In 1996, when Richard Galentino walked into a Georgetown University gymnasium for his first yoga class, he was not sure what to expect. For Galentino, raised in a traditional Italian Catholic home and educated in church-affiliated schools, this breathing-and-exercise discipline long identified with Hinduism was entirely new.
“I read it in the course catalog and thought it would be interesting,” recalls Galentino, now director of Catholic Volunteers of Florida, based in Orlando. “I’ve always been interested in health and fitness.”
The experience was profound, if not life-changing. A decade later, Galentino, 32, has synchronized the strands of his life — the Western, Catholic tradition of saying the Rosary, with the Eastern religious breathing practice called praynayama. He is the author of Hail Mary and Rhythmic Breathing: A New Way of Praying the Rosary (Paulist Press, $6.95).
Along the way, he has become a man of disparate parts: Harvard graduate, marathoner; fluent speaker of French and Swahili; Jesuit volunteer in Africa and Honduras. And, yes, yoga instructor.
Galentino first became interested in yoga during his academic class work at Georgetown, reading about Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi, and the various physical and meditative disciplines that Gandhi followed. Gandhi’s autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, had a particularly deep impact.
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Yoga is a series of exercises and postures (asanas) which are advertised as a way to tone up, reduce stress and experience tranquility.
Yoga though is an intrinsic part of Hinduism. Swami Vishnudevananda, well known authority of Yoga, in his book The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga explains the purpose of Yoga, “It is the duty of each developed man to train his body to the highest degree of perfection so that it may be used to pursue spiritual purposes… the aim of all yoga practice is to achieve truth wherein the individual soul identifies itself with the supreme soul of God.”
– Source: Yoga, a Profile by Watchman Fellowship
“It sparked a real, true education beyond the course,” he says. Then a senior at the university’s prestigious school of foreign service, and seriously considering becoming a Jesuit priest, Galentino found the yoga class a “reprieve” from the stress he was going through.
“I loved the class instantly,” he says, but he found it to be much more than relaxation.
His instructor, Victor Vyasa Landa, talked about the importance of following your heart, says Galentino, but nothing Landa said threatened the student’s Catholic theology.
The instructor brought up the Virgin Mary and St. Francis, and “presented them in a yogi perspective,” Galentino says.
The idea of combining yoga and the rosary came to him in late 2002 while he was working on an Advent calendar. One window said “Do Contemplation.” Another said, “Pray the Rosary.”
“It happened in prayer,” he says. “Sometimes in contemplative prayer I would just try to rest in the presence of God.”
Conventional Catholic breathing and praying traditions, such as saying “in God” while inhaling and then “out me” while exhaling, inspired Galentino. The idea of incorporating Hail Mary occurred to him almost by accident.
“I found myself combining the two,” he recalls, “contemplative prayer with the rosary.”
Some Christians have long been critical of yoga because they believe it emphasizes the physical self, to the exclusion of Christian spirituality. Pope Benedict XVI even weighed in on the subject in 1989 when, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he warned that some Eastern practices, including yoga, “can degenerate into a cult of the body.” Catholics, he said, should not confuse yoga’s “pleasing sensations” with “spiritual well-being.”
That concern is well-founded, Galentino says.
“I would agree,” he says, “and I think most yoga masters would too. In our contemporary society, it is easy to turn yoga into a materialistic `cult of the body,’ in which image and physical experiences become more important than relationships with others and God.”
In the same letter, Galentino says, then-Cardinal Ratzinger “also states that we can use the methods of other `great religions’ to achieve union with God as long as it is consistent with Christian logic. This is what I am doing with yoga.”
Orlando Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Wenski seems to have no problem with Galentino’s book, saying that Western traditions also use similar breathing practices.
“Breathing isn’t unique to Easterners,” Wenski says. “Everybody breathes.”
“He’s a fine man,” Wenski says of Galentino. “He’s a good Catholic leader.”
The road to publication for Galentino’s slender paperback was not straight. He sent the manuscript, originally titled Hail Mary and the Art of Yoga Breathing, to 50 publishers. Some rejected it outright — several dubbing it heretical.
Then, while visiting the Catholic shrine at Lourdes, France, he got an e-mail from Paulist Press, a Catholic publisher, saying it wanted his book.
“That was my miracle,” he says.
The only thing the publishers wanted to change was the title.
Galentino’s primary job, though, is serving as head of Catholic Volunteers of Florida, where he supervises 14 people who give a year of service around the state, sometimes en route to a career in ministry.
He practices yoga regularly, and it shows on the job, co-workers say.
“He’s generally a pretty calm and patient guy,” says Sister Florence Bryan, placement director for Catholic volunteers, who has worked with Galentino for three years. “He’s a forthright but gentle mentor.”