The Problem of Yoga

News that Fr John Chandler has banned yoga classes in his church hall has made the national headlines. On the one hand, we have Fr Chandler saying he banned the classes and refunded the booking fee when he learned that they were being billed as ‘spiritual yoga’ :

Yoga is a Hindu spiritual exercise. Being a Catholic church we have to promote the gospel, and that’s what we use our premises for.

We did say that yoga could not take place. It’s the fact that it’s a different religious practice going on in a Catholic church. It’s not compatible. We are not saying that yoga is bad or wrong.

On the other, we have Corrie Withell, who was intending to give the classes, saying

As a nation we have an obesity epidemic. I was trying to bring some exercise to the community and coming across blocks like this is frustrating.

In other words, we have the classic situation of two people addressing the same question from two completely different perspectives. Fr Chandler is arguing that yoga is a Hindu spiritual practice, and because Catholic premises are not supposed to be used for the practice of non-Christian religions, he has banned the classes from taking place. (Each priest is at liberty to decide for himself what he thinks appropriate, there is no national/international policy.) Ms Withell, by contrast, sees yoga as as a helpful exercise programme, not a religious activity at all. In this she has been supported by Ravindra Parmar, President of the Vedic Society Hindu Temple of Southampton. However, meditation is said by many to be an integral part of yoga, and that is where I suspect the heart of the problem lies.

Anyone who has been involved with the Dialogue InterMonastique (D.I.M.) knows that there is a lot of common ground between Christian, Buddhist and Hindu practices of meditation, but there are also some  important differences. Christianity is monotheistic, with belief in a God who is Person. Most Christians are rather hazy about the beliefs and teachings of other religions (and, quite often, about their own). One would hope that Fr Chandler is better informed than most, if only because the area where he serves is ethnically and culturally diverse. Whatever Ms Withell’s personal beliefs may or may not be, she may have misjudged the uneasiness felt by the priest with her use of the term ‘spiritual yoga’. Many people want to be spiritual without being religious and do not realise the dilemma they pose the religious!

Perhaps the most useful lesson we can learn from this particular dispute is the need to inform ourselves about the beliefs and practices of others, rather than simply assuming that we know. I am certainly not taking sides. Fr Chandler has highlighted for me the problem of how to be Catholic in a plural society, and Ms Withell has made me think again about how much religious knowledge we can take for granted.

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35 thoughts on “The Problem of Yoga”

  1. The late Fr William Johnston SJ, who taught in Japan for most of his life and had the deepest respect for Zen Buddhism, thought that it was very difficult indeed to get under the skin of an entire religious and cultural thought-world. He promoted shared practice and profoundly respectful dialogue, but recognised the great difficulties in simply adopting some of the ‘superstructure’ of another faith. I find myself uncomfortable with the notion that we can pick out spiritual practices from another faith without adopting the entire context of that faith within which the practice makes sense. It’s the difference between using Gregorian chant as ‘chill out music’ and as prayer. But I do think it gives us a way in to talk to spiritual seekers about that bigger context.

    • I agree. When I was a young nun, the Dalai Lama asked if two of his monks could live in our then monastery for a year to observe Christian monasticism at first hand. Every week we had a long conversation about the similarities and differences between Buddhism and Christianity, but just as our Tibetan friends could never quite get their heads round the western philosophical terms which have become so important to the expression of theology, so we never succeeded in understanding Buddhism from the inside. We couldn’t, because we did not share it. But I think it was a very valuable exercise on both sides; and so many of our monastic practices proved to be the same — even down to learning to close doors quietly!

  2. The Church of England has guidelines conerning its dialogue with other faiths and ‘new religious movements’. This includes guidance on ‘what to do if a group wants to use your church or church hall’, and poses the question:

    ‘Exactly what will the group be doing in the church or church hall? For example, if it is a ‘yoga’ group, is it just an exercise class or are aspects of spiritual teaching involved? Sometimes people have gone along to exercise or therapy groups in church premises only to find they are asked to do something which conflicts, or is incompatible with, their Christian faith.’

    This echoes your point that ‘many people want to be spiritual without being religious and do not realise the dilemma they pose the religious’. Although the guidance gives no definitive answer, the key point apprears to be whether any spiritual teaching, explicit or implicit, is involved.

  3. I struggle with this. Our local Friends (Quakers) lease out their basement room as a zen dojo, and this delights me. A reading last week from the letter of James inspired a homily about the errors of ‘justification by faith alone’ and the one true, correct church. This dismayed me.

    These and other examples set me praying and pondering. It was a breakthrough moment for me, though others may call it heresy, when I was hit by the idea that just as there is God beyond our childlike father in the sky images; just as God is beyond anything we can truly describe or comprehend; perhaps there is a God beyond the Christian God.

    Whether smorgasbord spirituality is the way to find ‘Him’, I do not know.

    • I think it’s right you should struggle, though I’d probably put a slightly different slant on the struggle. Personally, I believe that Christ is the perfect revelation of God. Nothing can be added to him, nothing taken away; but our understanding of him, that can and should grow and grow. It is, if you like, the ever-expanding universe of faith. I love learning more and more about other religions because I find they shed new light on my own. We worship God under many different names, but for me, at least, there is only one by which we can be saved, whether knowingly or anonymously.

  4. It’s a tough one… I did yoga for years and at the time would have called myself a Christian. In fact I defended my use of yoga in exactly the way this teacher does, that it was a form of exercise. The thing is, it is not just about exercise as has been pointed out (in fact personally I think calling it exercise is misleading anyway, it doesn’t get you fit, toned yes, but it is unlikley to improve fitness vastly as movements are not about cardio-vascular exercise, but thats’ an aside).
    After some years doing yoga I began to get more and more interested in the meditation side and began to ask my teacher about this and about buddhism in general. Although not everyone does this, it is very hard to just do yoga as a form of exercise and not be challenged by, or think about the spiritual side.
    I had a ‘renewal of faith’, spiritual awakening, whatever you like to call it a few years back, and at that point I felt I could not go back to yoga and I have never done it since. No one told me it was wrong, I just felt hugely uncomfortable at the thought of it. I thought perhaps I could do the meditations with Christ in mind, but it just felt completely wrong. Now of course that is my personal experience, but from that I would agree with Father John about this entirely.
    Aside from all the above, yoga is dervied from or has it’s roots in another religion, one that may have similarities to our own, but is not the same. The bible tells us God is the one true God, and I think anything that points people away from him is not all that helpful, especially in a church context!

  5. I can’t say that I know much about Yoga, but if the Lady was just running an exercise class, based on Yoga principles, why did she describe it as a ‘spiritual’ experience?

    I would be uncomfortable with someone using our Church to practice or teach a different religious practice.

    My question is perhaps more practical. Was the Church Hall actually consecrated ground? Because surely if it isn’t than its use by a secular organisation shouldn’t be an issue? Or am I missing something?

    • I think that UK viewer raises two good points. The term ‘spritual experience’ means different things to different people, and to someone promoting yoga classes it might be regarded as a useful tag with which to attract participants, and many of these will probably assume that the classes involve no religioius content.

      In relation to church halls being on consecrated ground

    • Thank you. Fr Chandler is a Catholic priest and was quite clear that he didn’t think ‘church premises’ should be used. The term ‘premises’ would cover more than just the church and include the church hall, presbytery and so on.

  6. In relation to church halls on consecrated ground, this is not always the case in the Church of England, but those that are fall within its faculty jurisdiction, and permission has to be granted by the diocese for any such uses.

  7. I learned yoga in India and can assure you it has no involvement with the Hindu Gods, even though Lord Shiva is the Lord of Yoga… It has more to do with the Cosmos, I find.

    I am a Catholic woman, an aging woman, and I am grateful to yoga to help me regain a certain flexibility which I am losing.
    I like yoga breathing for the peace it brings in me, clearing out my mind…

    But then I know that no one can take the Catholic out of me. I am a Catholic woman doing yoga and using millenary tools to become a better person. It’s all part of a complex process…

    I’m sorry for the priest, the parish, all the people who could have benefited from it. Maybe the priest could give it a try and then see for himself.

    • Thank you very much for sharing your experience. However, as you can see from Red’s comment, not everyone who has practised yoga would say it was unconnected with a non-Christian form of meditation. (No one has said anything about Hindu gods, so perhaps we could limit discussion to what has been said or my Hindu friends will start emailing me at length!)

      I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer. There was a Benedictine monk whose name I can’t recall at the moment (not Abishaktinanda) who wrote a book called, I think, ‘Christian Yoga’, which was highly influential a few years ago, but it’s a long time since I read it and I don’t know whether I, personally, would agree with his argument.

  8. I’m struggling with this conflict myself.
    I have greatly enjoyed and benefited from yoga. I got started after every doctor, chiropractor and physical therapist that treated me for several chronic pain issues gave me lists of exercises and stretches to do…. that I could just never make the time for, and if I did, I managed about 5 minutes of it rather than the recommended daily 30 minutes.

    When I joined a gym that offered a yoga class at no extra cost, I thought I’d try it just once. In doing so, I discovered that the stretches done in yoga were the same as I learned in years of gymnastics classes, dance classes, and all the sheets of recommended exercises I’ve had from various medical professionals. It finally occurred to me that these are moves all of us should be working on every day of our lives, just to maintain a healthy body.
    Soon, I declared that if there is a fountain of youth, it is yoga!!!

    I gained flexibility – which was all my medical advisers were trying to help me accomplish.
    I think I was lucky that the first instructor I had, put zero eastern influence into it. I still see it as just a great series of stretches that are the best thing for my body.
    Now, dozens of years later, I still go to yoga (although I’ve been out of practice lately, and in pain due to that fact) and I encounter instructors who bring more of the ‘spiritual influence’ into it – and I find that it really bothers me.

    I feel pretty strongly that I can ignore the statues of Buddah, and decide not to repeat “Namaste”…. and treat it only as exercise….. but I’ll admit it’s getting more difficult.

    In fact, I’ve considered developing a way to present the same yoga exercises in a Catholic way…. maybe changing the names of the poses and neutralize it as much as possible.

    The bottom line, I could do the same exercises at home, but I don’t. And I am healthier when I do them.
    What is a good Catholic woman to do?
    We would all be healthier humans if we would do these exercises… and the camaraderie is an equal benefit.

    • Thank you very much for sharing your experience. Like some of the other commenters, you have expressed very neatly the dilemma that the practice of yoga poses Christians: it it, or is it not, a non-Christian practice; can its therapeutic benefits be dissociated from its religious content (if it has one)?

  9. I’d like to thank everyone for the thoughtful and open way in which the debate has been conducted. It confirms my belief that this blog is fortunate in its readers, and I’m sure we’ll all go on thinking and praying about this subject, aware that none of us has a complete answer to the questions it poses.

  10. Contrast the bereft principles and practices of the paedophilic Catholic ‘faith’ with this practice in Sikhism…

    After Gurdwara, everyone at the temple and ANYONE of ANY FAITH, even beggars off the street, is made welcome and provided with lungar (food). It’s a proper meal and is designed to be a ‘reaching out’ to all souls. In other words, it’s an act of humanity.

    Presumably Father John Chandler in his ignorance and stupidity would refuse such an offer.

    What this kind of mentality and attitude leads to, apart from the aforementioned ignorance and stupidity, is the preservation of intolerance towards the ‘other’. This is grossly irresponsible behaviour by anyone, let alone a member of a ‘faith’ from whom so many take their attitudinal and behavioural cues.

    I will not take lectures on anything from an institution, so stupid, so narrow, so utterly vainglorious in its views of the world, that it’s no longer able to distinguish acts of humanity from acts of religion, yoga included. They’re simply not to be trusted. And that’s ignoring the paedophilic tendencies of the CATHOLIC faith. Which of course is impossible.

    Father John Chandler is an incredibly stupid man. Fortunately, he’s revealed his stupidity to the whole world. And for that I’m grateful. I wonder if those at the top of the Catholic church are quite as appreciative?

  11. or you could contrast the tone of your comment with the others here, perhaps?
    not really necessary to be quite so angry is it? You clearly have a point but perhaps that wasn’t really the best way to put it.

  12. I was never any good at meditation, be it Christian, with Tibetan bowls, yoga, whatever, since these practices have to do with personal well being… faith is different, as most saints will tell you, there is no well being in that, often it brings excruciating pain. Fair enough, if you want to feel good with yourself, meditate, with bowls with yoga with whatever or take an anti-depressive pill… but belief in God, the spiritual, is a totally different kettle of fish. And that yoga teacher should know better.

  13. Few of the comments to date have considered the problem from the position of Fr Chandler, who has to balance to the demands of those whose major concern is the provision of yoga classes, with those imposed by the Church and by statutory legislation. My co-blogger Frank Cranmer considers the latter in his post today ‘Can a religious group discriminate when hiring its premises?’ in the context of the guidance given by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
    Critical, it appears, are both the nature of the ‘spiritual mediatisation’ and the conditions under which the church normally permits other organizations to use its premises. Frank notes ‘this point has not yet been tested in the courts – but if it were, the outcome would be by no means a foregone conclusion’.
    [Frank Cranmer and I write on the Law and Religion UK blog, which has no connection with the Archbishop Cranmer blog]

  14. I am closing the comments on this post because I shall not have time to moderate any more this week-end. As you can see, I have permitted three that I would not normally allow because I think they demonstrate the truth of something I have often stated: this blog is a place where people reflect together in a respectful manner. I think that’s its principal value, and it could easily be lost if people are not prepared to accept that basic discipline. In addition to the comments I have to delete for the sake of others, I receive a number of objectionable emails from those who seem to hold me personally responsible for every sin or crime since the beginning of creation. I find that rather tiresome and would be grateful if those who write such emails would stop and think for a minute what they are doing. They are not changing me, but they are allowing themselves to become something I suspect they would rather not be. Thank you.

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