr yoga teacher and wellness educator training for teachers and educators whose mission is teacher and student well-being. (
  12. Michael Barnes, SJ, “The Body in the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola,” Religion (1989) 19, 263-273.
  13. Barnes, 270.
  14. Barnes, 266.
  15. Barnes, 267-269.
  18. Sutra translates to “thread.” I am playing on Patanjali’s expectation “that other teachers would expand on his instructions by adding their own knowledge and experience, just as new beads can be strung on an existing thread.” (“The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” in the Summer 2018 Breathe for Change 200-Hour Wellness and Yoga Training for Educators Manual, p. 123) Clooney has a series of essays on the Sutras from a Christian perspective in America. They can be accessed here:
  19. Nostra Aetate is Latin for “In our time,” the opening lines of the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions promulgated in 1965 by Paul VI in the final session of Vatican II. The document begins with a paragraph that addresses what binds human beings together and the role that religion has played in asking and answering, “the unsolved riddles of human existence.” It devotes a section to Hinduism and Buddhism (which this quote is drawn from), one to Judaism and one to Islam. The spirit of the document is one of respect for other religions and openness to dialogue balanced with a commitment to belief in salvation through the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The post-Vatican II Catholic Church has paid greater attention to interreligious dialogue and brought a more critical approach to mission and evangelization, but the boundaries of openness and dialogue on the one hand, and commitment and orthodoxy, on the other hand, are an ongoing area of theological and practical negotiation. Catherine Cornille’s The-Impossibility of Interreligious Dialogue (Crossroad Publishing, 2008) is a good introduction. For an account of the wider context of Christians practicing yoga and how yoga has been incorporated into other Christian traditions (and not just Ignatian Spirituality), see: Prymus, Renee, “A Brief History of the Intersection of Yoga and Christianity, Catholic priest and Paulist, Fr. Tom Ryan, CSP, is a Kripalu trained yoga teacher who has extensive experience leading Christians in yoga and has developed his own practice of yoga prayer. A useful annotated bibliography for texts on Christianity and yoga can be found here: